Freelance writer – creative – media-maker
Head on over to Melbourne’s cultural precinct, Abbotsford Convent, and you’ll come across a peculiar building with classical music blaring from its doorstep. Behold the home of Victoria’s independent fine music station, 3MBS FM 103.5. As the state’s first FM and community station, 3MBS broadcasts mostly classical, but also jazz and world music under the umbrella term ‘fine music.’ The station, run almost entirely by its 230 volunteers, prides itself on its commitment to broadcasting music from Australian composers and performers, having aired 37 percent local content in January.
3MBS has seen some big changes over the years, including the birth of two education streams, Live at the Convent and Certificate III in Media (Radio). Live at the Convent provides opportunities for young musicians to perform on-air, whilst Certificate III trains students in all aspects of radio, from production to broadcasting.
I was one of those students, in fact. Yes, that’s right – they let me in, and let me touch all sorts of ridiculously expensive equipment. They even left me in charge of the station at nights on Fridays for a brief spell. Unsupervised. I’ve always believed that trust breeds loyalty, and anyone crazy enough to let me run wild in a radio station is more than deserving of mine. So when I discovered that funding for 3MBS’s Education programmes had run out, prompting 3MBS’s current Education campaign, I decided to speak to the station’s programme manager, Owen McKern, to learn more about 3MBS.
“I started at 3MBS in 2006,” says Owen. “I’d been involved in community radio since 1994 or thereabouts and I originally started in the role of education co-ordinator. Then after about a year, I moved into the role of programme manager. We’ve worked very hard in that four year period to bring in young volunteers, both as broadcasters and behind the scenes.”
Among the spots that have been opened up for new and younger volunteers are the late-night Night Owls slots, which is where yours truly started off. Indeed, many Night Owls candle-burners are recent graduates of the Certificate III programme.
“The students who go through Cert III will get a nationally-accredited qualification,” Owen tells me. “We’ve often felt it was important to show music students alternative career pathways. I think there is often an understanding, or even an expectation among music students, that you either graduate and become a professional, practising musician, or a teacher, or there’s nothing else. I don’t believe that.”
Between funding the programmes and training the budding broadcasters, there is clearly a lot of work involved for the station’s personnel. But Owen stresses that the benefits are mutual.
“From our perspective, we hope to put these people on air. We don’t train just for the sake of training, we very much want these students to engage with us as volunteers, long after they’ve graduated, be they as producers, content-makers, programmers or on-air presenters. In the three years that we’ve run this programme, I’ve been thrilled with the people that we’ve put on-air in regular, ongoing ways, not only because they’ve been fine broadcasters, but they’re also typically younger than the average volunteer who walks in from off the street.”
“For me, it’s been really exciting,” Owen continues. “Many of our volunteers who’ve been here for a long time have been really energised by new people coming in the building, even some of our more senior volunteers. One in particular springs to mind, who has been so motivated by the new people coming in that it has helped his own broadcasting practice. He’s significantly increased the number of hours he spends at the station, simply because he feels the new energy, and wants to be a part of that. So it’s had great outcomes, both for the volunteers and for the students.”
On the other side of the spectrum, Live at the Convent, hosted by Susan Batten, goes to air with its live performers on 103.5 FM every Tuesday between 1.30 and 2.30pm. Preparation, however, begins much, much earlier.
“Even though [the show’s] on-air manifestation is an hour broadcast, we get the musicians in at 10.30am,” says Owen. “In the morning, we talk them through all aspects of radio music production. We might talk them through why we put the piano in a certain place, or why we use certain microphones and why we place them a certain way, and through the process of getting from an existing on-air programme in one studio to a live broadcast from a second studio.”
“We then ask the musicians a series of questions on air about their music practice, potentially about the works they’re presenting and why they’re presenting those works, a bit of history and a bit of background, so we take a holistic approach. We also explain to them our Broadcast Release Agreement. Under copyright law, there are certain rights and responsibilities that we have, but there are also responsibilities that the artist has, so we explain what those are. For most students, this is the first time they’ve ever had that kind of contact with copyright and intellectual property, and I think that’s very, very important. Then of course, they go live-to-air for an hour, and at the end of that hour they also get a high-end, master recording of their performance.”
It all sounds incredibly exciting for the musicians. But I had to ask – with musicians, a broadcasting studio and an impending live performance coming together each week, do things ever go wrong?
“There’s an expression in radio that’s called dead-air,” says Owen, who informs me that is when a station goes silent whilst still technically on-air. “We’ve had instances of dead-air that, at the time, were quite terrifying, but in retrospect, just seem funny. I remember we had two musicians performing live-to-air, a duet between a piano and a harpsichord, and I remember we had to go through all the rigmarole of hiring a harpsichord and getting it delivered to our studio.”
“They finished the first piece they were performing together, and for people who aren’t familiar with our environment, the recording studio is a long way from our performance studio. We heard silence, and I could see through the glass, into the performance studio, two musicians in a panic, pointing and waving at each other, not prepared to make any sound because they knew we were live-to-air. After what seemed like an eternity, but in reality was probably only a few seconds, we quickly went to some other content and sprinted into the studios. The two musicians were shouting at each other, saying, “I thought you had the music; no I thought you had the music!” They just didn’t have their sheet music. So we’d rehearsed for three hours with everything fine and gone live-to-air and somehow, they’d left their sheet music in the kitchen at 3MBS. At the time it didn’t seem funny at all, but in retrospect, the looks on their faces when they were in a panic was really quite humorous!”
Luckily for Siobhan Stagg, a singer and volunteer at 3MBS, her experience on Live at the Convent was far less dramatic. In fact these days, she helps produce the show.
“I sang on 3MBS as a participant on Live at the Convent last year, before I started producing,” she tell me. “It was very nerve-wracking and different to a live performance. It feels quite isolated singing in the small studio, but you know lots of people are listening, so the pressure is on. Radio performance is a completely different medium from any other, so we need as much experience as we can get! It’s important to learn to put as much into the music as you would with an audience, even though it looks like you’re just giving it to the four studio walls at the time. You still need to find the ‘x-factor’ in your performance and need to give it everything you’ve got.”
So what has been her favourite aspect of working with 3MBS? “Discovering the exciting world of radio! It’s opened my eyes to so many things I wasn’t aware of before, and I’m loving it. Especially if you’re musically inclined, radio adds another whole dimension. There’s also lots of lovely people that volunteer there, and the facilities are great.”
For Owen, it’s all about the community. “I love the fact that I get to work with people who are genuinely passionate about music at the arts. Automatically there’s something I have in common with most people who walk through the door.”
“I love the fact that we have some editorial independence, so that those volunteers can use their own judgement about what they present. You know, at commercial stations, the programme manager or programme director determines a play list, which says what will be played on any given day of the month. We don’t do that. My role is to set broad programme parameters and then trust in the volunteers to use their judgement to fit in to those parameters.”
It is also about supporting talent. “Because of our resources, we’re able to offer real opportunities for musicians and artists that otherwise wouldn’t exist; in the three to four years that I’ve been here, we’ve commissioned a number recordings of Australian compositions that otherwise would never have been recorded. We’ve allowed many, many musicians to have their first ever opportunity to perform live-to-air on radio, many musicians and artists to have their first interview on radio, and many their first recordings ever in a high-end studio, so I really enjoy the fact that we are able to facilitate opportunities, particularly for young and emerging artists. I think that it’s vital part of who we are as a community radio station, and I enjoy that in my role I have a very direct say in that.”
In my far smaller role as a broadcaster at 3MBS, I can’t help but feel the same. But then, 3MBS is far from alone in supporting Melbourne’s arts scene, and that’s what I feel makes it so great. I suspect Owen agrees. “It’s no coincidence that Melbourne has the strongest radio community anywhere in Australia. I think more and more of Melbourne’s art community have a broader appetite for music and the arts, and I find that really heartening.”
Published in Trespass Magazine