Radio for the Community! Spoken Histories From 3ZZZ

Today, we have the privilege of speaking to Eugene O’Rourke, the convener of the Irish Broadcasting Group at 3ZZZ. Eugene’s infectious passion for music and culture has been a cornerstone of the Irish community for decades, his journey is a testament to the power of community radio in preserving cultural heritage.

Radio for the Community! Spoken Histories From 3ZZZ highlights the impact that 3ZZZ broadcasters have made to their communities, increasing diversity in community media, benefits of multiculturalism, sacrifices made by new migrants in Australia, and benefits of volunteering in community radio.


Maram Ismail: Welcome to another episode of radio for the community Spoken Histories from 3ZZZ, where we bring you inspiring stories from individuals who have dedicated their lives to enriching our cultural tapestry. I’m your host, Maram Ismail. Today, we have the privilege of speaking to Eugene O’Rourke, the convener of the Irish Broadcasting Group at 3ZZZ, Melbourne’s community radio station.

Eugene O’Rourke: They said no, we would like, uh, more of an ethnic radio station to project the cultural life of the city of Melbourne. And so, I got involved way back in 1974, 75 when it started.

Maram Ismail: Eugene’s infectious passion for music and culture has been a cornerstone of the Irish community for decades. Let’s dive into his incredible journey.

Eugene O’Rourke: I am the convener of the Irish Broadcasting Group here at 3ZZZ, and I have been the convener for many, many, many years. I don’t know why they haven’t sacked me, but anyway, they’re hanging on to me. I like my music. I’ve got a disease. It’s called buying CDs. I can’t pass a record shop without going in to buy a CD or two. And I now  ended up with a couple of thousand maybe CDs. I don’t generalize in any one particular type of music. I like everything folk music, jazz, classical music, choral works, poetry, spoken words, everything. So, no matter any one of my broadcasters say, have you got such and such? And I say, yeah, I have. So it’s now got to the stage where they say, if you’re doing a programme and you’re short of music, ring, Eugene. He’d be able to supply you with everything. I do stamp collecting and I collect stamps. I’ve been collecting stamps since, uh, the mid 50s. So, I’ve got a big collection of first day of issue stamps. I like to read, and I’ve got a large selection of books. Can’t read anymore, my eyesight failing, so I have to part with them, get them off to somebody else. I like gardening, I spent a lot of time in my garden. There’s a lot of weeding, digging, raking leaves, sweeping driveways.

Maram Ismail: Eugene’s journey is a testament to the power of community radio in preserving cultural heritage. He began his broadcasting career in the mid-70s at 3ZZZ during a transformative period in Australian radio access. Stations like 3ZZ were emerging, giving voice to a mosaic of cultures.

Eugene O’Rourke: That was the beginning of that was called 3ZZ, and it was an access radio station, and that was set up by the newly elected Labour government under Gough Whitlam. The Labor Party had been out of office in Australia for maybe 25 years. When this new government came in, they had sweeping changes and they decided that they should extend the broadcast. And one of the things they asked the ABC in Sydney, what kind of a station would you like? And they said, well, we would like a youth station. So they ended up with a pop station called Double J, and in Melbourne they said, no, we would like a more of an ethnic radio station to project the cultural life of the City of Melbourne. And so, I got involved way back in 1974-75 when it started.

Maram Ismail: This had been a significant moment in Australian history. The dynamic Gough Whitlam had been swept to power on a wind of change and in a very short time made some major reforms to the fabric of Australian life, such as launching a policy of multiculturalism and creating migrant education centres in capital cities.

Speaker 3: An angry Mr. Whitlam responded to his sacking in a speech on the steps of Parliament House.

Gough Whitlam: Well, may we say God save the Queen because nothing will save the Governor General.

Maram Ismail: However, a few years after coming to power, he was removed from parliament in an unceremonious political act. But his legacy remained reflected in what Eugene was helping to pioneer a 3ZZ.

Eugene O’Rourke: It was very interesting in those days because Monday to Friday was various ethnic languages, and each community had a half an hour, and we started at about 5:30 in the evening, and we finished at 11. And then the programmes were repeated the next morning for people going to work, or maybe coming off night shift and couldn’t hear the original broadcast. So, it was an amazing station, very exciting. And I met an awful lot of people. I still know some of them today who are still around elderly gentlemen and gentlewomen, but we’re still here. A very exciting time. The first access radio station in the world. People came from the BBC. They came from all over, from Canada to witness what we were actually doing, because the concept of people able to walk in off the street and broadcast fascinated them. But it wasn’t as simple as that. You had to apply for a time, and you were allocated a half an hour and you were told how to prepare and present a programme, and everything went like clockwork. So, it was a brilliant experiment and to the detriment of the station, it was too successful.

Maram Ismail: Eugene’s involvement in this ground-breaking experiment laid the foundation for his lifelong dedication to community radio. His voice introducing Irish music was a revelation for Melbourne’s Irish community. It was a connection to their roots that they had never experienced before.

Eugene O’Rourke: Actually, I was just lying in bed a week after it was the new station and there was an awful lot of politics going on about extending the frequency, and the commercial stations were dead against it. You know, they said, no, we’re already jam packed. We can’t have any more stations on the broad band will fall up. And the government said, no, we’re going to extend. They said, no, you can’t. Yes we will. No. And that was the to-and-fro. And eventually the government said, right, we are doing it. And that was it.

Speaker7: Ladies and gentlemen, this is broadcasting in Croatian language on 3ZZ access radio.

Eugene O’Rourke: So, it was a fascinating start because I was listening to it the first four weeks, the same as everyone else, and we were hearing all these different ethnic languages, beautiful ethnic music from all over the world that we had never heard before, because radio in Melbourne at that time was strictly top 20 American pop and things like that. And the ABC was putting in a few bits and pieces of classical music in between everything else because they had limited broadband too, so it was very limited what you got. But suddenly the airwaves was opened up to all these nationalities. Monitor Friday was ethnic languages, and Saturday and Sunday were given over to English language programs. They consisted of the Bing Crosby Society, the Frank Sinatra Society, the Blind Society, the classical guitar, and everything and anything that was to do with English language, jazz programs and what have you. After the first week, I rang up and I congratulated the chap who was doing the Saturday night program, and he said, well, why don’t you come in and make your own program? And I said, well, I don’t know anything about making a program. I’ve never been in a radio station. And he said, oh, well, don’t worry about that. We can help you. I said, all right, then I come in. So I came in and met him the following week and he said, all right, then I’ll pencil you in for Saturday.

I thought he was going to say, come back in six months time. So he said, I’ll pay you and say, well, what do you want for Saturday? He said, you can do an Irish program. Just write out the names of the songs and the tunes, who the artist is, time them and write a script about what you know about these pieces of music. And, uh, when I got home, I said, I’m doing a radio program on Saturday. They said, well, what do you mean you’re doing? You know, nothing about radio. So that was the beginning of the end. So I came in anyway, what’s fascinating is that when I came in and did the program on the Saturday for the first time, people here in Melbourne, Irish people heard an Irish accent introducing Irish music. They couldn’t believe it. Who was this person? We don’t know who he is. Where did he come from? So eventually one of the big organisations in town, actually it was the Celtic club. They wrote to the manager and said, can you please pass this on to Mr. O’Rourke and tell him that he’s invited to present himself to the club so we know who he is? And, uh, everybody got involved. It was a breeze, actually. It was lovely.

Maram Ismail: Hearing an Irish voice on radio in Australia is actually quite a significant thing. Many people would find this hard to believe now, but there had been a history of discrimination against the Irish going back to the early days of colonial Australia. Political prisoners from Ireland were some of the first to be brought here on convict ships, and throughout the 19th and early 20th century, Irish Catholics would often find that they couldn’t get a job in the mainly Protestant institutions and businesses. But the Australian concept of the fair go in many ways comes from them, from their deep-rooted belief in treating people equally and their firsthand experiences of harsh treatment, Eugene embodies this attitude. His dedication didn’t stop at hosting. He became a mentor, training countless presenters and sharing multi-ethnic communities. At 3ZZZ, his passion for passing on the art of radio to the next generation is palpable.

Eugene O’Rourke: It’s very important that people know what they’re doing when they come into a studio. Either say to them, this is not the case where somebody gives you a set of keys and they say, well, by the time you get to Sydney, you’ll know how to drive. It doesn’t happen like that. You’ve got to know beforehand. So, it split second timing. And it’s been a great pleasure for me to be able to train so many people. And I’ve seen them come in here and they say, I don’t know anything, and I don’t think this is for me and I don’t understand technology and I can’t do this. I could write a book on excuses as to why they can’t do anything. And you sit them down and you take them through. Quietly and gently and they say, well, can you show me? And I say, no, you press it and you will see what happens when you press that button. And that gets them involved in doing everything themselves. The training takes about six weeks. We do media law and contempt of court and preparing a programme, presenting a programme. There’s various other modules, you know, that we take them through and by the time they’re finished, then they’re ready for the panel. And that in itself is terrific fun. It’s so rewarding to walk past one of these studios and to look in and see people actually doing programmes, interviewing people overseas. And you say, good Lord, six months ago they were afraid to walk into a studio, never mind go in and take it over.

Maram Ismail: His advocacy for In-language community radio is rooted in the belief that people need to communicate in their own language, especially those who may not be proficient in English. He emphasizes the importance of staying connected and informed, especially for the elderly and visually impaired members of the community.

Eugene O’Rourke: It’s a unique because we broadcast in the various languages of the people who are presenting programs, and some countries, as you know, have different ethnic groups like India, for instance, uh, would have so many different groups there that not one Indian program could cover all of Indian society. And it is important that these various groups speak to their people in their language and tell them what is available. I can listen to the ABC, I can read the newspaper, and I know exactly what’s going on. So these people have an obligation to translate what they’re hearing, or to read government notices and tell the people this is where the local police station is. This is where you go if you want an HIV test, this is where you go for a pregnancy test. This is what you do. If you want to study such and such, you go to such and such a place. We can pick up all that in English, but these people need to know in their own language where to go. It is also important for them to tell them what’s happening in society, because a lot of them can’t read English, and therefore we need to tell them. And a lot of them don’t understand English or have got a great grasp. English is not their first language. It’s not their second language. It might not even be the third language, but they need to know what’s going on. Also, people are blind and they can’t read, so it is important that they are told what’s going on in their community so that they can talk to their children or grandchildren and say, oh, I heard on the radio today, this is what’s happening and this is what we should be doing, or there’s a festival on, we should go to it. And that is how it’s important. It’s keeping the communities connected, not let them feel depressed or neglected or forgotten. They’re not forgotten people, so we have to speak to them in their language.

Maram Ismail: Eugene’s tireless dedication hasn’t gone unnoticed. He’s been awarded the Order of Australia, recognising his exceptional contributions to the ethnic communities. It’s a testament to his impact on the Irish community and the broader Australian society.

Eugene O’Rourke: The Order of Australia. Look, I’m still in a state of shock, even though it’s six years or so since I got it. I was staggered that so many people were watching what you’re doing and appreciate enough to say this person should be recognised. At the end of the day, it’s very humbling. Yeah, I just can’t describe it. It’s a very humbling experience to think that a number of people say this person is more than just a voice behind a microphone. And I feel very proud of having got it. And I think the Irish community feel very proud that one of their own has been awarded or recognised by the Australian Government for contribution. The station would be fascinated to know that someone from the station has actually got an OAM for contribution to the ethnic communities. It’s an all-round success story for everyone.

Maram Ismail: Reflecting on his achievements over the past few decades with 3ZZZ. Eugene highlights the importance of community cohesion. They’ve strived to keep everyone united and informed, ensuring the program resonates beyond Irish music enthusiasts.

Eugene O’Rourke: Keeping our community together and keeping them all united and letting everyone know. We do know that people listen to our program. As one gentleman said to me, I don’t listen to it to hear Irish music. I only listen to hear what events are going on in the community. Yeah, I’ve got a lot of Irish music at home, he said. I don’t need your program, but I do need to know what’s going on. And a lot of the old folk, they’re not able to get around anymore, but they like to know what’s going on, where the dancers are and football matches, and they can tell their children or grandchildren, oh, I heard this on the radio. And that’s what keeps the community together. And we must do that at all times.

Maram Ismail: Eugene envisions exciting prospects for the Irish program on 3ZZZ, expressing anticipation for visiting musicians and authors who will share their literary and musical works with the community.

Eugene O’Rourke: We look forward to visiting musicians, we look forward to visiting authors, and they’re bringing out all their books and all their works and poems and all that and stories, and that’s what we are about getting young people in. We had here in our studios only a few weeks ago, young students, teenagers playing Irish music. And that went down very well with our listeners, and we told them to you have to be well rehearsed, because the people in New York would can be listening to us, and we want to make sure that we present a good image of the Irish community in Melbourne to our good friends in America. And they rehearsed and they came in here and they were spectacular. They were amazing. It was lovely to see it. And we’ll be getting more groups in. Once they tell their friends, they all get jealous. So, they all want to rehearse and we get a choir in here and we’ll have them singing. And we’ve got a lot of youngsters who were very good dancers, and they go over to Ireland to compete with other dancers from England, from United States, from Canada, New Zealand and they come back with trophies. You know that that is a great success story at the moment we’ve got a band gone over to Ireland, and there’s a big musical festival that takes up most of a week and they play on the streets, they play in pubs, they play in people’s houses, they start at 12 in the morning and they go till 12 at midnight and it goes on. Great atmosphere and we would hope that they will come back with some trophies that they may well win at this festival in Ireland. And that’s what it’s all about, saying, look, here we are, the other side of the world, but we haven’t lost our culture.

Maram Ismail: The joy of broadcasting, training and witnessing others shine is something Eugene finds fulfilling. He takes pride in his mentees progress and wouldn’t alter a thing.

Eugene O’Rourke: I don’t know. I often think about that. And what could upset the apple cart? Uh, no. I enjoyed doing the broadcast. I enjoy training people, and I enjoy seeing them perform in their own right, in their own language. I see my own group and they graduate and they present great programs. No, I wouldn’t interfere with any one of them.

Maram Ismail: So what motivates Eugene to persist? With a hearty laugh, he confesses a desire to stay youthful. He emphasizes the evolving nature of the Irish songs and music, noting how younger generations breathe new life into traditional tunes.

Eugene O’Rourke: I don’t want to grow old. I have to keep moving, keep up to date with what’s happening and, uh, keep with it, keep alive. And that’s it. And Irish songs, like an Irish music is changing all the time. And I hear youngsters singing songs that the old folk sang when I was growing up, and they got a different tempo, so they’ve modernized it. They’ve brought it up to date to suit this new generation, and that’s what it’s all about. You shouldn’t get stuck into any one particular genre and say, this is the way it should be done.

Maram Ismail: Eugene offers a message to the listeners and to the wider community. He encourages continuing current support and urges parents to introduce their children to the program, even if the young ones initially show no interest.

Eugene O’Rourke: I would say to them, keep doing what you’ve been doing. Ask your children to listen to us, because a lot of the children say, oh, we have no interest in that. But I know from talking to some of the young folk, they say, we’re not allowed to speak on 11:00 on a Saturday morning because dad is listening to them. So whether they like it or not, they’ve been brainwashed with some Irish culture and tradition. We would like them to keep that up. Do come in, we will train you and it doesn’t matter what your accent is, we will train you and the listening audience around the world will love what you’re doing. Eugene.

Maram Ismail: Dedication to community radio and preserving culture is remarkable. His story is evidence of the power of community and the importance of passing down traditions to the future generations. Thank you for joining us on this episode of radio for the Community Spoken Histories from 3ZZZ.

Radio for the Community! Spoken Histories From 3ZZZ is proudly supported by the Community Broadcasting Foundation.