There is so little I feel moved to publicly say about Triple J on the occasion of its 40th anniversary. This reluctance is down to several reasons; not the least of which is that wishing a call-sign Happy Birthday makes about as much sense as congratulating a Corolla for making it through 50,000 clicks. A car is made significant only by its human manoeuvre and so is a radio station. A machine can’t read your greeting card.

Further, I have a diagnosed allergy to nostalgia. While it’s true that ego and remuneration lured my involvement to yesterday’s birthday celebrations on television and radio, talking about oneself and one’s past employment as though it is a museum piece quickly becomes depressing. Claiming a role in a cultural past is not only a sure way to start gasping for air under the glass of preservation, it ignores the real mechanism of history. Like a car, or a radio station, history is a machine.

In any case, Crikey has already published everything I wish to declare about this apparatus. To save you the trouble of 3000 words written in the service of describing and defending the station’s much-discussed playlist, here’s a crib: it will never be perfect or perfectly representative, but long may dreary musicians and earnest stakeholders whine of its shortcomings. Public complaint about Triple J’s music policy and practice is a tedious but good habit. I’d worry for the station if an active portion of the audience ceased to feel invested in its programming. The Uncompromised Political Statement on music diversity is to Triple J as the volume of SMS requests is to commercial FM. If the line goes dead, you know you’re in trouble and the demographic has finally left you for Spotify.

Even the latest iteration of this audience unrest, which has Taylor Swift at its centre, is okay. If a little daffy. That this campaign, endorsed by a fast-food chain and a cheap listicles website, focuses on a perceived need to reproduce the music of an artist over-represented on other radio stations might say a little about the emerging lenience people have for overtly capitalist exchange. But that’s fine. This nonsense gives station management the opportunity to remind not only its young stakeholders but itself of what is and isn’t a principled interpretation of ABC editorial guidelines.

As a Triple J broadcaster for much of the 1990s, I loved and loathed the constant critique of everything I ever said or played. It was irritating but often instructive and I imagine that programmers of the current era are just as informed by this relentless dialogue as was I. In any case, for every righteous shriek of “SELL OUT”, there was a quiet expression of gratitude. I may have fielded a hundred calls back then about the absence of Mudhoney from breakfast programming but I received one hundred more asking when the heavily play-listed Treaty by Yothu Yindi could be heard again.

Of course, one can never hold a popular song responsible for political change, but this one, at the very least, provided a basic introduction to the substance of Mabo, Wik and native title, which were central news topics of the day that may have been otherwise overlooked by the young and white portion of the nation. Triple J never changed lives; the culture industry can’t. But it did, and does, offer its audience the means to change its relationship to the culture industry, and if I have anything at all to say about the broadcaster that is not both entirely nostalgic and self-involved, it is this: it offers its audience the opportunity for critique.

The inevitable critique of the station itself — and again, long may this useful programming device irritate the shit out of ABC management — is secondary to the critical tools the station gives its young users. Triple J provides a site for comparison against other media and a focus for vigorous and open discussion about the culture industry. As deluded and disingenuously feminist as the current Pro-Taylor discussion of the moment may be, it provides a means for understanding media processes. Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter if Triple J does play the perversely popular faux-empowerment of Swift just as it really didn’t matter that we ended up playing — at my persistent bidding — Rozalla in the 1990s. (The force of argument that it was sexist AND racist AND homophobic not to play house music was almost certainly dwarfed by the fact that everyone just wanted me to shut up at music meetings.) What does matter is that young people are having a good chat about the orthodoxies that form even in apparently unorthodox media organisations.

Triple J is unorthodox. Even if it sometimes doesn’t mean to be, it remains amateurish. It still allows broadcasters on air as green and crude as I was and it still unintentionally fails to follow professional programming convention. Both by design and by mutation, it constantly fucks up and, in so doing, it reveals the tricks of the trade to its young consumers. The power of media lies in the concealment of its processes. On a radio station beset by mistakes, those processes will never be concealed.

That Triple J will likely continue to commit, both on air and in its public policy statements by management, obvious errors is its true strength. This intrinsic failure, both a result of its bong-punching legacy and an often inexperienced staff working to appease an impossible bureaucracy, is also its intrinsic strength.

If young people had no Triple J, they would, of course, have a diminished access to unusual music. But they would also have no locus for comparison against the media designed to take their discretionary income. The place, of course, can always do things better, and, as I have written elsewhere, I do think it needs to currently divest itself of some of its middle-aged resistance to change. But, I’m glad for a structure that will not, in the imaginable future, ever allow it to be perfect. Speaking as another imperfect, less-than-professional 40-something, I wish Triple J a continued lack of unimpeded success on the occasion of its birthday.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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