Over 50 years of entertainment, community engagement & Advertising in the Northern Territory

The vibrant sounds of 8HA, Sun FM and Gold Radio owe their place in the history of Alice Springs to a group of forward-thinking business men who in 1969 formed a small consortium to look at the possibility of a local commercial station in the town. Until that time the only daily ear on the world came from a landline relay from Adelaide of the ABC.

At that time the population of the town was moving toward 10,000 people.

Communications with the remote cattle stations was through the Royal Flying Doctor HF radio service, managed by George (Flying Doctor) Brown; Mail runs and air services were maintained by Connair owned by Eddie (EJ) Connellan. Paul Everingham was a young and upcoming legal practitioner in Alice Springs. 

These three entrepreneurs started the ball rolling with the formation of Alice Springs Commercial Broadcasters Pty Ltd. (ASCB), funding the initial development with considerable personal shareholding commitments, later to be offered to local investors. A total of 83,000 shares was offered with around twenty local investors making a commitment to the proposal in 1970.

Eddie Connellan was the first Chairman of the Board of Directors who later resigned with Paul Everingham taking on the responsibility. Later [DATE] Reg Harris was appointed. 

Many of the shareholders from that time still maintain their interest with a majority of the ownership being retained by local investors. Among those, the interests of the late Reg Harris and his families, the Hansen, Prior, Ryan, Conway, McPhee, Waudby, Chisholm, and Kittle families all synonymous with the history of Central Australia..  

Eddie Connellan was the link for this fledgling company to lobby the Commonwealth Government to call for expressions of interests for a commercial broadcast license in Central Australia. This was an unusual departure from Government policy of that time that had not seen any new licenses issued for more than a decade. 

The application from ASCB was successful with a formal announcement from the Government being made in the last week in November 1970.

Sometime prior to the application being submitted Reg Harris had made an offer to Ren Kelly, then employed at Radio 8DN in Darwin and visiting Alice Springs for a golf tournament, that if the license application was successful then he would be appointed the manager to pull it together.

That appointment was subsequently confirmed with Ren and Joy Kelly moving to Alice Springs in November 1970 to start the preparation of the many aspects of the company, acquisition of land, design and contracting of buildings, station, transmitters, mast, ground mat, power and water supply, music and production library, engaging staff and getting out on the road as the salesman. His previous experience with the development of a similar station in Nambour, prior to moving to Darwin, was a recipe that Ren had in his back pocket – only this time with just Joy and him to pull it all together. 

The Centenary of Alice Springs celebrations was being promoted as an Australian  tourism highlight with the re-enactments, street parades, formal dinners and balls and other associated festivities planned to commenced on the 2nd March 1971. This was the target opening date that the 8HA board and Kelly set. To achieve this would be a world record of a stand alone station progressing from formal announcement of the license being granted to ‘on-air’. Just 12 weeks. That record still stands today.

The innovative technical plan that Ren Kelly devised was to co-site both the studios and transmitter south of the Alice Springs Gap; with a resultant saving on rental costs for offices and studios, landline costs and providing for all to be housed under one roof with adjacent staff housing. 

Prior to the formal announcement the company had detailed negotiations with the Government and Broadcasting tribunal as to the coverage of the station, power of the transmitters, frequency and call signs and detailed enquiries as to the feasibility of the co-site of studios and transmitters as this technology had not been used in Australia to that date.

Two call signs were submitted to the tribunal – 8NT for Northern Territory and 8CA for Central Australia; neither was favoured; with 8HA – Heart of Australia being finally approved. A reflection of the Australian tourism promotion for the Northern Territory of that era.

Alice Springs was the flavour of the year with this announcement – with the Centenary celebrations and a new commercial broadcast station – the 113th.

Commercial station is Australia. 

Again, the negotiation skills of EJ Connellan and Paul Everingham resulted in the company being granted a special purpose lease on a twenty-acre block south of the Gap and meeting the requirements of the co-citing of the station. 

8HA had the licence, the land, limited capital and a loan from the Westpac bank. Just enough money to get the station on the air. 

The design of the station, offices, studios, transmitter and equipment rooms and a small manager’s residence was entrusted to Andrew McPhee, Architect, one of the early shareholders and supporters of the station who remains a shareholder today. 

There were some special building techniques and installation requirements that had to be incorporated into the building to meet the strict conditions of the Broadcasting Tribunal and to exclude the transmission RF interference of the co-citing between the transmitters and studios.

Tenders were called and local builder Russell Thomas was successful. Keeping in mind the target date of 2nd March – just around the corner, the Christmas period was possibly the worst time of the year to start building. 

The daily delivery of cold ale and snacks that Ren and Joy delivered at the end of each day kept the tradies on the job from dawn till dusk.

The supply of the equipment to meet the target ‘on air’ date was then also of urgency, the successful contractor for the transmitters and associated equipment was STC of Sydney.  

Ren Kelly flew to Sydney with the technical plans for this new innovation of co-citing and to ensure that they were able to meet the deadline. An Ansett Airlines DC 6 was chartered to deliver the total equipment bundle, transmitters, studio desks and control panels, racking and control equipment. At that time transmitters of the size of the 8HA transmitter two kilowatts were huge pieces of equipment with large glass valves and heavy transformers; a far cry from today’s solid state units.

As part of this equipment buying and transportation priority, visits were made to advertising agencies, potential advertisers, record distributors, employment agencies, broadcast media representative and network organisations in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide.

Arrangements were made to engage Macquarie Broadcast network as the representatives in all states of Australia. In Adelaide the Macquarie station 5DN proved to be a more than just a representative company with technical support from some of the smartest technical minds in the industry, George Barber and Laurie Sjoberg.  Both engineers were of tremendous help and support in getting 8HA on the air by the Centenary deadline. From that association a then young 5DN engineer Jeff Farmer was recruited to the 8HA staff maintaining a long and enduring association between both stations.

8HA broadcasts on a single dipole mast that was installed as the station building was being constructed and being of galvanised steel could not be erected during the day as the heat of the sun made the tower sections and steel guy ropes too hot to handle with the mast contractor being enticed to work from 9:00 pm at night till sunrise for over a week. There was no specialised earth mat installation equipment available in Alice Springs. Brendan Heenan made an adaption of his farm machinery and installed 360 copper radials that provides the earth reflector for the signal.  

Temporary premises, in a small flat in Alice Springs, home at that time for Ren and Joy Kelly, was a hive of industry – plans for offices and studios, technical drawing of studios, transmitters and coaxial lines covered most of the flat – pushed aside to find a bed to sleep in, records were catalogued, sales proposals were written and sales traffic schedule prepared.  

In late February the 8HA team started to come together, many new to the broadcast industry and other old hands. But all pulled their weight with a test signal being transmitted just days before the official opening.

By 9:00 am on the 2nd of March 1971 as the last wires were soldered together, the first traffic logs were typed and the latest Top 40 records were unpacked the station was ready to go to air.

The technical innovation of co-citing the station had been proven not only possible but successful with the ASCB broadcast  central (8HA, SUN FM Gold Radio and translators programming) operating with the same technology today.

Just twelve weeks after the formal granting of the license Radio 8HA had set an all-time Australian record for the establishment of a new commercial broadcast station. 

The opening formalities were held in front of the station; Mr Ralph Hunt, Federal Ministers for communications, officially opened the station on March 2nd 1971.  Unfortunately, when he began to speak a fly lodged in his throat and instead of referring to 8HA he called it H8A.

The first national ad was for Coca-Cola followed by Hasting Deering Heavy Machinery. The first local ad for Murray Neck Electrical.  The announcer was Trevor Watson, who eventually became a leading Asian Correspondent for the ABC.  Many other announcers who commenced their work with 8HA are now with many leading Australian stations

The first days broadcast with the coverage of the opening was followed with live outside broadcasts the following day from the Telegraph Station, Coverage of a town procession live from Todd Street and the Centenary ball from the Memorial club.