SWR 99.9 FM was originally formed by Enayat Khan, Paul Matthews and Ken Jones in November 1991. The unincorporated group conducted it’s first test in January 1992. The station was formed out of dissatisfaction with other community stations and aspirant groups in areas adjacent to Blacktown, and out of the need for Blacktown to have it’s own station.
The principals (Enayat, Ken & Paul) had observed that it was common for community radio stations to impose unfair controls and bias towards different volunteers in their groups – in particular the young. The principals believed that the absolute first priority of a community station is to provide unbiased and simple access for “the man on the street” directly to the microphone of a community station without having to put up with the politics and power games which often dissolve the “fun” of Community Radio into a shouting match of dribble, and misery. The ideal location for such an “open access” community service was Blacktown, with such a large representation of young and often vilified people. Through all it’s troubles and success SWR-FM has survived to become a unique force in Community Radio.
SWR has hit 30 years of history. And that’s enough history to fill a book. And you are looking at that book, right here. Very few community stations have documented their history the way SWRFM has since it’s inception. The SWRFM story you are about to read could be the story of any community station in Australia. So enjoy. We did.
ANCIENT HISTORY | SOWING THE SEEDS OF SWR
Once upon a time waaaay back in 1981…. there were three high school mates and a teacher. The teacher (let’s call him “Schistdisc”) was enthusiastically involved in a new concept – Community radio – and one of Sydney’s very first “general area” low power stations – 2VTR in Windsor – was just starting up. The school English Mistress was excited about the possibilities as they were discussed in staff meetings and in collaboration with the three students.. lets call them Paul, Dean and Enayat.. a “school radio station” was soon set up in a room in the school’s library using a disco mixer, a few turntables, an old valve PA amp and a squawky horn speaker mounted on the end of the Agriculture block. It wasn’t long before the sounds of Jona Lewie and INXS were added to the Lunchtimes of the school.. and the perpetrators of the scheme with eyes wide shut, looked further a field for grander possibilities. Soon many students, with the help of the teacher, were finding their way into 2VTR at Windsor on the weekends to do top 40 music shows. And the crowd loved it. And everything was rosy, fuzzy and warm.. except for the annoying fact that due to it’s 20watt mono signal, 2VTR could barely be received in the suburb where the school was. Not a few years afterwards everyone went their separate ways, the old horn speaker finally fell as the Agriculture block was demolished to make way for a new jail (whoops) senior school and the college years rolled in.
And.. four years later in 1987… rolled out again. And as if time had stood still Paul and Enayat (this time without Dean, who had mysteriously vanished) again found themselves in the same “toilet block” studio and pushing a new wave of music through the now ageing 2VTR equipment. Mr Schistdisk (now the station’s volunteer manager) occasionally listened in. 1987 and 1988 came and went, and in 1989 a new young female broadcaster had joined the station playing music styles that neither Paul, Enayat or (it seemed) many of the other station personnel appreciated. In a disgusting episode of cooperative intimidation she was soon dispatched by the stations’ management committee, to the disgust of Paul and Enayat. Around them, the station (still using it’s now moth infested 20w transmitter equipment) was falling apart. Friday evenings soon resembled a travelling show with everything from mixers, CD players and even monitor speakers having to be bought from home “because the station’s ones were broken” meanwhile the management squandered it’s meagre budget on outside broadcast caravans. That is when they even had a budget – since most of the time nobody ever seemed to be bothered to collect the airtime fees.
“What if there was a “real” Community Radio station.. you know.. one where anyone could come and broadcast anything they wanted.. you know.. one where all the gear worked.. and where the music tastes of management were not imposed on the broadcasters… you know… what if…??…
But it was not to be.. yet. In 1989 and very frustrated, Paul and Enayat finally said their good byes to Mr Schistdisk, who seemed to be as disgusted at the situation as they were. But with two young children in the volunteer managers’ arms, Community Radio took a very back seat. The idea sat in their minds.
A strong priority of the principal founding members of SWR was to pursue the best possible radio coverage for a low power station, so everyone could easily pick it up in their cars, homes and places of work. At SWR, technical issues involving the transmitter and antenna have always taken the highest priority often leaving little volunteer time for anything else in the past.
SWR-FM extensively tested six different transmitter sites in Blacktown in six years. It also worked closely with the Australian Broadcasting Authority to assist not only SWR-FM but other community aspirants in Western Sydney to prove that 200kHz spacing in adjacent areas can and does, work – allowing more community broadcasters to exist ina common area. The rewards for this technical effort are now obvious; SWR-FM’s currently covers Blacktown and Fairfield very well with a quality stereo signal, an area serving over 450,000 people – more than twice that of most other metropolitan community stations, but with technical specifications the same as everyone else – and only 200kHz spaced with other services nearby. In fact SWR-FM can still be heard clearly in most parts of the Sydney Metropolitan Area serving over 3 million potential listeners.
IT IS BETTER TO HAVE LOVED AND LOST, THAN TO HAVE NEVER LOVED…
In 1991 a newspaper article drew Paul’s attention to a new group being formed in St Marys – a community radio station being set up in Collins St. “WOW” Paul thought.. finally an opportunity to be involved with a station he could actually pick up in his own suburb. Bounding with energy he walks into the shabby run down house and meets the equally enthusiastic (but very green) volunteer manager.
It was perfect. All the hard work had been done. They already had a building and everything. All they needed was someone with a shred of technical knowledge to get them on the air. A symbiotic relationship. In three months Paul and Enayat borrowed equipment from anywhere they could and had “WOW FM” ready for their first fantastic test broadcast. And it was going to be great. And then it got better.
From out of the blue a dorky guy wearing shorts in the freezing cold and driving a Hiace van covered in ladders and antennas, walks in. Being a RF engineer and interested in Broadcasting, he had contacted the CBAA a week beforehand and they had dropped the news about the happenings in St Marys, suggesting he might want to pay a visit. We’ll call him Ken.
And now the two were three. Paul, Enayat and Ken. Watch out world. Within a week 100 watts of glory shot out all over St Marys and everybody was having fun. But then something went terribly wrong in heaven. People who Paul, Ken and Enayat had never seen before, suddenly came in and took control. People who had not been present at any of the committee meetings. People who did not want open access. It became apparent that the group had no formal membership, was not incorporated at all, had no constitution and for all it’s worth, was controlled by a single person – who wanted the station to be an ethnic language station. In fact it later became apparent that this same small group of people were really part of another (later unsuccessful) group contending the (then available) Sydney wide ethnic license now operated by Radio 2000 FM and had no interest in the local area at all. With nowhere to go the plug was pulled and WOW in St Marys was off the air. Pausing only to collect the equipment, Paul, Enayat and Ken again found themselves out on the front lawn. The “What if” discussions started up again. Was it time? Could it be now? The time for truly accessible community radio.. could it be here?
THE UNWANTED CHILD IS BORN – SUNDAY 12TH JANUARY 1992.
It took another nine months before our three human figures (having taken holidays from their regular jobs) could be found rummaging around in the back room of an old Church in Mt Druitt setting up equipment in January 1992.. for SWRFM’s first test broadcast. Intended as more of a joke than any serious attempt at community radio and perhaps more than a hint of payback aimed at WOW FM. Nobody ever thought it would be anything more than just a week of fun. The ambitious 7 day test included live bands days, live outside broadcasts and established technical benchmarks, being received over a huge area with only 100 watts and a home made antenna. What a blast
Problem was.. it worked. Suddenly people came out of the woodwork everywhere. People who wanted to be involved. More dedicated volunteers. People who wanted more. More SWR. Darn. What have we done. Soon after in May 1992 the unwanted baby formed by that first ramshackle test broadcast became the “SWRFM Public Radio Association”.
Incorporated with 12 members, CBAA financial membership and no idea. With the introduction of the new Broadcasting Services Act looming a new dawn of opportunity promised for the future. A time where community licences would be gazetted and issued in only a few years. A veritable golden age of prosperity where licenses would come like running water.. and with new technical parameters allowing much larger coverage with higher power than ever before. “Yes.. it must be worth it. Lets do it. SWRFM. Lets go for it.”
AN ORPHAN GOES TO SCHOOL
At the time SWRFM was very much in competition with WOW FM (which had since found new technical staff to help them) and both organizations became aspirants for “Western Sydney”, no such actual license area being defined as yet.
Ken, Paul and Enayat very much “equally owned SWRFM” at this point. The station broadcasted in 7 and 9 day bursts of activity a couple of times a year, being given a maximum of 30 days’ per year to test – this being the limitations at the time under the old testing regime. Early SWRFM tests became a Goliath technical effort, each test surpassing the last.
SWR initially broadcast on 88.3MHz. This was changed to 100.3MHz when the frequency became available due to the closing of WIN-4′s VHF TV broadcasts in Wollongong. It was felt the new frequency was more “in the middle” of the band (and thus easier to find) and there was better potential to be able to provide a (slightly) higher powered service than on 88.3MHz, which was then in itself “assumed” by WOW in St Marys. When 100.3MHz was chosen handshake agreements were made between a newly formed aspirant (AIR-FM in Penrith) to use 100.7MHz and agreement made (with difficulty) with the ABA to test the concept of 400kHz adjacent services with the two aspirants.
The first problem occurred in the November 1992 test when it was found that our transmissions in Emerton on 100.3MHz caused problems with Channel 9 TV reception in the area. This previously did not happen with 88.3MHz. The reason was mainly due to our strong signal “saturating” (distorting) the inputs of viewers’ TV sets and creating a harmonic on 200.6MHz – right on top of Channel 9′s color carrier. It just so happened that the first weekend of our test clashed with the NRL Grand Final.
While it was proven that the problem could often be solved with filters in viewer’s homes the need to do this for perhaps 300 surrounding homes was financially beyond the reach of SWR-FM and in any case our occupation of the Emerton site was terminated shortly after the third test. The test proved that to avoid interference problems in broadcasting on 100.3MHz, our transmitter would have to be located in a non – residential area.
In early 1993 an interest group loosely supported by Blacktown Council and known as the “Friends of SWR-FM” began. The group remained separate to SWR due to the need to ensure that Council were not seen as supporting an aspirant (who were not “guaranteed” a licensed service). In cooperation with the “Friends” SWR conducted a short test broadcast in March 1993 to cover the Blacktown Show. The Transmissions came from the top of Council’s Civic Centre in Blacktown City, while a mobile studio (in a caravan borrowed from 2RRR) was established at Blacktown Showgrounds, and a temporary studio also established at Doonside High School, both linked to Civic Centre using UHF links. Ironically the borrowed OB van at the Showground was situated less than 10 metres from SWRFM’s current studios today!
This landmark test was successful (and VERY demanding on the technical staff) with three days “live” from the show and many programs also from Doonside including a great “Live” dance party in the school hall to wrap up the test. The Civic Centre broadcast experienced coverage problems to the North West due to shading caused by the adjacent “Westpoint” building. there were problems receiving the signal in Mt Druitt, Plumpton and Riverstone.
With continued assistance from the “Friends” SWR conducted it’s next test from Whalan with it’s transmitter at Huntingwood linked by UHF link. Programming-wise this test was pivotal for SWR, a time when we gained many new and long time broadcasters. However problems were experienced with the link – it was just too far – and the low location of Whalan Community Centre and high trees surrounding it meant that listeners heard a noisy, mono signal. Soon after this test Prospect Electricity became less friendly and so the Huntingwood site was abandoned. In fact Huntingwood was “too good” – while it left holes in the Blacktown area, it was too easily received in Sydney’s northern suburbs.
Using the “Friends”, negotiations continued towards the possibility of acquiring the Whalan site which was otherwise not utilised effectively for Council and was costing them alot of money. Meanwhile new contacts were established to site the transmitter atop the hotel adjacent to the Rooty Hill RSL Club. The deal for this test was “supposedly” assured and so planning for the October ‘93 test (to be much longer than previous tests) proceeded. Imagine our disgust when at the very last minute the RSL Club suddenly refused access to the site worried that the transmission would “affect their poker machines”. No amount of experienced technical evidence could convincetheir “powers that be” of how stupid this idea was, so with only 48 hours before the start of our next test SWR was without a transmitter site.
Through an amazingly fast series of 11th hour deals between Mt Druitt TAFE’s Electrical Engineering division and Ken and Paul (who had both attended Mt Druitt TAFE and completed most of their qualifications there in the past) a transmitter site was established there and the test began only 12 hours late. The TAFE college later became a major SWR-FM sponsor as a result, and a 5 year lease was eventually signed for the transmitter site. However SWR was having other problems as well.
The extended broadcast schedule (24 days straight) in October 1993 proved too ambitious for the group. Tempers frayed, the financial position floundered and then security at the Whalan Centre became a major issue, such that shortly after the test the Whalan site was declared unsuitable and abandoned.
The aftermath of the October 1993 test burnt out many volunteers and some left. Those who remained faced apathy from Blacktown Council who (as can be expected) were not game to make any decisions quickly. Despite this, the “Friends” group (now thinned considerably) continued to meet and locations continued to be discussed.
The situation looked hopeless.
Research had been undertaken, committees formed, rules written. The group’s membership had grown, and attitudes changed. It had been great fun.. and that’s all that mattered. One objective however never changed – Open access. Everyone was welcomed to take a timeslot, whoever rocked up to the front door was given a slot, sat down in front of the equipment and given a chance. In some cases that cost the station it’s dignity.. but it didn’t matter. SWR had been the community on the air. It sounded fantastic.
THE CHILD MOVES IN WITH ENAYAT
And then in January 1994 something curious happened. Something which would happen again and again for years to come. The discarded, unwanted child of Community Radio was saved by one of our heroes. This first time it was Enayat who found and secured a lease on a small, run down council building in the middle of nowhere – the “Greenhouse”.
“Coming?” Enayat asked on the ‘phone.
“Where”? said Ken & Paul
“SWR”.. remarked Enayat. “I’m going down to start building a studio. Coming??”
Ken and Paul look at each other. Each knew deep inside that neither had the time, inclination nor strength to do SWRFM again.
“Awww.. Come on.. we can’t let him go down there by himself now, can we?.. he’s our mate after all..”
And so SWRFM moved into it’s next phase of aspirant life as a Weekend Broadcaster with the ABA agreeing in February 1994 to allow the 90 days to be used up by broadcasting every weekend only.. thus giving the station an almost “full time” identity – far better than the bursts of activity of previous years.
“It’s only until 1995.. come on guys.. we can do it. They’ll be handing licenses out in 2 years.. c’mon, we only have to keep the thing alive a few more years and then it’ll run itself”.
“Awww.. I guess so..” mumbled Ken and Paul. Oh how WRONG they were.
THE WEEKEND TESTING ERA BEGINS
Enayat Khan went forward to secure a “handshake lease” on part of an old building in Aqulina Reserve used as a “Clubhouse” (which we had all seen empty as we drove to the “Friends” meetings) and managed by a Parks Committee headed by Alderman Kathie Collins – sufficiently separate from the politics of Council to enable it to “sign a deal” with SWR without requiring anyone sticking their necks out at a Council meeting. A low rent was secured and Enayat declared that SWR was not finished yet!
So again (!) the principals rallied their friends and a number of local businesses for materials, and built SWR’s third studio which sat in the Greenhouse on Eastern Road.
Of course this plan meant we could no longer rely on “borrowed” equipment – we HAD to have our own transmitter and link equipment, as the Greenhouse site was not suitable as a broadcast site. Enayat purchased a transmitter (which remained in his ownership) and Blacktown Council chipped in with a $1100 grant to enable the installation of a simple 4 wire Telstra line (at that time charged on a concession rate) between the Greenhouse and the TAFE College to carry our broadcast to the world. There had been a longstanding attempt by Paul to influence the sites The Greenhouse—Photographed one day before it was finally demolished to make way for the new Olympic Precinct. chosen by SWR so that the studio and transmitter were in the same Telstra exchange area (in this case Rooty Hill) to enable this low cost option to remain possible. It paid off, And in April 1994 SWR again graced the airwaves – a new era was born – the Weekend SWR era.
The initial performance of the 4 wire line was worse than hoped due to the presence of a long, very old paper insulated main telephone cable under Rooty Hill Road South which served the area and a combined loop distance of 7km. Eventually it was possible to install some good quality line equalisers (thanks Jim) in Rooty Hill exchange itself which solved the problem. Over the following years SWR struggled on, waiting and waiting for the licensing process to begin. 1994 came and went.. 1995.. 1996… and the aim of the principals at this time was merely to keep the station “above water” until someone could save it. The problem is that we began to get used to tuning in to Zaghet every Saturday morning, and somehow it just wasn’t the weekend anymore without hearing someone play Colleen’s 1993 vintage “S.W.R.FM” Crash Promo across the air. The 1995/96 era was spent patching and patching and applying even more band aids to our antiquated transmitting system.
THE BATTLE FOR WESTERN SYDNEY BEGINS
Meanwhile over at WOW things were also exploding. The team that had replaced our heroes in 1992 (Let’s call them Clive and Steve), after pouring countless months of their own effort into the WOWFM project, again found themselves suddenly surrounded by mysterious people from the dark corners of the Association, the same as had happened in 1991 to Our Heroes. People who never showed their faces until “certain questions” were asked. Questions about the ethnic mix of the station’s programming, and ways in which it might be possible to “open up” the station to more different formats. And again another dedicated team of volunteers found themselves on the back foot of WOW FM and out in the cold.
“They’ve done it again.. WOW’s kicked out their whole on air and technical staff”.. said Ken
“I wonder what they will do.. maybe they’ll go it alone? said Paul.
“Let’s ask them”.. suggested Enayat, and soon afterwards, “AIR FM” in Penrith was born in 1994. Totally separate
from SWRFM but both containing members who had previously been “burnt” and split from WOW FM.
One of the results of this “coalition” was the eventual definition of the Penrith and Blacktown licence areas. Up until this point with only WOW and SWR it had been assumed that only one license would ever be gazetted for the combined Western Sydney area of Penrith and Blacktown. However through an exhaustive series of technical tests on transmitter sites and new frequencies in 1995 SWR and AIR established that it was quite feasible to operate two separate stations in each district (Penrith and Blacktown).. leaving WOW in the middle at St Marys. The push was on to convince the ABA to issue two licenses instead of just one.
And so SWR and AIR altered their focus respectively to cover only Blacktown and Penrith, with SWR even re – drafting it’s rules to exclude membership of residents outside the Blacktown licence area and changing it’s name to “Blacktown City Community Radio Association Inc” in 1995 – just to demonstrate to the authorities that SWRFM was now purely dedicated to the Blacktown area only. This left AIR to handle Penrith from their established transmitter site in Werrington and left WOW FM the “piggy in the middle” with no clear focus or aims. The strategy was to convince the ABA that two separate stations were the way to go for Western Sydney – and that SWR and AIR should be the favoured aspirants for those services. With a promise of the Sydney Frequency Allotment Plan commencing in early 1996 this seemed like a good strategy and our heroes continued to “keep SWR afloat in a lifeboat” awaiting the rescue by the License Area Plan process.
By this time however and unknown to any of the aspirants the rot had truly set in at the ABA and the Sydney LAP was repeatedly delayed first by months and then years, again and again and again. The life boat was getting full of holes and by the end of 1997 the SWR balance sheet was becoming flooded in red ink.
THAT BLOODY SPACE PROBE
In late 1995 a new symbol rose from the ground at Australias’ Wonderland, a theme park in Eastern Creek since sold and demolished in 2004. It was “Space Probe 7″. “We simply MUST test from there” said Enayat.. “It’s perfect!!”. And so Enayat approached Wonderland and gained a handshake verbal agreement to install some temporary equipment and conduct a test. Everyone agreed so away we went into a period of SWR History the technical committee would love to forget!
The need to move from TAFE was made worse due to Telstra who had suddenly decided to double our rent on the 4 wire line and remove it from concession status for no reason. This put the line rental beyond the reach of SWR’s meagre weekend budget. Fortunately a few reliable and dedicated members put together a loan to the station and we bought a second hand UHF link.
A few weeks’ later the heavy equipment was duly hauled up 75metres inside the probe by the technical team, installed and switched on in November 1996. Oh what heaven! Our coverage was dramatically improved, especially in the Blacktown CBD itself which was never served very well from the TAFE site (and thus limited our ability to attract sponsors). The money saved from the line rental eventually paid off the loan.
BUT. Only a few months later the failures began. One by one the transmitter, RF amplifier and UHF receiver failed and then failed again and again atop the probe. Every failure meant a 75m climb straight up for Ken, Paul or Peter, with a heavy piece of gear in tow, slung over their back. The problem now was the band aid solutions of the past – now falling apart atop the damp, corrosive environment at the top of the tower. As a result SWR was often reduced to low power transmissions from the probe. Throughout 1997 the problems sapped and wasted time for the technical committee and lowered morale. The problem needed to be fixed.
In September ’97 the committee spent 10 hours one night hauling up new enclosures for the equipment and reinstalling it in a safer, more permanent fashion in the hope that the problems would be solved. Instead the problem became the management of Wonderland itself who claimed that the alterations had not been authorised, when in fact they were – two months before. In the intervening time it seems the management of Wonderland had changed no less than eight times! The temporary deal was over.. and SWR was off air again.
In January 1998 SWR took the decision to abandon Space Probe, the site was just too hard to work. We returned briefly to the TAFE College however found that it was impossible to get the UHF link to work there (you will remember that the Telstra lines had long since been disconnected).
ENAYAT DROPS THE BALL AND KEN SWEEPS IN FROM BEHIND
“This time I’ve had enough” said Enayat. “They can go to hell if this is what we get for all our hard work”.
“Well I must admit it does look pretty grim” repeated Paul. ‘Ive got better things to do than keep SWR going for yet another year”.
In 1998 the life line came from a very unexpected place – the Australian Government – who passed an amendment to the Broadcasting Act allowing TCBL’S (Test Licenses) to be issued on a virtually permanent basis. With no other aspirants anywhere to be seen for the Blacktown licence it was equivalent to a bloody strong and effective life line – as good as a permanent licence – and enough energy to ignite a fire under SWRFM’s next saviour.. Ken.
“I’m taking the transmitter gear down to Horsley Park” said Ken.
“Well why not? Its a bloody good site and my boss said we can test it”..
“C’mon, I’m going down tonight.. I’ve got the antenna and cable ready. C’mon Guys.. let’s go..It’s not too late..” remarked Ken.
“Here we go again” said Paul as he and Enayat turned their trusty steeds up the hill and past the rickety gate towards the new transmitter site.
Confirmation with the ABA’s technical division approved the site relocation and within a month SWR again switched on.. and .. DUDE!!! What awesome coverage! The site was perfect – soaked Blacktown with a stronger stereo signal than SWR had ever done before.. and took in a good slice of Fairfield and Holroyd aswell to boot – and all with only 60 watts. Now you could now drive ’round most parts of Sydney and comfortably pick up SWR!
In fact it had confirmed something Ken had been working to prove for a long time – that there is no difference between conventional “two way” radio practice (which he worked with every day) and broadcasting and the same techniques that presented a clear signal in couriers’ vans around the city, also worked more than admirably for wide band stereo FM audio.
Ken’s installations used simple technology and were almost always vertically polarized. Also the Horsley Park
location works due to ground planing effect of the low antenna (only 15m above ground level) coupled with the very high and ideal site. This allowed Ken to direct the broadcast far more easily into Blacktown—and ultimately secured the final transmitter site that SWRFM continues to use to this day.
Shortly afterwards in an unprecedented community radio sector cooperation between SWRFM Blacktown, AIRFM Penrith and MCRFM in Campbelltown along with the ABA, all three aspirants simultaneously shuffled frequencies to improve separation of their services. This last move basically cemented the technical specifications that exist today for the respective licence areas of Blacktown, Penrith and Campbelltown. The only group that didn’t play ball was Hornsby (on 100.1MHz) who today suffer limited coverage to the South due to their position in relation to SWRFM on 99.9MHz.
In February 1999 the ABA finally released the Sydney Frequency Allotment Plan – and it had worked. There was a perfect copy of the plan the three aspirants had discussed 12 months earlier – using the same transmitter sites and powers and covering the same proposed areas. Two licenses (Penrith and Blacktown) operating from the existing established AIR and SWR test transmission sites.. and no WOW to be seen. Success! All we had to do now was sit back and wait for the License Area Plan and actually apply for the license—all the while keeping SWR running as it was for just a few more years. This itself had been made easier by the fact that now with full time broadcasting the red ink had finally begun to drain from the balance sheets.
A NEIGHBOUR MOVES IN
Slightly earlier one innocent night in mid 1998 Paul had received a phone call from a Mr Tevah from a radio station known as Rio FM. He explained in halted English that the ABA had requested that he speak with Paul about the possibility of sharing (at that time) 100.3MHz. At first Paul was aghast and confused at why the ABA would have done this however confusion soon turned to understanding as he realized that he was likely speaking to SWRFM’s possible first competing aspirant.. or at least that the ABA’s licensing dept had recognized Rio FM as such and confused it with Blacktown, instead of recognizing it as a narrowcaster – which it undoubtedly was.
Satisfaction soon afterwards emerged as he and Ken studied closely the detailed frequency allotment sheet and spacings they had been using when dealing with SWR’s, AIRs and MCR’s own allocations. They recognised that 100.9MHz might be a practical frequency that could be tested in the Bankstown area where Mr Tevah wished to broadcast. Suggesting this to Mr Tevah Paul also then called the ABA technical dept and suggested that Rio be given 100.9MHz to test – this being a “win win” for both sides as the frequency was otherwise unallocated.
Shortly afterwards Mr Tevah commenced broadcasts on 100.9MHz from Chester Hill – in 100% Spanish language – with both Rio and SWR (two totally different organizations with different aims in different areas) broadcasting continuously on two different frequencies.. and life was fine.
KEN DROPS THE BALL, NOW IT’S PAUL’S TURN
Alas the bliss was short lived and problems again begat SWRFM this time from a different source. Due to the impending establishment of an Olympic softball stadium on top of their little Greenhouse, SWRFM was soon to find itself homeless again. This time the enemy was the local council – who in typical style buried the station in bureaucratic stalling for time until the very last minute when that great big Olympic hand finally talked – and SWR was forced to move – in two weeks!
The conditions of the move were appalling. This time it was Paul who took to the challenge spending countless days and weeks of daytime work time wading through offices, paperwork and site inspections before the current site was chosen in Blacktown Showgrounds. The problem was that in order to occupy the site SWRFM would need to spend at least $10k to connect basic services such as power and phone, to convert a neighboring lighting tower to an STL link mast and to effect the actual move of a working radio station.
This was money the station didn’t have and in the end verbal agreement was obtained from Council that the funds be reimbursed before the work finally proceeded. You guessed it.. it took over nine months to get the money back from Blacktown Council.. but that’s another story.
“Hey we’re moving the station on Saturday 7th. The bulldozers are there on Monday Morning”… remarked Paul.
“Damn, I am supposed to work in Melbourne that week. The boss will not be impressed”.. said Ken
“This is the last thing I need” said Enayat.
Enayat looks at Ken.. “Are we going to..??”
“Aww.. come on, we’re that close! This time for sure. We’ll have the license next year it’s a guarantee..”
“OK.. just this one last time then”…
And so SWR had a new (seemingly) permanent home.. and in all fairness it was much better than the last. It was right smack in the middle of Blacktown city and easily accessible, roomy and.. well.. not falling apart like the Greenhouse was. New members and broadcasters continued to file through the doors and start full time broadcasting – there still being no other real competing aspirants. SWRFM – anxious to fill it’s vacant slots—offered discount airtime during the daytime hours. In ignorance Paul allowed over 18 hours (per week) to be offered to an associate (i.e. out of the Blacktown area) member known as a Father Maroun Moussa.. who proceeded to present a religious program which became known as “Voice of Charity”.
THE CONTEST FOR BLACKTOWN HEATS UP
Fr Moussa was the perfect broadcaster. He always paid his airtime fees well in advance and rarely gave any trouble. However complaints soon started to file in about SWRFM’s broadcast format from other members and from Blacktown council itself.. complaints which asked why such a large amount of prime airtime was being used by one single religious group every day of the week. In effect the station devoted so much airtime to this one program daily it was in danger of losing it’s identity altogether.
A programming committee was formed consisting of station members allocated to the committee by the Board. They look more carefully at altering the test programme schedule to make way for other types of program and wherever possible, grouped like programs together to help avoid the “disjointed” programming that otherwise resulted from the “ad hoc” allocation methods used in SWRFM’s past. One change that the committee made soon became apparent.. they moved to restrict non English broadcasts and religious broadcasts – meaning that Fr Moussa (who held more than triple the time per week than any other ethnic broadcaster on SWR) found his airtime was suddenly cut back considerably to match the length of similar programs presented by other ethnic and religious broadcasters.
Imagine the shock when in December 1999 Paul discovered that a group known as “Voice of Charity” had registered itself with the ABA and requested to conduct it’s own test broadcast – on 99.9MHz – in competition with SWRFM – the very same station that Mr Moussa was currently at the time still enjoying 10 hours per week of time happily presenting programs on. SWR was disgusted – Fr Moussa was immediately thrown out of the Association—the first of many legal tests the station would be called to mount in years to come.
But there’s more…”Voice of Charity” then insisted on a meeting to discuss a merge! But “Merger” should not have even been in the sentence since the terms were ludicrous.. 50/50 weekly air time splits, a host of other ridiculous attachments about controlling content of other programs… you name it. With licensing so close and the Voice of Charity argument for the Blacktown license so weak, SWRFM decided to take it’s chances alone and walked away from the table. A wise decision in hindsight.
Remember Rio FM.. the Spanish Broadcaster happily humming away at 100.9MHz? Remember WOW FM.. the piggy in the middle.. and also at the time happily full time TCBL broadcasting on 88.3MHz from St Marys? You guessed it. Crunch time had finally come.
With the release of the final Frequency Allotment Plan by the ABA these two frequencies vanished and the two aspirants using them suddenly found themselves off the air. The 100.9 frequency was swallowed up by relocating existing licensed service 2BCR (which ironically was later revoked in 2006). Rio’s test from Chester Hill had clearly proven it was suitable for service in that area so the ABA jumped at the chance to use it. The ABA were well within their power to recommend to RIO that they should contact 2BCR to negotiate access to do some programs.. after all they were the local community access radio station, and Chester Hill was in it’s license area. However the ABA chose instead to advise them that the only way they could get back on the air was to contend the neighboring Blacktown license against SWRFM – creating a third aspirant for the service. “Voice of Charity” never carried out ANY tests of their own. But RIO did – and as a result SWR were forced to begin sharing 99.9 with RIO in 2001. The complicated TCBL regime in force however gave SWR the “lions share” of the time as RIO were considered to be a “new entrant” to the Blacktown race. SWR lost two 30 day gaps to RIO in 2000 and 2001 – both of which were filled with RIO’s then 100% Spanish broadcasts.
THE BIG RACE IS ON
As for WOW FM and Penrith.. well.. WOW now had almost 10 years of on air experience, had also enacted a forced studio relocation and had a number of new people involved with it. The 7 year old “AIR FM” had however now completely changed their management, aims and objectives, and the case for Penrith was now neck and neck.
Both groups qualifying to share the one remaining Penrith frequency equally, struck a deal to switch over every 3.5 days.. a landmark moment.. literally two different stations sharing the same frequency on a weekly basis and a recipe for utter chaos. Both submitted applications and to all observers the race seemed un-callable. This was especially interesting to SWR who saw the Penrith experience as a litmus test for Blacktown and watched it very closely.
Finally the day came when the Blacktown licence was gazetted. The three aspirants (SWR, RIO and VOC) filed applications in March 2000.
“Ahh, at last.. it’s done. Now it can’t be much longer.. Surely this year!”
“Maybe early 2001.. Not long thats for sure.. We’ll just keep ‘er going another year then she’ll be right”..
With Ken and Enayat well and truly in married life with kids.. Paul was the only single on the team with free time still to burn and with the prospect of success being so close he burnt it harder than ever (including his family in the work tasks – having temporarily located the entire SWRFM office to his home) – at times perhaps a little too hard.
Paul was the kind of person who wanted to get things done and then not have them come back at him and it reflected in the way he administered SWRFM through 2000 and 2001 with a brash and business like style. This often put others on edge – even Ken and Enayat were put off. However with licensing so close it was clear that the management style was as temporary as the TCBL licences that SWR was broadcasting on – which were themselves being issued with less and less notice and for only a few months at a time as the ABA itself were unable to determine exactly when the permanent licence would be issued.
Despite SWRFM now looking like a full time station it was still very much still in a TCBL life boat just the same as it had been three years earlier – just a bigger boat. But still well and truly miles from the safety of shore.
THE RACERS TAKE THEIR MARKS, ONE DROPS OUT
By late 2000 (well after the license application had been lodged) SWRFM was finally beginning to attract people onto it’s Management committees who were becoming sufficiently trained and experienced enough to begin holding the fort on their own. Most of these were younger members and the bulk of the long term experience needed still came from Our Heroes.
A sea change began to sweep it’s way through the station’s policies – changes designed to finally bring it in line with other community stations – and ready it for full time licensed broadcasting which was now seen as imminent. The working committees (Programming, Sponsorship, Publicity and Promotion) were overhauled and given new direction with new members. The constitution, last touched in 1995 and now well and truly out of date received a major rewrite which featured a change to the membership policy to immediately include members from Fairfield and Holroyd local government areas as full voting members. One particular clause which was added at this time was SWRFM’s now famous “Clause 12” – which made it possible for the association membership to expel a member directly without appeal by special resolution. This controversial change came about because of the bad experience gained from the “Voice of Charity” situation—and has served the station well since—giving the members the right to expel a member without necessarily involving the Board of Management where a clear majority agree.
The programming schedule was adjusted to more accurately reflect the ethnic splits that had been proposed in the station’s license application. The situation regarding the other two aspirants (especially RIO) was changing
constantly during this waiting time.
Remember Dean? The mysterious third member of the 1981 School radio station team who vanished without trace? Well lets’ not leave him out of the picture. Interestingly enough Dean suddenly appeared more than 19 years later in the ABA hearing rooms for the Sydney aspirants.. as FREE FM’s programming director! It’s funny how in Community Radio the same names keep popping up again and again as the decades drift by.
The principle problem with RIO (apart from the obvious language barrier) was that it’s controlling legal entity was actually a private company owned solely by Mr Tevah. It later went on to incorporate as an Association but for all sense and purpose trading from the same premises and with the same controlling interests as “Radio Rio” which was actually an “out of band” broadcast 100% Spanish service with a transmitter located at Carlingford.
Fortunately SWRFM’s entire history had been completely clean – SWR could be called a lot of things but could never be passed off as even being remotely linked to a commercial enterprise. It was clear to SWR that Rio was a wolf in sheep’s clothing and any attempt at negotiating peace or merging with them would be an invitation to dinner with the devil. If SWR and Rio were to merge, the ABA would almost certainly find that the resultant organization was linked to “a profit making enterprise”.
Voice of Charity withdrew their application for a TCBL in June of 2001 – So in all respects it seemed that the competition had been reduced to only two aspirants – SWR and RIO.
BABY RUNS AWAY FROM HOME
Without a doubt Saturday 28th April 2001 has very much become known as “Black Saturday” at SWRFM. That one time when, exhausted, tired, asleep at their own wheel and totally overstretched – SWRFM was caught with their pants totally down. This fateful night was to be the second time SWRFM shut down and handed the frequency to RIO for another month (May). However everything that could go wrong, did.
A SWR Programmer – lets’ call him Clinton – had returned to SWR after an absence of many years not having broadcast with the station since the early Greenhouse days. Presenting a hip hop dance program, things in the studio got a little out of hand. Now this kind of thing was not completely unknown with Clinton and even back in the early days his show had been suspended several times after complaints were received. SWR’s management failed to bring Clinton up to speed on all the changes in rules and regulations at SWR that had taken place in his absence.. and Clinton just sat back and had fun just like the bad old days. Problem was somebody else (who was waiting to start their own transmitter up that night) was tuned into the frequency and listening. RIOFM.
To make matters worse, a technical glitch meant that Paul had to suddenly jump in the car and manually attend the transmitter site to switch the transmitter off. Missing the small turnoff on Wallgrove Rd in the darkness he wasted a precious six minutes finding it again before shutting down the broadcast.. at 12:06am. In the intervening time Clinton had broken just about every rule in the broadcasting book – allowing swear words, sexual references and drug references to slip past the microphone and down the link to the transmitter. And if that wasn’t enough when the inevitable fax from Rio arrived on Monday Morning demanding a copy of the audio log of the fateful night Paul, in his usual open access and “nothing to hide” wisdom immediately ran off a time coded CD and forwarded it to Rio.
It was like handing them a loaded gun. Sure enough it promptly went off in the ABA’s face who launched a full investigation into the matter – later sending all the Blacktown aspirants a letter stating that the license allocation had been “delayed for 4 months” due to “an investigation into one of the Aspirants”..
“This is all we need”.. stated Ken
“You’re an idiot, Paul”.. remarked Enayat
“Yeah I know..but you try going through all the stuff they’ve been putting me through..” replied Paul.
“Well, we had better try and pick up the pieces and save it again..”
“Yeah I guess so.. after all it’s only 4 months.. we can hold out that long can’t we?…”
The investigation was however to the ABA’s credit – and very thorough. Despite the fact that the only evidence available to them was that provided by SWRFM itself the ABA had no trouble in using it to hang SWRFM out to dry four months later.
With it’s tail firmly between it’s legs SWRFM sat back chastened and ready for the Licence allocation process to recommence – fully expecting that it’s complaints about the commercial nature of Rio FM would receive similar treatment to the complaints levelled against SWR by Rio four months earlier. Meanwhile the TCBL process gave Rio a 3rd month of testing in October.
“It’s been delayed again, we’re going to have to go off the air again”.. said Ken.
“Not again.. we only just did a complete advance schedule.. this is going to take weeks just to tell everyone..”
“There’s an excellent chance they’ll allocate it in November. Come on guys we’re soooo close…”
“OK we’ll do it one more time, freeze the books for 4 weeks and issue another mailout..”
Paul and Enayat’s comments cemented yet another three months of lifeboat.. while the boat seemed to be holding up, it was sure getting smelly, dirty and uncomfortable trying to transport cruise liner passengers around the world in a rubber dinghy.. or at least that’s how it felt. The ABA issued yet another TCBL to SWRFM, carrying it up until the 7th December 2001. Calls by Paul to the ABA confirmed that “a decision will be made before the 7th December” and that “you need not bother applying for another TCBL”. Armed with this information SWRFM sat and waited as the days ticked by. On 6th December the call was made and the notification given. “The decision has been delayed” Again.
D DAY – 7TH DECEMBER 2001
“That’s it, I’ve had enough”.. Yelled Paul. “If the ABA want to run the station themselves, they can have it. I give up. Those guys will never issue the license. It’s obvious they haven’t a clue what’s happening here”.
Paul proceeded to redirect calls and enquiries about SWR back to the ABA at that point, sick of answering the phone. He drafted an emergency plan to refund the broadcasters’ money and take the station off the air only to have Enayat step in and challenge it later that night.
“Fine. You want it? You can have it” said Paul, throwing the entire office into the boot of Enayat’s car and wishing SWR well as he waved his resignation from the Board. “Five years of promises and now this. They can have it. I’ve got better things to do with my life”. Paul was gone. SWRFM had exploded for the third and final time. With the TCBL now expired the transmitter was shut down that night.
One week later the ABA handed down it’s death knell decision “not to issue the license at this time”. It was OVER and neither Paul, Enayat or Ken were going to save it.
THE FOSTER PARENTS FINALLY MOVE IN
This time SWR was saved by the community it served for so long. New members rose to take on the challenge. SWRFM’s membership decided not to fold and instead continued to operate very much “under new management”. SWR’s new and enthusiastic team (who had been learning and waiting in the background since 2000) were now ready and rearing to go.
All five remaining Board members were now below the age of 25 – giving back SWRFM the same youthful enthusiasm it had begun with 10 years beforehand. A new age was here. With no TCBL applied for the airwaves remained silent until May 2002 when the new management struck back with a new schedule and new line up but the same ideals that SWR had always strived for.
Enayat was gone, Ken well in the background and Paul likewise well off the Board of Management. Both the Secretary and Treasurer were school age and the President had left school only one year beforehand. RIO were still contesting the license and the share ratio moved to a 50/50 arrangement. This was going to be very interesting.
By October the long life expired Blacktown Showground studio equipment (which had not seen any significant upgrade since it was established in the “Greenhouse” seven years beforehand) had been ripped apart and rebuilt and a splash of paint made sure that everyone knew that the old was “out” and the new was in. The office was relocated back to the studio building and money was again flowing into the bank however administration was shaky for a few years as demands were juggled with HSC homework and the usual things that occupy teenage minds.
THE FINAL RACE
In 2002 the new team met with representatives from both the CBAA and the ABA to discuss and learn from the mistakes that had led to the crash of 2001. In a surprise move the ABA did indeed call for new applications for Blacktown in late 2002 – and this time SWR presented a quite different application. Chief amongst changes was a concerted effort to match the airtime offered with the demographics of the served area. The logic used was simple – for example : “The area consists of 6% listeners who can speak Tongan so no more than 6% of airtime should be dedicated to Tongan language programs” etc etc.
Whilst Paul had been absent from the management for nine months, by the time this was happening he was asked to return and assist with preparation of the new license application – which he did. This time the application was a team effort with various sections handled by different members.
In contrast RIO’s application was merely a re submitted version of their last one and once again there was never really much doubt over which station was going to get the license. However this time SWR had kept their TCBL slate clean during the licensing process. The same could not be said of RIO who were investigated by the ABA for an unrelated matter of the Code in 2002 and were found to be in breach.
During 2002 and 2003 SWRFM shared TCBL airtime equally with RIO (renamed “WEST FM” and finally broadcasting in English). RIO had relocated their studios to Fairfield (so as to be within the service area) and relocated their transmitter to Horsley Park (on a neighbouring tower) however due to poor technical presentation their tests covered only a fraction of the area that SWR’s did – from essentially the same site. The periods “off air” at SWR were constructively used to rebuild the office and technical areas and put more effort into rewriting some of the inadequate rules that SWR had operated under since the Greenhouse days. Not since the early SWR tests had there been such excitement at “Signoff” and “switch on” nights – when the two TCBL stations would swap use of the frequency. “SWR-B-Q”’s became a regular social feature and both new and long term members continued to become more actively involved with the station’s administration.
In what could only be described as a puff of “unsmoke” the final permanent community broadcasting licence for Blacktown was issued to SWRFM on on 15th August, 2003.
AT LAST – A REAL DA RADIO
At the time of issue RIO were conducting a test and SWR was off the air. It took a while for most members to believe that it had finally happened – least of all the three who started it all – Paul, Ken and Enayat. Ken continues as an RF consultant to the station and Paul rejoined the Board of Management in 2004 after being nominated at an AGM – swearing that he would never take the position of Secretary again – which he hasn’t.
A decision was taken to allow four weeks off in September 2003 to prepare for a more permanent broadcast and so that an appropriate “opening day” could be staged. The studio was rebuilt (again) and the 1994 vintage custom built mixing panel overhauled to ensure it could last a few more years until it was finally replaced in 2006. RF cabling and link equipment was also overhauled and rewired as this was the last chance this could be done before it would enter continuous use. Transmitter testing commenced on 20th September 2003.
The big opening day came on Saturday 27th September 2003 – almost twelve turbulent years after that landmark test from Emerton Baptist Church in January, 1992. Pompous and fanfare there may have been – except for the 70kPh winds that seemed to want to blow throughout the day depositing most of the dusty car park on anyone who had the audacity to show up, which fortunately included the mayor and usual rash of local dignitaries.
LIFE AS A LICENSED BROADCASTER
In three years SWRFM had cemented itself as the premier sub metropolitan coverage community radio station in Sydney. With a large portion of it’s area occupied by people from non English speaking backgrounds, around 40% of it’s programs are still directed specifically at these people.
In 2005 SWRFM took on it’s first paid contract worker (one day per week) in administration. However it wasn’t until 2008 that SWRFM finally took the step of taking on it’s first employee (Joanne Horder) and committing to an open office at least four hours on every working day. This commitment was daring at the time but SWRFM has since never looked back. With many of the “day to day” tasks now finally taken care of, this left the Board of Management to concentrate on new directions and growing the station.
In 2009 the bold step was finally taken to pay for a breakfast announcer (Wayne Buscombe) and couple this to sponsorship sales staff with retainers and commissions. This gave the all important breakfast slot some stability, and allowed it to cement itself as a reliable local alternative to the gabfest offered by distant Sydney commercial stations.
From 2007 SWRFM have steadily taken advantage of Commonwealth Grants to support (in particular) it’s ethnic broadcasts. This process has assisted to fund capital growth and steady upgrades of station facilities and ensure it remains effective.
However the vast majority of SWRFM broadcasting is still “community access” programming where members of the public can come along, join up as a member, pay a nominal hourly fee (still only $15 per hour, well below any otherstation in the area) and get on the air with their own material.
SWRFM is the largest Sub Metro community station (by head of population served) in Australia. With the departure of commercial broadcaster 2WS from Blacktown in 2003 SWRFM now stands as the only “Western Sydney” broadcast station (that covers all of Western Sydney) that still has studios located Within Western Sydney.
The service completely covers all of the target areas of Blacktown, Holroyd and Fairfield (an area covering approx 500,000 people) with a very high quality stereo FM signal. It can also be received easily in most parts of the Sydney Metropolitan area and beyond – covering a population of over 4 million. It does this with a licensed ERP of 200 watts and an annual financial turnover of less than $100,000.
- Within the last 7 years since it’s “official opening” SWRFM has;
- Spent $30,000 and completely replaced it’s main studio with all new modern equipment
- Established a powerful online internet presence
- Spent over $50,000 on Outside Broadcast (and related) equipment (2005)
- Spent over $50,000 refurbishing the Simpson Pavilion at Blacktown Showgrounds
- Reconstructed the Main Office and Technical area (2008)
- Spent over $20,000 on replacement and upgrade of transmitter equipment
- Spent over $30,000 on upgrade of security and computer equipment
- Attended over 80 outside broadcasts all within the service area
- Grown to a membership of over 200 of which at least 80 people are active programming members
- Participated directly in multiple festivals and parades in Blacktown and Cumberland areas
- Retained control of the Association within the Blacktown, Fairfield and Holroyd areas by preventing people
living outside those areas from becoming full members of the Association.
The lions share of the above has been directly funded by the station from “general revenue” and while it’s fair to say that the Board of SWR 99.9 FM have always been careful spenders, it’s also well known that SWR very rarely finds itself short of cash. That’s rare in a sector known for it’s tendency to have it’s hands out every time a Federal election comes along.
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