‘This is the ABC’

Sydney's General Post Office, c. 1935

Written by RAHS volunteer Elizabeth Heffernan

On Friday, 1 July 1932, after the 8pm bells of Sydney’s General Post Office, Conrad Charlton announced to the country: “This is the Australian Broadcasting Commission.” [1]

General Post Office, Sydney, c. 1935
The 8pm bells of Sydney’s General Post Office (pictured here c. 1935) announced the ABC’s first broadcast to the country. [RAHS Postcard Collection]

It was the ABC’s first wireless radio broadcast after the Australian Broadcasting Commission Act 1932 was passed on 17 May. The transmission is estimated to have reached 6% of the country’s population at the time—almost 400 000 people from as far away as Perth. [2] The leaders of Australia’s three main political parties—Prime Minister Joseph Lyons, Leader of the Opposition James Scullin, and Dr Earle Page of the Country Party—each made their own address as part of the broadcast from three different capital cities. It was the beginning of a long and fruitful career for the ABC as the country’s preeminent broadcaster. Today, close to twenty million Australians tune in via television and radio every week. [3]

The Australian Broadcasting Commission, renamed the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in 1983, has become not only a source for news but for entertainment, culture, and life-saving bulletins, particularly during the bushfires this past summer. [4] Yet this was not always the case. In the 1930s the ABC was forbidden from broadcasting blasphemy, coarse language, “controversial questions concerning politics or religion”, and much more. The broadcaster began with only two radio stations per capital city: one for popular programming, the other for parliamentary broadcasts, debates, and classical music. Only in 1950 did the ABC begin to broadcast internationally, while televised broadcasts had to wait until 1956. [5]

Today, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation operates four national radio stations, 54 local stations, and five television channels. [6] It is unlikely that those involved in its very first broadcast, 88 years ago, could have foreseen the spectacular future that lay ahead. Amidst recent announcements of job and programming cuts, it is difficult to foresee what the next 88 years may bring. If the past is any indicator, however, those years will be as innovative, meaningful, and enduring as the ABC itself.

References:

[1] Quentin Dempster, “A Short History of the ABC”, ABC Alumni, 2014, accessed 29 June 2020, <https://www.abcalumni.net/news-and-views/a-short-history-of-the-abc>.
[2] Dempster, “A Short History”; “Start of the ABC”, National Museum of Australia, last updated 22 April 2020, accessed 29 June 2020, <https://www.nma.gov.au/defining-moments/resources/start-of-the-abc>.
[3] “Start of the ABC”.
[4] Amanda Meade, “Australians say ABC saved lives during summer bushfires, royal commission told”, The Guardian, 2 June 2020, accessed 29 June 2020, <https://www.theguardian.com/media/2020/jun/02/australians-say-abc-saved-lives-during-summer-bushfires-royal-commission-told>.
[5] “Start of the ABC”; Dempster, “A Short History”.
[6] “Start of the ABC”.

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