I was carried into the world on the rhythm of sound.
Parramatta Road, usually go go go with cars and trucks and trams and shops alive, dead quiet like all main roads on Christmas day. In that silence my mum screams. The ambulance wails. And my own bewildered greetings to the intersection that took trams across to Balmain peninsula, echo in sleepy bohemians’ breakfast at 5.20 in the afternoon. I was born of the sounds of Sydney, into noises of pubs, where men celebrated or drowned their sorrows when more kids came along.
I was born a couple of kilometres from the Broadway gateway to the city proper, on the wrong side of the tracks, with the sounds of poverty and heat sizzling on treeless streets and domestic violence a sharp contrast to the sounds of the big end of town. The two five-story Grace Brothers buildings, which, in times past, dominated Sydney social life with sounds of dances, fashion parades, and children’s pantomimes, quiet from public holiday desertion now sighing the beginning of ‘me’ through their twin clock towers supported by four winged lions. Four years after I screamed past those lions in the ambulance, Queen Elizabeth II during her first royal trip to Australia inspired the sounds of massive crowds when she visited those towers for a look.
Just up the street a little, Broadway morphs into George with Railway Square and Central Station sounding the southern boundaries of the CBD. The clang clang of 1950s trams heads past Chinatown and it’s ‘slanty-eyed’ merchants with clack clack of dice and across the road, shouts from the Anthony Hordern Palace Emporium offering a cuppa tea, a chance to post a parcel, make a phone call, have a wee or get some money out of the Commonwealth Bank. Shoes step up and down running boards before slapping sounds on wooden seats, or swinging out, arms anchoring groaning masses as money hits leather bag and tickets are ripped. The conductor travels as a one person show, and electricity sparks up metallic washing lines across the city, linking all excursions to a central source.
‘Next stop’ The Sydney Town Hall – inspired by the Hotel de Ville in Paris – and across the road, the Queen Victoria building taking up a whole block’s sounds of stained glass, colonnades, balustrades, arches, tailors, barbers, and florists, all boasting the glory days of Her Majesty’s colony, long before her great great granddaughter came for a look and I was born on Parramatta road and the tramline carried citizens down George street. Next stop Martin Place and the General Post Office, real posh petering off to the clutter of smaller shops with residences above, and tram stops outside front doors carrying workers to convict built warehouses in The Rocks or – on the other side of the road – to Circular Quay with its ferries whoooo wooooing under the Sydney Harbor bridge, across the swish and creaks of one of the most beautiful harbors in the world.
My family left Sydney when I was three years old, just 18 months after my eyes were operated on to correct a squint. It was directly after that operation, with my mother banished to the waiting room, and bandages stopping sight, that I must have realised, sound was all I really had to rely on. Sound. All new. Voices and clanging instruments, and water swishing, and trolleys being wheeled on wooden floors.
Then there was the sound of tyres on all sorts of roads as we travelled around the country. Accents broadening and slowing right down so that the silences between the words gave you time to think. The sound of the desert, and the bush, and the rivers that rushed and gurgled and popped with fish as the birds sang and the campfires crackled. There was also always, as the wheels crunched dried up clumps of clay on red monotonous roads, the sound of mum singing, and when I got a little older, the car radio.
When I was 17, the radio spoke to me like a mystical experience from on high. I was in Grace Bros in Chatswood, when a loudspeaker in the ceiling over ‘girls fashion’ told me there was a job in the record library of 2CH. I imagined listening to Top Forty all day as I rushed back to my grandmother’s place to phone the number, then dress in my best clothes for the appointment just four hours away. The sounds of my uncle making love to his girlfriend in his room provided only moments distraction as I rushed out the door and into the swish of traffic and the sound of a bus that would take me to heaven.
It wasn’t Top Forty that I would be listening to.
2CH was a station that played music from all eras. And besides, I was to be a typist for the music director, because that’s how all girls began in those days. It was a beginning. Soon, in my spare time, I was taught by the older girls in the library how to put programs together. I was working with music. I was also working with all sorts of rhythms, and beats, and types of sound. I think I was one of the last people in Sydney to learn the now ancient art of programming music before Top Forty undercut possibilities, and cardboard boxes which held the station selection were in turn replaced by computerised playlists.
You’re listening to Gayle Austin on 2 Double J, broadcasting from planet earth. If you can hear us, turn back. You’re going the wrong way.
By the time I was twenty-three, I had six years of programming music for Sydney radio under my belt and was in the right place at the right time. The Whitlam Government had decided to open up the airwaves by granting a new license to the ABC to set up a youth station. I was the only woman they could find (outside the ABC) who actually worked in radio. I stammered and stuttered and ummed and arred, and my voice went high from tension, and I spoke too quickly to be understood, and understood too little to sound as if I knew what I was talking about. I was on air.
“It doesn’t matter what you say, just say it with confidence,” I was told when I sought advice. It was the sound that they were interested in. The sound of confidence. Programming my heart out to cover for the fact that I had none kept me afloat while I took the program home every morning and listened to see what I could do better. I had to first make it sound right in amongst all the best of the young talented males who staffed the station. I was the only woman on air on Double J, and one of only two women broadcasters in the entire country, so the spotlight was on me. I asked for advice again and was told that I should listen to some of the male broadcasters. I didn’t want to listen to and copy the men. I was a woman. How do women sound on air?
Well, that led to great discussions about microphones being designed for men’s voices, and that was why it wasn’t really an ideal job for a woman. And besides, only men’s voices carried authority.
It was during those years that I played with sound. The different sounds of the music, my own voice, the voice of guests, live, on the phone, on tape. They all became sounds to mix and match, and blend, and use for a lift or a lull or a full stop, or a pause. I stayed on midnight to dawn for 5 years. I nightly sought to turn all these sounds, including myself, into an ephemeral soundscape of the city, and other women started thinking they might be able to do it too. The sound of the station started to change. The sound of the whole industry started to change. We were all in the right place at the right time.
By the beginning of the 80s, the Government decided to open up the FM band, and Double J became Triple J. To prepare ourselves for this big change, we did seminars on the difference between AM and FM. We got different microphones. The sound waves for AM are very different to the sound waves for FM. When you broadcast on AM, you are advised to sit back from the microphone and almost shout, to cut across the AM airwaves. The FM airwaves are far more sensitive and you can in fact almost be touching the microphone as you speak. It is much more intimate, warmer, no shouting required. The word was also out that AM was more suitable for speech. FM was better for music, although I didn’t believe that. The voice is also an instrument. To have a proper dialogue with the music you must first recognise and be in control of the music in your own voice. This is only the very beginning of making sense. If the sound aint right, nobody is going to want to listen to the incredibly insightful things you feel the need to say.
On Triple J, flanked by a growing number of women announcers, I played with sound across the day. On 10 – 1am the world was my oyster, the sounds of late night became a glimpse into where my work would eventually lead me. One listener once told me that listening to my program was like traveling on the trans-Siberian express, you never knew what you were going to hear, but you knew it would be diverse and interesting. I would grab a bunch of records from many different countries around the world, and then listen to them as I did the mix ‘live to air’. I didn’t know what I was going to hear next, until it was on the turntable and it felt right. That’s a good thing about sound, if it feels right, you can’t argue with it. In the 6 – 10pm shift I played with a tight format of music that the rest of the station played. My objective was to play exactly the same music as everyone else, and to make it sound different. This is where you had to get very creative in how you sat tracks next to each other. In Drive the sound is shorter spurts of music linked by voice, and traffic and time checks, and interviews, and news all to the rhythm of people driving home in cars in peak hour, with an overall sound that is soothing the nerves, exciting the imagination, uplifting the spirits. Breakfast sound is there to wake you up and inspire you to get out into the day, and Morning is a bit more laid back and talkative, like over a kitchen table, or comfortably in the background while you are working.
These days I am back on Broadway, just up the road a bit from where I was born. A couple of blocks away from the old Grace Bros winged lions, community radio station 2ser 107.3 is all about giving people a voice, and I want to extend that a little. I’m working on a sound that’s universal and inclusive. Broadcasting to the world, while at the same time speaking intimately to each and every listener, no matter which country they come from, what religion they are, and what colour shoes they choose to wear. In New York, London, Paris, Mumbai, people listen to Curved Radio, ‘live’ and streaming. It may be 1am in Sydney, but in the northern hemisphere it’s prime time. Yeee haaa.