Pic: Sebastian Photography
There are a great many things that separate community radio stations from their commercial FM counterparts. And within that there’s a great many factors that make Perth’s RTRFM 92.1 an entity all its own.
But RTRFM’s essence can, for these purposes anyway, be broken down into three words.
Joe from Midland.
Joe, age undetermined, from Midland – got that? – is a long-time listener and a full-time caller. Though he has his favourite shows, it’s not unusual to learn from down the airwaves at any time of day that Joe has called and wishes goodness upon the presenters, the program, the station and its listeners.
‘Shout-outs to Joe from Midland,’ you’ll often hear in the late afternoons during club/electronica show, Full Frequency. ‘He’s sendng a shout-out to Cherie The Phoneroom Whipcracker and everyone listening this afternoon’.
On Sunday evening, August 13, Joe from Midland phoned in and donated $60. Donated, not subscribed, because the $60 was on top of his existing subscription. The Ambient Zone crew were well stoked that Joe had called in on their show. From Midland.
Supporter. Cheerleader. Coach. Joe from Midland listens, but has a voice too. It’s the community of RTRFM in action.
“He’s a beautiful example of someone who loves the station,” says RTRFM Breakfast Presenter, Caitlin Nienaber. “And I have a lot of love for Joe because he was one of, if not the first person to ever call me when I did an overnight show, at like 4am. He was going, ‘Hey, just wanted to let you know that I know you’re nervous but I’m listening in and I’m really loving your show’. I’ll never forget that; and so I’ve got that relationship with Joe now forever. And I love it, we catch up if I have time. He and I have a chat about what’s going on in his life and what he’s up to for the day. I guess for every Joe there’s probably lots more people like Joe who maybe don’t call in.”
Radiothon, the station’s annual subscriber drive, is currently open for business in 2017 with the tagline, Share The Love. Besides sounding like it could be a Black-Eyed Peas song, it does express the culture and community of RTRFM. People – listeners and local artists alike – appreciate what it does and what it’s doing for them.
It’s beyond a slogan, it’s true…
“Of course it’s true,” affirms Nienaber. “When we think of the theme for each year – if that’s what you’d call it – we want to talk about Radiothon in a way that includes the people listening. This year we were talking about it and we were thinking about those people listening and how we wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the folks at home or in their cars or at work turning on the radio and listening in. And, also, sharing their love of RTR back with us.
“That’s something that really makes it for me, being able to hear from people how much they love the station every morning. Some mornings more than others, but there’s always people calling in and saying, ‘hey, I love that track’. ‘I love this’. ‘I didn’t love that’. It’s that feedback and the relationship that we wanted to acknowledge.”
Nienaber is the face of RTRFM and its most prominent presenter in the modern era, a position she maintains with good grace and modesty. Her on-air talents and charm are aspirational, but she also embodies the listener (whilst being a good listener, at that). Her sincerity shines through at all times and while Nienaber has come a long way from the first time she walked into the station in 2009 there’s still something about that wide-eyed volunteer that remains to this day.
“I was at uni doing an arts degree and I had to choose somewhere for a work placement unit and RTR was on my radar,” she recalls. “I had started doing a little bit of stuff at another community radio station though RTR was where I wanted to be. But I was way, way, way too shy to go, ‘hey RTR! I want to be in you’. So I sort of used that as my way in and I remember being incredibly intimidated by the whole thing, it looked so cool.
“For months I used to help out Pete (Barr) on Morning Magazine as it was called back then. I don’t think I talked to anyone and no one talked to me. I’d just do my work and leave and it took me about a year before I was on air in any capacity. It was over a year by the time I had that 4am chat with Joe from Midland.”
A parade of overnight shows and saying ‘yes’ to anything that came up was to follow, before Nienaber was herself hosting weekly editions of Morning Mag (nowadays The Mag) through 2011-12.
Then came the career move. Having graduated from AFTRS, Nienaber moved to Wollongong, NSW, to work at a commercial radio station, Wave FM. In some ways, it was to be a lesson in what she didn’t love about radio, albeit a necessary one.
“I’m grateful for every opportunity I’ve had along the way,” Nienaber reflects. “I don’t desire to work in that area again (laughs). But everyone I worked with in that time were good people. I feel very privileged and I think I’m more grateful for the opportunity that I have now because of having had that experience, because no one gets what we have at RTR.
“In all seriousness, people out there at other radio stations aren’t getting to pick the music that they play, the people that they talk to, or even the things that they talk about. The autonomy we have is amazing. Commercial radio… it’s weird.”
Nienaber returned to Perth in December, 2014, to take over the Breakfast show reigns from Peter Barr (who remained at RTRFM as Talks Producer until taking a position with ABC South West earlier this month). The time has passed quickly and while Nienaber has made Breakfast her own, to some she remains the new girl. She’s like the Ron Wood of RTRFM.
“There’s two types of people, I think. Some people will meet me or talk to me online and go, ‘oh, you’re the new Barr’ and I go, ‘sure, that’s cool’. Peter Barr was a big part of lots of people’s lives and mornings for a decade. That’s huge.
“And then – and Pete and I joke with each other about this – there’s starting to be younger kids coming up who’ll meet Peter Barr and go ‘oh, who’s that guy?’ I think one kid even once said something like, ‘oh, he’s the old you’ or something like that.
“You know, Pete and I, that made us both really happy, I think, because he’s always kind of had my back, especially with people who possibly couldn’t accept change and weren’t ready for someone new. He always had my back. We joke about him being like old news and it being my show now (laughs).
“But I’m really grateful to him. He’s the best.”
RTRFM has been celebrating its 40th birthday in 2017 but it has also been a complex year for the station. While its presence as both a broadcaster and a cultural institution continues to soar, the realities of the media landscape and issues within the community radio sector actually make this year’s Radiothon as vital to the station’s survival as it was in the hand-to-mouth days when it was housed at the back of the University of Western Australia.
“In all honesty, we’ve had a really tough year, to be totally frank,” Nienaber says. “We had a point at the start of the year where a couple of people lost their jobs because things were really tight. That was a real shock for lots of us and personally, for me, that was a huge shock. I guess we always have that hanging over our heads, that money is always tight and we’re so used to do doing things on a shoestring, but having that real, reality check that yes, things can get precarious was massive to me.
“So we work really hard to make sure we’re out there and maintaining the best quality of broadcasting that we possibly can, that we’re on social media and in people’s lives. There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes work that goes into that. Even though we are celebrating a huge milestone this year, of 40 years, and that’s an amazing achievement, it just brings home how big of an achievement that really is and how we really rely on Radiothon for survival. And I guess I’ve seen that this year. I guess, more than ever, we’re really relying on the people who love us to show us that love with a bit of financial support – as we do every year, but particularly this year. So to celebrate a milestone and help us out would be sick.”
If what’s happened so far during Radiothon 2017 is any indication, the RTRFM spirit is alive and well amongst its listeners.
Shout-outs to Joe from Midland and everyone like him.
Radiothon continues until Sunday, August 20. Tune in to 92.1 on your FM dial or head to www.rtrfm.com.au to Share The Love.