The little station that caused a great big fuss


30 years ago this month saw the birth of a little Melbourne youth radio station that would go on to turn the industry on its ear, giving the commercial heavyweights a run for their money.

89.9 Hitz FM holds a special place in the hearts of Aussie kids who grew up in the 90s, pre-social media, pre-Spotify and pre-Netflix, when fax machines, the White Pages, Teletext and landline phones were about as high tech as things got.

Radio Today spoke to writer and blogger Gabe McGrath, who was there at the beginning of the Hitz FM adventure, and is writing a memoir about the journey.

Gabe says radio at that time didn’t offer a whole lot of choice for teens.

“It was 1991/1992 Melbourne. Fox and MMM (pre merger) were trying to out-Barnesy each other in a classic rock fight to the death.”

TTFM were at the other end of the musical scale mixing up Celine, Michael Bolton and Mariah, then repeating it the next hour. So the stereotypical male/female 25-39s were getting what they wanted.”

“Under 25s? Not so much. For your younger Radio Today readers this must sound like a parallel universe. Imagine … the early 90s equivalents of Taylor Swift/Sam Smith/Beyonce (let alone more challenging urban/dance tracks) were not on commercial stations during the day. At all. Ever. Just on the night shows.”

“So you had a tonne of under 25s not being targeted.”

Community radio announcer Anton Vanderlely came up with the idea of putting a youth-run/youth audience FM station together. When youth worker Nick Karlas entered the mix, things picked up speed.

“There was your killer combo of programming savvy and people mobilisation,” says Gabe.

“Anton kept listening to suburban stations, and collecting potential announcers like Pokemon. I was one of the early recruits. Anton also recruited journalism students – he was deadly serious about making our own news service rather than ‘taking a feed from somewhere.’”

Hitz FM 89.9 started out small – with a stack of borrowed gear.

It originally broadcast from a high school, because the building was free and it was easy to get there by public transport.

People didn’t just bring their own CDs from home, they brought the family CD unit to play them on.

In December 1992, a nine day test broadcast went to air across Melbourne’s east

“We smashed out Gunners, Prince, Frente and Madonna. Result: over 1200 phone calls. Six months later we did it again,” Gabe remembers.

Then, in the Summer of 1993/94 Hitz FM went Melbourne-wide for 60 days from an old Department of Housing building in Station Street, Moorabbin.

Come February, things were getting crazy.

“Every major Melbourne media service did multiple stories on us – both newspapers and every single TV news bulletin. In one week we were on both A Current Affair and Hey Hey it’s Saturday.”

“Thanks to Molly Meldrum, we had Peter Andre visit – with a near riot as hundreds of fans converged on the station.”

A tidal wave of excitement and anticipation was building, and it seemed everyone wanted in on the ride.

The cap city commercial stations had reason to feel nervous.

Kids were tuning in, in their droves.

Then – in late in February – the first radio survey of 1994 came out.

Gabe says “NOBODY at Hitz FM had discussed ‘ratings’ before this. Never. Not in our vocabulary. We didn’t know the station would take off nor even when the survey date was!”

AGB McNair rated Hitz in the ‘other FM’ column, which included smaller stations such as 3RRR.

‘Other FM’ increased its rating in the 10-17 age group from 1.8 to a whopping 15.1, and lifted its 18-24 market from 3.3 to 12.8 – the result widely attributed to Hitz FM’s arrival on the airwaves.

The newspaper headline screamed “Hitz rocks Fox’s socks off.’

Gabe says it was surreal.

“It was bloody shock when we stole enough young listeners off Fox FM to make them crash from 1st to 4th place! This absolutely blew my mind. Fox was the station I’d grown up with. Kevin Hillier, Barry Bissell. Cactus each morning. I listened to the Fox FM $50,000 ‘Bunch of Fives’ featuring songs like Proud Mary. I rode my bike to Nunawading Pool to hopefully score some chips from the Black Thunder.”

“The idea that I could be part of something to cause a minor earthquake like that was utterly unbelievable.”

Today, Gabe looks back on those heady days with a sense of wonder and pride.

“The first feeling is that of being incredibly fortunate. Then a sadness because no teen or adult will ever experience it again. Too many factors that will never be replicated. Early 90s commercial FM formats. No internet. No smartphones. Anton and Nick. A strong Melbourne recession so tonnes of us had no job – but plenty of time.”

Many times, Gabe felt like he was in a movie.

“In Summer 93/94 inconceivable events became a weekly or daily occurrence. It was Christian Slater’s Pump Up The Volume vs The Breakfast Club vs Press Gang vs The Scooby Doo Show.”

30 years on, Gabe says Hitz FM leaves a legacy of fresh ideas and sounds. Of passion and creativity. Of doing quite a lot with quite little.

“With Hitz (and subsequent aspirant stations) you have a generation of Melburnians who were suddenly a lot more passionate about radio. Even if they only listened to the commercial players – they were suddenly hearing different music because Hitz moved the musical debate.”

“At the very least, we accelerated a large number of changes. Hitz also featured a huge amount of on air listener interaction – much more common now than 30 years ago.”

For the community sector, Hitz inspired a large number of younger volunteers to get involved, and set many young people on the path to media careers.

Alumni include Corey Layton (known back then as Captain Turntable) Ty Frost, Julie Doyle (ABC Canberra bureau), Simon Diaz, Troy Ellis, Paul Dowsley (Channel 7 ) and James Ash (Rogue Traders).

Gabe believes Australia’s musical ecosystem would have evolved differently, had Hitz not arrived on the scene.

“Hitz pushed pop, dance and hip hop when it was unheard of before 7pm. Songs, artists and genres that had previously languished in music directors’ CD piles suddenly got a huge boost.”

“All this stuff I’ve been covering in my blog via streaming audio, photos, etc – and slowly putting into my book. The next 12 months I’m looking forward to more 30 year commemorations.”

Hopes were high the station could remain on air, but despite petitions gaining more than 35,000 signatures and years of campaigning – Hitz missed out on securing a full-time licence, which was instead awarded to another youth station formed just 18 months prior.

As for the future, the closest thing to Hitz that Gabe has seen in recent years is an online video news service called 6 News, run by a Melbourne teenager.

“He’s already interviewed two Aussie prime ministers. And if commercial TV newsrooms aren’t paying attention – they’re crazy.”

“Never underestimate a bunch of meddling kids.”

Photos in this article courtesy of Gabe McGrath.

Hitz FM Streaming audio, stories, photos are here

Hitz FM videos are here

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15 Dec 2022 - 1:32 pm

Great memories, I remember Hitz FM well as a listener, and a volunteer at a couple of the early broadcasts, but the fact it’s now 30 years ago is a bit mind blowing!

16 Dec 2022 - 10:11 am

Its amazing to see my pick, 30 years later…. Because of Hitz I moved on to create Switch Brisbane (youth station now 24 years old and still going) worked in commercial radio even won the ratings in Darwin and still host the Hot 30 with Matty auswide.. plus my own mini Network of Narrowcast stations… all thanks to what I learnt at Hitz. Love to all..


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