Fifty years ago a reporter had to pull apart a landline phone to send their audio back to the studio, now it’s as easy as tapping a button on of a mobile phone.
On September 4, 1967, the first AM program played across Australia, forever changing the way Australians received their morning news.
Until that day Australians got their first dose of news from papers printed the night before, or brief updated snippets read live on radio by newsreaders.
Over the past 50 years the program has adapted and evolved with the times, but its original ethos has remained the same.
“To bring to Australians as quickly as possible the essence of the news, commentary, interviews. That was how it started and that’s how it is today,” Paul Raffaele, who was part of the original team of AM reporters, said.
Raffaele was a young reporter working in Adelaide in 1967 when he heard about the show and decided to “give this new program something extra, not just straight news”.
Raffaele headed down to the local sideshow alley to speak to Samson the Strongman, the razor-eating man who was in the process of consuming an entire car over the course of a year.
“Because I liked sound, I thought [I] would bring the listener in to what was actually happening, so I tried to figure out on the spot what I [could] do to get that across to the listener,” he said.
Raffaele sent the story to the AM team in Sydney, and not only was it played on the show, it was also chosen by BBC Today to be played in a story swap between the two programs.
“It went crazy, it went all over the world,” Paul said.
“There was a lot of improvisations, we were the pioneers, it didn‘t exist before AM. We were making it up as we went.”
We’ve come a long way from the early days
One big thing that has changed since 1967 is the technology delivering radio news to listeners.
Raffaele said in the beginning when a reporter was on the road the only way for them to send their audio back to the studio was by using alligator clips to attach their tape recorder to a telephone.
“We’d go into the phone booth, unscrew the [mouthpiece] of the phone, we’d have alligator clips we’d plug into the [recorder] outlet and [the phone].
“Before that we’d alert AM that we were about to send it in so many minutes, we’d then ring up and when they came on the line we’d press the [play] button and send it down.”
Peter Cave, former AM reporter and presenter, said it was not uncommon for journalists to politely ask the person they were interviewing whether they could commandeer their phone.
“It always evoked a bit of distress, [after] interviewing someone at their house and we’d ask ‘oh by the way can I pull your phone apart?’ That always raised a few eyebrows,” he said.
“Generally public phones were pretty vandal proof, you couldn’t clip on them properly, so you had to find a private person who would lend you a phone.
“So you’d go to someone’s house, or a milk bar, or a business, or hotel — but you had to find a phone.”
These days reporters are able to send audio straight from their smart phones.
But back then, without a phone line, a reporter had no way of getting their audio back. And sometimes, depending on their location, the hunt for a phone could take hours.
“When you were overseas it was a lot more problematic,” Cave said.
“When I was in the war in the former Yugoslavia and going from the hotel in Zagreb to Croatia, the nearest phone was a six-hour drive away sometimes.
Of course, the practice of clipping recorders to phones was not entirely welcomed by authorities.
The postmaster-general’s department, which was were running the telephone system in those days, worried that reporters tinkering with phones would result in their technicians being electrocuted.
“You had to be very careful because if the phone rang while you were doing this connection, it actually sent quite a jolt of electricity through the phone line to make it ring and that would be a bit painful,” Cave said.
He said it was not just phone technicians unhappy about the practice — hotel management would often call reporters to the front desk and demand to know what had happened to their phones.
“If I was staying at a hotel for any period of time… I would pull the wall apart and solder a couple of wires on to the phone and leave them hanging out,” he said.
“So I suppose all over Europe and half of the Americas there may still be phones sitting there with wires soldered on and sticking out that we used to connect to.”
Over time technology began to change, making reporters’ work easier and allowing them to file live from anywhere in the world.
“We got little satellite transmitters, ADSL satellite phones, various bits of equipment that compacted a sound signal and sent it through a phone line,” Cave said.
“And the quality became better, the communications became better. We had all these ways of not only filing, but also keeping across the story.”
Cave said the changing technology not only allowed reporters to file quickly and easily, it also enabled them to know what was happening at anytime anywhere in the world, no matter where they were.
“In the old days you had no idea,” he said.
A shift in location leads AM further down the political road
Linda Mottram, the show’s presenter from 2001 to 2003, said AM today was different to the program of the past, due largely to a shift in the coverage of politics.
“How we work in Canberra has changed, and Australian programs like AM do way more political interviews than say our American counterparts or our British counterparts,” she said.
“The other thing that’s changed of course is we’ve had presenters based in Canberra.”
“The shift to a Canberra presenter, based in Federal Parliament with a political producer, which we never used to have, has really kind of honed that focus.”
Michael Brissenden, a former presenter, said basing the presenter in Canberra turned AM into a “much more political program than it was”.
“AM gets many more important and critical political interviews now because of that.
“It has helped it cement it even more strongly into the political discourse of the day. And I think the politicians all recognise that.”
Brissenden said it also meant the presenter had more of an editorial role.
“I think it’s been overall a really good thing for the program, because it’s given it a new push and impetus,” he said.
“And also as a presenter it’s much more interesting as well, because you’re much more thoroughly involved in the day to day editorial direction of the program.”
Of course, rubbing shoulders with political leaders all day does not come without some tension, especially after a tough interview.
“They don’t expect you to be their friends, but at the same time no one likes to be held to account in ways that they, for whatever reasons, don’t think is reasonable,” Brissenden said.
“It’s a very close sort of world in Canberra as well, as anybody who has worked here knows. We work in the building, our studio is in the building, we interact with these people all the time.
“Because we’re all in such close proximity of each other, that can be uncomfortable at times.
“But having said that, that’s the cut and thrust of politics, they get it, we get it.
“You have to ask tough questions, you have to ask the questions that the politicians don’t like otherwise you’re not doing your job.”
So what’s next for AM?
Sabra Lane, the current presenter of the program, said while Australians have never had so many different ways to receive their news, AM remained a crucial start to the day for listeners.
“In an era of digital disruption, AM stands alone in providing a concise collection of accurate, balanced and compelling information about the major political, business, international and social issues at the start of most days,” she said.
“I believe the program will continue to be regarded as important ‘appointment’ listening on radio, as listeners tune in to hear up-to-date information and analysis on breaking news events and emergencies here and around the world.
“The audience also tunes in to hear the nation’s political and business leaders being held to account for the decisions they make.
“We’re also reaching audiences in more ways than ever before. With the ABC Radio app, you can hear AM and its stories online or on your phone at any time of the day.
“And you can already hear our content on the next wave of new devices, like Google Home.
“Basing AM in Canberra in recent years has meant politicians of all hues regard the program as an essential opportunity to explain policy and politics.
“Technology has liberated the show, allowing us to have ‘open air studios’ broadcasting live from locations around Australia to highlight important issues.
“Recent examples include the Indigenous referendum summit in Uluru earlier this year, and our trip through the Murray Darling Basin to find out how communities are coping with changes in water policy.
“We’ll continue that tradition as the digital era provides more opportunities to take the program to the people and hear directly from them about the issues that matter to Australians.”