MEDIA: by Jeffry Babb News Weekly
The ABC and its serpent's egg, Radio Triple J
, March 15, 2014
In 1975, in the last few months of its existence, the Whitlam government established one of its most enduring “progressive” legacies, Sydney ABC Radio 2JJ (or Double Jay). In the 1980s, this would become a national radio station, Triple J.
ABC managing director Mark Scott.
Originally part of Labor’s long-term vision to create a National Youth Radio Network, ABC’s “youth radio” arm has, throughout its entire existence, proved to be a source of left-wing propaganda and linguistic filth.
The establishment of 2JJ, later Triple J, was largely owing to the recommendations of the Whitlam government’s Independent Inquiry into Broadcasting (1974) report. As with many such “independent” inquiries at the time, the outcome seems to have been predetermined.
I must admit I do listen occasionally to Triple J’s breakfast drive-time program presented by Tom Okine and Alex Dyson; but, apart from that, I never listen to the radio station and never have done.
The demographic that Triple J aims for is the 18-to-30 age group. Many of the bands it has helped launch, such as Midnight Oil, led by recently departed education minister in the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government Peter Garrett, I loathe and detest.
Another of Triple J’s favourite bands, the American hip hop group “NWA”, produced the classic protest song, “F*** tha police”. That was a bridge too far even for the ABC’s management, which banned it from the airwaves. The Triple J staff promptly went on strike.
The precursor to Triple J first went to air in 1975. The aim was to cater to its youth audience with a mixture of music, current affairs and youth culture. Its slogan was “We love music”. The music itself, however, did not provoke comment so much as the foul language of its presenters, which provoked public outrage.
Triple J made a living retailing songs and current affairs shows about drugs and sex. Under the regulation of the broadcast media, Triple J was exempt from the standards that applied to commercial radio. The commercial broadcasters could not — and would not — play much of the material presented on Triple J.
Triple J’s existence was part of Whitlam Government’s “progressive” media policies. Perhaps I should use the term “Stalinist” rather than “progressive”. I well remember starting my first job with a Liberal senator and being handed a sheaf of paper headed “Dr Moss Cass, Minister for the Media”.
All Labor governments think the commercial media are out to get them — and, let’s face it, certain proprietors are. The notion, however, that the press should be countered by heavy-handed regulation does not pass the smell test.
Why, then, is the ABC’s Triple J the serpent’s egg? Ingmar Bergman’s 1977 film of the same name features the serpent’s egg. The doctor explains that the serpent is perfectly formed inside the egg; it only has to grow to maturity to reach its potential for havoc.
So it is with Triple J. Since the election of the Abbott government last year, Triple J has been only marginally less offensive to conservative listeners than it previously was. But the potential for it to revert to being an organisational base for attacks on the non-Labor, non-Greens side of politics is always there.
Take, for example, the first disk broadcast by Triple J’s precursor in 1975, Skyhooks’ “You just like me ’cos I’m good in bed”, which had been banned by commercial radio stations. This caused immediate controversy. It wasn’t so much a gesture of youthful rebellion as shoving smutty values down the audience’s throat.
Triple J is not universally loved in the music industry. Industry insiders say there is a “Triple J sound” which leads to a certain blandness in music played in Australia. As Triple J is the leader in its demographic, this gives it unrivalled power. Over time, however, music’s dominance has been cut back in Triple J’s programming.
The breakfast comedy slot is popular. Talkback radio is cheap to produce and gives the listeners a sense of involvement. The “music and talk” format is a popular one in commercial radio and has gained ground in Triple J as managers with commercial radio backgrounds have been appointed.
Why haven’t Coalition governments done anything to bring Triple J into line with community standards? Why haven’t they done a lot of things when it comes to the ABC, of which Triple J is an offshoot? We can only wonder.
ABC Radio Triple J’s output of foul language and left-wing politics probably flies under the radar of most Coalition legislators, who tend to be middle-aged, white and male. The radio station has expanded steadily and can now be heard from Broome to Brisbane. It may have been possible to take action in the early days after the fall of the Whitlam Government, but one wonders what action would be appropriate now.
No doubt Triple J prides itself on being “progressive”, but really that’s just a weasel word for Left or Green. As with other things, the Coalition could have saved itself a lot of grief if it had acted earlier.
Jeffry Babb is a Melbourne-based writer.