“It’s not this static, inflexible rigid structure. It’s very much a hub within the broader cultural context…”
RRR is one of the most important institutional community tent poles in making Melbourne the music capital of Australia. In their 40 years on the air, RRR has launched and nurtured the careers of artists like a young Nick Cave when he was involved in The Birthday Party in the 1980’s, through to rising stars of the modern music landscape like Gabriella Cohen. Starting out as a single desk and a microphone on campus at RMIT in 1976, the station has grown over the years through support of their listeners, and now occupies their premises in Brunswick East.
I went down to the studio on a dreary, rainy day last week and had a chat with two members of the RRR team who represent the early and modern days of the station. Geoff King has been at RRR since its very inception, serving as their first music coordinator and has seen the station grow, reach more people, and occasionally fall down only to get back up again in his time. Simon Winkler joined the team in 2008, and works as their current full-time music coordinator, while also hosting the show Breaking & Entering on Thursdays between 4 and 7pm with co-pilot Lauren Taylor.
In a wide spanning conversation, Simon, Geoff and I discussed the history of the station, its relationship with the listeners, its relevance in a modern context, the ascension of Melbourne as the music capital of Australia, and the recent keep community radio campaign amongst other topics.
We kicked off our chat discussing recent announcement that RRR will be inducted into The Age Music Victoria hall of fame at next month’s award ceremony.
Geoff King: “It’s recognition of what the station has represented, and what it’s achieved in terms of the local music industry. Commercial radio has pretty much ditched its involvement in a lot of the local music scene, and the list of local artists that have been nurtured through RRR is a very long one. RRR is a part of a series of hubs within a culture. We don’t exist in isolation, we exist in relation to record stores and magazines and venues and artists. There are all these things that work together, and in isolation, they don’t work so well. To create a culture, you really need these things working together. That’s what I think the Music Victoria hall of fame induction is about – it’s about us being a part of this series of hubs within the culture.”
One of the reasons for RRR’s ongoing popularity throughout the decades is its ability to introduce people to music they otherwise would not have found. Particularly before the advent of the internet, many people would cite RRR as being the only reason they were able to discover artists like The Birthday Party, Throbbing Gristle or Negativland – artists that otherwise wouldn’t receive exposure through traditional avenues. Even now with the resources we have to discover music, many people still turn to RRR as their primary source of discovery.
Simon Winkler: “I think it’s very interesting to see how music discovery mechanisms have changed and evolved. Traditionally, radio is one of the primary sources of music discovery. When you’re talking about a station like RRR where all of the broadcasters are passionate music fans, they’re spending a lot of their time searching for and sharing those discoveries. Certainly in a contemporary context there is a multiplicity of media sources where people could be discovering new music, and perhaps more so than ever I feel radio has a very important part to play as a guide, as a way of assisting in navigating that field. I personally have absolutely discovered a lot of music through radio.”
Geoff King: “It’s so much more of a complex world now. It’s a completely different world to when I started at the station nearly 40 years ago. Young people are able to go on the internet and find the history of recorded music, and end up with a very wide knowledge. When I was a kid I was doing the same thing, but I had such fewer resources. On the other hand, the complexity of the music scene wasn’t so great. In the late 70’s for example, people would send music from all around the world on a cassette in to the station. I was at a conference 20 odd years ago, and Lindy Morrison who was on one of the APRA boards was a key speaker, and she said ‘oh, radio is dead’, and it made me go ‘this is complete bullshit.’ I mean, things change, you have this huge diversity of media, but people still want guides, they want someone to tell them where certain music fits in what context. Pressing buttons on the internet doesn’t give you that same experience, you have to do all of that work, and a lot of people don’t want to have to do that work.”
Simon Winkler: “When you talk about that idea that ‘radio is dead’ it really gets me thinking. So much has changed in a digital context that when you talk about radio, it’s very different. Radio thrives because it is conversing with and meeting its community. It’s engaging with people on the platforms that they exist on, and it’s being part of the conversations and part of the changes that take place within the community. It’s not this static, inflexible rigid structure. It’s very much a hub within the broader cultural context as Geoff said which is also constantly evolving.”
In the 40 years that RRR has been on the air, it has seen a lot of changes to the landscape of music culture. Particularly in terms of consumption, music has gone from vinyl, to cassettes, to CD, to digital and streaming in less than half a century. As Geoff has been at the station throughout all of these medium changes as well as many other cultural changes, I asked him about some of the larger shifts he has noticed in his time at the station.
Geoff King: “I always think about this in terms of the basic principles of the station, the way it’s always been run. Those basic principles haven’t changed that much. When we were trying to work out what we were doing with this thing, we wanted to have a prism of popular culture; we can draw people in with music as a tool. That’s never changed. The talk side of the station has remained just as constant as the music side of the station. The running of the station has remained much the same. You know, catastrophe strikes every now and then, and you whittle back down and build back up again. Now, we’re at our most stable point in station’s history, and we have been for a few years. We’re not shitting ourselves about money all the time and we’re not shitting ourselves about the fact that we’re likely to get kicked out of our studios. Those kinds of things have happened a few times in the history of the station. The relationship with our listeners hasn’t changed. That’s why people are so passionate about the station – we try to be inclusive. It’s a station that tries to have a strong relationship with our audience, and that seems to work, which is why we’re in the position that we’re in today. We started out just broadcasting in the inner city. When we started broadcasting all over Melbourne, we started getting people calling in from Ringwood – they could suddenly get it. You know, it was the same then as it is today – people make records because they can get airplay. Stuff was getting put out because they knew they could get it on the air. A lot of the people who were on air in those days, as today, were local musicians talking to their fans and talking to each other on air, playing each other’s records.”
If there’s one thing Australia does well, it’s music. There is such a vast amount of output, almost an influx, being released by so many talented bands and artists across many genres. I asked Simon about his role as music coordinator, and how he goes about sifting through the wealth of music that he comes across to find the things that he wants to champion.
Simon Winkler: “I guess it’s firstly saying goodbye to family and friends, because I sure don’t have time for them anymore! But in all seriousness, I’m very fortunate to be here full time, so all of my days are spent listening to and responding to enquiries of a musical nature. It’s a science and an art. You are establishing networks whereby you’re receiving a constant stream of music that you can listen to, recommend, allocate to broadcasters, and at the same time always looking for new sources of inspiration and information. Whether it is at a print level, online, engaging with other radio stations, looking at record shops and their new releases lists, or liaising with record labels, which are a really important source of information. We also receive a lot of submissions from unsigned and independent artists. When you’re constantly listening to stuff, sometimes you have to be a bit ruthless with the amount of time you can spend with each release. You develop a set of listening skills, whereby you get a sense of an act or a musical release within a relatively short amount of time, and therefore you can recommend that to the relevant broadcasters. You have to keep an open mind and sometimes disengage your emotional response. With some things I hear, it may not be something I enjoy in my recreational time, but it obviously has a clear artistic merit and cultural significance, so I’ll make sure it gets to the right person. There is no routine beyond all of that as a broad framework in terms of coordinating music distribution.”
Over the last few years, community radio has been on the chopping block by federal budget cuts in more than one instance. Back in 2013 when community radio budgets were threatened, an advocacy group quickly rose to prominence, and a petition signed by 50,000 people resulted in cuts not being made, and stations retaining their funding. Yet just this year, proposed budget cuts indicated that 5.6 million dollars would be stripped from the community broadcasting program, which led to the formation of the Keep Community Radio campaign, with such prominent backers such as Courtney Barnett. There was such an enormous amount of ground support from during this campaign, and listeners have been very vocal about their desire to have community radio available. Community support has always been the backbone of an institution like RRR – back in 2004 they were able to buy their East Brunswick premises thanks to the generosity of listeners, and their annual Radiothon always generates a staggering amount of support. With all of this support from the people and now the recognition of the station with its induction into The Age Music Victoria Awards hall of fame, I asked Simon and Geoff how it feels to have this much support from their listeners.
Simon Winkler: “It’s hugely humbling, of course. It’s incredible. It’s a very valuable reflection of the community that has built RRR. The Music Victoria acknowledgment is not an acknowledgment of the station, but of the relationships that RRR has with all members of the community. Just to see the response to campaigns like Keep Community Radio, and each year with our Radiothon campaigns, it’s extraordinary and it really is overwhelming. It just goes to show the power of people sharing values, and sharing the same curiosity.”
Geoff King: “Melbourne is a great radio town. A few years ago when there was the Keep Music Live campaign, thousands and thousands of people would march up Bourke Street in support. That’s part of the reason why Melbourne sort of became the hub of music in Australia, even though all of the major record companies were headquartered in Sydney. This was a town that was always very passionate and allowed music to develop. There are historical reasons why this happened. There’s this underlying passion for music culture here, and RRR contributes to that and taps into that. It took us a while in the early days to work out how the fuck to get people to contribute money to the station. They wanted to, but you’ve got to work out how to do it. As we’ve shown year after year, you throw yourself on their mercy, and they respond. Because what we do is what they want.”
When Geoff mentioned the historical reasons for Melbourne becoming the music capital of Australia that it is, I was rather intrigued. We often take for granted nowadays the wide spread of music culture that we have here in this great city. With his breadth of experience at RRR, and being a member of the Melbourne music community for almost half a century, I asked Geoff to explain a little bit more about the historical reasons for Melbourne becoming such a prominent musical city.
Geoff King: “There are structural reasons for it. Around 1958, when Rock ‘n’ Roll first came in here, a lot of people who were playing jazz sort of moved over to Rock ‘n’ Roll. You had all of these town halls around, perfect for running dances. Around the time of The Beatles in 1964, there was a guy called Gary Spry who started the first youth nightclub, called Pinocchio’s in South Yarra, and people would line up around the block for it. His first house band was The Flies. They wanted The Seekers, but they had just left for England at that point. Pinocchio’s started a run of new nightclubs; The Garrison in Prahran, Sebastian’s, and Birdies all popped up quickly. They were alcohol free, so kids could go. It was also providing work for bands, shithouse money, but they’d play six venues a night – load your gear in the back of a station wagon and you’re away. And then The Go Show started. Initially all of the music TV shows were run out of Sydney, but all of a sudden we have our own one. Suddenly, all of these local bands are on TV, and people around the country start going ‘shit, there’s stuff going on in Melbourne.’ Bill Armstrong starts the best recording studio in Melbourne around this time, and people want to come here and record. Go Set starts up about two years later, and it’s the first national pop music newspaper of any significance, and it’s based in Melbourne. They were able to draw the scene together. Gradually, by the late 1960’s pub rock started, because the venues could stay open until 10pm and even later if they provided party pies. The same thing happens again in the mid 1970’s when .05 laws were introduced, because before that people would just drive home pissed. So now venues had to work out a way to get people in the doors – and that became to put live music on. Like I said before, RRR doesn’t exist in isolation. Historically, we’re part of all these things happening that feed into each other. In the late 1970’s, the Labour government brings in community radio. On stations like 3XY, local and underground stuff wasn’t getting much attention – this was our scene. We were the people that lived in inner Melbourne, we were the pub rockers. That was where punk rock started us well, in these pubs. Beer culture had a lot to do with that. All of that laid the foundations for something like RRR to exist when we started it.”
*Issues of Melbourne’s Go Set magazine.
In 2009, RRR created a performance space inside their studio, which has hosted a wealth of talent over the years. I asked Simon if he had any particular favorite or memorable ones.
Simon Winkler: “That’s a hard question. It invites a lot of regret in missing out on one. In a general sense, in terms of noteworthy recent performances, the April After Dark series which happened this year was seven consecutive nights, three bands each night on our ten to twelve program. It was an incredible showcase of an extraordinary diversity of musical styles, across the week, which was amazing. Cate Le Bon who played recently, it was her first ever Australian show and she came straight to RRR. ESG, who were an incredible and influential early 80’s post-punk New York based experimental band played their first ever Australian show in RRR’s performance space. I’d be pretty hard-pressed to pick a favorite, though.”
Friday November 18th marks the official launch of ON AIR: 40 Years of RRR, a 3-month exhibition being hosted by the State Library of Victoria, which will feature a range of live events and broadcasts on site highlighting different aspects of the exhibition and celebrating the milestone in the station’s history. I asked Simon to tell me a little bit about the exhibition, and what fans of the station can expect from it.
Simon Winkler: “It’s a program filled with revelations and memories, and it’s also a reflection of where the station is at, and where it’s heading. There’s going to be specialist talks, a debate around counterfeit culture, looking at the evolution of culture, and there is nothing new under the sun. There’s going to be pop up bars, DJ’s, performances, lots of great photographs and audio components. For anyone who has liked or been involved with the station, there will be chances to engage with broadcasters and to enjoy all of the elements of the culture that RRR celebrates.”
RRR will be inducted into The Age Music Victoria hall of fame at the awards ceremony on Wednesday November 16th. It’s not too late to vote for your favorite artist or venue in the many categories, as voting is open until November 4th. You can vote here. Catch Simon Winkler on Breaking & Entering, Thursdays at 4pm on RRR. The free ON AIR: 40 Years of RRR exhibition opens on the 18th of November at The State Library of Victoria.