From: The Voice and its Doubles
(Duke University Press)
Please note that republication rights will be varied to allow for Duke University Press’s prior publication of the book and their continuing ownership of publication rights.
If you wish, you can purchase the entire book from which this chapter is taken, at https://www.dukeupress.edu/the-voice-and-its-doubles.
Media and Music in Northern Australia: Preamble:
Beginning in the early 1980s Aboriginal Australians found in music, radio, and filmic media a means to make themselves heard across the country and to insert themselves into the center of Australian political life. In The Voice and Its Doubles Daniel Fisher analyzes the great success of this endeavor, asking what is at stake in the sounds of such media for Aboriginal Australians. Drawing on long-term ethnographic research in northern Australia, Fisher describes the close proximity of musical media, shifting forms of governmental intervention, and those public expressions of intimacy and kinship that suffuse Aboriginal Australian social life. Today’s Aboriginal media include genres of country music and hip-hop; radio requests and broadcast speech; visual graphs of a digital audio timeline; as well as the statistical media of audience research and the discursive and numerical figures of state audits and cultural policy formation. In each of these diverse instances the mediatized voice has become a site for overlapping and at times discordant forms of political, expressive, and institutional creativity.
Image: book cover: Duke University Press
Cover Art: Satellite Dish, Northern Territory, Australia.
© Deco / Alamy Stock Photo
Chapter Four: From Radio Skid Row
to the Reconciliation Station
[See the map of Australia here. The mainland of Australia is slightly smaller than the U.S. contiguous 48 states.]
Paragraph One follows: 1:
In Brisbane’s wintery July and August, the mornings are cold. Each day in the first months of my research I climbed into a blue 1984 Range Rover. I’d bought this car cheaply in Sydney and driven it north, aiming to use its all-wheel-drive and raised suspension to ‘go bush’ and leave the bitumen behind. And in the later stages of my research that car did ferry me and my friends and interlocutors over unsealed roads at the outskirts of Darwin, in the Northern Territory.
But it clocked more kilometers commuting between the apartments and houses where I lived during fieldwork, and the radio stations and studios where I worked in exchange for the opportunity to conduct my research, and more time carrying people down city streets and highways, than it did in the bush.
In the event it mattered more that the Range Rover had a good car radio than that it had four-wheel-drive, and in Brisbane I listened to hours of Aboriginal broadcasting while commuting between Highgate Hill and the suburb where the Brisbane Indigenous Media Association had their studios. That car thus looms large in my memory as a place of gathering warmth, musical sound, and the amplified voices of my interlocutors.
On these cold antipodean winter mornings I’d fire up the big V6 engine and wait for the heater to kick in, listening to the radio and hearing the voices of those who had arrived at the station much earlier than I, often at four in the morning, ready to start their day and to greet their listeners — many of whom were, like me, climbing into cars and heading out to work. My entry into this ethnographic field wasrepeated in this way each day to the sounds of country music and Indigenous voices coming over a car radio.
Driving into Brisbane, tuning in to country music station 4AAA, I’d often hear Roger Knox’s country hit ‘Koori Rose’ segue into a George Jones or Merle Haggard song, followed by works from a new generation of commercially successful country stars, including Lee Kernaghan, Dan Sullivan, Troy Cassar-Daly, and Casey Chambers. I would also hear 4AAA’s drive-time Disk Jockey AJ back-announce the songs, giving the artist name, title, and perhaps even the song’s date of release. AJ often provided a bit more historical information for his listeners, telling them, for instance, that Roger Knox was one of the few Aboriginal recording artists that one could hear on Australian radio prior to the early 1980s.
This world of sound, coming to me over a car stereo on Brisbane’s streets, is something with a distinct and relatively recent history that can be traced materially to the early 1980s. From that point on, organizations like the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA) and Enrec studios in northern New South Wales began recording in earnest and releasing compilations of Indigenous country and rock musics such as ‘Rebel Voices I’ and ‘Rebel Voices II’ (1980-81), Warumpi Band’s ‘Big Name, No Blankets’ (1985), and country records by southeastern performers, like Knox’s ‘Give It a Go’ (1983), often with the support of the nascent Aboriginal Arts board. [Note 1] CAAMA’s and Enrec’s recordings joined others produced independently in Australia’s southeast by bands such as ‘Us Mob,’ [Note 2] and by a growing number of Aboriginal media associations, organizations founded under the relatively new Aboriginal Councils and Associations Act (1976). This was specifically intended to endow Aboriginal Australia with representative organizations as the latticework of Indigenous citizenship and an Aboriginal public (Attwood 2004; Batty 2003).
This level of pop music historical information didn’t always come across in drive-time, competing with a range of community announcements and song-specific background; it was a feature of later programming, when young Murri radio trainees would host the ‘Murri Magazine,’ conducting interviews with their Aboriginal elders and focusing on aspects of Brisbane’s Aboriginal community. The reflexive appreciation and cataloguing of this rich, contemporary music history was a central mission of such programming, certainly, but also spilled over into other kinds of discourse surrounding 4AAA’s programming.
AJ often celebrated Murri and Koori performers’ identities, locating them in the history of Aboriginal country music performance that I describe above. But he also folded them into a larger transnational stable of country stars, speaking in a friendly, jocular voice to both a national Aboriginal audience (who likely needed no such overt signposts) and a more local, non-Indigenous group of Queensland’s ‘country fans, truckies, and working blokes.’
As I listened more, heard AJ’s stories on the radio and in person, and watched young Aboriginal producers create programs built around the voices of country music, the sense of strangeness that accompanied what I had once thought of as a prototypically ‘American’ form slipped away and the sounds of country music came to index for me the historical depth and institutional complexity of the industrialized sound world I had come to study, as well as its imbrication with a longer history of Aboriginal engagement with commercial musics.
Despite the rich history of Aboriginal music and media production, hearing Indigenous music and music history at the center of the fm dial (98.9 fm) and in a southeastern Australian ‘capital city’ is nonetheless a relatively recent phenomenon, occasioned by several decades of activism and major shifts in Australian Indigenous cultural policy.
Tiga Bayles, managing director of 4AAA radio, remembers running midnight Aboriginal music shows in Sydney, scrounging for Indigenous music to play at a time when only a few select recordings were available. In Queensland and New South Wales, the 1960s and 1970s had seen a trickle of Aboriginal recording artists achieve some success, most notably the 1960s pop stars Jimmy Little and Vic Simms, CAAMA’s recordings dovetailed with the emergence of Aboriginal rock music from central and northern Australia, most famously by Warumpi Band, perhaps due to their tour across Australia with the high-profile Australian pop group Midnight Oil (see McMillan 1989; Murray 1993).
From Papunya [in Central Australia], Warumpi Band was begun by Neil Murray of rural Victoria writing songs and singing, with George Burarrwanga from Elcho Island in the Top End as lead singer, Sammy Butcher on guitar and bass, and a number of drummers over the years, including Gordon Butcher, Sammy’s brother, and American Allen Murphy, a former member of the pop group the Village People.
Much has changed in the intervening period and there are now many hundreds of hours of recordings of Aboriginal country, rock, R&B, and other contemporary musics. A developed Indigenous music industry also has come into existence alongside a network of radio stations, media associations, and training organizations spread across Australia.
These are joined by independent record labels such as Enrec in New South Wales and SkinnyFish music in the Northern Territory, and by a number of small, remote radio and recording studios producing music on a more ad hoc basis.
4AAA ‘Murri Country’ is an important agent within this network of institutions, enmeshed within Queensland and New South Wales’s country music industry and closely allied with the National Indigenous Radio Service — a satellite network and news service based not far from 4AAA’s studios in central Brisbane [in South-east Queensland]. 4AAA’s signal now reaches Aboriginal radios as far away as Darwin in the Northern Territory and Cairns in far northern Queensland.
When I began research in 2003, 4AAA’s management was concerned primarily with reaching Brisbane’s Indigenous community providing public service announcements on mental health, employment opportunities, and community events. And 4AAA took on as a foundational social duty the work of connecting kin across the institutional boundaries of prison walls and the often large distances between rural communities and former mission settlements like Cherbourg, and the many suburbs ringing Brisbane’s city center.
Yet 4AAA’s managers had also kept their ears open to audience surveys and public relations statistics as additional means to assess their relationship with the tens of thousands of non-Indigenous listeners they also aimed to reach. Much of what occupied producers at 4AAA concerned their attempts to broker a relationship between opposing poles of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia, an aim they pursued in both the pragmatics of broadcast practice and the politics of institution building.
The story I tell in this chapter emerged from ethnographic work with young Indigenous trainees in 4AAA’s recording and radio studios. In exchange for the opportunity to conduct that research, I helped to implement a standardized curriculum for radio production students and to assist station staff in managing their relationships with the funding and bureaucratic structures supporting Indigenous media training in southeast Queensland.
Yet while I worked in a management-like position, an equally accurate depiction of my research would be that I occupied a structural position similar to that of the trainees. Through lectures and group workshops I joined young Murri radio trainees in sessions on the history of Indigenous media, the significance of Aboriginal English and family in providing ‘Aboriginal points of reference’ for young Murris, on more technical aspects of digital production, and on producing Indigenous media with a strategic aim to represent Indigenous perspectives and to get that perspective across to an at times easily provoked, hostile audience. I also spent time alongside trainees as they learned digital sound-production software and as they contributed in practical ways to the daily cycle of Queensland Aboriginal radio.
The station’s training entailed much more than broadcast skills; it also involved socializing trainees as Murri persons: 4AAA’s directors sought to build trainees’ capacities, hoping to encourage their employability in a broader, multicultural Queensland. Managers and trainers at 4AAA thus sought to give these young Murri trainees skills in navigating an intercultural institutional economy in which their participation was conditioned by the shifting ground of Aboriginal policy, on the one hand, and a hotly contested politics of identity and belonging, on the other.
This chapter provides a bridge to join thinking about the social and cultural spaces that radio in Queensland shares with the historically distinct development of broadcast media in the Northern Territory, which I turn to in coming chapters. My understanding of the pragmatics and public culture of Indigenous broadcasting began in Queensland, and this chapter provides a descriptive introduction to the institutional labor of making of ‘Murri Country’ radio, and to the issues this labor raises for producers and for Brisbane’s Indigenous community more generally.
Australian public culture and its myths of national origin frequently ground national history in the land — in cattle stations and stock work, as well as the mango farms and orange groves of the tropical North. Yet in spite of such figures of country life as prototypically Australian, Australia’s population is overwhelmingly urban, with perhaps 80 percent living in the metropolitan centers and suburbs of Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, and Perth.
One of Australia’s major urban centers, Brisbane, is located in the far southeast corner of Queensland, a short drive from the beaches and resorts of Surfer’s paradise and the Gold Coast. [See the map of Australia here. The mainland of Australia is slightly smaller than the U.S. contiguous 48 states.] Brisbane’s many universities, its busy city center, and its international seaport entail intense participation in a global network of other such cosmopolitan centers.
For many visitors, however, Brisbane is merely the urban gateway to Queensland’s far north, a place to rest a bit before heading for the tropical beaches of Cairns and the backpackers’ hostels and beaches that dot the coast in between. Indeed, another frequently cited Australian topos is built on the figures of the beach and the suburbs and Brisbane might also be understood as prototypical of this image of Australia, considering its proximity to the resorts of the Gold and Sunshine Coasts, and the fact that its relatively small city center belies a huge population, spread out over an enormous land area — primarily suburban and periurban in character.
So I was somewhat surprised to hear many friends and Australians from outside of Queensland refer to Brisbane in derogatory terms as merely ‘a big country town’ In part this reflects Brisbane’s history as a depot for stock and produce from Queensland’s rural areas, but it also foregrounds Brisbane’s status as the capital of Queensland and what some Australians call ‘the Deep North’ — an epithet carrying the same connotations of religious conservatism, provincialism, and racism that ‘the Deep South’ can carry in the United States.
Such pejorative characterizations persist despite Brisbane’s demographic status as the fastest-growing capital city in Australia, the profound transformation of its urban spaces, and a vigorous long-term effort by the former Labor party government to promote a new, cosmopolitan Queensland.
A third popular take on Brisbane’s history comes on the heels of the government of Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, Queensland’s state premier from 1968 through 1987. His premiership left a popular sense of widespread corruption, rapid and poorly planned development, and a sense that political power was brokered in the dark corners of the pubs and strip clubs of Brisbane’s inner-city suburbs (Wear 2002).
The Fitzgerald Inquiry
This was confirmed for many by the findings of the Fitzgerald Inquiry. Begun in 1987, this investigation into police corruption lasted for two years and was finally completed alongside the Labor party’s return to power in 1989 (after a thirty-two-year absence).
Occasioned by media reports of police involvement in prostitution, gambling, and drug trafficking, [Note 3] the inquiry found unexpected degrees of corruption, extending to the highest ranks of the police and the political structure. As a review of the Fitzgerald Inquiry’s successor, the Commission of Inquiry into Corruption, states:
The Inquiry, which was initially intended to last for only a few weeks, ran for over two years, much of it in the glare of widespread media publicity. The Inquiry hearings and the report which followed revealed to Queenslanders that corruption and bribery had become so pervasive in the Police Service that it had developed into an organized protection scheme called ‘the Joke.’ (Butler 2001:1)
The inquiry’s status in contemporary public culture must also be seen as part of the ambivalent regard some Queenslanders maintain toward the reshaping of the city as Australia has increasingly sought to embrace the commercial opportunities and strategic alliances Asia represents. The historical periodization the inquiry enables additionally participates in the creation of a historical romance of Brisbane as a frontier town.
Brisbane has been a front line for engagements with an international political economic order for much of the twentieth century, as colonial capital, and later as southern staging ground for the pacific engagements of World War II. The rolling fights between Australian and American servicemen in central Brisbane during World War II are a well-known early instance; the most famous is ‘the Battle of Brisbane’ of November 1942.
Such fights are popularly remembered as initiated by Australian soldiers’ alarm at the prospect of relatively well-off American soldiers ‘stealing’ Australian women.
The sudden shifts of the 1980s and 1990s were distinct, however, and entailed a far different order of international engagement with the Asia pacific region and a different understanding of Queensland’s place in a transnational ‘cultural’ economy.
A frequently cited instance in this regard has been the opening of Australia toward Asia, which can be seen in the makeup of Queensland universities and their controversial moves to ‘export’ an educational service for Malaysian and Southeast Asian students, whose years of study in Australia are an increasingly significant economic pillar of Australian universities more generally.
Like many other urban areas participating in the profound economic and social restructuring of the last decades of the twentieth century, Brisbane underwent a radical shift in its social geography. While stock work and the agricultural industries of rural Queensland receded in economic importance (and more recently have been bankrupted by a decade of drought and then further devastated by catastrophic flooding in early 2011), urban Brisbane has become a cosmopolitan center of cultural production, carried out in a large number of entrepreneurial corporate endeavors spotting the Fortitude Valley and in the institutions of its several universities.
The ‘Creative Industries’
Whether playing a role in ‘global Hollywood’ as affordable offshore locale for flexible strategies of feature film production (Miller et al. 2001; Rossiter 2004) or providing a home for online entrepreneurs and clothing design firms, southeast Queensland’s economic focus is squarely on what have been termed their ‘Creative Industries’ (Cunningham 2002; Flew 2014).
On the heels of the development and influx of visitors during 1988s Expo (perhaps as salient a reference point for a historical break with ‘old Brisbane’ as the Fitzgerald Inquiry), Brisbane’s city council has sought to encourage tourist and leisure consumption in its inner city, refinishing the former treasury building into a massive casino, and turning the inner-city suburbs just across the river into the SouthBank development, replete with convention center, fabricated sandy beach and pool at riverside, and an extensive series of paths, pubs, and bridges connecting this area to Brisbane’s city center.
Beginning in the late 1990s, promotional videos on the Australian airline Qantas referred to Brisbane as ‘Bris Vegas’ (a term with currency in everyday reference), and the luggage carousels at the Brisbane airport still feature enormous replicas of the paraphernalia of gambling — dice and roulette wheels.
These relatively recent shifts in the character of Queensland’s public life are given a literary portrait in Andrew McGahan’s novel Last Drinks (2000), in which, out of the murk of the Fitzgerald Inquiry and a century of authoritarian government, the darkened pubs and industrial breweries of inner-city ‘old Brisbane’ have given way to sidewalk cafes and luxury apartments: ‘Everything was out in the open.
All the things that had been kept unlawful, except for the privileged few, seemed to be anyone’s now. And people had swarmed out of their houses and embraced it all. As if the old Brisbane, my Brisbane, couldn’t be forgotten quickly enough’ (McGahan 2000: 77).
This is crime fiction as political allegory, and the death of Brisbane’s past is mourned through the eyes of Last Drinks’ protagonist. Eyes squinting as he emerges from darkened strip clubs onto cafe-lined boulevards, McGahan seeks to make sense of these changes through noir — the newly vibrant Brisbane retains its murky back rooms and seamy underside, but this now requires a different, international patina to survive the sunshine of international tourism and a growing sidewalk cafe-going urban middle class.
Concomitant with these transformations of Brisbane’s economic geography has been the displacement of urban Brisbane’s economic and racialized underclasses to the suburban fringe, and an accompanying shift in the property value in the city’s central neighborhoods of New Farm, Highgate Hill, West End, and Spring Hill.
Most of the young Aboriginal people I worked with, supported by some form of public assistance connected with their training at 4AAA, lived in distant suburban apartment units that ring the central suburbs of metropolitan Brisbane. The neighborhood of West End, just across the river from the city center and where 4AAA maintains a kiosk distributing literature on homeless shelters, soup kitchens, and left-leaning progressive political campaigns, was then witnessing rising property values and a slow shift away from the boarding rooms, brothels, and heroin trade of its recent history.
Many of McGahan’s Australian readers will be aware that New Farm park, the central stage for much of Last Drinks and a formerly well-known heroin ‘shooting gallery’ at one end of Fortitude Valley, has now become one of Brisbane’s premiere ‘cultural precincts’ and home to the Powerhouse Centre for the Arts.
Such changes run alongside broader political economic shifts that have transformed both the outward form of the city, as well as the ways that Queensland government policy makers relate to Aboriginal people in Brisbane through institutions that have come to be understood through an influential English and broader European cultural policy initiatives, ‘Creative Industries’ (see Caves 2000; Hartley and Cunningham 2001; cf. Miller 2004; O’Connor 2011; Rossiter 2004).
In Brisbane, Creative Industries names a stress on cultural production as the backbone of Brisbane’s cosmopolitan economy, a shift that has analogues in Sydney as well as across Europe, and that can be seen as a response to the growing importance of commercial cultural production to a local economy, and the growth of such work well beyond state-supported arts practice (see O’Connor 2011). The development of cultural precincts (by which educational institutions and industrial forms of design and creative practices are set in productive coresidence) and the apotheosis of Creative Industries as a guiding rubric for research and policy formation have had a decisive impact on the organization of Indigenous cultural production in Brisbane, as has an accompanying Australia wide shift toward the articulation of Indigenous cultural policy with neoliberal economic policy.
Paradoxically, perhaps, a stress on enterprise led to more opportunities for funding Indigenous cultural production, yet it also led to a corresponding multiplication of oversight and audit.
In Queensland the valorization of these dynamics of creative enterprise has also depended on the applied aspect of cultural studies’ revaluation of popular culture and its concomitant critique of the Frankfurt School devaluation of mass culture as commodity fetish (see also O’Connor 2011). [Note 4] The stress on consumption and creativity as keys to success in a ‘new economy’ in Brisbane shared cultural studies’ valorization of active consumers and creative citizens, a discourse used to plot Indigenous success and citizenship within what were variously branded in Queensland policy discourse and press releases as a ‘smart state’ and a ‘creative nation.’ [Note 5]
In this environment, social theory aiming to historicize and critically reassess the Frankfurt School era dismissal of mass cultural forms has come to underwrite new governmental initiatives that stress the significance of cultural consumption and creative production for Queensland’s economy. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, these shifts came to have great importance for Indigenous media institutions. Both in the bureaucratic architecture used to rationalize state funding of Indigenous cultural production and in the ways that cultural policy draws on British cultural studies to refigure appropriate relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia, Creative Industries became part of the emergent apparatus of Queensland’s Aboriginal governmental policy, drawing on the broad success of Indigenous visual art and film to see in the art market in particular a model by which Indigenous creative practices might generate economic self-sufficiency and social integration while supporting Indigenous political autonomy.
Concretely, this meant governmental partnerships with local Indigenous entrepreneurs seeking to build digital databases and web-hosting services, support for Indigenous music and recording projects, and efforts to foster Indigenous scholarship and encourage the enrollment of Indigenous people in degree programs in Queensland University of Technology’s Creative Industries Research and Application Centre. It also meant increased interest in research on the place of Indigenous media in a broader Australia and on the possibilities of making such media profitable.
For many of the young people I introduce here, Brisbane represented an urban location to which they came to find greater opportunities than existed in the smaller towns, cattle stations, and mission settlements where many were brought up. For others, these suburbs were a first home, from which trips to NSW or countryside Queensland were a novelty.
Although Andrew McGahan’s settler Australian antihero might stumble dazed past sunny cafes in New Farm and gaze in awe and ironic remorse at the new shops in Queen Street Mall, for many Aboriginal young people these are still dangerous spaces — holding the temptations of heroin, amphetamines, alcohol, and also the frequent threat of violence or abuse, as well as the constant surveillance of police and the private security hired by the mall itself.
Furthermore, the shifts that account for reconfiguring the urban space of Brisbane in the early twenty-first century are also implicated in efforts to organize and direct their labor and to orient their aspirations and desires. The historical tropes by which non-Indigenous Australians objectify and circulate their experiences of this dynamic city take on a different cast in the discourses and organizational strategies by which Indigenous institutions rationalize themselves to state funders within a broad discursive valorization of enterprise but a constant interinstitutional stress on accountability. This discourse of enterprise and a corresponding amplification of institutional auditing are twinned forces that press in on the institutions in which young Murris are socialized into the labor of culture making.
Radio and Radical Politics: Early Indigenous Community Broadcasting
Looking at the playlist of 4AAA today, it might be hard to see the history of Indigenous political activism that lends this station its singularity, or to discern the networked families and kin groups with whom 4AAA has become entangled. For some, the commercial focus, use of audience surveys and questionnaires, and the stations computerized playlists might confound expectations of what an Aboriginal community radio station ‘should’ be.
In many parts of Australia, the efforts of media activists were embraced by bureaucratic government instruments in efforts to institutionalize and expand the gains of places like CAAMA, the Warlpiri Media Association, and Pitjantjatjarra Yakunatjarra Media in central Australia (see Batty 2003). [Note 6] While the effects of this bureaucratization of Aboriginal media organizations are a controversial issue in Australian political life, it certainly has not diminished the political efforts of those in either remote communities or in urban centers such as Brisbane.
In Brisbane, as in the Northern Territory, the emergence of Indigenous media production has been characterized by a tension between institutionalization and bureaucratic rationalization, on the one hand, and the energies of individuals and families engaged in particular media projects, on the other. The station owes its existence both to community broadcasting legislation and to the radical politics of a small group of Aboriginal activists and advocates in the 1970s and early 1980s, and it emerges from Aboriginal programming that was made possible by the explosion of community radio in Australia during the 1970s and 1980s.
Looking to the history of Aboriginal broadcasting, as well as the participation of 4AAA’s management in founding Sydneys activist Aboriginal radio station, Radio Redfern, can historicize 4AAA’s current focus as well as the political acumen of its manager, Tiga Bayles.
As Bayles tells it, Indigenous radio has independent origins in two places: Alice Springs, where CAAMA began broadcasting short programs on ABC local radio in 1979 and later acquired its own community license as 8KIN FM; and Townsville, at the Indigenous community radio station 4K1G and in the activist work of Florence Onus and brothers Bill and Mick Thaiday. In the early 1980s, the latter produced Indigenous radio in northern Queensland and today 4K1G broadcasts on the National Indigenous Radio Service (NIRS) with its talk program Talk Black — a play on the Australian term for talk radio, ‘talk back.’
Brisbane itself has been a center for the development of alternative and politically oppositional community radio. Community radio station 4ZZZ had its beginning here in 1974, just two years after the first community license in Australia was granted to the University of Adelaides 5UV in 1972. The decade following was a time of exponential growth — with several hundred community radio stations going on-air across Australia as community broadcasting became a key feature of Australian broadcasting policy and practice. Today 4ZZZ has an established industrial presence for alternative rock as well as left-leaning political analysis, and community radio more generally has become a huge aspect of Australia’s media landscape.
In the early 1980s Aboriginal groups around Australia were among the applicants for newly introduced community licenses, with CAAMA radio in Alice Springs, the Thaiday brothers in remote Queensland, and 4K1G in Townsville as some of the first to broadcast under community radio licensing.
4AAA also operates under a community license. Its call sign, ‘Murri Country,’ speaks both to the regional appellation for Indigenous people who live in Queensland — ‘Murri’ — and plays with the salience of ‘country’ as a politically and affectively charged icon of Aboriginal belonging and as a label for the genre of music that is 4AAA’s specialization — country music.
4AAA’s broadcast studios occupy the top floor of the Barclay Mowlem Building, an eight-story structure looking out over suburban Brisbane and named for the construction and engineering corporation who owns the building and which occupies six of its eight floors. ‘Triple-A,’ as producers call it, also occupies one other floor of the building, a recent expansion by the radio station, acquired primarily as a space in which to conduct broadcast training for young Murris.
In 2003, the most public faces of 4AAA were Tiga Bayles; his mother, Maureen Watson; and his uncle, Ross Watson. They have been central figures in the development of Aboriginal media in both Brisbane and Sydney since the early 1980s. Founders of Sydney’s Radio Redfern, Bayles and Watson began broadcasting Indigenous news and musics on Sydney community radio station 2SER in the early 1980s, following a visit Maureen made to Alice Springs and her encounter with CAAMA s 8KIN FM.
Starting with a ten-minute spot on another presenter’s show and quickly expanding the broadcast to a dedicated Indigenous program called Black Perspectives, Watson developed a weekly space for Indigenous radio in Sydney, bringing her son and other Koori presenters on board as well. Bayles himself went on to host a midnight-to-3 a.m. ‘black music show’ on Sydneys radio station 2SER, and also to manage the band Us Mob and begin producing recordings of Aboriginal rock and country musics in a period when these were relatively scarce.
In an early 2003 interview with 4AAA radio trainees, produced and broadcast as part of 4AAA’s Sunday evening youth program, Girrabala, Tiga described their subsequent move from 2SER to the more overtly political Radio Skid Row in 1983:
Radio Skid Row offered the Koori community, Indigenous people, ten hours a week straight up. And because as Mum and myself and other members of — other Kooris in Redfern were doing this radio programming on 2SER, they came to us and said that we’ve got ten hours a week over here, you know, ‘Get your mob together and come on over and let’s start things moving.’
We grew that to about forty hours a week and it was a real, genuine attempt by non-Indigenous people, those people controlling Skid Row, a collective of people made up of unemployed people, single mums, gays and lesbians, people out of jail, blacks, migrants, it was a whole range of people representing marginalized groups. So it was a real good feeling over at Skid Row, and it didn’t take us long, I think it might have been three or four or five years, to grow to forty hours a week. I think it was only about three years. So that’s where the radio thing started for me.
While Radio Skid Row initially offered to provide weekly broadcast time for Koori programming, by the late 1980s the station had moved to share its actual broadcast signal with Radio Redfern — an entirely Indigenous radio station named after the well-known Sydney neighborhood historically associated with the city’s Aboriginal community.
Radio Redfern reached beyond an audience of Aboriginal and politically sympathetic listeners through the documentary 88.9: Radio Redfern, broadcast on Australia’s commonwealth-funded broadcaster, the abc, in January 1989. This documentary was produced by anthropologist and filmmaker Sharon Bell (1990: 3), and a brief sketch of its production lends insight into the political acumen of Tiga Bayles, as well as an emergent sensibility with respect to Aboriginal broadcasting.
The film itself was funded by the offices of Film Australia at a time when Aboriginal politics were the focus of great national interest. While Film Australia sought documentaries that could be marketable, it also sought representations of Indigenous communities that emphasized contemporary issues in the urban Southeast, as opposed to remote communities and traditional practices. Indeed, while Bell describes the genesis of the film as due in part to Film Australia’s interest in work with broad public appeal and marketability, Radio Redfern also offered what Bell has called a ‘public window’ into Sydney’s Koori community. At the time this was a novel and attractive prospect to the producers and administrators at Film Australia.
If Bell’s focus on Radio Redfern found bureaucratic support, she has also described the difficulty of her negotiations with Aboriginal activists during a period when Aboriginal political criticisms of academic and media representations were reaching a crescendo, particularly within the walls of Radio Redfern’s studio:
In one studio situation two female announcers were having a heated discussion about cultural dominance, exploitation by academics and the burgeoning business of ‘Aboriginality.’ One woman was particularly down on anthropologists and my pulse quickened just slightly when she asked me my views on ‘bloody anthropologists riding to success on the backs of blacks.’ I probably mumbled something along the lines of ‘exploitative bastards,’ and survived another day. (Sharon Bell 1990: 37)
In producing Radio Redfern, Bell describes the mix of anger and canny political strategy she encountered among activists such as Gary Foley and Bayles himself. However, within the Aboriginal activist community there were differences of opinion on how best to achieve social change. While activist Foley rejected Bell’s proposal to produce a film about Radio Redfern (on the basis that the production did not use Indigenous filmmakers), Bayles agreed to the Film Australia production but negotiated Indigenous involvement at each stage of production, postproduction, and distribution.
In Bell’s account of these negotiations one catches an early glimpse of Tiga’s canny use of the project as a means to extend beyond Radio Redferns signal and put forward an Indigenous image of the nation’s bicentennial celebrations in Sydney Harbor to a broader Australian audience. Tiga’s endeavor to reach a heterogeneous Australian audience with a particularly Indigenous perspective on Australian politics and social life resonates with 4AAA’s broadcast strategy in the 1990s and 2000s.
The critiques of academic practice and media representation that informed Bell’s filming also informed a broad rejection of the official celebrations for the bicentennial (refigured as ‘invasion day’), which included an official reenactment of the arrival of the First Fleet in Sydney Harbor. This bicentennial drama of national ‘discovery’ galvanized a diverse group of protestors, and Radio Redfern and Radio Skid Row emerged as powerful centers for oppositional demonstrations and also as media outlets with critical and extensive coverage.
Media activists were also becoming more cognizant of the place of media in political contests around the globe, and a reflexivity with respect to a new era of media activity informed the uptake of radio in particular. Tony Collins, a former organizer of Radio Skid Row, later a successful mainstream radio DJ and reporter, and in 2003 the manager of Warumpi Band lead singer, George Burarrwanga, described the place of radio during this moment, foregrounding a transnational vision of radios political potential:
TC: We all had picked up a slogan from the Italian pirate radio stations — ‘Radio is my Bomb.’ So that was the basic philosophy of what we were doing there. We all had radical political views, it was the peace movement — as you know it was kind of at its peak in the ’80s. There was a big Aboriginal movement, a land rights movement.
DF: So you guys were tuned in to radical radio and free radio in Europe at the time?
TC: Yeah! You know, the Barcelona stations and all that, the anarchists, using radio to coordinate protests and all that. The 1988 celebrations for the Bicentennial were a perfect example of that, where thirty thousand people came to Sydney to demonstrate against the celebrations and there were huge protests and different groups of people — people who wanted to do actions. And Radio Redfern, for the several weeks leading up, while people were pouring into Sydney to take part in this — it was like the radio was a PA (Public Address) system. It was like, ‘We need blankets down here,’ you know, just a big coordinating kind of public address system to say, ‘Right, we need, you know, we got people here we need a bus down here.’ ‘Did the mob arrive from South Australia? They haven’t got any blankets’ or, ‘People need clothes for the mob from the territory’ or, ‘Everyone’s gathering out here for this protest’ or ‘There’s a BBQ on here.’…
People would come arrive in Sydney and just turn up at Radio Redfern. So it became sort of protest headquarters, and in that way it kind of fulfilled the function that we had been reading about five year earlier, about what was going on in the early ’80s, late ’70s, in Italy. People using radio as a political device and — you know, apart from that we wanted to increase our audience and deliver a message that wasn’t getting through in mainstream media. And that was really the modus operandi for the radio station — it was a propaganda machine for our political beliefs. Probably that’s why we had so much opposition and trouble — political trouble with the station — because we were fairly blatant about our politics, and we were using this radio license as a sort of liberation newspaper kind of thing. So that’s where we were at with Skid Row. [Note 7]
4AAA and Reconciliation
The families and the Aboriginal activist politics at the center of Radio Redfern in Sydney were also catalysts for Brisbane’s first Indigenous broadcasts.
In Queensland, Tiga Bayles’s uncle and his mother, and several others began broadcasting out of the studios of Brisbane’s 4ZZZ in 1984, then located on the campus of the University of Queensland in the Brisbane suburb of St. Lucia. From the suppression of demonstrations by the state government of Joh Bjelke-Petersen to the clandestine preparations and excitement of public protest, older Aboriginal activists in southeast Queensland speak of their early experiences producing media in the same breath as activist performance, racism, and a deep anger at the social exclusion of Aboriginal people from public and political life.
Tiga, for example, tells the story of 4AAA in part through his own biography, narrating his role as manager for the Aboriginal rock band Us Mob, and an early 1980s tour through rural New South Wales. Arriving at a Bowls club to provide musical entertainment at a festival, the band was forced out into the parking lot and onto the back of a trailer. According to Tiga the festival committee had failed to realize that they’d hired a ‘black band.’ [Note 8]
Such stories had a marked place in the conference rooms and studios of Triple-A. They were told and retold to trainees in seminars and weekend outings, where the efforts of the Bayles and Watson families, and the eventual successes of Aboriginal broadcasters around Australia, are narrated for the edification of a younger generation who have grown up in an era in which Aboriginal media are a pervasive aspect of an Australian media landscape.
For several weeks in 2003, production work on the sixth floor slowed as elder members of 4AAA’s board lectured students, detailing aspects of 4AAA’s history and their own biographies. Tiga narrated his movements from rural Queensland to Sydney, and back to Brisbane by way of a stint as chair of the New South Wales Land Council. Uncle Ross Watson described the difficulties of growing up in rural Queensland, a tale that Maureen Watson underlined, describing how she kept her own children from the officers of the state by pretending to be the family maid rather than its matriarch, when officials knocked at the door: ‘Oh, the games we would play!’ she remembered ruefully.
As I discuss in more detail below, for Triple-A’s managers and educators, such stories are an intrinsic aspect of training, and they connect the political aims of 4AAA with histories of its family networks and individual biographies. Narrating 4AAA’s existence activates a political history, told as a story of kinship ties and biographical narratives, and inculcated as values in the daily work of production training.
As with the early proximity and partnership between Radio Skid Row and Radio Redfern, radio production can be understood as a decidedly intercultural endeavor. During the period of my research, the training program at 4AAA was managed by Matthew, a non-Indigenous Australian originally from Sydney who had previously been a volunteer at Triple-A alongside his wife Katherine.
In many instances across Australia, sympathetic non-Indigenous broadcasters, technicians, and activists have played crucial roles in Indigenous media production. At 4AAA, Matthew was joined by Katherine and by Gerry Pyne, who as a technician and a manager of the National Indigenous Radio Service (also located in Brisbane) frequently helped maintain 4AAA’s increasingly complicated studios.
If the Watsons’ programming on 4ZZZ focused on ‘redneck bashing’ and critiquing the structural and institutional conditions that made even nonviolent Aboriginal protests illegal, the successful application for a community license dedicated to an Indigenous station in Brisbane occasioned a different approach. Here, Tiga, Ross Watson, and Maureen Watson turned to a pragmatics of genre and audience to reach beyond the Murri community.
‘Twenty years ago we would have said ‘Fuck non-confrontationist radio’; now we have cooler heads. We have a potential audience of almost two million; to reach them, instead of just preaching to the converted, we need a format that appeals to the mainstream’ (Watson cited in Robson 2001). That format is country music.
Popular with both Aboriginal and non-Indigenous Queenslanders, 4AAA’s choice of genre was both strategic and historically significant. Not only did this allow Triple-A to reach a large non-Indigenous audience, it also gave them access to a great deal of Aboriginal music, provided a potential commercial base by filling a niche then underdeveloped in Brisbane’s broadcast market, and involved them with a number of industry organizations and a wide, potentially national, Aboriginal audience.
Tiga frequently pointed out to me how they could reach a non-Indigenous audience with country music, avoiding confrontation in favor of bridging an intercultural chasm and historical point of conflict. This approach counters a popular stereotype of black-white confrontation in Queensland, critically articulated by Terry Lees, former general manager of Mt. Isa’s MOB FM: ‘There was this concept about this part of the world, and the word that was commonly used was ‘redneck.’ It is often hard to define exactly what a redneck is, but I guess in the terminology of the time it basically meant someone who was not tolerant of any other culture or was perhaps classified as a racist. The comment had often been heard about Mt. Isa in particular — that there were a lot of racists up here’ (Lees, cited in Foley and Watson 2001: 88-89).
For broadcasters such as Lees and Bayles, these stereotypes emerged as obstacles in the way of communication, caricatures to be deconstructed and challenged through an inclusive broadcast practice. For example, radio host John Laws’s extremely conservative talk-back program, broadcast in Brisbane between noon and one o’clock, competed for audience share with 4AAA. Triple-A’s survey based audience research suggested that many listeners listened to his program until it finished at one, but then switched over to 4AAA for its afternoon program of country musics. During a board meeting in 2002, Tiga suggested moving 4AAA’s own talk show, the ‘Murri Magazine’ from a noon start time to 1 p.m. ‘They can hear John Laws and then when they switch over, well give them our point of view!’
For Bayles and others on the board of 4AAA, their strategy has thus been to take the broader political framework of ‘reconciliation’ as a guide to the pragmatics of broadcast genre and the register of their audience address. Reconciliation was enshrined in Australian commonwealth policy in 1991 with the appointment of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation by then Minister for Indigenous Affairs Robert Tickner. The term itself comes from the 1990 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (Johnston 1991), the most public result of which was the official adoption of its final recommendation: ‘That all political leaders and their parties recognize that reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities in Australia must be achieved if community division, discord and injustice to Aboriginal people are to be avoided’ (cited in Foley and Watson 2001: 11).
Tiga and the board of Triple-A have embraced these ideals in the political aspects of their broadcasting practice. Bayles writes: ‘It is due to the utilization of the airwaves with its positive programming that 4 triple A has been referred to as ‘the reconciliation station ’ (in Foley and Watson 2001: 7).
AJ’s breakfast show is perhaps the most iconic program format that 4AAA offers — the live DJ playing music, chatting, and perhaps reading the weather and public service announcements. This occupies an important slot in 4AAA’s schedule, during which audience numbers are statistically higher than during other parts of the day, and in which the capital that audience ratings represent can be particularly valuable.
When AJ arrived at 4AAA I found that the man I had met as an activist with a flair for storytelling and a forceful personality was also a polished radio announcer with a vast knowledge of country music. His drive-time programs and his interviews with Aboriginal and other Australian country music performers occupied a prime spot on 4AAA’s programming, and his capacities as a reliable announcer with a charismatic voice and a noteworthy skill at creating an inclusive and inviting address were clearly valued.
In his early twenties when we first met, AJ grew up listening to Australian and American country stars such as Slim Dusty, Ricky Skaggs, and Charley Pride, as well as the rock sounds of AC-DC and Guns and Roses. Yet he describes his interest in radio not in terms of music, but in terms of announcing and his introduction to Aboriginal media production at Townsville Indigenous station 4K1G.
He was taken there with classmates from Doomadgee primary school by a teacher, Philip Peachy, whom AJ credits with fostering his early interest in radio:
The whole school used to have excursions, and then one year we went to Townsville. And he took us into a place there called 4KIG — which is an Indigenous station just like 4AAA. And I walked in there and that was it for me. I walked into 4KIG in Townsville when I was in year seven and I said, ‘Nah, that’s what I want to do!’ ’
AJ described how Peachy followed up by helping his students put together mock radio programs, cassette-recording interviews with elders in Doomadgee, and then mixing these interviews with music and announcements over the schools PA system.
And every Wednesday at lunch time, at school, wed put the PA system out and play it to the school and act like we were in the radio. And wed be sitting there and carrying on and on Wednesday nights, hed take his time out after work and drive us down to the middle of the park in the community with the PA, and wed put it on the back of the old school Dodge, old school ute there. [Note 9] I would stand and act like we was on radio — me and about four other friends. And that was my first radio show.
In 1990, when AJ was in year 9 at school, the expansion of the Broadcasting for Remote Aboriginal Communities Scheme (BRACS) came to the attention of these young men in Doomadgee. [Note 10] As AJ remembers it, his former schoolteacher, Philip Peachy, again brought this to AJ’s attention:
And he goes ‘Guess what, mate. The government’s got this thing out called BRACS. The government along with Telecom have got this thing called BRACS which is Broadcasting in Remote Aboriginal Communities Scheme.’ He said we could apply for one of them, we could get a radio station here in Doomadgee. I said, ‘Really?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘All we’d need is a committee.’
The need to have an organization through which to achieve official recognition, the need to ‘form a committee,’ is a recurring theme in Indigenous cultural production, and the Aboriginal Councils and Associations Act of 1976 was an explicit attempt to create the means by which the commonwealth could recognize and interact with an Aboriginal citizenship (Batty 2003; cf. Ginsburg 1997: 131). The ways in which Aboriginal media is almost always produced by a media association can be traced to this act and the policy discussions that led up to it. H. C. ‘Nugget’ Coombs, an early architect of Aboriginal self-determihation policy, saw in such corporations a means of reconciling liberal democratic participation with Indigenous rights and the politics of Aboriginal difference (Attwood 2004; Rowse 1992, 2000).
In the current climate, in which Aboriginal autonomy shares discursive space with a neoliberal emphasis on privatization and ‘mainstreaming’ of service delivery, the Registrar of Aboriginal Corporations is gradually attracting critical attention, even while remaining a significant organizational instrument for receiving funding and recognition as an Indigenous corporate concern (Rowse 2007). AJ continued:
So us kids formed a committee at school. But ’cause we weren’t old enough to be on a committee — like a proper Aboriginal organization, like what Triple-A is — we got some of the elder people in the community to come up and be like the chairperson and all that. We’d be like just little members on the side and they’d be the actual core of the committee. So we formed this committee, got it registered by the Aboriginal registrar in Canberra, and called it the Yandarinja Media Association.
AJ moved away from and came back to Doomadgee several times in his later teens and early twenties. This began with an extended visit to Brisbane in the early 1990s and was followed several years later with studies for a diploma in communications at James Cook University in Townsville (on Queensland’s far North Coast). Here AJ moved outside of the curriculum to stay involved in radio production, working nights at 4K1G.
Unsatisfied with the lecture basis of the curriculum, AJ returned to the Doomadgee to operate the BRACS station until deciding several years later, in 1997, to set out for Townsville and, he hoped, a job producing radio at 4K1G. As AJ describes it, he didn’t make it past Mt. Isa (in inland outback Queensland), where he was given work at Indigenous community station MOB FM.
I did everything, man — I was the program director there for the last two years of working there, for the first two years I was senior broadcaster… I was doing Breakfast and, you know, producing and doing it all myself. ’Cause as you know, mate, we produce and do all our own stuff — we don’t have sort of fifty people hanging around. I was doing Breakfast plus I was doing program director work, selecting the music and downloading all sorts of stuff, but that was for the first two years, and for the last two years I became the program director there. Because MOB FM is one of the only Indigenous stations in the country that are actually contracted to a non-Indigenous organization, they’re contracted to Channel Seven. I wasn’t only doing radio work, I was doing the news for Channel Seven, plus the ads for Channel Seven — so we were making [television] news stories that you see here in Brisbane on Channel Seven.
During the 2000 Olympic games, AJ was selected to act as part of the Indigenous press core covering the events in Sydney for national radio broadcasts over Indigenous community and remote radio networks. While there, he met Bayles and a number of other Indigenous broadcasters and journalists from around Australia. This led to an invitation from Bayles and 4AAA for AJ to try out for the early morning drive-time slot — which he took up in February 2002.
Festival Broadcasts and Live Production
While my mornings in Brisbane started with AJ’s drive-time programming, 4AAA sought ways to move outside of the studio, taking its Outdoor Broadcasting van to festivals and live performances such as the Gympie Muster Country Music festival, the Woodford Folk festival, and the Tamworth Country Music festival. The numerous annual festivals, sports carnivals, and rodeos of Queensland and New South Wales provided sites where broadcasting focused on a ‘live’ event and the representation of a spatially discreet, copresent audience.
[The inland city of Tamworth is located almost midway between Brisbane and Sydney, the two largest cities on the Australian east coast. The city had an estimated population of 42,255 people at 30 June 2015.] The Tamworth Country Music Festival in late January, in Australia’s mid-summer, is popularly held to be the world’s largest single country festival, drawing anywhere from fifty thousand to one hundred thousand visitors annually, featuring thousands of live performances, music and dance workshops, and exhibitions over a ten-day period.
Attending Tamworth provides 4AAA with a number of opportunities. In part this is a chance to achieve a visible presence with Australia’s country music diehard fans, there in Tamworth to catch as many of the hundreds of country performers attending as they can. It also allows them to tap into a potential audience for Tamworth in Brisbane and across the country via the National Indigenous Radio Service.
It is also an important training opportunity for young Murri producers: here they learn to run live sound and to produce a live, on-site performance of a large radio audience. The festival provides a large amount of recorded performances for later airplay, allowing the station to revisit Tamworth’s Aboriginal performance stage in the months to come.
Tamworth is thus a key event on 4AAA’s calendar and an extremely busy time for its staff, who record and edit music performances throughout the ten days of the festival. Triple-A’s production team travels the 574 kilometres (357 miles) from Brisbane south-west to Tamworth en masse, renting a house and camping out there for several weeks. Carting down mixing boards, microphones, and other broadcasting and recording gear, Triple-A establishes a remote studio on the Tamworth show grounds, making one half of a mobile trailer into a live-to-air studio for the duration of the festival, and using the other half as a production suite and sound recording studio for producing and editing performances into broadcast-length segments that then go out over a phone line to Brisbane and Triple-A’s link to the National Indigenous Radio Service, and from there to a satellite uplink.
In 2003 their broadcasts included live recordings from the numerous Aboriginal showcases — concerts featuring a number of Aboriginal performers conducting short sets of four or five songs. It also included interviews and studio performances with both Indigenous and non-Indigenous recording stars such as Troy Cassar-Daley, Jimmy Little, and Paul Kelly.
As with the constructed liveness of much of Triple-A’s digitalized studio broadcasting, producing festivals also requires a great deal of technology, effort, and skill. Rarely do performances receive truly live broadcast; instead they are recorded to a computer’s hard drive for later mastering, editing, and broadcast. In the process, the ‘real’ time of the performance and the festival itself are fit to the broadcast schedule and time frame of Triple-As routinized programming.
Festival production also relies on both corporate and state sponsorship and on the station’s profile within Australia’s country music industry. This latter is officially represented by the Country Music Association of Australia (CMAA) but is underwritten on an annual basis by large corporate sponsors such as Toyota and Telstra (Australia’s recently privatized national communications provider). Broadcasts are often owned by public or commercial broadcasters who purchase exclusive rights to key events during the course of the festival.
In 2003, one exception to the routine of delayed live broadcasting was the Tamworth awards ceremony, the Golden Guitars. This marked the first time that Triple-A was able to broadcast from the ceremony, having been denied access by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in prior years. In 2003, Triple-A found a more willing partner in a commercial channel that had succeeded in acquiring the broadcast rights from the ABC and the CMAA.
However, in the weeks that followed, Bayles expressed disappointment in the outcome of this arrangement, noting that they were forced to take a signal directly from the commercial broadcaster rather than having the ability to produce the event independently for their listeners. As Bayles later commented, this was understood as a real setback, in that the presenters were non-Indigenous and the focus of the event overlooked Indigenous involvement in both the country music industry and the audience. There were no ‘black voices’ in the broadcast. Unlike other, prerecorded events, which are then edited and introduced by Triple-A presenters, the Golden Guitars award show went to air with minimal Triple-A editing and minimal Triple-A control.
If the Golden Guitars are the premiere event of the festival, less glamorous but no less valued musical performances take place on the street corners of the town itself. Despite extremes of heat and sun, Tamworth’s main pedestrian mall is routinely filled with performers — from the honky-tonk dancing of urban Australian groups playing old-time rockabilly with an ironic wink, to young sisters performing earnest duets of mainstream country numbers from Australian radio’s Top Forty. Every ten meters [about eleven yards] a temporary numbered stage has been reserved for a scheduled busker.
On the last Friday morning of the 2003 festival, visiting musicians from western Queensland were scheduled on the mall and featured AJ singing songs with friends Brian and Noel accompanying. Appreciative listeners pulled up portable chairs, and as the band set up to play, Tiga, Matthew, and I set about documenting the performance. Tiga and Matthew checked their equipment, testing recording levels on their minidisc recorders before approaching the players.
These were not strangers; indeed, the band had been camping in the backyard of 4AAA’s house. Today Tiga interviewed Noel about his trip to Tamworth and his ambitions as a country singer, and Noel spoke of his admiration for Alan Jackson (and wore a T-shirt autographed by the American country star) and his hopes to secure a recording contract. These interviews would be incorporated into a magazine-style format for broadcast.
As the band lit into their set, Tiga picked up his laptop computer and moved on to the town hall to prepare for recording the Aboriginal showcase occurring that afternoon. The band picked up acoustic guitars, welcomed a guest bass player from Adelaide rockabilly band The Fuelers, and began a long set of country covers. Songs by Johnny Cash, Australian Slim Dusty, and Waylon Jennings jostled for space in their set with pieces by Aboriginal country star Roger Knox, and people slowed to listen, gathering around the group.
As the sun came up over the shade trees and band members started to sweat, an older non-Indigenous audience member went to fetch elongated, water-filled balloons, returning to drape these around the neck of each performer with the aim of preventing heat exhaustion. As the set wound up, I walked farther down the mall, listening in on other performers at adjoining busking stages. Before long I found a particularly eccentric singer who had brought along a series of homemade wooden signs and put them up for sale. Wearing a hat in the shape of a chicken coop (with a live chicken in residence), he sang bush ballads and country hits from Australian greats like Slim Dusty and Tex Morton. I was surprised to see his signs, constructed in the style of wooden plaques used to display house names in Australian suburbs, but mimicking the sounds of Aboriginal language to evoke a particularly Australian, working-class joke on the value of ‘grog’ and a typically primitivizing representation of Indigenous languages — ‘didjabringyergrogalong?’
Taken aback by this diminutive representation of Aboriginal languages, I was reminded that the former Independent representative from Oxley, Pauline Hanson, had come to Tamworth this year as the manager for a country singer and industry hopeful. Vocal in her anxieties over the so-called ‘reverse racism’ of Indigenous rights, Hanson has been a frequently lampooned but significant political figure — and a favorite of conservative radio talk show hosts such as John Laws.
In 2003 she announced her intention to promote and manage country music singers, including Queensland’s Brian Letton, and in so doing she found a new place in the spotlight in rural Queensland and New South Wales. In this shared cultural space of class-marked musical practices and discourses of Australian ‘true blue’ country life, country music sings in a double voice. With a fan base made up of both the male, conservative non-Indigenous and ‘Anglo’ Australians held to be least sympathetic to particularly Indigenous rights (and perhaps most supportive of Hanson’s conservative platforms), as well as aging Aboriginal activists and the communities and kin networks that make up an Aboriginal domain, the public events of country music festivals entail a potential for unexpected interaction and shared belonging that official policies of reconciliation sought to encourage in their most idealistic forms. It is that potential that Tiga, Matthew, and AJ all seek to capitalize on with their use of a shared genre and a sophisticated broadcast address that might gain a sympathetic ear from an audience that is held to support Hanson.
While Matthew, AJ, and the others took down the equipment and PA from the busking stage, I moved on to the Tamworth Town Hall to purchase tickets for the last installment of the Aboriginal showcase. Arriving late at the town hall, I found that all the prime seating was sold out, and I was forced upstairs to the long balcony running in a large U above the main floor.
Tiga stood squarely in the middle of the hall. He had set up his laptop next to the mixing board and sound engineer for the afternoon performance, taking a direct feed from the board and importing an audio signal mixed for the space of the performance hall directly to his hard drive, to be later edited down and mastered in Triple-As demountable studios. He stared intently at his screen as Roger Knox rolled through four hits, including a memorable ‘Koori Rose.’ Knox was followed by other Indigenous country luminaries. Warren Williams sang his then-current hit ‘Dreamtime Baby,’ and Jimmy Little sang a short set of five songs, dismissing the band and strumming his own accompaniment on an Australian-made Maton guitar — a favorite of Australian country guitar players and easily recognized by the characteristic point designed into its pick guard. For his final number he sang his early 1960s gospel country hit ‘Royal Telephone’ and had the audience on its feet.
Finally, Troy Cassar-Daly took the stage and sang numbers from his current release Take the Long Way Home, prefacing his performance with stories of his days as an aspiring singer, living in Tamworth’s back blocks.
A Night on the Town
Later I went out with AJ and Noel and several others for a long night of pub crawling, following a packed schedule made up from AJ’s picks of worthy entertainers. We started at the house 4AAA had rented, up a small rise from Tamworth’s town center.
We clambered into AJ’s green [Holden] Monaro [mon-AIR-oh], an Australian, V8-equipped muscle car [named after a rural district south-west of Sydney] built to seat four, now fitting seven. Radio blasting, AJ drove us into town for our first stop, a pub with more electronic poker machines than chairs, but with a live band onstage and affordable pitchers of beer.
AJ moved through the room looking for mates, checking out the scene, while Noel told jokes to the rest of us at a table cluttered with schooners [Australian: a fifteen fluid ounce glass of beer, half way between a ‘normal’ middy (ten fluid ounces) and a pint glass] and pitchers [jugs] of lager. The band here, a country outfit from Sydney, disappointed AJ and Noel, and soon we were on the move again, looking for the rest of the 4AAA crew and walking now, car safely parked.
I hurried to keep pace with AJ and Noel as we walked between Tamworth’s numerous RSLs [Note 11] and hotels spread out on a shallow rise above the fairgrounds and the Peel River, and AJ regaled me with stories of his recent victory as representative of the Waanyi Nation in a large, nonviolent occupation of the Century Zinc mine just outside Mt. Isa, near Queensland’s border with the Northern Territory. [Note 12]
He described in vivid detail storming the mine’s canteen, throwing his pack on a lunch table, and declaring the mine property of the Waanyi Nation. In the ensuing negotiations, these Waanyi activists used AJ’s media talents to videotape their negotiations over the terms of continued resource extraction. Following this victory, AJ had been elected chair of the Aboriginal Corporation charged with representing the Waanyi, Ganggalida, and Garrawa peoples (all of whom have consolidated a legal identity as the Waanyi Nation in pursuit of a land claim; see NTRU 1998). The country music festival was his first chance to unwind from these tense weeks of action and celebrate a Waanyi victory in the country pubs of Tamworth. The already charged atmosphere of Tamworth’s busy festival shows only amplified his recent success.
AJ soon turned us to the highlight of the evening, extolling the virtues of his mate’s band — ‘Kevin Bennett and the Flood’. ‘Living legends, mate,’ AJ said, describing Bennett as a musician’s musician. On entering the hotel where the Flood would play, AJ parted the crowd with Noel in tow and greeting mates as he went. The rest of us followed. As we worked or way up toward the stage and an adjacent bar, we collected the rest of 4AAA’s crew.
Given the energy and size of the waiting crowd, it was clear that we were far from alone in anticipating the Flood’s performance. The audience seemed to consist largely of the festival’s workers, the media crews, and musicians staying in Tamworth as a professional obligation. We had heard Paul Kelly play the previous day. Aside from internationally recognized rock performer Nick Cave, Kelly is perhaps the best-known Australian songwriter and recording artist of his generation. His songs ‘From Saint Kilda [in Melbourne] to Kings Cross [in Sydney],’ ‘To Her Door,’ and ‘Sydney from a 747,’ for instance, are cherished by several generations of Australians who recognize themselves in the narrative topographies Kelly builds and who find themselves moved by the guitar-based rock grooves, as well as by a pathos that derives from both the narrative content and the prosodic, stereotypically Australian, masculine twang of Kelly’s voice itself.
Kelly is also known for his support of Aboriginal rights and causes, and he gave ample time to 4AAA’s broadcast, sitting in their trailer for an interview and a short acoustic performance for 4AAA’s microphones. But onstage Kelly was subdued, the audience quiet and seated, and the energy off.
By the time the Flood took their stage, however, the hotel garden was standing room only, with beer spilled on shoes and a packed dance floor as Aboriginal and Anglo Australians alike took to their feet dancing, laughing, and shouting. At the bar to the side of the stage AJ and I began with beer and talk, or, rather, shouting.
AJ leaned in and yelled to me throughout the show about Kevin’s career, his songwriting skills, how no one outside of Nashville could touch him, and how Bennett’s band was the tightest, most polished group not just in Tamworth but in all of Australia. This was AJ as hyperbolic advocate for Australian country and rock music, opining and assessing aspects of the sound, the musicianship, and the songwriting much as he had critiqued the hip-hop at Bomb Shelter in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley, yelling then too to rise above the amplified music. And he was right: the Flood gave an electric performance.
I saw some of the other trainees and 4AAA DJs on the floor dancing. 4AAA’s principle sound engineer KR was then still out on bail awaiting trial. He’d been accused of assaulting his younger cousin and was subject to an AVO, an Apprehended Violence Order that kept him not just from her, but also from half his family. He’d ridden here from Brisbane on a big, old, chopped-up Honda motorbike and seemed relaxed. He left his leathers on a bar stool while he danced with a young woman, herself a trainee in sound engineering at TEABBA. I didn’t yet know it, but I wouldn’t see much more of him after our trip. He would soon violate his AVO and be sent back to jail to await trial for the assault.
DS stayed at the bar; a spinal injury kept him from dancing. KR’s incarceration would soon open a spot for DS to move more centrally into sound engineering. Several years younger than KR, and relatively new to 4AAA, DS rarely tangled with the police. He was invested in producing hip-hop and learning to engineer sound.
He was also dedicated to the broader political project pursued at 4AAA. He brought an energy to production that blossomed as he grew more knowledgeable about the studio’s technology. His serious health problems, a compressed vertebra, kept him at home now and again.
In Tamworth the group took over a section of bar but also mingled with the crowds. They had been hard at work all week, broadcasting concerts, conducting interviews, setting up and taking down sound equipment. Noel and his girlfriend soon came and pulled AJ away from the bar and onto the dance floor, where they moved between dancing and shouting their appreciation of the band toward the stage, Kevin acknowledging AJ and Noel from the stage with a nod and a grin. DS’s interests at Tamworth seemed more focused on the technology.
Quieter than either AJ or KR, and less interested in country music than hip-hop and DJ-ing, he spent his time following Tiga, learning to record live sound. His listening, like Tigas, took place as much through headphones, with eyes focused on a digital timeline, as it did from a bar or dance floor. Together, however, DS and AJ would translate their Tamworth experiences to radio sound as two sides of the broadcast coin, one technical and material, invested in transduction and technical skill, the other discursive and verbal, interested in a narrative account of musical value and expressive skill. AJ’s capacity to talk music matched DS’s capacity to hear aspects of frequency spectrum and timbre, through digital audio’s technical affordance.
Live performances matter greatly to making radio here, grounding CD and cassette recordings in experiential, ritualized audition and often taking particular recordings and reanimating them as performance for a live audience. They matter for radio producers insofar as to make radio is also to listen closely, with an ear for detail, for talent, and for what moves audiences, what draws people to dance, shout, and to feel something. Aboriginal scenes of listening to live music are often maximally participatory in this way, evoking appreciative shouts and cries and even efforts to converse with performers from in front of the stage monitors, efforts that often fail in the face of the loud sounds coming from the stage. [Note 13] Live performance, that is, often meant the elicitation, or at least accommodation, of audience vocalization. The excess of expressivity cultivated in bars and concerts contrasts, however, with the care around the voice, the measured approach to crafting sound for broadcast that informed radio producers attention to live sound and that animated studio production, to which I turn next.
Trainees: From Cultural Production
to ‘Creative Industries’
Talking to younger trainees in one of the weekly sessions aimed at giving them some insight into announcing as both daily labor and political practice, AJ described his daily routine and an approach that echoes 4AAA’s broader broadcasting ideology. Awake at 3:30 every morning, AJ runs through the shower and drives to the studios by 4. He then reads the paper, circling stories to share with listeners and developing conversation topics: ‘It’s no good getting on the air and just talking about the songs — that’s boring. So I’m always working really, reading the paper, watching the news for things to bring on the show.’ He added that he also keeps his monologues short to keep his audience from drifting away.
Finally, AJ brings small stories to air, generally about Aboriginal history and often drawing from a Triple-A archive of Aboriginal historical events assembled in calendar form. AJ added, ‘I don’t force it down their throat, just a little bit, and with music they like.’ He continued, ‘It’s no good trying to argue with someone. If you try and force this stuff down people’s throats you’re never going to get anywhere… This old fella once told me, if you’re going to argue with someone, don’t scream and get out of control. Keep your voice like this the whole time.’ AJ’said this last with an even, prosodically flat, and very, very soft delivery. When he then relaxed this control, the dynamism in his speaking voice seemed exaggerated, its prosodic dynamics foregrounded after the even keel of his example. ‘Keep your voice steady and you’ll not only probably win the argument, you’ll probably get his trust and confidence too!’
On an afternoon some weeks later, I followed 4AAA lead trainer, Matthew, to one of Triple-As production studios, where he was to help trainees Trisha and Corey prerecord a presentation for that Sunday’s youth program. We arrived to find a red light above the shut studio door, indicating that recording was in progress. When the light dimmed, we opened the door and entered, finding DS and Jeff preparing to listen to a presentation they had just recorded.
We all listened to Jeff’s ‘read’ of a script, back-announcing a song and advertising a youth disco to be held the following week. Matthew praised Jeff for his read: ‘That’s the best first read of any student at 4AAA thus far.’ He then moved to coach all of us on the use of the voice in a radio broadcast. ‘In order to keep it interesting, you need to pay attention to your intonation,’ he said. ‘Do you know this concept? Not slurring, not too fast, not too slow, but varied.’
Such attention to the prosodic and pragmatic character of the voice and its mediated forms were pervasive at 4AAA. In the values associated with ‘professional’ broadcasting and the timbre and prosody of the broadcast voice, in attention to the proximity of the microphone and the need to minimize the studio space in order to foreground the voice, and in attention to idiom and prosodic dynamics, the radio voice and 4AAA’s outgoing signal were a focus of constant, formal attention.
In part this was a clear effort to counter the broad stereotypes of Indigenous linguistic alterity so widely spread in Australia, and often in the demeaning, racialising forms I encountered in Tamworth. But Matthew and AJ, in encouraging reflexive attention to the voice and to its formal characteristics, also contributed to a broader discourse on sound and its mediation made explicit in the training activities and extending into the musical interests and music production of the trainees. This moved beyond a politics of representation and into a pragmatics of capacity building, encouraging linguistic flexibility on the part of students. The voice became, in this context, the overdetermined focus of combined efforts to persuade and reach a broad audience, counter negative stereotypes, and a more prosaic effort to increase employability and individual capacity.
For most students, training at 4AAA took place in the context of the pursuit of a nationally certified technical degree in broadcasting, journalism, sound production, or even advertising sales. 4AAA received funding to organize this training from Queensland’s Department of Education and had thus become adjunct to a national system of degree-granting technical colleges.
4AAA trainees in residence in Brisbane received financial support through two primary commonwealth initiatives. ‘AbStudy,’ a government-funded program to provide support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people seeking secondary and tertiary education, supported a few of the trainees. But much more significant for 4AAA, and for Aboriginal media organizations across Australia, was the Community Development Employment Projects scheme (CDEP). Designed primarily to support the training and development of Aboriginal capabilities in remote areas where employment or apprenticeship opportunities were few, from its establishment in 1977 it has come to play an extremely large role in Aboriginal employment throughout Australia, including within large urban areas such as Brisbane (Altman 2007; Hunter and Gray 2013).
While the financial support and promise of a certified competency were clearly significant factors motivating participation at 4AAA, so too was the potential for escape from gendered labor and non-Indigenous oversight that the trainees had experienced in other work and apprenticeship experiences.
Often trainees came to 4AAA after demoralizing experiences in other vocational training programs, physical labor, and-or apprentice work in various building trades or other kinds of gendered menial labor. Originally from Moree in northern [inland] New South Wales, Trisha described how she appreciated the work and the big change it was from the kinds of work she had been able to pursue in Moree, where occupation was strictly gendered.
She described how the men in Moree were given CDEP jobs mowing lawns and landscaping, yet the women stayed in the community center and either sewed or, as she remembers it, stared out the window with nothing to do. Trisha’s entry into 4AAA was occasioned through a work experience requirement at a local technical and further education college (TAFE). [Note 14] ‘I wanted to learn about mechanics,’ she told me:
The whole family knows it, I know it. But you know, just the tiny bits of it. My brother was in spray painting, so I decided, yeah, I’ll have a look. I don’t care if don’t get anywhere near it but I’m still going to have a look at it. And then, there was nothing that I could, I couldn’t see anything, that I could — about that there. So I decided — then, you know, one of the TAFE teachers said, why don’t you try Triple-A?
At 4AAA Trisha was trained to manage the constant task of updating the digital music library on which the station’s broadcast depends. Working with software called Sound Forge, Trisha sat in Studio C, listening to music, ‘normalizing’ it and ‘topping and tailing’ each piece, that is, removing noise and signal spikes and clipping the beginning and ending of each digital song to leave just the right amount of silent lead-in to the music. Rather than being confined to gendered forms of office administration, at 4AAA Trisha was able to pursue a growing interest in music and technology.
Trisha came to Triple-A through the offices of state-assisted vocational training and job placement, ostensibly for a short visit. Once offered a job working one day a week importing music into Triple-A’s digital library, Trisha soon applied for CDEP wages, a small sum that for two days of work provided Trisha with AU170 per week, supplemented by 130 to help defray living costs. ‘It’s like a rent assistance help, which doesn’t help at all!’ she said angrily in one of our interviews. ‘And I’d rather never be on CDEP again. I said I wouldn’t be on it again and I am.’ When I asked Trisha why she had gone back to CDEP she responded: ‘Because I wanted to stay here.’
Clearly her CDEP wages were not reason enough to stay at 4AAA, but it became clear in further discussion with Trisha that the rewards of participation at 4AAA were many. She was able to reconnect with and learn something of her family by comparing notes with other trainees, staff, and management at Triple-A — many of whom know Moree and Trisha’s relatives living there.
And if in the CDEP at Moree she faced days of unrelenting make-work, 4AAA soon had her working in a studio. In the end Trisha found the experience so rewarding that she dropped her tafe office administration studies to remain working at 4AAA.
DS, also from Moree, was a popular, respected figure throughout 4AAA. In his early twenties and highly skilled with the various technologies that make up radio and sound production, DS came to radio after an accident while working as a laborer. This accident left him with a compressed disc and in a great deal of physical pain, and also marked the beginning of a spiral of daily drinking and depression.
His mother’s active involvement in Brisbane’s Indigenous organizational field provided her with information on Triple-A’s program, yet DS postponed joining as he pursued professional sound engineer training at a commercial vocational school in Brisbane. When this was slow to materialize, DS spoke on the phone with Matthew. When Matthew mentioned that they also would have the opportunity to learn multitrack mixing, DS’signed up.
A dedicated producer and charismatic figure, DS quickly took on a central role in the trainees’ production work and after one year was able to manage most digital preproduction work that took place on 4AAA’s sixth floor. He was also in line to learn much more involved technical work as an apprentice to professional technicians installing a new production studio on the sixth floor.
Many of the other trainees came to their studies at Triple-A after experiences not dissimilar to those of Trisha and DS. Jeff, for example, worked as a carpenter’s apprentice but was kept from skilled work by a seemingly permanent post behind a wheelbarrow. Corey had been employed producing boomerangs for the tourist trade on the Gold Coast, which allowed his English employers to place a sticker on the pieces labeled ‘authentic Aboriginal boomerang.’ Echoing DS, Corey also stated that this seemed a betrayal of his community, and he disentangled himself to pursue broadcasting and a greater involvement with Brisbane’s Murri community.
Training in the ‘Smart State’
This focus on vocational training in the cultural industries recalls the move in the 1990s to embrace the export of Australian cultural production, spelled out as policy in then Prime Minister paul Keating’s 1995 statement Exports from a Creative Nation. There Keating introduced an initiative to bolster Australian cultural production. Film, television, and multimedia productions were to be supported through international marketing, and the creative industries were to be given priority in the economic development of Australian exports.
As we approach the conclusion of this millennium, Australians are realizing that our future largely depends on the quality and sophistication of the things that we make. In the coming years, nations will prosper or founder on the basis of the value they add to their products. And adding value requires the employment of creativity. (Keating 1995: 4)
This focus on added value had a second aspect as well that addressed Australia’s international image and sought to develop its multicultural potential:
Our creative sector is a significant national economic resource. But cultural exports also serve another function. As we approach the twenty-first century, we should be projecting a contemporary Australia to the world; tolerant and diverse, interesting, lively and enterprising. A nation at home with all of its constituent elements, and proud of its extraordinary Indigenous heritage. (Keating 1995: 5)
This has a ground as well in the importation into Australia of the framework of ‘Creative Industries.’ This term has its origins in a policy framework developed within the Blair government’s Department of Culture, Media and Sport in the UK in the late 1990s — a time when a neoliberal paradigm found fuel in figures of the ‘information society’ to figure cultural production as the premiere commercial activity and site of potential revenue extraction and national economic growth of the coming twenty-first century (Caves 2000; Miller 2004; Rossiter 2004).
In its Australian incarnation, cultural studies and media scholars brought together scholarship on popular culture and mass media technologies with a policy focus on amplifying investment in forms of creative labor. This is generally understood as an advocacy project by scholars and champions of the ‘creative industries’ concept such as John Hartley and Stuart Cunningham. Indeed, their work encouraged projects geared toward promoting content production, and enabling Indigenous people and youth across Queensland to gain access to and experience with media technologies.
This is evident in the ways in which ‘Indigenous Creative Industries’ are aligned with a rethinking of the practical achievement of Indigenous autonomy and cultural development and in the ongoing relationship between scholars such as Hartley and Queensland’s Indigenous activist and policy development community (cf. Hartley and McKee 2000).
Yet this move to embrace key neoliberal tropes from within the academy has not gone without its detractors. Toby Miller notes that the stress on consumption and creativity fails to address the ‘New International Division of Cultural Labor’ that underwrites and obfuscates this intensified creation of surplus value, an ongoing global alienation of labor, and an amplified transnational transfer of resources that a creative industries, neoliberal perspective misrecognizes as liberatory (2004).
Neil Rossiter echoes Miller, arguing that the creative industries are ‘a natural extension of the neoliberal agenda within education as advocated by successive governments in Australia since the mid-1980s,’ and he points to the alienation of creative labor as intellectual property that the paradigm advocates. Rossiter warns, further, that this ‘reinforces the status quo of labour relations within a neoliberal paradigm in which bids for industry contracts are based on a combination of rich technological infrastructures that have often been subsidized by the state (i.e. paid for by the public), high labour skills, a low currency exchange rate and the lowest possible labour costs’ (2004: 5).
In spite of such vocal detractors, the programmatic efforts of ‘creative industries’ do resonate strongly with a broadly circulating discourse of Indigenous autonomy, given its clearest articulation and most forceful argument in the writings of historian and Aboriginal activist Noel Pearson (2010; cf. Sutton 2011). Pearson asserts that the bureaucratic administration of Aboriginal self-determination has been socially destructive, and in his terms, the funding of Aboriginal communities and projects from the commonwealth purse has undermined Indigenous values of exchange and reciprocity.
Welfare dependence, Pearson argues, is a consequence of these policies while true Aboriginal autonomy, participation in Australia’s ‘real economy,’ and an improvement in the indicators of Aboriginal life chances are most likely to come about through Aboriginal initiatives to redefine the form of the Aboriginal corporation and economic development.
As I suggest above, however, Pearson’s arguments are only the most developed of a widely circulating discourse in which state welfare is held to be inimical to Aboriginal autonomy and in which a three-decade-old policy of ‘self-determination’ has been supplanted by a paradigmatic conflation of ‘autonomy’ and ‘enterprise’ that divorces Aboriginal development and governance from state welfare and economic oversight. [Note 15]
Pearson’s ideas thus participate in a broad, neoliberal transformation of the institutional and discursive frames of Aboriginal governance and cultural production in Australia.
The most public index of such shifts came in May 2004, when the Liberal government of Prime Minister John Howard moved to dissolve the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC). Following the defeat of an appeal lodged by Indigenous senator Aden Ridgeway, parliament upheld this decree in March of 2005. These moves surprised few in Australia, as the diminishing of ATSIC s role had been an aim of the Howard government since well before 2004. In a small, informal press conference held in Darwin in 2003, for example, Minister for Indigenous Affairs Philip Ruddock described the admiration he held for Pearson’s Balkanu Cape York Development Corporation.
Aboriginal media campaigners had also been aware of a general shift away from a national body and toward ‘regional development corporations,’ and toward the privatization of service delivery to Indigenous communities and cultural development policy through contractual agreements between such corporations and the commonwealth. While sympathetic to the economic ideology underwriting these moves, many of my interlocutors also saw such shifts as spelling the end of collective representation as embodied in national representative organizations such as ATSIC. [Note 16]
Organizations such as Balkanu Cape York Development Corporation (chaired by Pearson’s brother Gerhardt) and the Outback Digital Network put ideas of fiscal responsibility and entrepreneurial initiative at the center of their corporate and activist rationales. ATSIC’s demise, then, came as a particularly forceful symbolic step in a process already well under way.
In Brisbane, this cluster of ideas and their institutional materialization clearly inflected the managerial practice and governing direction at 4AAA, and their efforts are often figured as a move to ‘get out from under the boot of welfare.’ Ironically, this has led 4AAA ever more fully into bureaucratic and state-run forms of auditing and accountability, in part motivated by Australia’s move to export its cultural products and educational institutions. Through partnerships with academics and bureaucrats at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) School of Business, and through proximity to ‘the ‘world’s first’ Creative Industries faculty,’ run by Cunningham and Hartley, also at QUT, 4AAA was embracing a shift in the framing of Indigenous cultural production from ‘subsidized arts to emergent industries’ (Keane and Hartley 2001:13) — and thus seeking to shed a reliance on public funding in favor of market expansion.
In short, the efforts to train youth at 4AAA were part of a larger effort to keep funding coming into the radio station, to diversify and take advantage of governmental and broader interests in Brisbane’s public culture in ‘youth’ and associated educational funding.
Auditing Creative Training
In light of such policy discourse, 4AAA had begun to seek funding outside of the then-dominant ATSIC grant process (which nonetheless continued to provide much of the station’s funding). This included seeking the small amounts of community sponsorship permitted in their license, ‘one-off’ project grants, and commonwealth and state funding such as the Creative Arts Training Initiative run by Queensland’s Department of Employment and Training (DET).
In accord with the recommendations and policy positions of cultural studies researchers at the Cultural Industries Research and Applications Centre at the Queensland University of Technology, 4AAA had sought to expand their work into broadcast training, supported by state-based training initiatives and by the broadening rationalization of vocational education begun in Australian in the mid-1990s. This entrepreneurial relationship to the state and to different sources of financial resources led them into increasingly frustrating conflicts with the state’s educational apparatus. In the process of responding to a robust educational bureaucracy and its demands for verification of funding outcomes, the aims of the media organization could seem as though swallowed by the effort expended in fulfilling a governmental bureaucracy’s mandate.
It could seem as though the voice would never arrive, deferred by the need to document its emergence. This is biopolitics as bad faith, when governmental claims to encourage Indigenous ‘creative industries’ are made over as disciplinary exercise for its own sake, when the aims of media production are turned from a concern with voice as sound to the statistical manifestation of its successful education. Here a specter of the voice emerged again, now through the frustrations I encountered among trainers. In order to satisfy governmental auditors, they needed to provide evidence of its education and elicitation.
At the end of 2002, 4AAA had just begun the process of becoming recognized by Queensland’s DET as a Registered Training Organization. In 4AAA’s case this recognition came through a submission to the Queensland State Government Industry Training Advisory Body for the Creative Industries, which in turn worked in conjunction with several other commonwealth and state bodies, in particular with a commonwealth-administered training advisory board called CREATE Australia (an acronym for Culture Research Education and Training Enterprise Australia). This commonwealth body also focuses on the ‘creative industries’ and seeks to ensure that cultural production can proceed within a proper framework of standardized curricula, assessed with reference to the Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF) and twelve standards known as the Australian Quality Training Framework.
Matthew, Katherine, and Tiga spent much of their time helping to maneuver Triple-A’s training body through this welter of acronyms and the audits that accompanied engaging the state in terms of an educational bureaucracy. For several months at the beginning of 2003 I assisted Matthew in preparing for an audit, conducted by CREATE Australia and meant to assess Triple-A’s compliance with curricular standards. [Note 17] We spent weeks building a database of documents that corresponded to a delivered ‘competency’ and a step toward one or another certificate within the AQF hierarchy of recognized skill levels. These documents were to be filled out by students, signed by a trainer, and then filed as evidence of student progress.
Although Matthew and I worked to rationalize the training schedule and to construct a transparent curriculum for which Triple-A could be accountable, in the end auditors from CREATE found Triple-A to be ‘noncompliant.’ As Matthew later told me, at issue was the lack of documents attesting to students’ progress through the TAFE-supplied curricular materials.
Matthew was angry and frustrated — much of his work with students in February and March 2003 had been in preparation for the visit of these auditors, yet he found that the requirement to document each stage of training in order to leave a paper trail for auditors seemed inimical to the actual work of the station, to overlook the technical and vocational aspects of Triple-As training as well as the cultural issues faced in an Indigenous environment.
For Matthew these latter issues encompassed both the sense that young Indigenous students were at risk for drug abuse, domestic violence, and incarceration, and that they were subject to different regimes of socialization and learning, which Matthew grouped as ‘oral culture’ — learning by ‘showing and telling’, as opposed to ‘reading and writing’. Yet while Matthew spent much of his day dealing with the regulatory regimes in which the station was suspended, he also saw his task as preparing these young Indigenous people so that they would be able to undertake the management tasks themselves. The process, that is, served state interests in auditing organizational ‘compliance’ with Australian standards far more than student or instructor interests in training.
But as such they had a measurable effect on the ways in which the voice itself became an assessable instrument within 4AAA. His training sessions thus often made explicit both their pedagogical goals and the institutional frameworks. In mid-February, some months before the CREATE Australia audit was to occur, Triple-A received five students from the small [northern Queenland coastal] city of Rockhampton, visiting for a week of intensive training on 4AAA’s equipment. Their first day coincided with a scheduled, weekly group training session. Matthew’s explicit pedagogy makes this a good example with which to describe the training process and the explicit role of the state in framing this for young Murris.
Matthew opened the session by recognizing an Indigenous trainee who had just acquired his Certificate IV in Workplace Training, a technical pedagogy degree, and was now acting alongside Matthew to help coordinate Triple-A’s training. This was announced as a step toward supplanting non-Indigenous trainers. Matthew then introduced one of the tools by which Triple-A attempted to monitor the progress of trainees — the training diary. Matthew placed the need for a diary, and the standards to which Triple-A was accountable, squarely in the context of an economy of educational exports. ‘We need to be, they tell us, more competitive,’ he began.
There’s a big export market in training. A few years ago Asians began to see Australia as a good place to come and study, and the government sees this as a place to get revenue. But they also saw the need to raise standards to an international level. To make sure [that this happens], they’ve developed twelve standards, and they’re tough — you’ve got to be good to meet them. They’re very dictatorial, and they’re paper based. So we have to try and deal with the need for signatures and paper in what is at the end of the day an oral culture. I’m passing around one of the most important documents we have, the training diary. This allows us to show not only that you’re here, but also to identify that your training was undertaken within those twelve guidelines.
Matthew continued the training meeting, drawing out a critical difference of Triple-A’s program from other avenues, and one emphasized again and again by Murri trainees — the vocational aspect of training ‘on the job.’ As he told the students, ‘We’re not a university, we’re not a TAFE, we’re not a school. This organization runs a radio station and a training program; real life, real time, vocational training.’
This was underlined as Matthew made explicit the range of training ongoing at 4AAA, encouraging the visiting students to get involved in a number of the six ‘streams’ of production training on the sixth floor, all of which tied directly into 4AAA’s broadcast production.
First, they might get involved helping to produce the youth program, Girrabala. For those with an interest in contemporary music, this would be ideal. Programming a magazine like this was difficult, however, since much of the music they would want to play would not be appropriate or would require editing prior to broadcast due to offensive language and or sexual themes. [Note 18]
The second stream of training was journalism, which required developing interviewing, critical thinking, and scriptwriting skills.
The third stream, sales and administration, entailed selling on-air advertising space, generally to southeast Queensland Aboriginal organizations, and also required becoming familiar with the networks of Indigenous services and corporations in Brisbane while acquiring experience in telephone sales and networking.
The fourth stream, presentation, involved working as a DJ, announcing for such programs as Girrabala, The Job File, Stayin’ Strong, or the request program.
The fifth and sixth streams, sound production and special events, required a more intense engagement with technology, and Matthew held DS up as Triple-As role model — someone who worked with Triple-A management and engineers to begin to acquire the skills to mix and record, to put together and take down PA and remote broadcasting equipment at the many festivals and outdoor broadcasts Triple-A produces annually.
The following day the training continued — but now concerned more with bureaucratic regimes of the state’s educational oversight. I found Matthew working with one of Triple-As engineers-in-training, KR, as he filled in sections of his training diary. KR had played a big role in setting up the broadcast from Tamworth, including climbing up on top of the demountable studio and setting up the satellite dish. KR and Matthew sat in the front office, poring over KRs file in order to confirm that he had correctly completed the documentation that would attest to his certificate competencies. However, they were also making sure that 4AAA’s competence as a training institution would be evident in KR’s file.
Matthew reminded KR that he had taken photographs of his work at Tamworth, particularly his work with the satellite dish — ‘It’s fresh in your mind, and I’ve got evidence. Document that activity in your diary,’ Matthew told KR, ‘and we’ll have that to show the auditors.’
[Note 1] For a comprehensive discography of this period of Aboriginal recording see Gibson 1994 and Walker 2000.
[Note 2] Us Mob were a band managed by 4AAA’s manager Tiga Bayles, whom I introduce in this chapter and whose 1981 performance tour of New South Wales was chronicled in the filmic documentary travelogue Wrong Side of the Road (1981).
[Note 3] The ABC investigative journalism [television] magazine Four Corners followed up a [Brisbane] Courier-Mail newspaper story, broadcasting an investigative report in 1987 that alleged widespread corruption within Queensland’s police. This led to further media attention and, eventually, to the selection of G. E. ‘Tony’ Fitzgerald, QC, to head the inquiry.
[Note 4] An effort to understand the value of art and to critique its radical separation from gross material concerns, so powerfully articulated by Bourdieu’s diagnosis of the field of cultural production as the ‘economic world reversed’ (1993), also redefines creative work as labor. Fred Myers tracks similar tendencies in the emergence of Aboriginal fine art, noting a recurrent effort to make such cultural production self-sufficient, commercially viable and thus independent of government subvention (see Myers 2002).
[Note 5] ‘Smart State’ is the title of Queensland’s cultural development policy, aimed at ‘maximizing’ Queensland citizens’ opportunities to participate in the ‘new economy.’ Creative Nation is a similar, national policy introduced in the 1990s by Prime Minister Paul Keating.
[Note 6] Rennie and Featherstone (2008) provide a concise account of the advent of the National Indigenous Television Service (better known in Australia as NITV that canvasses the institutional history of Indigenous media activism.
[Note 7] Collins’s conflation of Skid Row and Radio Redfern also points to the close operating relationship between these organizations, one that has tended to be backgrounded in historical recounting in recognition of a political stance that foregrounds Aboriginal agency behind the establishment of Radio Redfern.
[Note 8] In performance this story achieves a powerful effect through the opposition of Us Mob, a markedly flamboyant and gregarious rock band, with the image of a buttoned-down Bowls league, dressed all in white, an upright pillar of white Australian community politics and privilege.
[Note 9] ‘Ute’ here is short for ‘utility truck’, an Australian colloquial reference to the country’s ubiquitous flatbed pickup trucks.
[Note 10] See chapter 3 for an extended discussion of this scheme and its ongoing significance.
[Note 11] RSL (Returned Servicemen’s Leagues) Clubs are a fixture of many Australian towns and suburban neighborhoods. They often offer a fixed-price dinner, gaming rooms, and a bar, although wealthier RSLs might also have pools, playgrounds, restaurants, and larger entertainment venues.
[Note 12] These actions took place in November and December 2002. They received a great deal of coverage in the Australian press and found a public spokesperson in Murrandoo Yanner.
[Note 13] This can also make some forms of live performance difficult. Enrec’s manager and producer/engineer, Steve Newton, recalled that Charley Pride once quit an Alice Springs show in midstride. The noise and rambunctious appreciation of the audience drove him from the stage: ‘Have you ever been to a Charley Pride concert?’ Newton asked. ‘Its the quietist concert you’ve ever heard in your life. It’s almost conversation level, so that people can sing along with him, it’s just unbelievable.’
[Note 14] TAFE is a network of vocational schools that provides educational services geared toward what, in Australia, are termed trades. Plumbers, mechanics, and electrical engineering are all courses in which one can be certified. This framework has expanded greatly to include sound production and software design, photography, and community development work, TAFE provides the institutional background for the certification process that Triple-A employed in turning toward an educational endeavor.
[Note 15] This often seemed to refigure the relationship between Aboriginal organizations and the state, rather than doing away with state support. The Cape York Digital Network (CYDN), an organization affiliated with Pearson’s Balkanu Cape York Development Corporation and with the Outback Digital Network, has sought to build an enterprise that can bring employment to remote Cape communities through broadband video link-ups. A CYDN public relations officer and former manager of the Tanami Network in Central Australia argued that the main client of this corporation would be the various agencies of Queensland and commonwealth government (interview with author, Cairns, December 4, 2002). While this continues commonwealth financing of Indigenous community services, it refigures that relationship in terms of exchange, enterprise, and corporate client relations.
[Note 16] These are complex issues, ATSIC has not been universally mourned by Aboriginal organizations and activists. Indeed, its imperfect realization of the ideals of a generation of Aboriginal activists and policy makers such as H. C. Coombs led many to see in ATSIC something of a paper tiger (see Rowse 2000). Further, allegations of mismanagement and misappropriation of ATSIC funding have been lodged from across the spectrum of both non-Indigenous and Indigenous perspective. Nonetheless, many of the charges of mismanagement leveled at ATSIC belong with other ‘mainstream’ organizations.
[Note 17] These standards, rationalized across a number of different educational institutions in the mid-1990s as the ‘Australian Qualifications Framework,’ provide a loose goal for trainees’ education. Certificates I-IV and diplomas roughly correspond to vocational certificates and associate’s degrees in the United States, and 4AAA sought to become qualified to grant such certificates in areas such as journalism, workplace training, broadcasting, sound engineering, and radio presentation.
[Note 18] DS subsequently gave me an example of the latter, describing how he manipulated the sound of the vocal track on a hip-hop song, singling out swear words and profanity and reversing these segments to make the profanity sound ‘backward,’ thus unintelligible. In this way he made the recording retain its edge yet now sound ‘clean,’ appropriate for broadcast.