Women in Radio
The sudden arrival of Australia’s wireless age signalled modernity. Wireless was Australia’s first telegraphic mass medium. During the 1920s, wireless broadcasts were conducted by amateurs or ham operators with access to radio equipment, who broadcast live music, commentary and played music recordings (from cylinders and discs) for a small but growing audience. At that time wireless technology was employed chiefly by the armed forces as a tool for telegraphic communication, then in 1923 Australia’s first licensed radio broadcast introduced the new medium to Australian society.
Radio became a central domestic and social activity in Australian society, as entire family groups gathered around a radio set for communal listening. The radio became an essential household item, providing hours of background entertainment to housewives carrying out their day-to-day duties.
Radio Pictorial images from the NFSA Library
Australian women’s relationship with radio went deeper than simply being an avid audience of listeners – women also played an important professional role during Australia’s early years of radio broadcasting. These women were pioneers in media production techniques and were integral to the shaping of Australian cultural identity. By the mid-to-late 1930s, women working in radio production gained prominence as producers, directors, writers and performers. This was at a time when most women were encouraged to stay at home as housewives and mothers — many of these radio pioneers were themselves mothers with their own households to manage. Women remained an integral part of Australian radio production through the golden years of radio in the 1940s and 1950s, up until today. Many of these women’s stories in radio can be told through items in the NFSA collection, including radio recordings, photographs, scrapbooks, scripts, books, magazines, and oral histories.
Queenie Ashton was born in England in 1903. Ashton studied dancing from the age of four. From the age of 16 she studied voice production, drama and sight reading. Her first professional appearance was at the Prince of Wales Theatre in London, where she sang a duet with Noël Coward, in a production of Happy Family. Ashton began her radio career in 1924, at Radio 2LO in London, singing brackets of classical songs.
Amber Mae Cecil was born in 1938 to two of Australia’s best known radio figures: actress Rosalind Kennerdale and senior producer for the ABC, Lawrence H Cecil. In 1953, at the age of 15, Cecil left school to co-star as the daughter, Janie, in the popular family comedy, Life with Dexter, with Ray Hartley as the son, Ashleigh. The show was recorded live each week before an audience at 2GB and Cecil continued in the role for 11 years. Cecil was in constant demand for ABC radio plays.
Born in Melbourne in 1911, Dorothy Crawford was a television and radio drama producer. As co-founder of Crawford Productions she made a significant contribution to the company’s success, which not only dominated radio production in Melbourne, but was one of the few independent production companies to successfully transition from radio to television in Australia.
Born in Sydney in 1914, Lynn Foster was an important pioneer in the radio industry, being the first woman in Australia to direct a major radio serial on a national network, as well as the first to write and direct one. She also played a major part in the advancement of the status of writers in the radio industry.
Grace Gibson was born in Texas in 1905. On completing her schooling in Hollywood, Gibson found work with the Radio Transcription Company of America. This was one of the first radio drama production companies in the US. A few years later, she was selling radio programs to prospective sponsors. Managing Director of 2GB, AE Bennett, travelled to America to buy transcriptions and it was there he met Grace Gibson.
Ethel Lang was born in Sydney in 1902. Ethel Lang played leading ladies for ABC radio all through the 1930s, including: Portia in The Merchant of Venice, Lady Macbeth in Macbeth and the leading role of Jane Marryot in Noël Coward’s Cavalcade. She also worked extensively with 2SM and 2GB.
Lane, Richard and National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, 1994, The Golden Age of Australian Radio Drama 1923-1960: A History Through Biography, Melbourne University Press, Carlton South, Vic