2SER: 35 years on

Three and a half decades since its inception, 2SER continues on as a survivor and a daring innovator. In a current media landscape that often appears shallow and celebrity-obsessed, this independent community radio station, co-owned by University of Technology, Sydney, and Macquarie University, relentlessly breaks news and new ground.


Veteran radio journalist Robbie Buck − who just took over as ABC Radio 702's Breakfast program presenter in January − cut his teeth in Sydney radio at 2SER in 1992. He was just 19, full of great enthusiasm and with no formal qualifications. After a short volunteer induction, Buck was thrown in the deep end at 2SER, when he put his hand up for a slot at 2am.

"After about a 30-second lesson from Prince Andrew, the ska and dub legend who was doing the show before me, I was live on air," he remembers. "It was baptism by fire. I remember feeling totally over-awed; being in this studio at UTS at the top of this huge brutalist tower and broadcasting into the darkness of Sydney. It was surreal and beautifully strange."

During his two-and-a-half years at 2SER (first as a volunteer and then as a paid audio assistant at the Macquarie studios) Buck says he worked and socialised with high calibre, vibrant young journalists. He learned to take risks, test boundaries and experiment with radio − lessons he has carried forward with him into the next 20 years of his career.

"Many times since, I have drawn on those experiences at 2SER, to give me confidence, to use my intuition and break the rules when I can," Buck says.

Initially 2SER − which stands for Sydney Educational Radio − made its debut broadcast on 1 October 1979, as one of only three public FM radio stations nationally given a special education license by the Commonwealth government. Since then, the station has gained an international reputation for its provocative news programs and alternative music − that is rarely aired on any other stations − as well as ethnic, indigenous programs and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) broadcasts.

Sophie Ly, a recent graduate from UTS' Media and Communications degree has volunteered at the station for the last year and is a passionate advocate. "I'd been doing print media throughout uni but then in my last year I started doing radio at 2SER, it just kind of clicked and I was hooked," the 22-year-old says.

"It's such a personal medium. It's live and anything can happen. 2SER is so welcoming and supportive and such a great training ground, predominantly made up of volunteers."

Participating in the 2SER pop-up digital station during the annual Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras was one of Ly's highlights. "It was eye-opening doing a live broadcast from the parade and just seeing how spontaneous and crazy it could be," she says. "I also got to interview Boy George and he was so lovely, I couldn't help sliding into fan-girl mode."

Despite its substantial LGBTI population, Sydney has no permanent queer radio station, so this pop-up, a collaboration between 2SER, Star Observer, the city's gay newspaper and Joy FM 94.9, Melbourne's LGBTI radio station, was unique.

Jack Crane, a veteran radio producer, was hired to run the Sydney pop-up, now in its second year. "It was definitely exciting to be involved in the first one of its kind," he says. "We have gay programming at 2SER and other channels but this was upping the content by about five times, having it run over the whole lead up to the Mardi Gras, over six weeks."

The station also broadcasts all day for International Women's Day. In addition, their diverse weekly programming includes The Thin Black Line, that looks behind the scenes at policy and issues affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. On Sundays 2SER opens up to multicultural programming with segments in Azerbaijani, Hindi, Tongan, Punjabi and Urdu, and lots of ethnic music.

Its local news service is gaining recognition as a formidable training ground for students, too. A handful of lucky candidates are taught on-the-job by industry veterans such as former 2UE news director Murray Olds. Since June last year, these students have gone on to work at 2GB, 2UE, Nova and SBS.

Then there's the Jailbreak program, which broadcasts stories and music by and about prison from inmates, their family and friends, giving a voice to these usually voiceless people. The program also has health messages for prisoners such as safe needle sharing.

Kate Pinnock has presented Jail Break for the last seven years and last year made about 30 visits to prisons around the state where she interviewed inmates, later using the material in a compilation of broadcasts.

"It's such a great thing that I am able to put these people on radio; they get so excited and it's such a lovely feeling to be able to do it. They choose some music and then start telling their stories," Pinnock says. "It's so amazingly empowering and therapeutic at the same time."

Because of these unique and unusual programs, 2SER's managing director Melanie Withnall doesn't feel her station competes with any other. "All the other community radio stations are very different. We have this unusual combination of stories, ideas and music that our listeners enjoy," she says.

As well as receiving university funding the station has sponsors, but Withnall emphasises that they must fit within the station's sponsorship policy and she's had to reject some that weren't suitable.

"Because we are a not-for-profit, every cent that we raise goes directly back into our operating costs; the more resources we get, the more hours we can broadcast and the more interesting projects we can support, the more equipment we can buy," she says. "We would like to run 2SER as much as possible as an innovative station following best industry practice."

Looking to the future, Withnall acknowledges that its becoming increasingly challenging to stay relevant in a media landscape where people now are bombarded with so many platforms that inform and entertain.

"Radio listening is not declining," Withnall declares. "And it's because of radio's portability, and it's free to receive once you have a handset. It is also where you can get most local content. "You can work on your laptop with the radio on in the background, or have it on while you drive the car. I know it will continue."

To keep on the cutting edge of engaging content, Withnall says that getting a continual turnover of new volunteers is vital and her permanent staff members invest a lot of energy training, mentoring and giving them feedback.

"We found that the best way to train volunteers is just to get them to do it," she says. "Our volunteers have incredible freedom to create content. We also do a lot of peer-to-peer learning where they learn from other volunteers." Currently the station is in the midst of processing over 350 new applications.

As well as Robbie Buck, other notable volunteers who have launched their media careers from 2SER include Julie McCrossin, broadcaster at ABC Radio National, ABC TV and Network Ten for over two decades. Back in 1982, McCrossin kicked-off a comedy career at 2SER, creating her Dr Mary Hartman character; an aloof psychosexual therapist on Gaywaves.

Other success stories include Fenella Kernebone, host of long-running, cult electronic music show The Sound Lab on Triple J and now presenter on By Design on Radio National, Patrick Galloway ABC network sports co-ordinator and Matt Brown ABC TV's Middle East correspondent.

Recent volunteers who have gone onto great jobs include Natalie Muller, who now works at Deutsche Welle, Dani Pogson at 2GB news and Lia Tsamoglou at Double J.

But volunteering at 2SER isn't only about jettisoning people to fame. Shannon Briggs, for instance, who has volunteered at the station for 12 years, does it to exercise his creativity. Briggs works four days a week as a web designer and is the presenter of Groove Therapy, a funk, jazz, hip-hop program of the 70s and 80s genre that runs every Friday at midday.

Briggs feels: "2SER brings together people from various walks of life, who are passionate about music or the arts or other fields. 2SER gives us the freedom to express our diverse set of opinions to a loyal fan base. The station fills a niche that no one else does. I just love it."

2SER: Vital stats

Image:2SER - Vital Stats


Story: Melinda Ham