When Wotan won the 1936 Melbourne Cup at 100 to one, the bookies laughed. Placed last at the mile post, the New Zealand four-year old finished in a record 3 minutes 21 ¼ seconds. Turf historians put Wotan’s success down to breeding, though lineage had not been in evidence when it tailed the field of the Cox Plate.
The network that had broadcast Wotan’s win around Australia on fifty stations immediately played Wagner’s The Ride of the Valkyrie followed by recordings of Lawrence Tippett’s singing Wotan from The Ring.
The availability of classical music at a commercial studio was less of a surprise than Wotan’s victory. Opera was well placed on broadcasting schedules as “the wireless” sought to earn its place in respectable lounge rooms. Stations competed for the prime Saturday night audiences with live transmissions of Gounod’s Faust pitched against an orchestral concert from the Conservatorium.
Giving air time to classical music was one way for stations to convince the government not to follow the “Home” example by nationalising all broadcasters. Notwithstanding that resistance, the local proprietors were susceptible to the moral and cultural uplift associated with the BBC. Commercial stations were thus torn between elevating community standards and chasing the audiences needed to justify the advertising rates they had charged Highland Nectar Whiskey for its sponsoring the 1936 Cup broadcast.
At the center of this conflict between quality and cash were race broadcasts. In Melbourne, they had begun in 1925, including that year’s Melbourne Cup which was won, aptly enough, by Windbag. The 100,000 people who heard that description on course far exceeded the 34,000 Victorian householders who had paid for listeners’ licences. Thereafter, the Cup was relayed interstate by the forerunner of the ABC. By 1931, wireless telephony carried length-by-length descriptions live to Perth and New Zealand, and then by short wave to more distant parts of the Empire.
The networks agreed with the racing clubs that broadcasts were revenue-raisers. They battled over which of them owned those rights. As Wotan dashed to victory, the Privy Council in London was deciding that Sydney’s 2UW was entitled to broadcast from the tower it had had erected just outside the local track.
Despite the determination of station owners to hold onto their vantage points, they feigned surprise that their listeners included SP gamblers. The police were better informed and raided public bars, confiscating radios. Manufacturers of wireless receivers worried that a ban on broadcasts of starting prices immediately after the race would depress sales.
Race broadcasts soon outdistanced opera. By 1953, Prime Minister Menzies and Opposition Leader Evatt formed a duet to complain to the ABC about its interrupting five-day cricket broadcasts with race results.
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