A trip down memory lane

Mon, 24 December 2018

Professor Neil RuncieFoundation Chairman of 2RPH Professor Neil Runcie talks about the establishment of Sydney’s radio reading service.

Neil, you were the Foundation Chairman of three of Sydney’s radio stations, 2MBS, 2RPH and 2RES. What sparked your interest in broadcasting? Unquestionably the high quality of BBC broadcasts that I was able to listen to whilst studying in London at the end of the 1950s. Frequency Modulation broadcasting with its higher fidelity than AM broadcasts was being introduced in London, and the whole of the UK while I was there. I recorded a number of the music broadcasts. FM also facilitated the introduction of regional stations in the UK. I recall that the high quality of BBC talk programmes that was further enhanced in the BBC’s magazine The Listener. And while I was in the UK the BBC monopoly was being challenged by, for example, offshore ship broadcasts. London was a stimulating environment.

How did react to this experience? With an Australian civil engineer, Murray Low, also studying in the UK at the time, we formed the Australian Listeners’ Society in July 1960 on my return from the UK. Getting FM here was a top priority in enlivening broadcasting. There had not been a new radio station in Sydney for over 30 years.

What prompted your interest in Radio for the Print Handicapped? We did eventually get FM introduced here, lagging behind other advanced countries. The campaign was conducted by aspirant community broadcasters and public interest groups (including the NSW Coalition of Resident Action Groups – CRAG) but not by commercial stations nor the national broadcaster. The first licensed FM station to get to air was Sydney’s fine music station, 2MBS-FM. Among the first callers expressing their appreciation were blind people who appreciated the greater fidelity of our FM broadcasts. With some callers I discussed the other aspirations of the Listeners’ Society for more informative talk programmes.

What were the origins of Radio for the Print Handicapped? The term Radio for the Print Handicapped was borrowed from the US where over 70 RPH stations operated when I was investigating the possibility of a similar development here in the 1970s. Many of these stations operated on sub carriers of US University FM radio stations as well as on AM frequencies.

How did 2RPH get started? We conducted test broadcasts from Paddington Town Hall using equipment from other aspiring community radio stations (RES and SPAR) and a landline to the nearby University of New South Wales’ Kensington campus.

What part did the University play in establishing 2RPH? The University had its own radio station 2UV but it was only used in a limited way to supplement University extension courses. The University had its own transmitter and AM aerial at Homebush and of course a landline from the University studios at Kensington  to Homebush.

As you worked at UNSW did that help? Of course. The manager of 2UV, Professor Derek Broadbent, a colleague, was impressed with the RPH idea and the work which I had done in getting 2MBS, Sydney’s community fine music station, to air.

How did the Australian RPH Council come about? Firstly, I would like to acknowledge the help of the US Consulate in Sydney in obtaining the details of the US RPH development  - they sent copies of programmes, legislation to give copyright clearance, and details of supervision - all of which I forwarded to the then Federal Postmaster General (Hon Eric Robinson). Secondly the Minister was impressed with the potential. Further I explained we could get to air in Sydney promptly and economically. The Minister promised the immediate use of frequencies in the Marine Band just off the end of the normal AM broadcast band. The Minister also saw RPH as an Australia wide movement. Thirdly, I invited a Melbourne group doing some access programming for the local blind community on a community access station to a public meeting at Paddington Town Hall. They came with enthusiasm. The proposal and draft constitution for an Australia RPH Council was readily accepted by attendees and I was also elected the Foundation Chairman.

What sort of programming did you envisage for RPH? News from the daily newspapers was the top priority. I used to get up at 4am to buy the Sydney daily papers and cut them up to give a news sequence from various sources. This was too laborious! Many blind or sight impaired people remembered reading particular papers (eg SMH, DT, etc). So a single copy would suffice for our readers with alternation of sources every half hour.

Where did the initial band of readers come from? The initial on-air readers for our test broadcasts came from the English Department at Sydney University where they were recruited by my wife, Dr Catherine Runcie who was a Senior Lecturer in the Department. We soon discovered an audience not only among blind people but among migrants and drive time listeners. There were other potential listeners.

How did you come into contact with blind people? When 2MBS started broadcasting there were many congratulatory phone calls and messages immediately. Some were from blind people such as Barbara Blackman, and from carers who appreciated the greater fidelity of FM broadcasts and who wished for a better deal in broadcasting for blind people. These phone calls prompted my approach to the US Consulate in Sydney for help on US RPH development.

How did you form the first Board of the RPH Co-operative? Later when we were up and running I recruited a blind colleague at UNSW, Professor Ron Postle, and Dr Sam Gillis, the Superintendent of the Sydney Eye Hospital to the initial co-operative board. Ron, of course, succeeded me as Chairman of 2RPH when I went on overseas study leave. I should also mention their wives, Mrs Postle and Mrs Gillis who were also great pillars of RPH support. But there were others too who wanted to help.

What did you learn from the 2RPH experience? Firstly, I realised that blind people generally had multiple problems - medical, educational, mobility, loneliness and of course income. Secondly I was disappointed with the limited co-operation from the NSW Royal Blind Society at the time that saw 2RPH as a competitor for limited government funds. In other states the local blind institutes were generally directly supportive of the RPH innovation. Thirdly, as with the Music Broadcasting Society there was a body of people willing to help a good cause - in many cases they were carers and in some notable cases from other radio networks including the ABC. Fourthly, unlike the US, copyright clearance was not necessary at least in the short run because of a co-operative approach by publishers. Fifthly, the potential of the reading service for talking books and educational material was not being achieved in the short run. Sixthly the Australian RPH structure was unique in the world but with potential adoption elsewhere with other local community stations and overseas.

I believe RPH has proven to be a fine example of community self-help with an enviable record that still requires some government co-operation and community support to achieve its commendable objectives.

This text was written by Professor Neil Runcie in October 2018.