The Long Strange Trrrip!

Geoff King recalls the early days of Melbourne’s much loved community radio station Triple R-FM, as it undertakes its annual major fundraiser.

Triple R is Australia’s is one of Australia’s most successful and influential community radio stations but it rose from humble beginnings. 

There are few moments in a person’s life when you can say, “This is what I’ll be doing for decades to come”. When I walked into the office of 3RMT-FM in 1978, it was not one of those moments, but forty-odd years later they’ll have to hose me out the door, having been a staff member, then a volunteer announcer for a couple of decades, and a RRR Board member for even longer…..

3RMT had two small rooms in building 9 on the Carlton edge of the RMIT city campus. Station Manager Sue Mathews greeted me. We’d been friends for years. She’d got me to do some work for her at the ABC, and had helped me and a fellow worker at Euphoria Records land a Saturday night spot on the fledgling 3CR, a station that was a good starting point for quite a few community radio announcers.  Sue introduced me to a bloke named Greig Pickhaver as we walked over to the City Baths cafe to talk about the job I was about to take up as Music Producer/Coordinator. I was clutching a copy of Colin Escott’s Sun Records history. Greig said “Great book, isn’t it?”and I knew I was in the right company.

By this stage, the station was fairly well formed with many of the jobs filled and operating. The station had started almost by accident at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in 1976,  initially funded by it (hence the 3RMT name), and run by students out of the Student Radio Association studios.  Sue took on the job of Manager in 1977 after proposing that ‘educational radio’ could be an all-encompassing approach which didn’t mean lectures-on-air.  Playing music wouldn’t be just a means to attract an audience;  popular music, and popular culture generally, could be looked at just as critically and interestingly as anything out of ‘high’ culture and the arts and sciences could be. There was no reason to segregate talk programs from music. This set the template that the station has followed ever since.

Soon enough, the students who had been running the programs were replaced by the kind of music-buff riffraff that began to define the station, and they jacked up on our sharing of their studios.  We moved up the road to a Cardigan Street terrace house.  Space was still clearly a problem, though.  All the broadcast electronics were in the hallway outside the one on-air studio. One night someone sneaked in, stuck in a cassette and switched it to air while the announcer – who couldn’t see out of the studio and was not monitoring the on-air signal – played on, oblivious to a quite filthy pirate tape.  Until the calls started flooding in.  The Broadcasting Tribunal cut us some slack on that one, unlike the Richard Pryor album that cost us two years off the licence we were awarded when we changed the name to 3RRR at the end of ‘78.

Actually, Danny Robinson from Hit and Run solved the lack of studio visuals by kicking out some of the panels in the door in order to stick his head through and abuse Nadya Anderson, the volunteer coordinator. Nadya had just fired him for being regularly somewhat resistant to a certain level of sobriety on the Country Show.

In those pre-digital days, part of my job was to go round to the record companies and pick up new releases. Back then we were too insignificant for them to deliver. Most of the PR blokes were nice enough; it was just that we had pretty dissimilar views on what constituted interesting music. I would get shit in the mail like a broken bit of a coloured vinyl album every day for a week. I was supposed to be so incredibly intrigued by what it was going to be that we’d just be dying to add it to our groovy playlist. A Styx album for chrissake.

We curated the weekly new records for the announcers by leaving them in the studio, their covers slathered with “stolen from 3RMT /RRR”.  Still, records would go missing through accident or design. There was nothing more irritating than coming in to do your shift and finding a gap in the crate. One day an announcer walked in with at least 50 albums in hand. He’d been to a party, discovered this stolen stash and just picked them up and walked out, no names, no pack drill.

Initially,  it was me and Greig and sometimes Sue who would meet over at the City Baths coffee shop and construct a “chart” as a way of giving some curated focus for both new and older releases. Greig felt there should always be a place for any Who album. Buddy Holly’s Greatest Hits made our first chart.  Martin Armiger started joining us and we contrived a ‘chart show’ that he hosted on a Sunday. Martin presented the astonishing “Nouvelle Vague” breakfast show beginning at 8.30 am weekdays, where he read stories from various newspapers in a style that was his alone. And he was always late.  Martin was, of course, a terrific musician in the High Rise Bombers (with Paul Kelly), the Bleeding Hearts and the Sports. He had really good ears and we used to argue, but later I’d often realise he was right about Wire, or Chic or whatever it was.

After just straight chart rigging for a while, we started checking the logs of what announcers played and marked them off on the chart, thus indicating chart ‘movement.’ This proved to be a double-edged sword because announcers started playing their favourites to get ‘em up the chart. The industry began paying attention and getting narky if their artists weren’t doing well. We had to kill it after a couple of years. Funnily enough, Styx never troubled the scorers.

Early on, it wasn’t easy getting access to international artists we wanted to interview. PR people and record companies had little clue about us. Sue and I got good at hanging out at press conferences and buttonholing managers. Once you had their ear it wasn’t so hard because they realised we knew our stuff and our idea of good radio was theirs. Getting McGuinn and Hillman from the Byrds was a beauty, even though getting high with Chris Hillman back at his hotel room wasn’t as much fun as it sounds because we just sat around watching tv, as you do. Playing pinball with Midnight Oil was more like it.  Later, when the station was becoming known, we were given better opportunities, such as an exclusive interview with Dusty Springfield, one of my personal highlights.

Skills had to be developed. Mannerisms crept in. Helen Garner, who we’d broadcast reading ‘Monkey Grip’ – which had got us into a bit of strife re its rude words – wrote a letter to the station complaining about the announcers all having an upwards inflection at the end of sentences.  The reason for it was straightforward enough. When you hit the button on the direct-drive turntables it made a loud clunk. The upward inflection and emphasised final syllables were to hide the sound of the turntable.

 We were an inner-city station because that was as far as our crappy signal reached. I remember a fundraiser we held to pay for the new transmitter on Mt Dandenong, which eventually broadened our audience across all of Melbourne.  Dorland Bray (my co-host on the New Releases Show and later the drummer/writer in Do Re Mi) and I ran the last session on a Saturday night. Lots of people passed through the on-air shenanigans and by its end I’d got fairly pissed. I woke up on the floor of the studio, Dorland still happily spinning records, as the Hell’s Angel who was due to do the following shift had had to split the city in a hurry. We continued on till 2 am then staggered off into the night.

A couple of years later I was opening a radiothon in the new studios in Fitzroy. John Clarke, Greig Pickhaver and another local comedian were my guests. John had started giving the station his Fred Dagg tapes because he was so pissed off with the treatment he received at the ABC. He came in to the radiothon and suggested we all take on the names of famous people but play them in our normal voices. John was Barbara Streisand. As well, he invented names for the various denominations listeners pledged, based around political figures of the day  (I wish I could remember how many Keatings made up a Hawkie.) John and Greig had started their legendary Grand Final calls from a TV set in the studio around then too. Not so long after that I met Bryan Dawe somewhere and he contributed a heavily produced summer comedy series. That took him to the ABC where he met John and one of the great partnerships was formed.  That was how it often worked and still does. People approach the station or people meet people, talent is suspected, invitations issued. I met Stephen Walker at a mutual friend’s party.  He confessed that he was ‘kind of a fan”, he obviously knew his music and had a great manner, and thus was a future Station Legend born.

Was it a good job? You bet. As a paid producer I had a number of shows including an interview program called “Off The Record”. Good name that. Someone should use it…

I wish I could talk about all the characters around then, some of whom are still around the station and plenty who have stayed friends,  because it was just a fantastic time to be starting a radio station:  great music everywhere, lots of bands who couldn’t get heard on the commercials welcomed our attention; in fact just about every local band we were into had a member doing a show.

But, as the Grateful Dead sang, “When life looks like easy street, there is danger at your door.”  

Despite its strong programming foundation, financially it was a house of cards, and the ground shifted beneath us when the Fraser government slashed education spending. Most of the tertiary institution consortium members – formed when RMIT couldn’t fund it alone – withdrew, and we couldn’t find substitute sponsorship income. (Amazingly, RMIT and Melbourne Uni are still involved with the station.) There was a tremendous response from the music industry and especially from our listeners who absolutely did not want the station to go under.  Obviously, it didn’t, but it was touch-and-go. Most of us lost our jobs or just moved on. Reece Lamshed was appointed manager and we shifted to Fitzroy with a skeleton staff to rebuild, and great years ahead. Its influence as a cultural institution has stretched well beyond Melbourne and it’s still full of terrific people and a fun place to be around.

Now there is danger at the door.  As you well know, Covid-19 has shut down the live music industry, and there goes RRR’s sponsorship base. This year’s radiothon will be the most vital since the last great financial crisis in the early 90s which definitely put the station at risk. Listeners: it’s your call just as it was back in 1981.

You can subscribe to Triple R at rrr.org.au. Deadline to enter the Radiothon prize draw is September 30.