Canberra’s first radio station 2CA celebrates its 80th birthday next month. George Barlin reminisces with FREYLA FERGUSON about his teenage years as a “broadcasting cadet”, when radio was cutting-edge technology run from the back room of a small electrical shop in Kingston
GEORGE Barlin was two weeks away from turning 17 when he started work for Canberra’s first radio station 2CA.
It was 1932, a year after Jack Ryan began 2CA from the back room of his small electrical shop in Kingston.
“It was the middle of the Depression,” Mr Barlin, 95, 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.”
Hailing from Lansdowne (near Port Macquarie), young George travelled 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, programme 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.”
2CA celebrates 80 years on November 14. George Barlin will co-host 2CA breakfast with Greg “Robbo” Robson on Monday, November 14.