Since it started broadcasting in December 1975, the independent broadcaster has overcome numerous obstacles, including a political backlash from former premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen, eviction from its original premises at UQ’s St Lucia Campus and an obscenity trial.
But despite the myriad obstacles the station has overcome in its 45 years, navigating the social restrictions arising from COVID-19 has been one of the greatest challenges 4ZZZ has faced in its colourful and storied history.
Station manager Grace Pashley said providing a safe working environment for announcers and other volunteers while also maintaining a high enough audio standard for broadcasting were two of her primary concerns when social distancing measures commenced in late March.
“All the people that you hear on air are volunteers but we owe them the same levels of health and safety as we would any employee, so that’s really been our priority internally,” Pashley told InQueensland.
“Making sure that we can keep broadcasting to our listeners, keep our shows going and retain a sense of normality for our listeners, while also ensuring the health and safety of the volunteers who do that work every week, have been the top priorities.”
Pashley said adapting to the unique set of challenges posed by social restrictions had proved difficult for the volunteer-run broadcaster, and although she had a back-up plan for “worst-case scenario, she said she was pleased the station had been able to continue to broadcast as normally as possible.
“I was concerned about a lot of things,” she said. “But I think I was mostly concerned that we’d have to go into robot radio mode, where we’d just have to do remote scheduling and no one could be at the building and we would have to go to automated playlists and there wouldn’t be any live voices, but I don’t think there was any real risk of that that was really a worst-case scenario.”
Branko Cosic, who has been co-hosting the show Unnecessary Knowledge – which currently airs on Tuesday’s from 6-9am – since 2011, praised Pashley’s leadership, and said the innovative abilities of a couple of tech-savvy staff members and announcers had also been vital to keeping things at the station running smoothly.
“Grace, our station manager, was trying to figure out how to approach it all”, Cosic said. “Obviously nobody had any training in dealing with pandemics – it’s something we’d never had to deal with before.
“Patrick King, who’s our tech guy, our engineer at 4ZZZ, him and Ben Ryan, who’s on [Thursday drive program] The Brown Couch and is also a bit of a tech wizard, they came up with an amazing plan to create a web-based application for announcers to connect with the studio from home.
“If you were at home and you just had a microphone and a set of headphones and some way of getting those two things into the computer, you can connect up to the studio and have a chat with your co-announcers with minimal latency, as if it was like being there, with full quality, as well.
“So, when that finally got rolled out, a lot of the shows on 4ZZZ jumped on the bandwagon and the results have been super impressive. I think for people listening, had they not known that one of us wasn’t in the studio, they wouldn’t have a clue, they just wouldn’t know.”
Pashley said one of the station’s most important roles was providing a voice to marginalised sectors of the community, and the implementation of the remote studio app had allowed the broadcasting of programs such as Dykes on Mykes, Queer Radio and SoulJah Sisters to continue to connect with their loyal listeners.
“We’ve been able to reunite a lot of co-hosting teams so it’s been really fun to hear how people are getting creative to make sure they can keep doing their program with the same kind of energy, and keep that sense of normality for listeners,” she said.
“We’ve got several programs representing specific communities,” she said. “For example, SoulJah Sisters is a program run by two First Nations women and every week they profile, a different artist/activist of colour.
“We’ve got a program on Mondays, from midday to 1:00pm, called Only Human and that’s all about the experience of people with disabilities, and they’ve been doing a really fantastic job during COVID-19 of talking about how to take care of your mental health during this time.
“And on Wednesday nights, we have a couple of fantastic queer programs – Dykes on Mykes and Queer Radio – and they’re doing a really great job of keeping their large co-hosting teams together, even though they’re only allowed one person in the studio at the time.
“I think people really appreciate that on the other end of the dial, sometimes it’s just nice to hear the same voices you’re used to hearing, and they’re just playing the same music and it’s a bit of a distraction from all the other crazy things that are going on,” she said.
Unnecessary Knowledge co-host Cosic, who is also the drummer for Brisbane bands Tape/Off, Total Pace and Gold Stars, said the Tuesday-morning program was “all about playing new local music that a lot of people might not get to hear unless they scratch the surface a little bit deeper”.
“We’re also an open platform to give voices to those local acts and obviously – normally – we would talk about shows that were coming up and releases that were coming up, and that kind of stuff.
“I don’t think there’s been much of a slowdown in the amount of new music that’s been created or submitted, and especially after all these restrictions get removed, we are going to have a pretty crazy second half to 2020 and into 2021.
“But the thing is, if that music isn’t being played and isn’t being talked about it would disappear so it is highly important for 4ZZZ to still be there, and still keep the local music scene present and relevant in listeners’ minds.”
“If 4ZZZ completely shut down, I don’t know if that appetite would be there, or that that thirst to really come back into venues and get back out there once these social restrictions have eased might be vastly different. I think with us staying on air, we’re trying to be business as usual, as much as humanly possible.”
Pashley said 4ZZZ, which relies on a combination of paid subscriptions from listeners and sponsorship to cover its operating costs, had been “hit pretty hard and lost a lot of sponsorship” since the onset of COVID-19.
“With our sponsorship, it’s all local businesses, venues, international tours, cultural events – all of the things that were the first to be canned, and will probably be the last to come back online. We’ve had roughly 50 per cent of our income dry up since that first week of March, so we’ve needed subscriptions and listener support like never before.
“We specialise in everything that’s a little bit different, independent and left of centre – something you’re not going to find anywhere else in Brisbane.
“If you value independent media, local culture, music or arts in Brisbane and you think we’ve got something a little bit special going on, there’s no better way you can support all of that then by subscribing.”