EMIL VOIGT: the man behind the birth of radio station 2KY
by Robin Voigt
Part 4 of 5
The first transmission
Once built, the station was handed over by Voigt to the Labor Council and it commenced transmission on 31 October 1925. For the first few months 2KY was forced to broadcast at only 650 watts as there was difficulty procuring the particular valves that were needed, but by June 1926 the station was running on the full power of 1500 watts and broadcasting at 280 metres on a frequency of 1070 kC/s.
It became the first commercial radio station in Australia with the capacity to reach such a wide ranging audience, all over Australia and as far as New Zealand. Consideration was then given by the station to further increase their power up to 8000 watts and to make an attempt to transmit right through to the United States once technical arrangements had been completed. A report was furnished to the US Department of Commerce in 1926 and with 2KY breaking new ground in these early days there was great interest worldwide.
Voigt later wrote in the Radio Monthly 25 January 1932:
The first definite break on the part of the B stations from the experimental stage occurred when 2KY Broadcasting Station, in 1925, secured a licence to operate on 1500 watts, and planned to run a regular daily service. Prior to that time, the powers of the B stations were only rated at 100 watts and under, and the ‘programmes’ consisted of the playing of a few gramophone records and pianola rolls on one or two evenings a week. 2KY, with its high power and daily programme, was regarded skeptically by the Government, the press and the spoon-fed A stations. The public was led to believe that the enterprise would fail for lack of funds. When, however, it became clear that the experiment was succeeding, an attempt was made to close up 2KY on the grounds of its interference with the other stations. This attempt failed. Then followed attempts by the Postal Department to limit the power, and to prohibit the use of the new high-power B stations for the broadcasting of political and industrial addresses. These attempts also failed.
On opening night three floors of the Trades Hall building were set aside for the invited guests – presidents and secretaries of the various unions and ALP leagues and members of the Labor Party. Loudspeakers were installed in the three main halls and the general public gathered in the Social Hall to listen to the broadcast. Willis officially opened the new station and there were speeches given by Voigt, Garden, Beasley, Sinclair and Gibb.
This first broadcast was simultaneously transmitted on two wave lengths, the lower being between 20 and 100 metres and the upper being 280 metres. It was monitored closely by the Telegraph and Wireless inspector for both content, technical quality and any interference with other stations.
2KY was unique. It was the first high-powered, union-owned radio station in the world. Operating from Sydney Trades Hall it gave a voice to the Labor movement in New South Wales. Advocating better wages and conditions for the workers it had a marked influence on political and industrial affairs. Later a handful of other union stations operated in Australia, among them 2HD (Newcastle), 4KQ (Brisbane) and 2KM (Parramatta in Sydney). There have only ever been a small number of similar stations in the USA, the first being WCFL (Chicago) which started up in 1926, while Britain has never allowed unions to have a radio station. In the 1950s and 1960s union-owned stations developed in Latin America and the Philippines.
The Secret Service
At the beginning ‘wireless’ was being used for naval and military purposes and the mindset of the conservatives about how threatening radio might be to the established order things if it got in the ‘wrong hands’ bordered on the obsessive. From its inception in 1925 and throughout the 1930s 2KY was closely monitored by the Federal Government. Voigt was swayed by his socialist ideals but his concept of using radio for social reform deserved far better than he was ever given credit for. He felt persecuted by the government’s zealous over-regulation and frustrated by the obstacles that were constantly put in his way.
Allegations were made that the Communist Party was trying to secure the domination and control of the Australian Labor Party, that Communists had infiltrated the various unions and that there were ‘Red’ members sitting on the Labor committees governing 2KY. Secret reports on 2KY made by the Commonwealth Investigation Branch in 1931- 1932 closely scrutinised the station’s broadcasts and personnel as it was suspected at that time that the station could be broadcasting in code and receiving instructions from Moscow.
The reports disclose that members of the Australian Communist Party had approached a young ex-naval wireless operator to assist them in building a short wave set capable of receiving Moscow. They indicated that they would make it worth his while if he helped the Communist Party to “pick up Moscow in the vicinity of midnight and send over some of our stuff”. The telegraphist reported the goings on to the District Naval Officer at Garden Island and was instructed to ‘dummy’ any messages and to memorise their contents.
The New South Wales Trades and Labor Council and 2KY were secretly investigated in this matter to establish whether they were involved. It was thought that they had installed a short waved wireless station to receive messages from Russia. One of their employees, a wireless enthusiast, had a good short wave receiving set, but nothing was found that indicated that the station or the Council was “expressly endeavouring to receive instructions from Moscow”. In January 1932 the Commonwealth Investigation Branch in Sydney stated that “the Victorian Police have now formed an opinion that code messages are received in Melbourne and are quietly investigating the matter”.
The New South Wales State Government’s scheme of setting up relay stations in country areas was treated with great suspicion as well – the station was referred to as ‘Station Lang’ and was attacked in the press, accused of being a purveyor of propaganda.
To add to the difficulties there were many complaints that they were broadcasting on frequencies and power contrary to PMG approval, which was interfering with the reception of other stations. In a PMG report in August 1926 their radio inspectors stated that they took 150-200 readings per week checking 2KY’s use of wavelength in order to ensure that it wasn’t interfering with 2BL or 2BE broadcasts. It was found that 2KY had been keeping strictly to the guidelines and the problems were more to do with some listeners not having very good receiving apparatus.
With the station’s strong emphasis on talk there was also ongoing harassment by the PMG relating to the content of some of the broadcasts. Their programmes were under close observation for propaganda transmissions and in April 1927 a directive came from the Commonwealth Postmaster-General’s office to employ an experienced ‘shorthand writer’ for the prime task of taking complete notes on 2KY’s transmissions, to listen in daily and make strict observations.
The PMG was over-zealous with its vetting of not only the political and trade union aspect of some of the speeches, but censored some of the more general subject matter as well. They warned 2KY about one of the broadcasters, a chiropractor, saying that he was misleading the public – talking on such matters was deemed very dubious in those days; another broadcaster (a lady working under the pseudonym of Mrs Gray) was advising on sex and relationships and the PMG demanded that her talks cease at once; yet another person was pulled off air because he had been talking about tonsils and how they can affect one’s health! These were all viewed as controversial subjects, too risky or unproven to be broadcast to the general public.
The PMG radio inspectors were particularly diligent in their monitoring of racing broadcasts, investigating the backgrounds of two of 2KY’s sports announcers and closely checking their every word on air, suspecting that they had arranged a system of conveying information in code to selected listeners. This diligence carried through to their scrutiny of medical programmes as well.
One amusing directive to 2KY from the PMG shows just how ridiculous their continuous monitoring of the station and controlling demands had become – the letter dated April 1929 states “I have been directed to advise you that the broadcasting of the gramophone records “Barnacle Bill” and the two “Tramp Songs” are to be discontinued immediately”!
During the Lang years the Labor Party sponsored a series of radio dramas broadcast over 2KY on a Sunday night. Called ‘Plays of the People’ they had underlying political themes which highlighted such matters as child endowment and social reform for the working class. They produced howls of protest from listeners who were against Lang.
Mysterious ‘line problems’
At one point in 1930 a number of 2KY’s political broadcasts were stymied, and organised ‘malicious interference’ was suspected. The proposed broadcast of speeches at the Eight Hour Day Banquet held at Trades Hall in Sydney was sabotaged through the deliberate cutting in three places of a lead-covered cable on the roof of Trades Hall. On 7 October 1930 Mr. Lang’s speech from the Strand Theatre in Croydon could not go to air as five minutes before he was due to talk the lines dropped out. His speech had to be abandoned and it was soon found the lines inside the theatre had been tampered with. A Labor candidate attending the meeting noticed an apparently drunken man handling the wires leading to the microphone on stage. When the ‘drunken’ person was removed from the hall he was found to be perfectly sober and it was thought he had used a needle or other pointed metal instrument to short circuit the wires. Line noise once again undermined Mr. Lang’s speech from the Masonic Hall in Concord on 11 October 1930. These broadcast failures were reported to the PMG but it was proven that the problem was not due to PMG equipment or its exchanges but to interference with 2KY’s own lines and amplifiers by ‘persons unknown’.
2KY pioneered many new types of broadcasts in Australia. It has an impressive list of firsts in Australia – the first trade union-owned radio station in the world; the first radio station to broadcast the opening of Parliament (at Premier Lang’s inauguration), also putting the debates of State Parliament to air during Lang’s years in government; the first station in Australia to incorporate two wave lengths; the first to present a radio serial set in Australia with Australian actors; the first to broadcast running ringside descriptions of the boxing and wrestling; the first to broadcast horse racing; the first metropolitan station to broadcast country music to the city; one of the first stations to have its own theatrette; the first station to give a female the role of breakfast host; the first to broadcast a two-way conversation from different locations; the first State-based racing narrowcasting broadcast service; and the first station to test digital audio broadcasting.
Robin Voigt is the granddaughter of Emil Voigt.
Five members of her family were prominent in early Australian radio.
Her father Rion Voigt was an announcer with 2KY for more than 40 years, joining the station at the age of 17 in 1932. He trained with the BBC and also worked in New Zealand with 2ZA, 2ZB and 5ZB.
Her grandmother Mrs Eunice Stelzer joined 2GB at its beginning in 1926 working there for 22 years as an announcer and musical advisor. She was a popular and well known figure, founding the 2GB Happiness Club which gave assistance to people in need during the Depression years and also founding the Eurobodalla Homes.
Her grandfather William Stelzer worked at 2GB as well, in charge of the station’s advertising for 20 years.
Her aunt Joy Moorhouse started work at 2GB at the age of 15 in 1932 and worked there for 50 years. She was the station’s first receptionist and telephonist and later went on to work with many famous names as a producer of the first open line/talkback programmes in 1966.
Robin lives in Sydney and is a graphic designer, illustrator and writer.
Copyright © 2006 Robin Voigt
All rights reserved. No part of this story may be reproduced, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, recording or otherwise, without the written permission of the author.