Scratching Sydney’s Surface: History on the radio


Mark Dunn explains…

For some time now, Laila Ellmoos and I have been talking up Sydney’s history on the radio.  In fact we started doing this in June 2008 on Fbi 94.5 fm.  It will be seven years this week since we first went on air, taking over the segment Scratching Sydney’s Surface when the previous presenter found it all a bit much.

Every Friday at 8.15am, either Laila or I (we alternate) have a 15 minute chat with the host about an aspect, a person, a building, an event, an issue, a structure, an idea or a theory concerning Sydney’s history: 259 different topics so far.  The station is a community station aimed at a youth market, (typically 18-30 year olds, although the ages bleed out on both sides of that bracket), so the history is targeted at an audience who have not had a great deal of exposure to the intricacies and complexities of Sydney’s past.

That’s why we present the segment as a conversation with the host rather than a 15-minute lecture.  While we have some structure of how we will go in our own minds, it is often the questions from the host that direct the overall piece.  Keeping the story flowing and keeping it easy to follow are the keys to success in this format.  These are skills that we have learnt; they are vital to public historians more generally.  The ability to take complex ideas and explain them back to an audience without the knowledge you have is fundamental to making the whole thing work.

The segment is linked to a blog that we update each week after the show.  The blog allows us to explore the topic in a little more depth, provide links to our sources, to include photos and images, and to respond to listeners or followers who have questions or comments afterwards.  To date we have uploaded 236 posts to this site, with an average of about 1500 views per week.

It is an interesting challenge to present something new on Sydney every week.  Both Laila and I have worked on many hundreds of sites and projects about Sydney in our roles as public historians in heritage and public service.  However, as we all know, not all that we do is as interesting in the retelling as it first appears.  The segment allows us to repackage some of the sites we now take for granted through our work and present them to an audience who often know very little, if anything, about it.

A recent example was the story of Sydney’s ghost railway tunnels at St James and Central.  Listeners were fascinated that an unseen cityscape exists beneath their feet and places that they trudged past each day.  An earlier post on the gangster Chow Hayes still generates the most comments, with well over 150 so far, mainly from people who were related to him or his victims.  The comments section has become a de-facto family history network for Sydney’s criminally related!

Radio is a great medium to present history on.  It is freely available, widely disseminated and accessible in more formats, allowing us to get into the heads of a huge audience every week.

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2 thoughts on “Scratching Sydney’s Surface: History on the radio”

  1. Thanks Mark and congratulations to you and Laila on seven years of broadcasting. Reckon it could be worth doing a CPD session on these skills. My employer (NTSCORP) is getting a monthly segment on Koori Radio soon and we have a lot to learn.

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