Over the course of the past decade, not-for-profit radio station FBi has more than established itself as an intrinsic and necessary force in Sydney’s thriving music community. Though the station has experienced such rapid growth, it very much stays true to the grassroots philosophies that were laid out in its foundation. Since commencing full-time broadcasting on August 29, 2003, FBi has retained its manifesto of playing 50 per cent Australian content (half of which is from Sydney) to amass a weekly audience of a quarter-million listeners. Speaking ahead of the all-star celebratory festival at Carriageworks – featuring a lineup of the likes of The Presets, Hermitude, Sarah Blasko and many, many more – Friday arvo presenter Shag McMullan and founding board member Cass Wilkinson tell us what the station means to them.

“Well, at the very start, it was just a cool thing to do,” McMullan says. “I didn’t know much about FBi before I started. But I think what it’s come to mean to me is that it’s the thing that makes Sydney bigger, more exciting. I feel like Sydney has grown in my estimation so much because of FBi, it’s made me love Sydney so much more than I used to. I maybe took it for granted before.”

“Back in ’95,” recalls Wilkinson, “if you’ll excuse me going back before the beginning, we were in a living room in Surry Hills saying that what Sydney really needed was a radio station that would play all of our great local music. Back then, the high rotation of a small amount of Australian quota content on commercial radio wasn’t making much room for new artists. The pub scene had been displaced a bit by poker machines, and the electronic scene had risen up a bit separate to the indie scene. We decided that the biggest boost we could give to the local music scene is by making sure more people could hear it. We felt that if people would hear how great Sydney music was, they’d go to it, buy it, read the street press and go to the venues – be part of the scene.”

As Wilkinson explains, FBi’s emergence came at a critical time in the Australian music industry. “The interesting thing that happened is that we started the project just as digital production was on the cusp of becoming mainstream. Digital downloading was starting. Also I think, critically for us, it was a point when Australian audiences were starting to see off the last of the old cultural cringe … The thing I was told when I started spruiking the idea of starting a radio station to play Australian music is that I’d never find enough Australian music to play 24 hours a day. Of course, we at FBi have never believed that. But by 2001, thanks to GarageBand, cheap gear, Chinese guitars, all the changes in the industry itself, the digitisation of things, we’d gone from having the six pillars of the industry to having a fractured but quite dynamic Australian scene to replace the old industry culture. So FBi was right there on the spot with 24 hours a day to fill when there were a huge number of kids that wouldn’t have been able to make a record without the permission of some random A&R guy from an international company, that were now making music at home with their mates and bringing it in to us.”

The ardent philosophy in regards to broadcasting local music doesn’t come from a contrived mandate, but rather from a genuine passion to provide an outlet for audience tastes. “I think FBi is really good in that we have a mission to play local music, but we don’t pander to anybody,” McMullan says. “We only play local music that’s good. We hold local music in the same way we hold international music that’s really good. It feels like we can put a Sydney band next to an international band and they’re on the same level. “

While countless bands have gained their breakthrough on the FBi airwaves since 2003, the station isn’t going to lay claim on their successes. “It’s kind of hard to put a finger on who was helped by what,” says McMullan. “I think it says a lot that The Presets are playing this festival, which is essentially a benefit for FBi. It’s not part of a tour. Every single one of these bands are donating their time, it’s amazing. There was a really amazing moment last week when Boy & Bear came in [to the station]. This is a band that sold out their Enmore show six weeks in advance. The whole band came into our show on a Friday to play a song. I said, ‘Thanks so much for coming in,’ and they were like, ‘No, thank you. It means a lot to us.’ You can look at it as this thing that FBi has helped these bands, or you could look at it as FBi means something to these bands.”

“You would have heard all the apocryphal stories about The Vines, Wolfmother and other bands who came to us with no manager or label,” Wilkinson offers. “They had made records at home that we could play … We’ve provided the infrastructure for a generation of really gifted Australian musicians who had this unprecedented ability to get themselves into the industry, and an audience that was ready to take Australian culture as the world’s best and something worth listening to. And that put us in this position to generate this audience of 250,000 regular listeners for the music that we love.”


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