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CANBERRA’S radio and television pioneer George Barlin has died. He was 100.
He arrived in Canberra on a Friday night in February, 1932, as the fledgling city of 6000, struggled to its feet in the midst of the Great Depression. It was a long way from his hometown of Lansdowne, near Taree on the NSW mid-north coast.
“My first impression was that I couldn’t live in such a scattered place, with nobody around,” George recalled in an interview with “CityNews” in 2013.
“It wasn’t a town as I knew it; Taree was a good, flourishing little town serving the fishing, dairy and timber industries.
“Canberra consisted of a few scattered houses in Ainslie and a few scattered buildings in the civic centre.
Most of the shops in Civic were empty, the Melbourne Building was half-finished and the newly planted trees stood little more than six feet. At Molonglo (Fyshwick), construction workers lived in what was intended to be a World War I internment camp, further contributing to the feeling of isolation.
But by the time Australia had begun to emerge from the economic gloom shortly before World War II, George had grown to love the city he has lived in for the past 83 years. He married his wife Iris in 1938 and the couple celebrated their 78-year anniversary in March. Iris died in June this year.
The era George said he remembered most fondly was the late ‘30s when he and Iris had just met, when there was plenty of trout to be caught, and his neighbours felt safe going on a month’s holiday without bothering to close the front door.
“Everybody knew everybody; you’d go down the street and be stopped at every 10 yards. It was different then, even though there was, in the early stages, some class distinctions. ”
George got to know the Crown Solicitor’s son – a young Gough Whitlam – and used to pass Prime Minister Ben Chifley in the street.
“I was driving home one night and there’s this bloke walking along beside the road, and I knew him because I used to see him every Friday morning to do a recording for him. I said, ‘Mr Chifley, can I take you somewhere?’
“‘No,’ he said, ‘don’t worry about that. I like to get a bit of fresh air and get away from the mob before they get at me.’ That’s the sort of place it was.”
George discovers radio
IN 2011, “CityNews” marked the 80th birthday of Canberra’s first radio station 2CA with an interview and cover story with George Barlin.
He recalled that he was two weeks away from turning 17 when he started working for 2CA, a year after Jack Ryan began the station from the back room of his small electrical shop in Kingston.
“It was the middle of the Depression,” George said.
“You would have no idea what that Depression was like. People were committing suicide; [others] walking around, prepared to do anything to get a meal; there was no jobs.
“I really wanted to be a pharmacist, but I had no hope of doing that, so in January after I got my Leaving Certificate, my father said I had better apply for a job.”
Mr Barlin’s father learnt of the position as a “broadcasting cadet” from a Sydney newspaper.
“I was very interested in this because my father had one of the very first radios in the area and I was fascinated by what could be done over the air over two wires.”Travelling from Lansdowne (near Port Macquarie), young George went to Sydney for the first time with his father for an interview.
Despite the overwhelming interest from other applicants of similar age, he was selected for the position by Jack Ryan.
“He said, ‘we’ve narrowed it down to six applicants – you are one of them, but you are not the best. You’ve come the farthest and if you come to Canberra with me tomorrow morning, you’ve got the job.’
“And that’s how I got the job.”
When he first arrived in Canberra with his new employer, it was straight into the station at Kingston.
“There it was, my first look at a broadcast station,” he said.
“The transmitter and everything all in the one room.
“[Mr Ryan] said, ‘I’m running late’ and flicked some switches on and said: ‘Quiet!’
“I was sitting there, my eyes wide and spell bound. I had never seen anything like this.
“He said, ‘Now this is 2CA Canberra operated by A J Ryan Broadcasters Limited. Operating on a wavelength of 286 metres,’ which we had to do in those days, ‘and apologies for coming on the air late, here now we are crossing to a relay from Adelaide with a summary of today’s Test cricket match.’
“He pressed a button and on came a description of the Test match.”The young Mr Barlin was told to “learn and learn fast, mate, because on Monday night you’ll be doing this on your own.”
He did learn fast and from 9am he worked in the shop “selling and servicing radio and electrical equipment” and from 1pm to 10pm was in the radio station, working in all aspects of broadcast – as an engineer, technician, program presenter, serial writer and reader, 13 days a fortnight with Saturday afternoons mostly free and every Sunday night off.
“Money was very, very scarce, very scarce indeed,” he said.
“People were always looking for work. Running the station wasn’t profitable and the shop wasn’t much better.
“We were in opposition with ‘The Canberra Times’, which was also having a pretty rough time.
“This went on for some years and then we gradually expanded the hours on the air.
“We also undertook the first air radio service in Canberra.”
The station, being the only radio transmitter in the capital, was used as the air traffic control point.
“The interesting offshoot was that anybody who had their radios tuned to 2CA would hear everything we said to the aeroplane,” he said.
Some listeners helped them find planes that had gone off course.
“Jack Ryan was a very brilliant man and at the forefront of developments,” he said.
“And he had built this station himself with his own two hands. And he kept improving it.
“Every public holiday we would do something to experiment with this station to try and improve it.
“It was fascinating because radio was new, it was mysterious.“One day we were fiddling with the transmitter and the whole thing caught on fire. And we switched it off and Mr Ryan said to me:
‘George, we’ve just discovered something that someone is going to make a lot of money out of one day.’
“We didn’t know. But that day we made a microwave oven. We didn’t know, we were in broadcasting.”
After taking over the reins as station manager from Jack Ryan during World War II, and making a success of the business after the war, he was soon doing the same for other regional stations across the district.
Over the years, the station has moved to various locations from Kingston to the bigger location at “Radio Hill”, Fyshwick to Mort Street in Civic and various changeovers in owners.
In the 1950s, he was employed to start Canberra’s first television station.“I thought if Jack Ryan started radio in Canberra and I was his number one boy, then I should be the one to start television,” he said.
“And that’s what I did.”
Television makes a start in Canberra
GEORGE Barlin told “CityNews” it was a challenge from former British media mogul Cecil Harmsworth King, that prompted him to fulfil his dream to start television in Canberra.
It was the late 1950s and Mr King, owner of the London “Daily Mirror”, had bought out the radio station 2CA, plus other regional radio stations under the company Macquarie, that Mr Barlin was managing.
“King used to come out to Australia periodically and look at his investments here,” Mr Barlin said.
“One of these trips I had to take King and [Macquarie boss John] Patience to Yass.
“King was a very stern fellow, very economical with words, monotonous tone.
“As we were going past Hall, Patience said to King something complimentary about what I had done.
“King then said: ‘That might be all very well, Mr Patience, but what has he done about television?’ and I piped up and said: ‘We could never afford television in Canberra, haven’t got enough of a population, it’s not a goer’.
“King said: ‘Are you aware of what has been going on in the United States, the United Kingdom and Europe?’ and I said: ‘No, I haven’t followed it’ and he said: ‘Well I would advise you to know what you are talking about before you express an opinion in future’ or words to that effect.
“That immediately gave me the impression that he wanted me to look into television… I went to America and learnt as much as I could.”
Mr Barlin’s six-week trip took him to metro and regional television stations in San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Washington, Atlanta and to the states of Texas, New Mexico and California, and also Toronto, Canada.
He described the transition from radio to television as “a pretty steep learning curve”.
“Officially, my job was to see what was happening to radio in the days of budding television,” he said.
“And I did a report on that and how I felt about it. But in a separate one-page sheet I said I had learnt enough about television to recommend that we go all out and learn what we could and do what we could to bring it to Canberra and other country areas in Australia.”
Mr Barlin described the establishment of television in Canberra as a “dog fight” as two commercial stations in Sydney – one owned by the Fairfax family and the other by the Packers – were looking to relay all television programming out of the city.
But Mr Barlin stuck to his guns. “I wanted to have a fully operational, independent station,” he said.
By June 2, 1962, it all came together, with 22 staff, Mr Barlin founded CTC – Canberra Television Canberra – a 22-person station that sat on top of Black Mountain.