Radio 2MO has crossed the generations in Gunnedah and its founder Marcus Oliver, was a pioneer of country radio and a man with a remarkable engineering background.
On June 16, 1930, the Post Master-General issued Marcus Oliver with a licence to erect and operate a broadcasting station, only the second in country NSW and the fourth overall. As far back as 1911, Marcus Oliver had been interested in radio, initially operating a small amateur station at his home at Neutral Bay.
His hobby, however, was disrupted by war, when all amateur radio sets had to be dismantled as a security precaution. It wasn’t until the mid-1920s, when he was living in Gunnedah, that he again turned to his hobby – by this time radio transmission had come a fairly long way since the ham operators of wireless telephony. Commercial radio had been established in the United States and the industry was about to take off in Australia, although radio was still in an experimental stage and there were few radio receiving sets on the market.
An untapped genius in his field, Marcus Oliver assembled transmitting equipment in the lounge room of his Marquis Street home near the railway crossing and after establishing his 10-watt station with the call sign VK2MO, he spent his evening providing bright music and entertainment for the few local people who owned receiving sets.
Gunnedah Municipal Council of the day recognised the growing popularity of Marcus Oliver’s amateur station and backed a request by townspeople for Mr Oliver to be granted a commercial radio transmitting licence by the Post Master General’s Department. The licence was granted and a B class or commercial licence came into operation on June 16, 1930 on the 200-metre band. At Lismore another amateur radio enthusiast, GW Exton, had established a station, originally with the call sign VK2CZ, then 2XN. It began transmission on May 1, 1930, just seven weeks before Marcus Oliver was granted his operating licence.
Marcus Oliver began his transmission just as the Depression started to tighten its grip on the country. For people caught up in the daily struggle to survive, his evening light entertainment was a welcome relief. Even for the day, Marcus Oliver was quite an unorthodox announcer and the keynotes of his station were informality, friendliness and natural humour. Marcus had built all his own equipment and microphones and one contemporary, in a radio interview many years later, recalled that in the studio “there were knobs and wires everywhere, new-fangled equipment which would amaze the eye”.
The brilliance of intellect displayed by Marcus Oliver displayed throughout his life was probably a legacy of his father, Alexander Oliver, who during his lifetime was one the state’s most influential men.
Born in Sydney in 1833 to one of Australia’s oldest families, Alexander’s career covered an enormous range of interests – lawyer, parliamentary draughtsman, President of the Land Appeals Court, a member of the Senate of the University of Sydney, a trustee of the Sydney Public Library, a yachtsman and a prolific contributor to newspapers and magazines. His most famous role, however, was his appointment to inspect about 40 sites proposed for the Federal Capital Territory within the oldest colony, NSW, as Federation became a lively issue. His selections were – No. I: Bombala, Eden or the Southern Monaro District (where Canberra now stands); No. 2: Orange; No. 3: Yass.
Born at Neutral Bay in 1875, Marcus Oliver was educated at Sydney Grammar School and Aylesbury College, Hertfordshire in England. After leaving school he took up engineering and was apprenticed to Siemens Bros. & Co, of London, where he gained great experience in fitting and turning and he also spent several years in the estimating department working on traction design and construction in all its branches.
In the early 1900s he returned to Australia, joining Burns Philp and Company’s auxiliary oil schooner, Hercules, as an engineer in the island trade. Later he worked with Standard Motor Construction Company, Sydney, as a mechanical consulting engineer.
In 1911 this company issued a testimonial to him, which read: “We have no hesitations in saying that Mr. Oliver is the most brilliant oil engine expert in the Southern Hemisphere. His intimate knowledge and long experience in connection with petrol-driven engines have enabled him to carry out very large contracts for us in erecting our machinery and electrical installations of various kinds.”
It was also about that time that Marcus Oliver became interested in amateur radio. Two other great events in his life occurred at the same time – in 1911 he and his brother Dalley came to Gunnedah to establish a garage and engineering business and the following year Marcus married Miss Lucy Marcea Darlington, of London, and made his home in Marquis Street, Gunnedah – his term of endearment for his wife was “Baby”.
Establishing the new business of Oliver Brothers left him little time to dally with his new hobby of radio transmission. As the business became established, however, he turned more and more to his hobby of pre-Gunnedah days. The hobby eventually became the business. Encouraged by the enthusiastic response from local residents, Marcus Oliver went all the way, setting up a studio and obtaining his transmitting licence. His style of broadcasting was unique and his on-air sessions were often quite hectic, because as well as being turntable operator and announcer, he was the technician, who often had to make running repairs to stay on air.
On one occasion he told listeners the knocking noise in their radio sets was not a fault in the transmission but “only Baby chopping wood”. By that time the rear verandah section of his home had been converted to a studio and the woodpile was just outside the window. Another well-remembered slip was his call, “Baby. Get this bloody cat out of here”. The family cat had invaded the sacred area of the studio and was on the verge of springing onto a pile of records.
Early listeners also remembered his racy comments on the news of the day. His news bulletins were drawn from the Northern Daily Leader and the local newspaper, The Independent-Advertiser. After reading a snippet, he invariably passed a comment on the item, mostly humorous, occasionally bordering on the libellous. On other occasions, he would abandon an item in mid-sentence with comments such as … “no-one’s interested in that, we’ll go on to something else”.
The book, The Magic Spark, which traces the development of radio in Australia, commented that Mr Oliver “conducted his sessions from his living room and did not bother to close the microphone with the result that there was an endless round of entertainment from the domestic scene not scheduled for broadcast”. Although the broadcasting style of 2MO may have lacked the sophistication of today, Marcus Oliver had an enormous following. The station received fan mail from all over NSW and even New Zealand.
Australia was in the grip of depression in the formative years of 2M0 but even this could not check the revolutionary impact of radio.
Marcus Oliver’s friendliness, humour and homespun philosophy won an army of friends for his station. Radio 2M0 has a place of pride in the history of radio transmission in NSW and Marcus Oliver is regarded as a pioneer in the industry.
His association with 2MO ended in 1938 when he sold out to Tamworth Radio Development Co. He retired to Port Macquarie where he died in 1946.To order photos from this page click here