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90 years young

Breakfast

We look back on 90 years of 7HOFM as we celebrate our birthday on August 13th.

7HOFM's longest-serving full-timer almost didn't get the gig back in 1978, when the station was around half its present age. 

In around seven years time, production supremo Fred Rabitsch will have spent 50 years crafting high-quality ads, stingers, sweepers, promos, jingles, sound effects and anything else you can think of at Hobart's oldest commercial radio station, which celebrates its 90th anniversary on August 13. 

Listen carefully and you might hear his voice pop up in the odd ad.

It's fair to say he's chalked up a few memories in that time. 

"Out of high school I applied, went in for the interview as an Operator, didn't get it," he says. 

"The guy who got it didn't last two weeks, so they said, 'If you're still interested give us a call,' so I did." 

Back in the day Operators worked day and night shifts, wrangling clunky carts full of tape as they served up announcers with a stream of information: trots results, lotto numbers, whatever was going.  

Fred

"You used to have to edit things like the Sunday-night serial which used to be on vinyl using reels, that was fun, none of this 8-track stuff; it was all mono two-track." 

Rabitsch has seen the steady progress of radio tech all the way through to the present-day system of digitised logs played from computers.  

"The digital process was good, but I'm glad I went through all the reels, so you progressed from mono two-track to eight-track stereo, vinyl, CDs. 

"We had to physically make our own sound effects, a great one was somebody walking through grass. I just unwound a heap of tape, put it in the bin and then rustled it. The main thing there is, always make a sound effect sound 10 times larger than what it is. Theatre of the mind." 

Rabitsch also notes a pivot towards a more professional culture as the station evolved over the years, perhaps best illustrated by one incident in decades past. 

"I got suspended once. Me, the copywriter and the production manager at the time. We were working on the Christmas tape out-of-hours - being reel-to-reel, it was a real challenge - and we used to have a couple of beers while we were doing it.

"Next minute, 'Boss is coming'. All we had was two longnecks and we hid them in a cupboard, but he found them and had a go at us....so we all went and did our Christmas shopping. The bad old days. The guys that worked on Saturdays all used to sit behind the panels drinking ales, but that's the way they did it."

Push the rewind button even further back to 1930, and a brilliant 20-year-old engineer named Ron Hope (below left, with his brother and LAFM founder Lyndsay Arthur Hope) was designing and building the radio station that would bear the first two letters of his surname as a callsign (not, as often thought, the first two letters of Hobart).

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Image courtesy of Anthony Hope, "Short Stories from World War II"

It would be a monumental understatement to say Hope dabbled in radio; ahead of his time and always quick to adopt new technologies, he began Commonwealth Electronics (eventually absorbed by Philips) which produced high-end gear like turntables. Among numerous other innovations, he was behind crucial, top-secret signals work in World War II, including jammers which bewildered German bombers over England and torpedo guidance systems in the Pacific theatre.

"With technology, initially it was valve-driven, but when transistors came out, they were much smaller rather than these big glass valves, and he jumped at that," says Hope's son, geologist and historian Anthony Hope. 

"He designed the first walkie-talkie that I'm aware of, he designed the first car-to-car radio, using miniaturisation...he seemed to be able to put his hand to anything."

Hope's walkie-talkie, which he dubbed the Ultraminifone, is among the memorabilia on display at the Bellerive museum of the Sound Preservation Association of Tasmania.

According to a Mercury article dated 14 August 1930, the day after 7HOFM first broadcast from its Mt Nelson transmitter (including remarks from then-Premier John McPhee), "a listener in Taroona spoke of the great clearness, the good tone and the sharp tuning, in consequence of which there was no interference with other stations."

"The aim of the station was to provide listeners with an attractive musical programme, coupled with an up-to-date advertising program." 

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Above and below: early days in the 7HOFM studio at 82 Elizabeth Street. Entertainers Marie Landon and John Montfort were among the station's first announcer line-up (images courtesy of Anthony Hope)

7HO heavy curtained walls 1935

The latest in nearly a century's worth of General Managers, gravelly-voiced industry veteran Mick Raisin, would argue that as far as the nuts and bolts go, little has changed in 7HOFM's core business of making the listener the focus, particularly during a global pandemic. 

"We feel that our role in the community is extremely important, to keep people informed, keep them motivated and up and positive," he said. 

"We also thought that it's a time, although we're a commercial entity, to really support the people that have supported the station over the years. Everyone who was active on-air, we gave them bonus commercials for three months to up their reach and frequency to help their businesses keep going."

Raisin says compared to the radio industry nationwide, 7HOFM's bottom line has fared extremely well this year, despite the pandemic's withering impact on the economy.

"There's a wonderful culture and DNA in Tasmania to buy and support everyone locally...I think that's also put us in pretty good stead too." 

"Localism is a huge part of Grant Broadcasters; it's a costly exercise.

"It's very easy to centralise your news service and make it generic, but we've been adamant that we will always keep a local news service right across Tasmania.

"We have journalists based here in Hobart, and I think in a time like Covid you realise the value of that, where we were able to keep people informed immediately." 

Successive 7HOFM crews have learned how vital the relationship with the listener is for keeping the public informed; perhaps few more so than John Cuthbertson, who worked the Sunday shift of April 28, 1996, a day seared into the memory of many Australians.

"I think it was about 10 past 2, I get a call, somebody saying there was something going on down at the Tasman Peninsula, someone with a gun," says Cuthbertson, who no longer works in radio. 

"Maybe 15 minutes goes by, I got another phone call, 'Someone's gone crazy with a gun down the Tasman Peninsula, police cars are flying down there,' so I rang up the police radio room, they didn't give me any details. 'Look, we'll be releasing a statement soon.' " 

Cuthbertson, broadcasting in a period largely pre-internet and social media, was faced with the difficult dilemma of what to say on air about a situation which was clearly spiralling out of control.

"We broke into a song and did a news flash. You were a bubble in the studio, you knew what's going on but you didn't know what's going on. You were not able to sit in a studio and surf the internet. It was pretty much you make a phone call. As an announcer, you would not be sitting there with a mobile phone." 

"It was a clear, blue, sunny day, you don't know what's going on, but in the days that followed, almost everyone knew somebody, somehow, that was either shot or involved in some way or other." 

CookenMoore

Logie-winning personality Bob Cooke, half of the iconic 7HOFM duo Cooke and Moore (above, left), is no stranger to disaster, having broadcast during the deadly Mt St Canice laundry explosion in 1974 and the 1975 Tasman Bridge collapse. 

"Listeners throughout the ages I spent at 7HO were absolutely marvellous," says Cooke, whose radio show wove itself into the city's fabric over 21 years before finishing up in 2003. 

"I spent probably 35-40 years at HO and I loved every minute of it, and I loved the people there."

"On just about any occasion, we had tremendous rapport with the audience...we were an institution, HO, and we were privileged enough to be on air and to be the recipients of some of that wonderful cooperation from the public."

In no instance was this cooperation more crucial than during the horrendous 1967 bushfires which tore through more than 650,000 acres of Tasmania, claiming 62 lives and leaving more than 7000 people homeless. 

"There was a lot of confusion - you can understand that," says Cooke of the February inferno. 

"My mother's fence was burning down, the dog was on fire and goodness knows what else. We were all distracted by our own individual problems. The sky was black, the sun was an orb of red, more than 1000 cars destroyed,  it was absolute chaos. But there was that listener interaction. When there were problems with danger, road closures, there was an immense response from the public. They were great." 

While Cooke has retired, the show's other half, Richard Moore, is still on air at the station he came on board at as a floater in the early 70s.

"We lived in turbulent times," says the urbane Moore of the 1975 Whitlam dismissal, one of many upheavals seen by a broadcaster widely regarded by his peers as a consummate professional.

" I still think the Cooke and Moore years were probably the highlight of my career...Bob taught me how to do the panel at 7HO. We're still very good friends, so that was a highlight, but I enjoy doing my solo stuff now."

"The breakfast show was fairly light-hearted, but when we needed to, we said, 'Ok, this is what we need to do,' "

Having successfully reinvented himself through the peaks and troughs of decades in a tough industry, Moore says the passion remains. 

"I still like music; whatever got me into radio to begin with is still there. I enjoy what I do. My doctor always used to say to me, 'If work's good 80 per cent of the time and 20 per cent so-so, you're doing alright.' I seem to think it's 90-10 with me."  

Charles 7HOFM

The King of Hobart Radio (complete with cardboard crown) holds high-level talks with HRH the Prince of Wales during his state visit in 2012 (Alex Jackson)

Perhaps the last word on a station that's been embedded for 90 years in the heart of Tasmania's capital should come from Mick Newell, a knockabout larrikin who's made a seemingly unlikely transition.

In one of those "only in Tasmania" stories, the Huon Valley abalone diver, glad to survive the occasional bout of the bends, eventually found himself on reality TV with son Matt, before the way opened for 7HOFM's breakfast gig in 2012.

The wisecracking and outspoken Newell has made headlines across the years, including a charity boxing match belting for then-Premier Will Hodgman in 2014, but his biggest win came in 2019: Newell and co-hosts Beau Brescianini (who now hosts Across the Workday) and Sarah Morrison topped the ratings.  

An Xtra Research survey confirmed their market share exceeds that of the ABC as well as the station's two commercial competitors; overall, more than one in five listeners over the age of 10 across the southern Tasmanian survey area picked 7HOFM as the station they listen to most. 

"I love the job. I've been a radio person all my life, even though I had a glovebox of CDs, it was always on HO," says Newell.

"Mum was an HO fan, we listened to John Loughlin, Cooke and Moore was my absolute go-to every day, loved 'em. I've got a lot of inspiration from Cooke and Moore on how I do the breaky show." 

Newell says a down-to-earth approach is the secret to success in connecting with listeners, as well as being honest and real about his battle with depression in 2019. 

"With me being hospitalised with mental health sickness last year, it was so nice being in a medium where I can share that with the public too. We're all the same, we all have our ups and downs, but you can come back. There's light at the end of the tunnel.

"We never try to be better than anyone else; we're 100 per cent locals, we're 100 per cent the same as you guys, no matter what you do for a job, we've all got the same two feet on the planet. We just try to be real local and a bit of fun every day."