By Stephen Atkinson.
Forty-one years ago, in the early hours of Sunday July 31, 1966, Ernie Sigley, irreverent host of NWS 9’s Adelaide Tonight, was abducted from his Kingswood home and driven to Cape Jervis. From there, at sunrise, he was taken by motor launch through a heavy swell to a vessel anchored in international waters off Kangaroo Island. The ship, a 130-ton, 60-foot tuna boat, had motored from Wallaroo hours earlier and now, darting in the gusts above it, a large box kite hoisted the 200 foot antenna of an AM radio transmitter.
On board, eagerly awaiting the arrival of their special “kidnapped” guest, were 20 members of the Adelaide chapter of SCIIAES, the Society for the Confining of Immoral Impulses Among Engineering Students. One of their number, Ted McNally, clung to the rigging at the top of the mainmast, struggling to keep connections intact while the anticipation and focus of some of the others going about their duties below were clouded by nausea as the constant rising and falling, rolling and pitching of the boat forced them to the deck and thence to the rail.
Likewise, Ernie’s wisecracking good humour about the whole elaborate affair was interspersed with nervous questions about the sea-worthiness of the craft as he clambered aboard to meet the captain and, after a ceremonious blast of the foghorn, was ushered downstairs. A tape recorder and microphone had been set up in a makeshift studio and Ernie was provided with refreshments and instructions to record a program for the first transmission of Radio Prosh.
Pirate radio was already well established in Western Europe where the evocation of piracy was designed to underscore if not its illegality, since stations legitimately utilised the stateless spaces of international waters. For the most part, pirate stations such as Radio Caroline, which broadcast to the UK from a ship anchored in the English Channel, were established as commercial ventures, playing non-stop rock and selling airtime to advertisers wanting to circumvent legal restrictions to break into new markets. But the invasion of the ether had other political connotations, particularly during wartimes both hot and Cold. The ‘free’ radio and ‘community’ radio movements that followed inherited some of their participatory democratic ethics from ‘pirate’ radio, as well as the explicit criticism of state and commercial media monopolies.
To associate Radio Prosh wholly with such a radical and noble cause, however, would be to vastly underestimate the part played by high spirits and beer and their powerful influence on the merry crew of pranksters. It is said, moreover, that while Ernie Sigley was on board consumption levels rose dramatically and that a landing party had to be delegated to restock rapidly dwindling supplies. Nevertheless, all remained committed to their master plan. This was the first time such a venture had been attempted in the Southern Hemisphere and it was not without its pitfalls. First was the weather. Several attempts to keep the antenna aloft floundered in the strong winds and at one point the ship was forced to seek safe haven at American River ahead of a storm. But most treacherous of all was the PMG, the Post Master General, which was at that time in charge of all posts and telecommunications including radio and television broadcast licensing.
The Radio Prosh team battled on against technical and meteorological adversity until finally, on Tuesday, August 2, the station went to air. A brief announcement – ‘this is Radio Prosh, the first non-advertising commercial station working purely for charity’ – followed by a short program of music by the Rolling Stones compared by Ernie Sigley. ‘God Save the Queen’ was then played before the signal faded back into the sea mist. It is likely that only a few people heard the broadcast and that they were not among the station’s target audience in Adelaide. Reception was said to be reasonably clear on Kangaroo Island and along the southern coasts of the state but those who tuned to the Radio Prosh frequency in the city heard only a low hum, arousing suspicions that the signal was being jammed. At first it was suspected that a commercial station might be responsible but technicians at 5DN claimed that such an act was technically beyond the capabilities of a radio station and would be, in any case, in contravention of international law. They also confirmed that the Radio Prosh signal was, indeed, being jammed and that only the PMG had the political and technical wherewithal to do it.
In response to the news, Adelaide University students turned from Prosh Week celebrations to rally in support of their pirate broadcaster. On August 4, 2,000 protesters, including Stuart Cockburn, TV newsreader Roger Cardwell and the recently released Ernie Sigley, marched on the GPO, swarming into the mail hall waving placards reading “Democracy Is In Doubt” And “We Want Radio Prosh,” and queuing up to lodge RB-131 forms: “Report on interference to television or radio receiver.” The following day around 100 protesters returned to stage a sit-in, chanting “BAN THE JAM” while a petition was presented to the Director of Posts and Telegraphs. Simultaneously, a delegation of around 50 protesters picketed the PMG headquarters at the airport, the point from which the jamming signal was alleged to be transmitting.
The state director of the PMG neither confirmed nor denied the allegations but nevertheless declared the station “clandestine, unlawful” and “impermissible.” An even higher authority, Commonwealth Post-master General, Alan Hulme, said that the Commonwealth Government would not hesitate to jam any pirate radio station because “it would be a complete shemozzle were stations allowed to broadcast freely without some attempt to control them”.
A stray minnow had confronted a leviathan and been swallowed whole. After a week of struggling against the odds, the crew was returned to dry land and the ship went back to its original task of catching fish, but Radio Prosh had at least caused a moment’s indigestion. In the September 1966 edition of On Dit, the organisers thanked all their sponsors and the Adelaide University Student Representative Council, and, at the same time, acknowledged the work of the PMG “whose action…made us heard of if not actually heard.”
© The Adelaide Review Thursday, 16 August 2007.
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