ABC 90: the icon’s milestone and its cultural impact on Australians

To celebrate the ABC’s 90th birthday, OTR journalist Viki Ntafillis visited the Collinswood office just outside Adelaide and spoke to some individuals who consider the ABC a cultural institution. (Image: Viki Ntafillis)

By Viki Ntafillis | @viki_ntaf

“This is the Australian Broadcasting Commission.”

These were the first words uttered on ABC Radio on the afternoon of Friday, July 1, 1932, 90 years ago. Radio announcer Conrad Charlton was at the helm, joined by prime minister of the day, Joseph Lyons. Among the other radio stations around Australia, they were broadcast from A-Class station on Hindley Street, 5CL.

Fast-track to 1974, and the ABC Adelaide office was born, just on the city’s outskirts in Collinswood. Today, the neighbourhood’s fulsome trees still flank the road toward the building like soldiers. Its breadth hogs the skyline and its infinite windows are a million tiny eyes, always on the lookout. A cultural institution like no other in Australia, the ABC’s news gathering and storytelling predates the Second World War.

I was lucky enough to be shown around the building by ABC Adelaide manager, Graeme Bennett.

I also discussed the ABC’s significance with author and Canberra University Centre for Creative and Cultural Research assistant professor, Patrick Mullins.

A vintage photo of the ABC Adelaide building on display in the Collinswood office.
(Image: Viki Ntafillis)

While walking the ABC’s hallowed halls, Mr Bennett first explained why former prime minister Gough Whitlam chose Collinswood to be the ABC’s hub in South Australia.

“It was part of Whitlam’s plan to decentralise departments and take pressure off of the CBD,” Mr Bennett said.

“He also wanted to make the arts more accessible to the people, and part of that was bringing the arts closer to where people lived.”

The first stop on the tour was an old television studio, its monstrous size and intricate scaffolding of lights designed for the analogue technology of days gone by. The room was dim and mostly empty, save a ladder, an old-fashioned TV, and a curved green curtain hugging a wall.

“This studio is not really used today, except occasionally by Behind The News, which has always run solely out of Adelaide,” he said.

Looking around, I saw flashes of people from yesteryear shoot by – makeup, hair and wardrobe people bustled about making final touches, camera operators pointed multiple lenses on their subjects. Producers counted down a three, two and silent one, so presenters wearing their Sunday best could announce the day’s news to attentive audiences at home.

This studio, used to broadcast live to other ABC studios around the country, is known as “the Tardis” because its small size resembles that of a phonebooth. (Image: Viki Ntafillis)

Meanwhile, over the phone, Dr Mullins explained to me how the ABC was in a unique position.

“The ABC has the best claim for being one of the country’s premier cultural institutions,” he said.

Dr Mullins co-authored Who Needs The ABC? (2022) with Professor Matthew Ricketson, a book detailing how crucial the ABC is to Australian society, and how it should not be taken for granted.

“Over its 90 years, it has created and contributed cultural artefacts through television, radio, online, concerts, books, live performances, CDs, all sorts of stuff.”

I told him I’d never thought about the ABC from that perspective, as if it were a giant museum.

“Its comparison to a museum is interesting,” Dr Mullins said.

“In the last 10 to 15 years … the media industry in Australia has been through absolute turmoil … they’ve been cutting jobs left right and centre, particularly on the investigative capacities. Whereas … the ABC since 2013 has actually received in the vicinity of $20 million to do investigative journalism.

“So its journalism has become more notable in the public eye than its cultural work.”

In their book, Dr Mullins and Mr Ricketson revealed that the ABC’s premier investigative journalism program, Four Corners, has won seven Gold Walkleys, which is more than the rest of Australia’s broadcast media combined.

Not only can the ABC be considered a museum for its curation and creation of content, but also for the art it displays in its halls. This is “Curtain of the Moon” by famous Australian artist, John Coburn. (Image: Viki Ntafillis)

As for the ABC’s cultural influence, that is probably best illustrated by the breadth of its reach. Its full collection of television channels includes ABC, ABC2, ABC3, ABC News24 and on-demand provider ABC iview, which cater to children and adults alike.

“The ABC is one of the richest cultural institutions going … and one of the country’s best funded,” Dr Mullins said.  

“If you think about the ABC in the context of all its operations and compare the budgetary funding with something like the National Library, the ABC dwarfs it.”

Suddenly, I’ve entered The Brady Bunch. In this section, the walls sport a combination of wood panelling and chipboard, complete with heavy wooden doors. A spiral staircase beckons to us from the centre of the room. Mr Bennett proudly states that it’s one of the last of its kind.

The hallowed spiral staircase outside Studio 521. (Image: Viki Ntafillis)

Through a pair of doors marked “Studio 521”, we enter another cavernous space, its ceilings so high and bright my eyes water from looking at it for too long.

“Studio 521 was first used by the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra until it moved to Hindley Street. The election night teleroom was also hosted in here for many years,” Mr Bennett said.

Coloured cubes hang from the ceiling and, across the opposite wall, several rows of plush navy seats peer down at us like we’re subjects of the Queen’s court. A Steinway piano stands on its lonesome. “The only one owned by the ABC,” Mr Bennett beams.

I feel like I’ve been here before.

“The ABC building was built around the same time as the Festival Theatre,” Mr Bennett explained, reading my mind.

“Next time you go there, look up and you’ll see the same ceiling.”

The cubes, the plush seats, the piano – it’s easy to feel like a time traveller when you are in Studio 521. (Image: Viki Ntafillis)

Having left the orchestra room, we brave the staircase. Atop its cylindrical form, sepia-scape continues. There’s more wood panelling, and two low leather armchairs share a vintage coffee table between them.

But through another doorway, we find ourselves back in the world of 4K.

Also interesting: the radio rooms in this section are generous, airy spaces, which is rare in the industry. Mr Bennett said when other people visit Collinswood they too can’t believe the radio studios’ size.

“We still use the Klotz desks, but the [spaciousness] is an accident of fate,” he said.

“The rooms were designed for the analogue technology, which took up most of the space. Now, you can fit all that technology into just a few devices.”

Not many other radio studios have the luxury of this much space, according to Mr Bennett. (Image: Viki Ntafillis)

Down the hall, Sonya Feldhoff presents her program Afternoons. Two producers in the adjacent room sit at their own large desks with multiple monitors before them.

“Every day, our radio producers receive 1000 text messages and 400-500 phone calls from listeners; and then there’s the social media messages on top,” Mr Bennett said.

“Our conversations are inclusive, with the points of views, stories and opinions of our listeners. An essential tenet of our work is getting the audience to join in the public discussion and debate … it’s our content driver.”

In Who Needs The ABC?, Dr Mullins and Mr Ricketson said the ABC has an approval rating of 74 to 83 per cent among the general public for its coverage of news and current affairs.

Furthermore, they stated the University of Canberra News and Media Research Centre revealed the ABC ranked as the nation’s most trustworthy news-media outlet every year since 2018.

I asked Dr Mullins what Australians would lose, should the ABC ever close its doors.

“We would lose most of the Australian television content; around 50 radio stations; the dedicated children’s channel, which is unique in Australia; the most accessed news website in the country; and a significant amount of cultural, news, entertainment and educational material,” Dr Mullins said.

“We would lose the best trusted news organisation in the country … in terms of a value proposition, the ABC is worth much more than its given credit for.

“Taxpayers pay about $40 annually for the ABC. Replace that with $130 for your Netflix, $300-400 for subscriptions to Australian news outlets, around $120 to Spotify for podcasts.”

The figures made my head spin. Essentially, losing the ABC would be a fatal blow for the Australian population.

After an hour of exploration, Mr Bennett and I walked through a door bringing us back to the start.

“ABC journalists are all-rounders,” Mr Bennett said.

“They are multitasking and multifaceted. They have to write features, news stories, online pieces and work with social media.”

Did you know? The ABC’s wavelength logo was designed by Bill Kennard and is called the “Lissajous”. It was named after French physicist Jules Lissajous, who studied vibrations using tuning forks. The logo illustrates the Lissajous patterns broadcast engineers used to help tune equipment. Its three arms portray radio, television and online.

Mr Bennett said another aspect unique to the ABC is its unwavering approach over the years.

“The community have a lot of trust for the ABC. We were enacted by a parliamentary instrument, but we’re not subject to their orders. We’re a corporation, not a government organisation,” he said.

“The ABC has worked hard over its 90 years to deliver fair and balanced news … our motto is to inform and entertain.”

As for his own personal experience, Mr Bennett said the ABC is a workplace like no other.

“I’ve been working for the ABC for 30 years. If you were to compare the ABC’s striving for public utility and its abiding by its core principles … it would be the same as on my first day,” he said.

“We want to be valued and valuable; that is, we want not only to be liked by the community but to actually contribute to it, to be useful.”

If the ABC was a person and it heard us talking like this, it would probably blush – and therein lies its beauty. The ABC aims to reflect the people it represents, preserving Australian culture and conveying all our stories.

Here’s to another 90 years of news, culture and putting a voice to the people.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: