15 Dec 2022

Radio Days: The Ian MacRae Tapes

by Brian Coleman

Snippets from the archives of a bygone era

In the early 1970s Ian MacRae’s breakfast radio show rocketed Sydney radio station 2SM to the top of the ratings charts, brightening our mornings with music, comedy and stunts that would dominate the air waves throughout the decade and into the next.

For me, the popular music sounds of the 50s and early 60s emanated from the family’s HMV Little Nipper radio, religiously referred to as the ‘wireless’. My family couldn’t afford to buy me a transistor, so to personalise my listening experience I was gifted a crystal set that was so lacking in power output that it could only power an earphone.


 I strung metres of copper wire around the backyard, which only delivered a meagre reception coupled with muddled crosstalk between two or more stations. The star of breakfast radio in those days was 2UE’s Russ Walkington with Gerald the Talking Grasshopper. He was succeeded by Gary O’Callaghan who then gave us Sammy Sparrow; although revered, these characters mainly targeted a children’s audience.

HMV Little Nipper Radio 1950

It wasn’t until 1969 when I worked as a junior motor vehicle insurance clerk at NRMA that I happened to serve a customer who listed his occupation as ‘Radio Announcer’; and he signed the vehicle insurance proposal form Ian MacRae. As fate would have it, the offices of the NRMA and radio station 2SM were both in Clarence Street. Although largely unknown at the time MacRae would soon become the breakfast announcer for radio 2SM. His show would treat listeners to an avalanche of madcap comedy incorporated with radio- hyped stunts thrown into the music mix, a far cry from Gerald the Talking Grasshopper and Sammy Sparrow.

Ian MacRae launched his radio career at Melbourne’s 3AW in the early 60s where as a record librarian, panel operator and general office boy, his only on-air window of opportunity was the one-hour test programs from 5-6am on Sunday mornings. He says it took the austere station six months to wake up to the fact that he was playing what he says was, “The grungiest rock ‘n’ roll of the time”.


MacRae later travelled to the UK becoming one of the pioneer announcers of UK pirate radio stations Radio City and later Radio Caroline. Upon his return to Australia he joined 2SM.

Ian MacRae at Radio 2SM

I contacted Ian MacRae in 2004 for an article about those salad days of radio. At the ensuing taped interview he talked me through his career as he turned the pages of a thick scrap book filled with news items and classic pictures. MacRae went on to write the regular radio column ‘Off the Dial’ for the broadcast magazine I was editing; and he later wrote ‘Right off the Dial’ for CX mag.

I contacted MacRae again for this article to test his recollection of those golden days of radio. He surprised me with even more information:

“2SM was first set up in 1931 at St Marks Drummoyne. The station was owned by the Catholic Church, and the SM stood for St Marks,” he said.

At 2SM MacRae became Australia’s first radio announcer to mix music with a committed comedy breakfast radio show. It was comedy that started with a few bogus telephone calls and built to some of the most absurd stunts that delighted Sydney and later Adelaide audiences for a mammoth 18-year reign of breakfast radio mayhem.

Comedy was the main driver of MacRae’s breakfast show mixed with the emerging new music of the post-Beatles era. Then along came the Hon Nick Jones, an eccentric pseudo politician who dressed like Red Skelton’s Freddie the Freeloader, and who had started his own zany political party The National Colonialist Party. The Hon Nick became a regular guest on the morning show and he and MacRae scripted comedy skits and stunts. One of their stunts was to run on a Federal Senate ticket promising if elected to declare war on Antarctica and build a piggery in the upper class Sydney suburb of Mosman.

“We gave away hundreds of ‘Put A Stinker In The Chamber’ car stickers,” said MacRae. Such was the popularity of MacRae and the Hon Nick that the voting fell just short of a victory in the Senate.

“We were genuinely concerned that we would have to move to Canberra if elected, which would have meant giving up the breakfast show,” said MacRae.

Cackling chickens were regularly heard during the madcap morning shows and, as chickens were left out of Earthly animals selected to be saved such as koalas and whales, MacRae started a ‘Save the Chook’ campaign complete with (of course) car stickers. Sceptics suggested that the cackling cacophony may not have all been from live chickens in the studio; but not so the chickens that MacRae released into on-air studios on more than one occasion at 3AW and 3CS during his radio announcing apprenticeship in Melbourne. He even scattered chicken feed around the studio to augment the frenzy, all during someone else’s program of course.

Ian MacRae Radio School

At 2SM the stunts got more and more bizarre: there was a swimming marathon where a swimmer was to swim from Sydney to Adelaide. In reality, he swam in the back of a truck filled with water, but the motion of the truck caused a turbulence that battered the swimmer against the sides of the truck so badly that the attempt had to be called off. Another stunt fooled listeners into placing their telephones in plastic bags because Telecom (now Telstra) was planning to blow the dust out of their lines.

MacRae’s most notorious stunt, however, was to put a ‘jumbo’ under the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The 747 Jumbo aeroplanes were the most talked about aircraft of that era. Some may have guessed the ruse but no so the thousands of spectators that lined the harbour foreshores that historic morning in 1978.

The stunt, which virtually brought the busy harbour district to a standstill was indeed a jumbo, but not of the aircraft variety. Instead, a pacified pachyderm with its trunk swaying, decorated in British Airways paraphernalia, floated under the bridge on a barge adorned by female flight attendants. Steve Liebman, who was 2SM’s morning newsreader at the time, described the event.

“It is eight o’clock and this is Steve Liebman, and I don’t think that I have ever seen a sight more absurd than an elephant on a barge going under the Sydney Harbour Bridge at this very minute, with a British Airways sign draped over its rump, and a British Airways captain and a Qantas hostie, surrounded by a flotilla of boats.”

MacRae was decried at the time as a ‘rat and a fink’ but accepted those accolades with great humility. The Ian MacRae 2SM breakfast show reigned for thirteen years wherein he was the undisputed king of breakfast radio.

Vintage Arrow Germanium Crystal Radio

Bitten by the radio bug since childhood and those euphoric days of radio, I found myself in front of the microphone in 2016 at a community radio station trying to emulate that bygone era. As Vladimir Nabokov wrote in his novel Lolita, “The poison was in the wound, and the wound remained ever open.” But station management had a different format in mind, and I got tired of hearing the catchphrases, “Oh you can’t do that; you can’t say that.” And it was those criticisms that ushered in my hurried exit. But the wound still hasn’t healed, and I’ve since joined another community station with people of my own ilk who idolise those great days of radio.


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