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Tuning into the Sydney University Radio Group

Sydney Uni Radio Group is one of the University’s oldest societies and its history certainly is aux-hillerating! Let’s rewind.

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

Yet SURG is a home toof many student voices, past and present. According to current President Zander Czerwaniw, SURG serves as a medium to “help highlight 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’d be excused for not knowing how long SURG has existed. Finding public information about the student-led institution is a challenge. Fortunately, the society is currently run by a wonderful executive who was more than enthused to grant me access to SURG’s archives.

Much of what is known about SURG’s long-winding yet 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 than the others in Australia”.

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

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

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

In 1946, USyd was the first University in Australia to attempt a wholly student-run radio station, broadcast directly from campus. The initiative was led by Glen Duncan, a medicine student at the time. Plans for the student radio station would later be copied across Australian universities, but not for another thirty years! Student engineers, on-air talent, various societies, and even the SRC all got on board. Alas, University management, who had the final say, crushed this dream. At the time, Honi reported that the Senate “doubted whether [students] were capable of running a loudspeaker system, much less a radio station”. They were not confident students “could present an entertaining program”.

The dismissal of student radio by USyd management meant there was no dedicated student radio station throughout the 50s. It was not until the 60s, when university radio returned at RMIT in Melbourne, that student radio was resurrected. That is not to say that USyd students’ interest in radio dropped altogether during this time. For example, an initiative called ‘Broadcast Week’ was led by Miss Nicholls of USyd’s Public Relations team in 1951. Students were given airtime on various different commercial stations with programs from the musical society, the student choir and religious clubs.

This rich history of radio activity at USyd laid the foundations for a fully-fledged radio station called ‘2SUX’, which started operating in 1975. It is said that during this time, 2SUX was a house of vicious internal politics with bitter conflict between conservative and progressive students… A tale beyond the scope of this article, but perhaps a story for another time.

2SUX was devised in response to the federal government’s recently introduced FM radio licences which students were able to win. Alas, USyd failed to secure a legitimate licence. The group’s lawyers advised them to create a professional application in the style of a commercial station. Although what that actually looked like was lost on the students. They missed the application deadline, something Czerwaniw laments to this day.

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

However, this test licence was not a long-term solution for 2SUX and some were dissatisfied that so much student money was being spent on an unlicensed radio group. Accordingly, in 1979,  2SUX began broadcasting one hour a week on ‘2SER’ instead, an educational radio station run by the administration of UTS and Macquarie Uni. They even broadcast lectures, delivering remote education before Zoom!

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

It was in the following decade that 2SUX would evolve into Sydney University Radio Group. In 1998, SURG was officially registered as a society, helmed by founder and president William Balflour. At long last, SURG held an official licence: USU-FM (owned by the USU). 

Unfortunately, SURG only receives funding as a society, which makes it difficult to fund their radio licence. According to former president, Patrick McKenzie (2019-2020), SURG should be a USU program (like Debating is, for example) rather than a society, meaning it does not have the necessary funds to run a permanent radio station. McKenzie lamented this shortfall, stating: “Everywhere needs a radio station. Plurality of voices is a good thing.”

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

“Even though more and more people can create audio content, commitment, and community structure helps it flourish,” he said.

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

“Radio is a lot more personal, it’s a connection between the broadcaster and the listener… It breaks down barriers,” Rickert said. He says live radio helps listeners realise they’re not alone, that on the other side are regular students just 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 for people to 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 acts to find an audience. Before COVID-19 suspended live music, SURG introduced ‘High Rotation’ in early 2020, a gig spotlighting local bands. There have since been three of these events. 

Now, SURG executives are supporting a group of first-year broadcasters to organise and host a live music event at The Lansdowne Hotel on 22 October. They are being given 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 is certainly looking to be as exciting as its past. Current executive James Wily is confident that the long-standing society is “on an upwards trajectory” equipped with a passionate team of creators. As long as SURG stays tuned in to USyd’s community, students will continue to do the same.