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How Perth’s first commercial FM station was built in just three weeks

It was 1980 when Gary Roberts was told he had three weeks to set up Perth’s very first commercial FM station.

Three weeks.

Roberts had been working for New Zealand’s ground-breaking Radio Hauraki, a literal pirate radio ship which operated illegally until 1970.

“It was the most interesting time I had ever spent in radio – the only pirate ship in the world that ended up with a land licence,” he said. 

“They were extraordinary what they did, their attitude, their contempt for authority – it was incredible.”

Roberts was in the process of buying a house in Auckland when he got a phone call that would make him slam on the brakes.

“George Chapman called me and said, ‘can you fly over to Sydney, I want to talk to you about launching FM radio in Australia,” he said. 

“I couldn’t get on the plane quick enough.”

Roberts arrived in Perth in July 1980, when the bombshell was dropped.

“I was told I had three weeks to get the station on air on August 1,” he said before negotiating an extra week, taking the launch date to August 8. 

“So, they had to change the billboards and all the publicity.”

Not only did Roberts have to start putting together a team – he only had two employees at the time – he also needed to get some… music. 

“We played vinyl in those days, but we didn’t even have a record,” he said.

“So, there I was with a shopping trolley down at the EMI warehouse, throwing albums into a trolley… then we actually had to create a record library.”

The small 96FM team “worked like galley slaves” to get the station up and running in three weeks.

“Everyone was carrying boxes of albums and setting up things, everyone was multi-skilled - including the chairman who was walking around vacuuming the carpet the day we launched.”

Life became working straight through each day into the night, sleeping for six hours before coming back first thing the next morning. 

Intense was an understatement, particularly for “a great guy” named Peter Buzzard who had been building the technical side of the station.

“Fortunately, he completed it about an hour before we went to air,” Roberts deadpanned.

But not everything made the deadline.

The very first broadcast that launched 96FM was actually done at 6PR.

“At that stage, we didn’t have a complete production studio in the building,” Roberts said. 

“So, we scammed 6PR into allowing us use of their production facilities to produce the launch of 96FM.”

At 4pm on August 8, 96FM was officially on the air.

Moments after, Roberts was faced with a new question.

“What do we do now?” he laughed. 

“But really, this is what we were about, this is what we were doing, we were all in it together and we did it.”