Sue Mathews: community broadcasting trailblazer

September 29, 2021

Su Mathews wearing headphones and microphone

Sue Mathews was 25 and working at the ABC as a producer when she heard a newly established community radio station was looking for its first Station Manager. It was the late 1970s – inner city Melbourne was experiencing massive social, cultural and political changes which set the scene for a new educational station that wasn’t ‘lectures-on-air’! 45 years later, Sue’s inspiration and vision for the station lives on in the much-loved and thriving 3RRR .

As part of our series on community broadcasting trailblazers, Sue Matthews spoke to us about those early days, and her later work in film and environmental philanthropy.

How was 3RRR established?

Towards the end of 1975 the Whitlam government was on its last legs. The then Communications Minister, Moss Cass, was desperate to find places to base the new public radio stations with which he intended to inaugurate FM broadcasting in Australia, giving them a head start over the commercial operators.

RMIT, with its expertise in electrical (and all kinds of) engineering, looked a likely spot to be able to do something with a radio licence, and there was a student-run station already broadcasting from the Student Union to the campus and immediate surrounds. The administration agreed to accept the offer – an E class (Educational) licence. The station would be called 3RMT-FM, and an existing RMIT staff member was appointed interim manager.

What was Melbourne and the radio scene like back then?

In the late 1970s, Melbourne was bursting to become the cool city of its current (or pre-covid) reputation, but it hadn’t quite got there.

The Pram Factory was making authentic, often radical, Australian theatre, Stephanie was opening her innovative restaurant in Fitzroy, Melbourne had held the biggest Vietnam Moratorium marches and was home to the most rebellious university campuses in the country, and live music it was almost back to the heady days of the 60s, when Go-Set had pages full of gig notices and Melbourne was Australia’s undisputed live music capital. ‘The Carlton Sound’ bands – like the Bleeding Hearts, the Sports, Stiletto, the Models and Jo Jo Zep and the Falcons – dominated the plethora of inner-city venues, while big bands like Midnight Oil and The Angels were bringing in the audiences in the outer suburban beer barns.

Radio was a desert, though, for fans of the serious rock, folk and country music we were hearing on records and reading about in Rolling Stone, Creem, New Musical Express (NME) and the growing niche music press. Sydney had 2JJ, but all we had in Melbourne was the Top 40 on 3KZ or 3XY (in mono), a weekly album show on 3KZ and two weekly shows on ABC radio: Chris Winter and Ted Robinson‘s Sydney-based Room To Move, and David Woodhall’s Saturday night Rockturnal on the newly launched ABC-FM.

What were you doing before you took on the job at 3RRR?

I was 25 and had spent two years working as a producer in ABC Radio, most recently in the Talks Department (they really called it that).

Along with serious ABC programs like Broadband, the precursor to Phillip Adams’ Late Night Live, I had been producing my own show called Rock and Roll Notes, which aimed to convince a conservative ABC audience that rock music was more than throwaway pap. I would sometimes invite local musicians, critics and fans on to the show, so I knew there was a huge reservoir of interesting young people out there passionate about playing and talking about the music of the times. I’d also managed to get access to the ABC’s 32 track state of the art music recording studio and engineers to record local bands on the one night a week that Brian May and the ABC Show Band weren’t using it (the recordings were played on 2JJ and David Woodhall’s Saturday night rock show on ABC-FM).

How did you hear about the job?

I hadn’t even heard of 3RMT-FM when, in mid-1977, my flatmate Robert Jordan showed me the formal advertisement for the position of Station Manager. I thought the idea that I could get the job was preposterous, but I applied anyway.

I pitched the idea of a station that aimed to reach an audience the age of the RMIT student body, combining interesting educational spoken word programs using RMIT staff as talent with music programming presented by volunteers drawn from that youthful audience and the local music and theatre scene. The music shows would fill the many hours beyond the intensively produced talk shows, aiming to ‘encourage a critical and discriminating attitude to popular music’. Though this may not have been the idea of educational radio RMIT had had in mind, to their credit they decided to give it a go, and offered me the job.

You landed the job, what did you do then?

I had been moonlighting on a weekly 3CR program called The Heart of Saturday Night with friend and co-host Geoff King, whose deep musical knowledge was the result of years working at Euphoria Records in the city. He became the first Music Director at the station (and is now the Chair of the Triple R Board). I’d become friendly with the guy who presented the show before ours on 3CR, Greig Pickhaver (better known now as H.G. Nelson). Greig was part of the Pram Factory collective, he was just as passionate about music as us and also agreed to become part of the new guard at 3RMT, bringing his iconoclastic theatre experience and contacts to the mix.

At the start 3RMT shared the studio facilities of 3ST. Some of the student presenters who had been filling shifts on 3RMT with their own music programs did not take altogether kindly to the new look at the station, and after a few hiccups the two stations went our separate ways: with a studio and offices set up in a Carlton terrace house owned by RMIT we were sailing.

At different times in those first years you could hear Greig presenting music history programs or calling the AFL Grand Final with John Clarke, from a TV in the studio. Local musos Jane Clifton and Red Symons had shows, and academics Rod Bishop and Peter Cole talked about art and politics. Martin Armiger,  local music luminary and driving force behind the Bleeding Hearts and High Rise Bombers, started the day at 8am (sometimes) with the Nouvelle Vague Breakfast Show, combining music and interviews with news unashamedly read from the day’s papers. Helen Thomas and Mike Roberts, young Age journos, often featured; they later took over the breakfast shift with Talking Headlines. RMIT staff were showcased in series made by station producers, such as David Dunstan’s ‘Plain Girls Guide to Urban Sociology’, produced by staffer Helen Molnar. Volunteers Coordinator Nadia Anderson trained and oversaw knowledgeable enthusiasts play and talk about all kinds of popular music. Just like on the mainstream stations, Sunday afternoons was time for the 3RMT Top 40, compiled by a handful of us sitting round a coffee table and based to some extent on what was being played on the station by our volunteers and to a larger extent by what we felt like on the day. It was that kind of time – and that kind of fun to be part of.

The approach of the station was reflected in the choice of call sign when the interim licences that had launched community radio and the FM band were formalised through the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal in 1978– 3RRR-FM: “Reading, ‘Riting and Rock and Roll”.

It was a time of great political and social change in Australia – did it feel like you were part of a movement, along with the other first-wave of licenced community stations?

It definitely felt like we were part of a movement. There was that cultural ferment in Melbourne – we had a number of volunteers who were part of the punk scene and there were lots of pub-size gigs by local and overseas bands from the punk and New Wave movements. A lot of our graphics from that time reflect the jagged aesthetic of punk.

At the time we were too busy living Australia’s cultural coming of age to think of it that way, but through its programming and the voice it gave to alternative culture of all kinds 3RRR most definitely contributed to it.

We had been among the founding members of the Public Broadcasting Association of Australia (PBAA), as the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia (CBAA) was then known, though we were a bit of an outlier in terms of our approach. We felt a strong kinship with 4ZZZ , which was based at the University of Queensland, and of course with the ABC’s Double, later Triple J, both of which were firmly entrenched in youth culture, as it was called.

There was a strong sense of camaraderie between all the community stations at the time, regardless of their focus, and the PBAA was a welcoming place and an effective campaign organisation on behalf of us all. I was the national secretary for a period and made a number of trips to Canberra to join lobbying expeditions to persuade the relevant federal department and minister of the importance of maintaining the access of community organisations to the world of radio: the commercial stations were constantly arguing to reduce our access and impact. Moss Cass had managed to create something really important by the skin of his teeth in 1975, and we were lucky that the Minister for Communications in Fraser’s Liberal government was Tony Staley, who saw the value in community radio and fended off attacks from commercial interests and conservative members of his party.

How did you balance the requirements of the 3RMT original educational license with the maverick reputation 3RRR was carving in those early years?

There was semi-constant stream of criticism and questioning of why an educational station would be playing the music we were, why we needed to broadcast 24 hours, and why we had programming that voiced some pretty radical views. It was a struggle to keep volunteer presenters on the straight and narrow when it came to saying ‘fuck’ on air or playing records that included the word. In fact, after complaints to the Broadcasting Tribunal our first full licence was granted only for one year and labelled ‘Provisional’ – but somehow we got through the 12-month review and subsequent licence renewals.

The most entertaining complaint came via The Truth newspaper, a scandal sheet if ever there was one. The cover one week was devoted to a headline screaming “Archbishop Slams Radio Beauty” alongside a picture of Robyn Archer, whose Menstruation Blues had featured on the feminist program Give Men A Pause. The Catholic Archbishop probably wouldn’t have known about it if the journalist Dave Dawson hadn’t thought to ask him. As co-presenter (with local music identity Keith Glass) of High In The Saddle, a country music program on 3RRR, Dave was most likely working on the presumption that all publicity is good publicity, though it didn’t feel like it to us at the time. Interestingly, the job of smoothing the waters with the Give Men A Pause team fell to Michael McKenna who went on to become the Catholic Bishop of Bathurst!

Our argument was that as an educational station we aimed to reach a young audience and couldn’t do that by running recordings of university lectures. We weren’t ‘university of the air’ and no one was obliged to listen to us.

We needed to make our talk shows just as appealing as the music ones – and the music shows were educational in themselves, due to their variety and the deep knowledge of their enthusiast presenters.

As everyone reading this knows, good quality spoken word programming is time and labour-intensive, so inevitably there would be more music than talk in a day’s broadcasting.

Front cover of 3RRR booklet

There was a loose grouping of the community stations with Educational licences around the country. I organised an educational radio conference quite early on, partly to shore up the legitimacy of the approach 3RRR was taking. We chose Trinity College at Melbourne University as the venue, and invited the ABC Science Show’s Robyn Williams to be the keynote speaker. Robyn was already (deservedly) a national living treasure – and undoubtedly an ‘educator’ – at that time, and it worked. I hope it was useful for the more conventional E Class stations as well.

You moved on from 3RRR in 1981, what did you do then?

By the end of 1980 I was ready to move on – I’d been spending barely one night a fortnight at home for over three years and things at home and work were wearing thin. I took a break with an overseas trip looking at community radio in the US and Europe that year and fell in love with New York. I decided to head back there once I’d solved the urgent need to find new accommodation for the station and, early in 1981, after signing the lease on a big space at the Universal Workshop in Fitzroy, I did just that.

I spent a year freelancing as a journalist in New York seeing practically every band I’d ever wanted to (everyone passed through New York in the course of a year), while writing and doing radio journalism about music, psychoanalysis and the move of 60s radicals into electoral politics, among other topics.

Having fallen in love just before I left for New York, I decided to come back to Australia after a year (Mark Burford and I are still together). While in New York I’d interviewed the New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael on why Americans seemed fascinated with Australian cinema: she was not among the fans, calling My Brilliant Career ‘polite taxidermy’. Back home, now in Sydney, I decided to take that subject further and wrote a book called 35mm Dreams – Conversations with Five Australian Film Directors, and another with Peter Hamilton called American Dreams: Australian Movies, consisting of interviews with people from both countries and all facets of the film industry. I also turned that research into a four-part radio series of the same name for the ABC and NPR in the US.

A stint in policy work at the Australian Film Commission and later at the ABC was followed by a move back to Melbourne, some work producing in ABC television (including with the ill-fated and unlamented late afternoon show Countdown Revolution). Next came an independent film production company in partnership with the writer/director Peter Jordan. We made one successful documentary, The Sleep of Reason, but struggled to find the magic overlap of good ideas with financing after that.

Tell us about your environmental & sustainable development work through The Mullum Trust.

By the late 1990s I was wrestling with an equation many women will recognise: young children plus ageing and ailing parents equals not a lot of time for career projects. My mother had set up a small philanthropic foundation with her inheritance in the 1980s. It was called The Mullum Trust , named for the creek that ran past the place where we lived, in Donvale, which was a bushy orchard outer suburb when the family moved there in 1958. After my mother died my brothers and I decided to keep the trust going (Mum had set it up so that we were free to dissolve it if we chose), and narrowed its focus to environment, since that was a concern we all shared.

My brother Steve is an ecologist and through him we discovered many important projects and organisations desperate for funding. We learned how central climate change is to many of these problems, and how critically urgent it is to do something about it, for humans as much as for other creatures. As a small foundation we spent quite a bit of effort talking with other philanthropists, organising collaborations that could expand the impact of our funding. The Mullum Trust was a foundation member of the Australian Environmental Grantmakers Network (AEGN), and for nine years I served as a member of the AEGN Board.

At the same time, we had to decide what to do with our own inheritance – some land in Fitzroy, and in Donvale, where we had grown up. We resolved to try to put our environmental principles into practice, firstly building some sustainable apartments in Fitzroy. While the building was cutting edge in its adoption of sustainable building principles, and residents seem to love living there, planning roadblocks meant that it was a considerably less than financially rewarding experience.

Despite having learned the hard way that property development has many traps for young players, we ploughed on with subdividing the land we’d grown up on and loved. Donvale was now an area that was becoming crowded with McMansions, and mini-McMansions, mostly without concern for environmental performance or care for the landscape around them.

We donated half of our land – the portion with the creek frontage and most of the remnant bushland – to council for public open space, and created housing blocks on the remainder. This time we were not the builders. With help from environmental design experts, we developed an extensive set of guidelines ensuring that everything built on the estate would ‘tread lightly on the earth’. Purchasers of the blocks at Mullum Creek (as the development is called) are legally bound to follow the guidelines, and have advice and assistance from a Design Review Committee the family employs to make it as easy possible, and to check that all designs do accord with the Guidelines. Many of the purchasers do so willingly, and almost all are grateful for the comfort and cost savings from living in an energy efficient home.

Triple R has been a defining part of Melbourne’s cultural life for 45+ years – did you have any sense in those formative years that the station would become such a powerhouse?

We knew in our hearts that what we were creating was significant and real, rooted as it was in a living culture that until that time had few connections to the mainstream.

My involvement now is mostly as a listener and subscriber, but I’ve loved the times I’ve been invited back. I particularly enjoyed the nostalgia of the 40th anniversary exhibition at the State Library in 2016. We were all so young, as the photos and videos showed – 40 years hence was an unimaginable place. But not quite another country – as it turns out we do things not so very differently here, and Triple R is still a powerhouse in Melbourne’s cultural life.

What is the most memorable moment during your time as Station Manager in the 1970’s?

Back in 1978-79, the Fraser government’s ‘razor gang’ was cutting funding to tertiary institutions. RMIT was hit hard and, perhaps still uncertain of the real value of this strange radio creation, decided to save money by letting the licence go and closing the station. But we were not going down without a fight, and turned to our audience with the first Radiothon appeal for direct support. The authorities were astonished when we raised over $35,000 – more than $200,000 today – from listeners to the station. We had our first fundraising concert in RMIT’s Story Hall.

I think that standing there in the huge crowd listening to Jo Jo Zep and the Falcons and realising that the station was going to live another day was probably my most memorable moment.

The upshot was that RMIT agreed that if we could get commitments from other institutes and universities to back the station they would continue to provide administrative support but make a significantly reduced contribution. At its peak, the Triple R Consortium consisted of six of Melbourne’s tertiary institutions, but to its credit RMIT remained the primary backer for a long time. Since then, the station has been entirely supported by a mixture of sponsorships and listener support.

How would you describe the role and importance of community broadcasting in the media landscape in Australia today?

Community radio today is so much bigger and more diverse than it was back then, in terms of size, location and programming. It has become deeply embedded in 450+ communities of location and communities of interest, and in the process greatly enriched the lives and expanded the horizons of millions of Australians, while deepening their connections with their local communities.

And attempts to limit its funding and access to emerging technologies haven’t gone away, as the budget cuts that prompted the great Keep Community Radio campaign of 2016 demonstrated.

The battle over the internet giants paying for news content is a reminder of how precious independent sources of news and information are. There’s a theory that the spread of conspiracy thinking that may be attributed in part to people feeling disconnected from their society, their culture and their neighbours: global evildoing c an appear a satisfying explanation for why things seem so bad. Community radio can be something of an antidote to that alienation, both for those who make it and for the many more who tune in.

Know any community broadcasting trailblazers?

This story is part of a series of a in-depth interviews (scroll through our stories page to read others) with community broadcasting trailblazers and others who have made a lasting contribution to community media. If you’d like us to profile someone at your station, please get in touch.

Photos: (top) Sue Mathews at the 40th anniversary celebration at the State Library of Victoria in 2016 – photo by Tony Proudfoot Photography, (middle) detail of the cover of the 3RRR booklet written by Sue Mathews in 1977 – cover artwork by Philip Brophy.