Sydney University Radio Group Tuning

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When you think of the University of Sydney’s long list of campus clubs and groups, a few immediately spring to mind: SUDS, SASS, ChocSoc or Socialist Alternative (SAlt) perhaps. However, one of USyd’s most historic companies is Sydney Uni Radio Group (SURG). In recent years, SURG has been an (ironically) quiet director.

Yet SURG is home to many student voices, past and present. According to current President Zander Czerwaniw, SURG serves as a vehicle to “help showcase local artists and provide opportunities for students to learn new skills and express themselves.” This is by no means a new concept at USyd.

You would be excused for not knowing how long SURG has been around. Finding public information about the student-run institution is a challenge. Luckily, the company is currently run by a great executive who was more than happy to grant me access to SURG’s archives.

Much of what is known about SURG’s long but fascinating past has been uncovered by Rafal Alumairy (@studentradiohistory), who is currently undertaking an “independent book project documenting the history of student radio in Australia”. According to Alumairy, “USyd has an unusual college radio history, a bit different from others in Australia”.

USyd’s radio station first appeared on the airwaves in the mid-1970s, although students had been involved in radio as early as the 1930s. ‘The Broadcast’ was an annual event held every ‘ Festival Week’ (what we now know as Welcome Fest). The students aired short radio segments in half-hour increments on a commercial radio station, which volunteered its airtime to the students as a community service. At the time, most segments were curated playlists and revue-style shows. It seems that the interests of USyd students haven’t changed all that much over the past ninety years.

Before local USyd bands like Astral Juice and Alpha Goose, the music played on ‘The Broadcast’ was more like this:

“O’ for the glory of the Quad in the spring, with the jacaranda in bloom.”

In 1946, USyd was the first university in Australia to attempt an entirely student-run radio station, broadcast directly from campus. The initiative was led by Glen Duncan, a medical student at the time. Plans for the student radio station would later be copied to Australian universities, but not for thirty years! Engineering students, on-air talent, various corporations, and even the CBC all got on board. Alas, the management of the University, which had the last word, crushed this dream. At the time, Honi reported that the Senate “doubted that [students] were able to run a loudspeaker system, let alone a radio station.” They weren’t sure the students “could put on an entertaining program.”

The dismissal of student radio by USyd management meant that there was no dedicated student radio station throughout the 1950s. It was not until the 1960s when college radio was returned to Melbourne’s RMIT, that student radio was resurrected. That’s not to say that USyd student interest in radio dropped completely during this time. For example, an initiative called ‘Broadcast Week’ was spearheaded by Miss Nicholls’ public relations team of USyd in 1951. Students received airtime on various commercial stations with programs from the musical society, student choir and church clubs.

This rich history of radio activity at USyd laid the foundation for a full-fledged radio station called “2SUX”, which started operating in 1975. It is said that at that time, 2SUX was a house of domestic politics vicious with a bitter conflict between conservatives and progressive students… A story beyond the scope of this article, but perhaps a story for another time.

2SUX was designed in response to the FM radio licenses recently introduced by the federal government, which students were able to earn. Alas, USyd failed to obtain a legitimate license. Class lawyers advised them to create a professional application in the style of a commercial station. Although what it actually looked like has been lost on the students. They missed the application deadline, which Czerwaniw laments to this day.

In 1978, 2SUX had a second shot at a legally legitimate broadcast, with a short test to gauge their technical ability. A 1978 edition of Honi reveals a series of letters from record labels and stores, showing their support for the broadcast.

However, this test license was not a long-term solution for 2SUX and some were unhappy that so much student money was being spent on an unlicensed radio band. As a result, in 1979, 2SUX began broadcasting one hour a week on “2SER”, an educational radio station run by the administration of UTS and Macquarie Uni. They even broadcast lectures, providing distance education before Zoom!

With just one hour a week (which quickly grew to four), Sydney students achieved a lot. According to student newspaper articles from 1982, 2SUX students interviewed the likes of Devo, The Kinks, and even Elton John.

It was over the next decade that 2SUX would become the Sydney University Radio Group. In 1998 SURG was officially registered as a corporation, led by Founder and Chairman William Balflour. SURG finally had an official license: USU-FM (owned by USU).

Unfortunately, SURG only receives funding as a corporation, which makes it difficult to fund its radio license. According to former President, Patrick McKenzie (2019-2020), the SURG should be a USU program (like Debating is, for example) rather than a corporation, meaning it lacks the funds to run a permanent radio station. McKenzie lamented the shortfall, saying, “Everywhere needs a radio station. The plurality of voices is a good thing.

Despite this, he revels in what SURG has, which is an abundance of enthusiastic broadcasters.

“Even though more and more people can create audio content, the community’s engagement and structure helps it thrive,” he said.

Lockdowns in 2020 forced SURG broadcasters out of the underground Holme Building studio. The band had no choice but to branch out and build an online presence, introducing podcasts and an online blog under McKenzie’s leadership. Whether online or in person, former SURG President Andrew Rickert (2017-2019) believes that student radio contributes to the rich fabric of student life. However, Rickert thinks “there is something special about live media”.

“Radio is much more personal, it’s a connection between broadcaster and listener… It breaks down barriers,” Rickert said. He says live radio helps listeners realize that they are not alone, that on the other side there are regular students like them.

As current president, Czerwaniw is proud of what SURG continues to accomplish as a digital radio station with “recent upgrades to our studio, embracing audio over IP and podcasting technology.”

“[SURG] provides a place where people can learn new skills… A place where people can collaborate and create things together in a low-risk environment,” he said.

In recent years, SURG has developed programs to support local music groups to find an audience. Before COVID-19 put live music on hold, SURG introduced “High Rotation” in early 2020, a concert showcasing local bands. There have been three such events since.

Now, SURG leaders are supporting a group of first-year broadcasters to organize and host a live music event at the Lansdowne Hotel on October 22. They have the opportunity to expand their own radio show, ‘UNI TUNES’ into a unique live setting, conducting interviews with local artists on stage between their performances.

Surg’s future certainly looks as exciting as its past. Current executive James Wily is confident the long-serving company is “on an upward trajectory” with a team of passionate designers. As long as SURG listens to the USyd community, students will continue to do the same.

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