The Limits of Authorship: The Radio Broadcasts of Irene Greenwood, 1936-1954

John Richardson


For the pre-war commercial broadcaster whose duties were often confined to dropping a mechanical pick-up arm on to a gramophone record, some degree of ad-libbing between the music was both possible and desirable. During the 1930s the commercials began to experiment with ad-libbing in other areas as part of a strategy to hold or increase audiences. Scripts were still used for the majority of programmes but the style of address became more intimate. The listener was projected as a friend, or family member.1 At the ABC a script, for all broadcasts falling into the category of "Talks" (and this included discussions and interviews) was mandatory. Section 2 of the "Conditions for Broadcast" stipulated that,

The speaker shall submit manuscript(s) of the talk(s) to the Commission not less than seven days before the date scheduled for broadcasting, and shall revise or alter the manuscript(s) if and to the extent required by the Commission. The manuscript(s) shall be the property of the Commission.2

Once submitted and approved the script was expected to be scrupulously adhered to.

In the areas of drama and lectures the necessity for a script is understandable, with interviews and discussions less easily so. The decisive factors were both political and technological. Up until the late 1940s and the advent of cheap, reliable magnetic tape recording equipment, post-production editing was an impossibility. In the 1930s what editing did occur took place during the writing of the script itself. Although the technology for recording programmes on to gramophone records did exist, the vast majority of broadcasts went to air live. Under these circumstances there was a very real necessity to get things right first time. By insisting on scripts and by vetting them before they went to air, the Commission was able to ensure that its standards of professionalism were met.

A second limiting factor was time. All broadcast programmes had to be tailored to suit their allotted air time. In the absence of sophisticated editing capabilities the script was the only means of accurately pacing programme duration and thus meeting strictly observed schedules. Scripts had to be written in a style which would facilitate clear enunciation and, particularly in the case of short wave transmissions, compensate for reception difficulties. In 1941 Colin Badger reminded Greenwood that,

the eight minute limit is rigid. These talks have to be cramped a bit, because our transmission time is so short. If they are spoken quickly they are useless, as there is, as you will realise, considerable surge and fade, and reception is hampered on this account.3

These technological restrictions conspired to locate the script in a central position within the production process.

Delivery from a script had a profound effect on the structure of interviews and discussions. With all parties reading their prepared statements, questions and answers, the resulting style tended towards one of "consensus", the opposite pole of the modern broadcasting trend of "confrontation". The move towards consensus was reinforced by the ABC's editorial policy. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s the Commission was under considerable pressure from both political and public institutions to avoid controversial material.4 When in 1944 the ABC did give speakers their head, in a discussion on birth control, they came under fire both in parliament and from the Women's Christian Temperance Union for allowing opinions to be expressed which were "hostile to family life and religion".5

The consensus product was not without its drawbacks. In 1936 Beatrice Tildesley noted that,

The discussions that take place on Sunday nights have seemed very ineffective at times. For instance a recent discussion had the provocative title, "Is the United States a Menace to Culture?" That should surely have occasioned a brisk, not necessarily heated interchange between the anonymous Australian, American and Englishman taking part in it. But the Australian and Englishman were so concerned to be polite that they let the American score points that almost anyone could have countered on the subject of American films and American speech. If a discussion amounts to no more than that, why have it? Such timidity verges on futility.6

Three years later the requirement for scripts was still in force and so were the attendant drawbacks. By this time Tildesley had identified the problem as one of under-rehearsal:

informal discussions, such as "Men Talking" are a washout. Almost certainly not enough trouble is taken in their preparation. Informal discussions, particularly if they are to disclose anything of value while preserving the appearance of spontaneity, must be most carefully prepared and rehearsed, as any variety stage performer who specialises in impromptus will tell you.

Not that the persons who broadcast talks are entirely to blame. The public has no conception of the time and trouble which must be taken by a naturally brilliant broadcaster, if he is to satisfy his own standard of scrupulous exactitude and attractive presentation, not to mention the expense of furnishing to the office his typed script in triplicate, plus a copy for his own use.7

The problem faced by the early broadcaster was that of making a scripted discussion, talk or interview, appear to be spontaneous. This did not entail a conspiracy to hoodwink the public, the ABC made no secret of its scripting requirements as Tildesley's comments demonstrate. It was simply a matter of presentation. But this is not to say that the public did not read the broadcasts as being spontaneous. The famous "synthetic" cricket transmissions of 1934 are a parallel case. In these, telegrams describing the play were relayed from English cricket grounds back to the ABC's Sydney studios at one minute intervals. There they were deciphered and elaborated by the commentator to the accompaniment of sound effects. The method was widely publicised yet so effective was it that many listeners refused to believe that the matches were not being broadcast live from the UK.8 The same principle must have applied to well presented talks and interviews. Interviews, from the time of their introduction in the mid-1930s, were regarded as a subject positioning device. The listener was theorised to occupy the place of either the interviewer, or the eavesdropper on a conversation.9 If listeners believed that the scripted interview or discussion was spontaneously delivered, then the opinions of the participants, freely given and genuinely their own, became all the more convincing.

When Greenwood left the ABC to join Whitfords the institutional requirement for scripts no longer applied. In 1948 she told one of her interviewees,

So long as you have notes jotted down it will be fine, because we don't have the rigidness of the ABC scripts. I find the ABC interviews frequently sound still and formal. The essence of mine are their informality. Nor do I want to give my interview-ees a lot of trouble in the preparation of material.10

Greenwood's papers suggest, however, that in very many cases - probably the majority - a script of one form or another was used for her interviews at Whitfords. As good as her word Greenwood did not "give her interview-ees a lot of trouble in the preparation of material" - she often prepared it for them. This did not mean that she was free to do as she wanted. Although the commercial stations could not justify the cost of employing the ponderous vetting machinery available to the ABC they were nevertheless under considerable pressure not to indulge in overtly political judgements.


1 Lesley Johnson, The Unseen Voice: A Cultural Study of Early Radio (London: Routledge, 1988), p. 71.

2 Communication headed "Conditions referred to" (standard form), from the ABC to Irene A. Greenwood, 13 Aug., 1937, The Irene Greenwood Collection, Murdoch University.

3 Colin Badger, Letter to Irene A. Greenwood, 4 Sept, 1940, The Irene Greenwood Collection, Murdoch University.

4 Geoffrey C. Bolton, Dick Boyer: An Australian Humanist (Canberra: Australian National University Press 1967), pp. 108-115

5 Inglis, p. 116.

6 Beatrice Tildesley, "Broadcast Programmes", The Australian Quarterly, Sept (1936), p. 66

7 Tildesley, "Broadcasting in Australia" p. 53.

8 Inglis, p. 37.

9 Johnson, p.76.

10 Irene A. Greenwood, Copy of letter to Maureen Dyson, 15 July 1948, The Irene Greenwood Collection, Murdoch University.

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