Scanning the Satellite Signal in Remote Western Australia

1

I can remember setting up the dish, all the excitement of assembling it [...] and then putting the motor on. And in the late afternoon, you position the dish and kind of turn it, to find the right spot, and all of a sudden on this blank television screen there was an image that came on.

2

And it was shocking knowing that this noise and this thing would be there, and begin to infiltrate – because I see it as an infiltration, I see it as invasion – I’m not mad on television, very choosy really about what I watch – and I see it as an invasion, and there was GWN as well as the ABC. I just thought ‘by golly, I’m in the process of brain-washing people to accept stuff without thinking about it, like consciously considering either side of any case’ [...] The one thing that protected you from having it on at all times was the need to put on the generator in order to power it. I felt a bit sad actually. (Savannah Kingston, Female, 55+ – name changed – homestead respondent)

3This paper addresses the huge communications changes that occurred over the past fifty years in outback Western Australia. (What happened in WA also has parallels with equivalent events in the Northern Territory, Queensland, in the larger properties in western New South Wales and northern South Australia.) Although the ‘coming of television’ – associated in remote areas with using a satellite dish to scan for the incoming signal – is typically associated with a major shift in community and cultural life, the evidence suggests that the advent of the telephone had an equivalent or greater impact in remote areas.

4With the introduction of the telephone, the homestead family no longer had to tune into (or scan) the radio frequencies to check on predicted weather conditions, to respond to emergencies, to engage in roll call or to hold a ‘public meeting’. As the scanning of the radio frequencies ended, so the scanning of the satellite signals began. As Sandstone resident Grant Coleridge (pseudonym, male, 40-54) said, only half ironically, “We got the telephone and the telly at the same time, so civilisation sort of hit altogether actually.” The scale and importance of changes to the technological communications infrastructure in remote WA within a single life-time spans pre-2-way radio to video livestock auctions by satellite.

5It comes as a surprise to most Australians that these changes have occurred in the past generation. As recent viewers of the unexpectedly-successful Mongolian film The Story of the Weeping Camel (2004) would know, one of the themes of the Oscar-nominated movie is the coming of television and its impact upon a traditional rural life. The comparative availability of television outside the rural areas of Mongolia – and its attraction to, particularly, the younger family members in the Weeping Camel household – is a motif that is explored throughout the narrative, with an unspoken question about the price to be paid for including television in the cultural mix. It’s easy to construct this story as a fable about the ‘exotic other’, but the same theme was played out comparatively recently in remote Western Australia, where the domestic satellite service AUSSAT first made television an affordable option just under twenty years ago. This paper is about the people in remote Western Australia who started scanning for the satellite signal in 1986, and stopped scanning for the RFDS (Royal Flying Doctor Service) 2-way radio phone messages at about the same time.

6Savannah Kingston (name changed), who in 1989 generously agreed to an in-depth interview discussing the impact of satellite broadcasting upon her outback life, was a matriarch on a rural property with four grown children. She had clear views upon ways in which life had changed dramatically in the generation before the satellite allowed the scanning of the television signal. Her recollection of the weft and warp of the tapestry of life in outback WA started thirty-five years previously, with her arrival on the station as a young wife:

7

When I went there [mid-1950s], we had a cook and we ate in the dining room. The cook and anyone who worked in the house ate in the kitchen and the men outside ate in the outside. So, with the progress of labour away from the bush, and the cost of labour becoming [prohibitive] for a lot of people, we got down to having governesses or house-girls. If the house-girls were white, they ate at the table with us and the governesses ate with us. If the house-girls were Aboriginal, they didn’t like eating with us, and they preferred to eat in the kitchen. The kids ate with them. Which wasn’t a good idea because two of my children have good manners and two of them have appalling manners.

8The availability of domestic help supported a culture of hospitality reminiscent of British between-the-wars country house parties, recreated in Agatha Christie novels and historically-based films such as The Remains of the Day (1993):

9

In those early days, we still had lots of visitors [...] People visited a lot and stayed, so that you had people coming to stay for maybe two or three days, five days, a week, two weeks at a time and that required a lot of organisation.

10

[int:] WHERE DID YOUR VISITORS COME FROM?

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City, or from the Eastern states, occasionally from overseas.

12

[Int:] WOULD THEY BE RELATIVES?

13

Sometimes relatives, friends or someone passing through who’d been, you know, someone would say ‘do visit’ and they’d say ‘they’d love to see you’. But it was lovely, it was good. It’s a way of learning what’s going on. (Savannah Kingston.)

14The ‘exotic other’ of the fabled hospitality of station life obscures the fact that visitors from the towns, cities and overseas were a major source of news and information in a society where radio broadcasts were unpredictable and there was no post or newspaper delivery. Visitors were supplemented by a busy calendar of social events that tied together a community of settlements in gymkhanas, cricket fixtures and golf tournaments (on a dirt course).

15Shifts in the communications environment – the introduction of television and telephone – followed a generation of social change witnessing the metamorphosis of the homestead from the hub of a gentrified lifestyle (with servants, governesses, polo and weekends away) to compact, efficient business-units, usually run by a skeleton staff with labour hired in at the peak times of year. Over the years between the 1960s-1980s isolation became a growing problem. Once Indigenous people won the fight for award-rate wages their (essentially) unpaid labour could no longer support the lifestyle of the station owners and the absence of support staff constrained opportunities for socialising off the property, and entertaining on it, and the communication environment became progressively poorer.

16Life on the homestead was conceived of as being more fragile than that in the city, and more economically vulnerable to a poor harvest or calamities such as wildfire. The differences wrought by the introduction of newer communication technologies were acknowledged by those in the country, but there was a clear resistance to city-dwellers constructing the changes as an attack upon the romance of the outback lifestyle. When the then Communications Minister Tony Staley suggested in 1979 that a satellite could help “dispel the distance – mental as well as geographical – between urban and regional dwellers, between the haves and the have-nots in a communication society”, he was buying into a discourse of rural life which effectively disempowered those who lived in rural and remote areas. He was also ignoring the reality of a situation where the Australian outback was provided with satellite communication a decade after it was made available to Canadians, and where the king-maker in the story – Kerry Packer – stood to reap a financial windfall.

17There was a mythological dimension to Australia (finally) having a domestic satellite. Cameron Hazelhurst’s article on ‘The Dawn of the Satellite Era in Australia’ includes a colourful account of Kerry Packer’s explanation to Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser of the capacity of domestic satellites to bring television, radio and telephone services to isolated communities in arctic Canada:

18

And I [Packer] went and saw the Prime Minister and I explained to him my understanding of what was happening in those areas, and to his undying credit he grasped on to it immediately and said ‘Of course, it’s what we want. It’s exactly the sort of thing we need to stop the drift of people into urban areas. We can keep them informed. We can allow them to participate in whatever’s happening around the nation (Day 7, cited in Hazelhurst).

19Fraser here, as someone with experience of running a rural property in Victoria, propounds a pro-country rhetoric as a rationale for deployment of the satellite in terms of the Australian national policy agenda. (The desire of Packer to network his television stations and couple efficiency with reach is not addressed in this mythological reconstruction.)

20It is difficult, sometimes, to appreciate the level of isolation experienced on outback properties at the time. As Bryan Docker (male, 40-54), a resident of Broome at the time of the interviews, commented, “Telegrams, in those days, were the life-blood of the stations, through the Flying Doctor Service. But at certain times of the year the sun spots would interfere with the microwave links and we were still on morse from Broome to Derby during those periods.” Without reliable shortwave radio; with no television, newspapers or telephone; and with the demands of keeping the RFDS (Royal Flying Doctor Service) 2-way radio channel open for emergencies visitors were one of the ways in which station-dwellers could maintain an awareness of current events. Even at the time of the interviews, after the start of satellite broadcasting, I never travelled to an outback property without taking recent papers and offering to pick up post. (Many of the stations were over an hour’s journey from their nearest post office.)

21The RFDS 2-way radio service offered a social-lifeline as well as an emergency communication system:

22

[Int:] DO YOU MISS THE ROYAL FLYING DOCTOR SERVICE AT ALL?

23

Yes, I do actually. It’s – I think it’s probably more lonely now because you used to switch it on and – you know if you’re here on your own like I am a lot – and you’d hear voices talking, and you used to know what everybody was doing – sort of all their dramas and all their [...] Now you don’t know anything that’s going on and unless somebody rings you, you don’t have that communication, where before you used to just hop over to another channel and have a chat [...] I think it is lonelier on the telephone because it costs so much to ring up. (Felicity Rohrer, female, 40-54, homestead.)

24Coupled with the lack of privacy of 2-way radio communication, and the lack of broadcasting, was the particular dynamic of a traditional station family. Schooled at home, and integrated within their homestead lifestyle, station children spent most of their formative years in the company of one or other of their parents (or, in previous decades, the station staff). This all changed at secondary school age when the children of station-owners and managers tended to be sent away to boarding school in the city. Exposure of the next generation to the ways of city life was seen as a necessary background to future business competence, but the transitions from ‘all’ to ‘next-to-nothing’ in terms of children’s integration within family life had a huge socio-emotional cost which was aggravated, until the introduction of the phone service, by the lack of private communication channels.

25Public Relations and news theory talk about the importance of the ‘environmental scan’ to understand how current events are going to impact upon a business and a family: for many years in outback Australia the environmental scan occurred when families got together (typically in the social and sporting rounds), on the RFDS radio broadcasts and ‘meetings’, in infrequent visits to the closest towns and through the giving and receiving of hospitality.

26Felicity Rohrer, who commented (above) about how she missed the RFDS had noted earlier in her interview: “It’s made a big difference, telephone. That was the most isolating thing, especially when your children were away at school or your parents are getting older [...] That was the worst thing, not having a phone.” Further, in terms of the economics of running a property, Troy Bowen (male, 25-39, homestead respondent) noted that the phone had made commercial life much easier:

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I can carry out business on the phone without anyone else hearing [...] On the radio you can’t do it, you more or less have to say ‘well, have you got it – over’. ‘Yeah – over’. ‘Well, I’ll take it – over’. That’s all you can do [...] Say if I was chasing something [...] the cheapest I might get it down to might be [...] $900. Well I can go to the next bloke and I can tell him I got it down to $850. If you can’t do any better than that, you miss out. ‘oh, yes, alright $849, that’s the best I can do.’ So I’ll say ‘alright, I’ll take it’. But how can you do that on the radio and say that your best quote is [$850] when the whole district knows that ‘no, it isn’t’. You can’t very well do it, can you?

28

This dynamic occurs because, for many homestead families prior to the telephone, the RFDS broadcasts were continuously monitored by the women of the station as a way of keeping a finger on the pulse of the community. Even – sometimes, especially – when they were not part of the on-air conversation, the broadcast could be received for as far as reception was possible. The introduction of the phone led to a new level of privacy, particularly appreciated by parents who had children away at school, but also introduced new problems. Fran Coleridge, (female, 40-54, Sandstone) predicted that:

29The phone will lead to isolation. There’s an old lady down here, she’s about 80, and she housekeeps for her brother and she’s still wearing – her mother died 50 years ago – but she’s still wearing her clothes. She is so encapsulated in her life. And she used to have her [RFDS] transceiver. Any time, Myrtle would know anything that’s going on. Anything. Birthday party at [local station], she’d know about it. She knew everything. Because she used to have the transceiver on all the time. And now there’s hardly any people on, and she’s a poor little old lonely lady that doesn’t hear anything now. Can you see that?

30Given the nuances of the introduction of the telephone (and the loss of the RFDS 2-way), what was the perceived impact of satellite broadcasting? Savannah Kingston again:

31

Where previously we might have sat around the table and talked about things – at least the kids and I would – with television there is now more of a habit of coming in, showering and changing for dinner, putting on the motor and the men go and sit in front of the television during [...] six o’clock onwards, news programs and whatnot and um, I find myself still in the kitchen, getting the meal and then whoever was going to eat it, wanting to watch whatever was on the television. So it changed quite appreciably.

32Felicity Rohrer agrees:

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[Int:] DO YOU THINK THERE HAVE BEEN CHANGES IN THE TIME THAT YOU SPEND WITH EACH OTHER?

34

Yes, I think so. They [the homestead household] come home and they – we all sit down here and look at the news and have a drink before tea whereas people used to be off doing their own tea.

35

[Int] SO YOU THINK IT’S INCREASED THE AMOUNT OF TIME YOU SPEND TOGETHER?

36

Yes, I think so – well, as a family. They all try and be home by 6 to see the [GWN] news. If they miss that, we look at the 7 o’clock [ABC], but they like the Golden West because it’s got country news in it.

37But the realities of everyday life, as experienced in domestic contexts, are sometimes ignored by commentators and analysts, except insofar as they are raised by interviewees. Thus the advent of the satellite might have made Savannah Kingston feel “a bit sad actually”, but it had its compensations:

38

It was definitely a bit of a peace-maker. It sort of meant there wasn’t the stress that we had previously when going through [...] at least people sitting and watching something, you’re not so likely to get into arguments or [...] It definitely had value there. In fact, when I think about it, that might be one of its major applications, ’cos a lot of men in the bush tend to come in – if they drink to excess they start drinking in the evening, and that can make for very uncomfortable company.

39For film-makers like the Weeping Camel crew – and for audiences and readers of historical accounts of life in outback Australia – the changes heralded by the end of scanning the RFDS channels, and the start of scanning for satellite channels, may seem like the end of an era. In some ways the rhythms of broadcasting helped to homogenise life in the country with life in the city. For many families in remote homes, as well as the metropolis, the evening news became a cue for the domestic rituals of ‘after work’. A superficial evaluation of communications changes might lead to a consideration of how some areas of life were threatened by improved broadcasting, while others were strengthened, and how some of the uniqueness of a lifestyle had been compromised by an absorption into the communication patterns of urban life. It is unwise for commentators to construct the pre-television past as an uncomplicated romantic prior-time, however. Interviews with those who live such changes as their reality become a more revealing indicator of the nuances and complexities of communications environments than a quick scan from the perspective of the city-dweller.