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

John Richardson


When Greenwood spoke on the air she spoke on behalf of the national or, later, one of the commercial institutions of radio. Her voice was officially that of an institutional narrator. Although both the ABC and the commercials struggled for an institutional autonomy they remained a part of the general socio/political/economic field and its power relations. On the ground, these relations were most visible in the programming policies and formal censoring machinery of the respective broadcasting institutions. These sought to determine what Greenwood should say, how she should say it and who she would say it to. Greenwood's brief was further mediated by the technological apparatus on which her message was carried. Together, the institutional practices and technology contrived to produce an outline of the ideal narrator in a particular relationship with an equally ideal audience.

The profile of the ideal narrator was not precisely defined. Programming policies varied from national to commercial broadcasters. Censorship practices varied from censor to censor, state to state, institution to institution. There were no clear limits at any given time and limits changed through time in response to shifts in the political field. The shadowy outline of the institutional narrator was out of focus, the boundaries of her legitimacy drawn like the margin on a page. It was within this margin that Greenwood worked. In this space the voice of "Greenwood the political activist" could be heard in chorus with that of "Greenwood the institutional narrator". The various constraints and Greenwood's attempts to exploit them are discussed below.


By the time Greenwood joined the ABC in 1936, the programming strategies of both the public and commercial broadcasters were firmly set in place. The commercials, motivated by economic considerations, had evolved a policy of "entertainment". On the air this translated into a staple diet of recorded popular music supplemented by sport or other shows which kept the payment of live artists to a minimum, but like the ABC the commercials did broadcast a women's session. With car and portable radios still in their infancy and a sexual division of labour which kept most married women at home, the majority of day-time listeners were women. The commercials had long ago recognised the women's session to be a source for the recruitment of a powerful market audience. This audience was sold to the manufacturers of the same modern appliances that Greenwood had found so appealing at her Stirling Court home.

Unlike the commercials, the ABC regarded "education" as a major aspect of its function. Radio critics debated the commercial/public dichotomy in terms of "lowbrow" versus "highbrow" programming. Advocates of "highbrow" used the BBC as the yardstick. In the early 1930s the BBC was under the autocratic control of Sir John Reith:

Under him [Reith] the Corporation gained great prestige for consistent reliability and impartiality in its presentation of the news, for its series of radio dramas and for a perennial supply of entertaining and informative broadcast talks.1

In the imagination of its critics the ABC usually fell short of these demanding standards. As one contributor to Australian Quarterly put it: "We do not have anything like the body of enlightened opinion (which is moreover, both articulate and influential) that spurs the BBC on to better things".2

Unlike its Australian counterpart the BBC held a broadcasting monopoly, for British listeners it was the national station or nothing. Under these circumstances the BBC was under no great pressure to pander to the public taste, on the contrary, it was seen as being responsible for determining it. On occasions when the BBC did consult its listening public it laid itself open to attacks from conservative critics:

It is not the function of the BBC to supply so-called popular programmes or to ask the public what it likes, but to supply good and varied programmes and to give the public what is liked by men and women of education . . . chosen for their intelligence and for their broad catholic tastes to direct the BBC. And to direct means to lead and not to be led!3

Throughout the 1930s and 1940s the ABC followed the BBC line of giving the public "what it needs rather than what it wants". In 1946 the ABC chairman Dick Boyer reported on a Radio in Education Conference:

On the perennial subject of whether a national broadcasting instrumentality should give the people what they want or what they need, the Conference quickly disposed of this dilemma as a false antitheses . . . . If, however, broadcasting was to have any real significance in our development as a nation and as a successful democracy, it was emphasised that at all levels it should be a little in advance of popular taste.4

So the ABC stayed "a little in advance of popular taste" and in doing so lost a high proportion of the listening audiences.

A pioneering survey conducted in 1936 by W.A. McNair found that listeners were split 80%-20% in favour of the commercials. Furthermore, the ABC's share of the predominantly female day-time audience dipped to 15%. There was a correlation between listener distribution and income, with only 11% of households earning less than 200 pounds a year listening to the ABC.5 As K.S. Inglis concludes, "the richer you were the likelier you were to listen to the ABC".6

In 1942 McNair produced figures which suggested that the 80%-20% split had held good over the intervening years and was consistent "with minor variations city by city throughout the Commonwealth".7 In Inglis' opinion the surveys were reasonably accurate8 and due to the ABC's refusal to consult listeners, McNair's are the only data available for the period. It may be an overstatement to say that the ABC as an institution comprising broadcasters and specialised listeners was talking essentially to itself, but its ability to penetrate the bulk market audience and, in particular, working class audiences, was certainly compromised by its programming policy.

It seems reasonable to conclude that during her years with the ABC Greenwood's ideas circulated primarily amongst middle class women - the same women who either comprised the women's movement or those to whom the movement's discourse was of particular relevance. By the same token, when Greenwood joined the Whitfords commercial network in 1948 her audience would have included a high proportion of working class women. Greenwood herself had a clear idea of the supposed intellectual differentiation between ABC and commercial listeners. In the same year that she moved to Whitfords she told a prospective interviewee, "The more general the matter the better, for listeners on a B class [commercial] station".9

Underpinning the ABC's policy was a belief that the public could be educated, or their opinions otherwise shaped, by an exposure to judicious radio programming ("If, however, broadcasting was to have any real significance in our development as a nation and as a successful democracy . . . it should be a little in advance of popular taste"10). It was entirely appropriate, then, that members of the Australian Institute of Political Science, an organisation committed to the interpolation of liberal intellectuals into positions of political influence, should, by the 1940s, have penetrated broadcasting.11 Among these were Colin Badger and William Macmahon Ball, Greenwood's contacts at the Ministry of Information (Broadcasting Division). In Macmahon Ball's view,

"The mental furniture of the average man" was a product of "herd" intelligence, "It is obvious that these opinions are not usually held on the basis of reason, but have simply been caught by emotional contagion from other members of the herd in the same way as he would catch influenza".12

Greenwood did not put these sentiments quite so forthrightly, but the indications are that she held similar opinions. In 1940 she wrote to Charles Hartley Grattan, the American writer and social analyst, telling him that,

We are a young country and a youthful people - this explains our faults and virtues. We have not grown up - are irresponsible. Serious minded people are in a minority, yet, fortunately for us these write articles and give broadcast talks.13

As an author of broadcast talks, and acting within the terms of ABC policy, Greenwood developed her own strategies to "educate" her listeners.


1 Beatrice Tildesley, "Broadcasting in Australia", in The Australian Quarterly, June (1939), p. 49.

2 Norman Cowper, "Control of Broadcasting", in The Australian Quarterly, June (1936), p. 63.

3 W.J. Turner, New Statesman and Nation, 25 March 1939 as quoted by Tildesley, "Broadcasting in Australia", p. 52.

4 Richard Boyer, "Radio in Education Conference", in The Australian Quarterly, March (1946), p. 99.

5 The McNair survey (1936) cited by Kenneth Stanley Inglis, This is the ABC: The Australian Broadcasting Commission 1932-1983 (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1983), p. 75.

6 Inglis, p. 75.

7 W.A. McNair, "Broadcasting-The Case for Public Opinion" in The Australian Quarterly, December (1942), p. 65

8 Inglis, pp. 75-76.

9 Irene A. Greenwood, Copy of letter headed "Dear Margaret" (Lawyer), 11 May 1948, The Irene Greenwood Collection, Murdoch University.

10 Boyer, p.99.

11 Tony Rowse, Australian Nationalism and National Character (Melbourne: Kibble Books, 1978), pp. 149-153.

12 William Macmahon Ball, as quoted by Rowse, p. 162.

13 Irene A. Greenwood, Copy of letter to Charles Hartley Grattan, 21 Sept., 1940, The Irene Greenwood Collection, Murdoch University.

New: 25 March, 1996 | Now: 1 May, 2015