Today is a very special day in radio in more ways than one because fifty years ago, March 2 1958, radio programming in Australia changed forever. To get a full insight just what impact this event had on the radio industry Radio Rumours Website is honoured to be able to bring you an extract from Don't Touch That Dial with permission from the author, Wayne Mac. Enjoy!

Two major events in the 1950s had a lasting impact on Australian commercial radio: the celebrated birth of Rock ’n’ Roll in the United States in 1954 and the arrival of television in Australia in 1956?. These new phenomena coincided with the emergence of a young and, at times, non-conformist generation in western society, which Hollywood and the advertising fraternity labelled ‘Teenagers’.


There are several other indelible markers worthy of mention, including the release of a popular film, “Blackboard Jungle” starring established actor Glenn Ford, a young Vic Morrow and an emerging black actor who was to become a household name, Sidney Poitier. The film successfully tapped a vein of changing attitudes. It was renowned for a confronting, anti-authority screenplay, simmering teen angst and a song which embodied the spirit of rock ’n’ roll : “Rock Around the Clock”.


The post-war prosperity of several industrialised nations brought about the beginnings of a so-called consumer age. New fangled household appliances and fashion lines aimed at youth and young ‘married with children’ appeared as often as the changing seasons. Notable in this environment of progress was the seven inch 45 rpm single play vinyl record. This smaller, slightly flexible format, replaced the brittle ten inch 78 rpm platters on which the original pressings of “Rock Around the Clock” were issued.


Car radios were launched at this time and, soon after, portable transistor radios. Such unprecedented activity in a comparatively small society like Australia—one long defined by so called ‘responsible’ adult values—had all the subtlety of an earthquake. Fifties rock rebel Jerry Lee Lewis summed up the changing times beautifully as he wailed: “… there’s a whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on.”


These and other changes converged, forming the catalyst for a style of radio entertainment, the likes of which we’d never heard before. Australian commercial radio reinvented itself during this remarkable period of social and technological upheaval. After the initial winds of change abated—and it took some years—radio emerged a triumphant survivor. Indeed, radio grew to be a powerful media force in the decades to follow.


The early months of 1958 signalled the future of Australian commercial radio. Leading up to this period, 2UE and its parent station 2KO Newcastle experimented with popular music shows, presented in a US flavoured DJ style. Several announcers were trialled in the new fashion including 2KO’s popular Pat Barton, with his Platter Chatter show, and 2UE’s newcomer John Laws. The latter was seen spinning discs before a mob of young people at the Sydney Royal Easter Show in 1957. John’s appearance drew huge crowds, prompting management to give him a daily 15 minute timeslot just after the 5 pm news, Teenage Tops, when he introduced four records of the day. Another small timeslot was soon added; Latest and Greatest.


Behind the scenes, 2UE was going through its own fundamental change. The station was owned for many years primarily by The Sun and Associated Newspapers, which were taken over by Fairfax in 1953. In the uncertain climate facing the radio business (due to TV’s introduction), they wanted out of radio. Fairfax was an initial investor in Sydney’s ATN Channel Seven, but later returned to radio as major shareholders in the Macquarie Network. 2UE, meanwhile, was purchased in late 1956, reportedly for a bargain price, by the Lamb family of Newcastle; long time owners of 2KO.


In his family memoirs, former 2KO-2UE General Manager Allan Faulkner revealed that Stewart Lamb visited several US radio stations in 1957, one of which was KULA in Honolulu: a Top 40 station. Stewart was convinced a format of popular music could be the answer for 2UE.


Following discussions about nuts and bolts issues, it was left to Faulkner to harness the commitment of his staff and prepare both stations for what was to be a landmark moment in Australian radio. A former executive who traversed the old and new ownership of 2UE in 1956–57 was Des Foster:

The Lamb-Faulkner combination was quite an experience and perhaps it was not surprising that 2UE moved the way they did. Allan was an accountant by profession and I’ve never seen a bean counter with such a fine grasp of programming. Stewart brought different perspectives to the relationship. He was more of a risk taker and had a degree of verve in his dealings.


Their commitment to a new direction came at a high price initially. 2UE had high overheads associated with the production and distribution of many traditional radio shows and, therefore, outstanding arrangements with various sponsors. This amounted to thousands of pounds in those days. But, they were so confident of their strategy that they were prepared to write off huge sums and discontinue a lot of established programs.


2UE began playing and promoting the Top 40 on 2 March 1958 as a daily format feature. A young music fan, David Kent, known in later years for his Kent Music Report, was listening that day:


The thing I remember quite clearly from that afternoon was that the 40 songs from the first chart weren’t played in strict order. They’d bounce them around from say, 35 to 29, up to 15, then back to 33 and with quite a number of predictions thrown in. The Top 40 was a complete twist on the old hit parade programs which people were used to hearing at that time.


But, the man behind the creation of the very first Australian Top 40 chart was Pat Barton. In addition to being 2KO breakfast announcer, he was appointed music adviser for the Lamb stations. Once a week, he boarded the 7.30 Flyer out of Newcastle.


My regular shift on KO was breakfast, but on Mondays Allan wanted me in Sydney. A usual day was spent meeting the record reps and going through which releases I would choose as ‘predictions’ to the Top 40. The record library girls did the ringaround in Sydney to get the actual sales figures for the Top 40, but I did the phone calls myself for the Newcastle area.


One of the memorable asides of this time was using the Monday trips to meet various local and international stars – particularly the ones brought out for the Lee Gordon Shows. I’d spend some of the day in the studio, recording interviews to promote their shows and new discs. I was thrilled to do this for young performers like Buddy Holly, but I was terribly saddened when he and others were killed less than a year after I spoke with them.


The Top 40 plan developed into a combined radio format and publicity tool. To drive this fresh and exciting concept into the minds and hands of listeners, 2UE distributed up to 30 000 printed ‘Original and Authentic’ Top 40 charts each week. The small paper handouts contained song lists and station publicity details. They were free to the public through music stores across Sydney.


2UE has been credited with many firsts in its colourful history and the birth of an Australian Top 40 remains among its most influential achievements.


Another pioneering Top 40 format station from 1958 was Adelaide’s 5AD. They borrowed actual chart listings from 2UE and passed them off as their own. Former Music Director Trevor Cowling explains why:


This was through the influence of the Major Radio Network which was lead by 2UE and 5AD was a member. The whole Top 40 thing was all new for everyone in those days. We used the Sydney lists right from the start into about 1960 or ’61 from memory. But, on air, 5AD was doing its own thing musically wherever we could. Of course, we took all the syndicated Top 40 style shows from the east coast DJs: Laws, Withers, Rogers and so on … did a few of our own with DJ Alec Macaskill. There was one early pop show we produced locally that was a huge success in 1959 called Rock-a-Beat Parade. It was hosted by an old school announcer named Charles Norton. He was probably 50 at the time, but you’d never know it on air. He called himself Chuck Norton, which sounded very cool back then, but yeah, he really whipped up a storm every Friday night at 8.30 playing all the latest tunes and he was only on air for half an hour!


The Top 40 music formula had been playing on select US stations for some years before 2UE’s people heard it. Fuelled by the fresh beat of rock ’n’ roll and by entrepreneurs with a keen eye to make a buck, its popularity was growing fast in the States. Given the changes occurring in Australian society, Top 40 programming was well timed to give local radio a new lease of life in a post television age. However, not everyone agreed. Many radio proprietors fought against it. Some performers were sceptical. 2UE’s budding breakfast star in 1958 was Gary O’Callaghan: ‘I said at the time that it’ll be lucky if it lasts six months. I just wasn’t convinced that it could be a success, but Allan was a very persuasive boss and he asked that we give it our best shot.’


One time 2UE Program Director Nick Erby added:


Allan Faulkner was very much a lateral thinker; a visionary. He was one of the leaders of that generation of radio men in the ’50s. There were a few of them of note: Stan Clark of Macquarie, Lewis Bennett of 3UZ, Bill Stephenson at 2SM. Those were the kind of blokes who were in power when television came in and their contribution is central to the history and development of commercial radio.


Top 40 was uncharted territory for listeners and performers alike. In the midst of changing times, it is understandable there would be disapproval or doubt. After all, it was only a few years earlier that 2SM’s king of the DJs, Tony Withers, boasted: ‘Rock ’n’ roll will be dead within nine months.’


Incidentally, Tony presented a popular hit parade program called The 30 Top Tunes on 2SM from 1957. It was said to be the first of its kind in Australia. A contest within the program offered a £4000 prize—a huge amount in those days—to the listener who could correctly identify the 30 top tunes in order of popularity. When John Brennan replaced Tony in 1958, the prize money was increased to £8000 then to an almighty £10 000!


Although the most noticeable change in late ’50s radio was Top 40 music and DJ shows, there were other program elements considered innovative at the time. These included hourly news bulletins, outside broadcasts from unusual locations or wherever crowds gathered, swap sessions and service features, with everything from cookery and household advice to pet care and motor repairs. Some bold experiments in stereophonic broadcasting were conducted involving joint station promotions with 2CH and 2SM Sydney, 3UZ and 3XY Melbourne, and 4BC and 4BK Brisbane. In the vogue of ’50s technology, stereo was to sound what wide screen is to TV today. Listeners needed to use two radios to take part in the stereo experience. One station was tuned for the right channel, the other to the left.


Some buyers of advertising time were uncertain about radio’s new music and personality direction. Concern was expressed that too much pop music would wreak havoc and scare away older listeners who were the advertisers’ traditional target audience. US broadcasters were also sceptical of the new programming era. A comment doing the rounds, at a time when stations were increasing the amount of music based shows, was: ‘Records? Who will listen to records played over the radio? People play records on phonographs!’


Sceptical they might have been, but when former Macquarie chief, Stan Clark, visited the US in the ’50s, he found their radio to be awash with music, music, music. He said at the time: ‘My first impression of American radio was that it had become a giant jukebox!’


And that was only in the ’50s. There was even MORE music to come from radio.


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Controversial American DJ, Alan Freed, is credited with coining the term Rock ’n’ Roll , or at least bringing the black slang expression for fornication to the notice of white American teens. At one time, Freed even tried to copyright it! In the early ’50s, while hosting ‘The Moon Dog House’ on Cleveland’s WJW, he used to open with lines like: ‘It’s time again for another of your favourite rock ’n’ roll sessions of blues and rhythm records for all the gang in the Moondog Kingdom from the Midwest to the East Coast.’


During 1954, Alan moved to the big time in New York City on radio WINS. The following year, he promoted concerts around the Big Apple under the banner Alan Freed’s Rock ’n’ Roll Party. Conflicting reports make it hard to say with certainty who should receive similar credit for actually naming the Top 40. There is one story, however, which is legendary in US radio circles. It’s mythical in part, but a fantastic tale just the same.


Todd Storz owned a chain of stations in America’s Midwest. He and Station Manager Bill Stewart were apparently in a bar where patrons played the same songs over and over on the jukebox. Towards the end of the evening, the waitress who had been hearing these songs all through her shift used her hard earned tip money to play them over again while cleaning up for the night. This struck a chord with Storz and Stewart, who later developed a plan to run a bunch of records repeatedly on their stations.


Why 40 records? At first, KOWH Omaha, Nebraska, heavily rotated the top 10 tunes in national radio programs like Your Hit Parade and Lucky Lager Dance Time. Sometime later, after buying WTIX New Orleans, Storz heard his rival station, WDSU, was playing what it called the Top 20 tunes in between soap operas and other networked features. Not to be outdone, Storz is said to have retaliated by extending the length of his station’s music programs by one hour and doubling the amount of records played. Word of this spread around the industry and stations in larger cities began to develop their own similar approaches. Somehow the idea of 40 records became the standard and the rest, as they say, is history.


Another US radio innovator was Gordon McClendon of Texas, who owned several stations throughout the Midwest. McClendon, who was known to have kept an ear on what Storz was up to, introduced two elements to the basic Top 40 tunes plan: localised news, combined with on the spot reporting, and promotional gimmickry, designed to attract listeners and stir up interest among the community. These became the fundamentals at most radio stations in the latter half of the 20th century.


McClendon continued to innovate during his long and successful career, introducing specific formats to radio such as Beautiful Music and All News. He even designed an ‘All Classified Ads’ format for a Los Angeles station in 1967!


When Top 40 began in Australia, it wasn’t just a new way of presenting a radio program. The concept of the Top 40 tunes quickly developed into a measurement standard, used by record companies to indicate weekly record sales. Radio stations also relied on the Top 40 chart to build and adjust their playlists from week to week. To compile the 40 most popular songs, stations telephoned selected record stores in their area which reported sales figures on records and sheet music. The stations tabulated these figures at the same time each week and printed their findings on free promotional handouts in record stores or in the local paper—sometimes both. In addition to raw sales figures, the position or ranking of the week’s 40 most popular songs was also subject to overseas sales trends and a station’s own predictions, that is new songs being played by DJs in the hope they’d sell enough to make it onto the Top 40.


When the all-new 45 rpm single first appeared on the retail music scene, those in radio thought store assistants needed a leg up on what exactly radio was playing. If a customer walked in and said, ‘I want a copy of a tune called “Peggy Sue” that I heard on the radio the other day’, such a description might not have been sufficient information for the salesperson. It was a tradition among early Top 40 presenters to include the label of the song in their record announcements. Often writers were mentioned too. For example: ‘There’s the brand new release from Buddy Holly called “Peggy Sue”, written by Buddy and his band members, Jerry Allison and Norman Petty. It’s a Coral import, due for local release soon by Festival.’

This long-winded, but informative method of back announcing faded out by the end of the ’60s.


The outbreak of new music programs on Australian radio in the late ’50s begs these questions: How was music selection managed and how were titles chosen for airplay? Well, for starters, there was no such person as a Music Director in radio. There was a Musical Director, for example people like talented pianist, Frank Scott, whose job at 2UE was to provide musical backings and coordinate all manner of live musical activity on the station. In recorded music programs, however, records were physically picked off the shelf by staff members working in the record library. When gathered, the discs were made ready for general announcers to play in their programs. We’ll discuss record selection in the early days of music radio further in the next chapter.


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Television’s arrival was an obvious cause for celebration among the public and the entertainment business. Radio, too, had a lot to be excited about: new music, personalities and programs. Listeners, advertising clients, performers and management were about to be part of one of radio’s greatest adventures. However, a number of station managements were more conspicuous in the way they adapted to the changing media environment. The established order of how things ‘ought be done’ was open to challenge and, sure, there were casualties because of the change. Ask any unemployed radio actor from the ’50s!


As for the actual changes going on at the broadcasting coalface, former 5AD personality Eldon Crouch recounts his time in the ’50s, working at 3HA Western Victoria:


I used to play huge 16 inch transition discs from the Voice of America, featuring some of the great jazz groups in the world, a la Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Glen Miller, Benny Goodman etc. Then, one day, Voice of America stopped sending them to us. About that time, the Station Manager, Don James, met me in the record library with an entirely new concept. He had in one hand a ten inch microgroove record from Nat King Cole, “Two in Love”, which incidentally I still have. Even more portentous in his other hand was an RCA 45 rpm single with a huge hole in the centre. Of course we had no equipment to play such a thing at 3HA, but it was obvious to me that the day was coming when our radio programming was changing forever. In fact, when I first arrived at 5AD in 1958, they had only just re-equipped, enabling us to play 45s.


There’s no doubt 2UE’s decision to highlight Top 40 programming ignited a radio revolution in Australia. A handful of other broadcasting visionaries was also poised to bring Australian listeners the new sound of radio. Among them was Brisbane’s 4BC, which launched its long running Fabulous 40 concept in 1958, along with 5AD Adelaide and 6KY Perth.


In Melbourne, 3UZ announced a fresh line up of personalities in March 1958 and publicised how its programs would be presented in future. Music programming naturally dominated the schedule. Henry Gay worked as a 3UZ record librarian/music programmer in the late ’50s. He later held executive positions in programming and publicity for 3AK and 3XY. Henry explains his first hand account of how quickly 3UZ improvised its music schedule and jumped on the Top 40 bandwagon:


It was a Wednesday morning just after 10 o’clock. The duty announcer, Bill Acfield, would have been sitting back enjoying one of his favourite Gershwin tunes I’d selected for him, blissfully unaware of the tension out in the record library. Station Manager Lewis Bennett had recently arrived back from Sydney where he heard what 2UE was doing. He put in a hurried call to the library with instructions to change the music on Bill’s program immediately to that of Top 40 style music. I quickly put some records together and went in to give Bill the directive from Lew.


At that moment I became the mediator for a heap of abuse towards the management. And I was not alone. Many listeners phoned in complaining of the musical switch. Even more abuse followed when the serials we had been running were dropped or shortened. It got to a point where, if staff members heard a phone ring, they would offer a silent prayer hoping it was a friendly call or they would pretend they didn’t hear it.


A few years after Top 40 programming was embraced by the audience, and by most announcers, some general managers remained uncomfortable with Top 40 as their primary station image. For some managers, the Top 40 carried a stigma. In their defence, managers had to tread a fine line with advertisers, who were sometimes equally disdainful of the emerging pop culture. Typical of comments was this one in 1965 by Gordon Lewis, then manager of Perth’s big time hit music outlet, 6PR: ‘We’re not quite Top 40 because we cater for the total Perth audience. I prefer to call 6PR a modern music station.’


Gordon wasn’t the only one to sit on the fence. Since the inception of Top 40 radio, many a station manager or sales manager had found the style abhorrent to what they perceived as worthwhile or tasteful programming. If one considers that the pop music being played didn’t exactly resonate with them, due to the age gap between them and their listeners, then the position they took made a bit more sense.


Emerging announcing styles throughout the ’60s and ’70s also had many in management shaking their heads and wringing their hands. Of course, if their Top 40 sound was rating well, they were rubbing their hands … with delight!


Through time and way beyond the bounds of a radio studio, the term Top 40 has become part of the vernacular. It’s often used as a metaphor to describe anything to do with a list of most popular items or pastimes, be they restaurants, sporting teams, Internet sites, fishing spots – you name it! Most commonly, it’s intrinsically linked to certain styles of pop music: usually short, catchy, melodic tunes with repetitive choruses.


2UE, 3UZ, 4BC, 5AD and 6PR were among the first to embrace the new sensation of Top 40 promotion and presentation and never looked back. They reaped big rewards in the years to come by playing records over the radio. The basis of their success lay in which records they played and who presented them.


Enter radio’s star of the future: the Disc Jockey.