It was considered cutting-edge for its time: Dave the farmer from Dubbo talking live via satellite to Elton John in London about his new album.
It was 1980s Australia, when satellite technology was generally associated with news programs.
Music programs? Not so much.
But a show called Rocksat would change all that.
Kevin Hillier and Jimmy Barnes
Rocksat was a weekly hour of live radio, in which bands performed live in-studio and regular punters from all over Australia got to chat one-on-one with their favourite artists.
Just like Take 40 Australia, it became a weekly appointment not to be missed.
Rocksat was another jewel in the crown of Tony McGinn’s MCM Entertainment company.
The inspiration came during a business trip to the US.
McGinn tells Radio Today “I remember sitting in a studio, staring at REO Speedwagon doing a Rocksat-type show live in the studio in Los Angeles.”
That show was Rockline, a nationally syndicated program broadcast live via satellite every week to stations across the US and Canada.
The primary feature was the opportunity for listeners to call in live and interact with their music idols.
McGinn loved the concept.
“I just said ‘Oh my God, we have to do this! This is real, live, interactive radio. This is as good as it gets.”
Like Take 40, it was another mammoth undertaking, but McGinn was never one to do things by halves.
“We had a motto at MCM that it’s not impossible, it’s just that no-one’s done it yet.”
“So we used to dream of the impossible.”
McGinn set about drumming up interest back home.
A suitably swanky affair was organised in Melbourne.
“I remember flying in the network Program Directors from FM stations around the country and sitting in the Penthouse at the Hilton Hotel in Jolimont, buying them lunch.”
“We knew it was going to be a big show, so we wanted to make a big impression.”
“Bruce Turnbull – our production guy – had mocked up an Australian version of Rocksat with Billy Joel as the guest.”
“It was a dummy show, but it brought the whole concept to life – an hour of punters getting on the phone and talking to their favourite star, who’s playing live in the studio at the same time.”
“We played the PDs the tape. They all turned around – and these are guys who were from competitive networks – and they looked at each other and said ‘When do we start?’”
The fact everyone wanted ‘in’ came as no surprise to colleagues, who remember McGinn as a man who embraced showmanship and brought a touch of Barnum and Bailey-style magic to the table.
Dave Carter – former MCM General Manager of Programming – says you couldn’t help but be impressed.
“I absolutely admired that bravado, because Tony made things happen,” Carter tells Radio Today.
“The rest of us were like ‘I don’t know how you do that.’”
Kevin Hillier – who’d been doing bits and pieces, filling in on shows at MCM – was installed as host.
“When Rocksat came along, I was in the right place at the right time,” Hillier tells Radio Today.
“It still amazes me that Tony gave me the keys to the Rolls.”
From Bon Jovi to David Bowie, Rocksat showcased some of the world’s biggest musical acts.
Come nine o’clock on a Wednesday night, techs from radio stations around Australia would be on standby to patch through the Rocksat feed from Melbourne via Telecom Operations Centres, known as ‘TOCs.’
Nick Greiner, Tony McGinn and Kevin Hillier
Over the course of its 199 shows, Rocksat became a who’s who of home grown and international music acts.
McGinn recalls getting in touch with Phil Collins when he visited Australia to promote the movie Against All Odds.
“I faxed Phil at the Sebel Townhouse in Sydney, saying ‘You promised that when you came to Australia next, you’d do Rocksat.’”
McGinn says Collins faxed him back – totally up for it – and was on the show the following week.
In 1988, the phones ran hot when Roger Waters from Pink Floyd joined Rocksat live via satellite from London, and listeners like Rex got to speak with their idol:
Kevin: Let’s hit the phones now … and first up is Rex, listening to Triple M in Sydney. Hi Rex.
Rex: How are ya?
Roger Waters: Hi Rex.
Rex: Hello, how are you, man?
Roger Waters: Alright, thanks.
Rex: What inspired you to write The Wall? Because I’m a really big fan.
Kevin Hiller, Paul Kelly and David Wilson
Hillier describes Rocksat as the template for all that is great about radio, regardless of the era.
“Live interaction between the listener, the host and the guests, utilising the very best technology available and put together by a team of people who genuinely cared about the listener, the talent and what was coming out of the speakers.”
“It ticked every box.”
Hillier says it was that connection between the star and the fan that set the show apart.
“No-one was doing that, and through the technology, the show connected us to the world. It seems pretty small now but 35 years ago, it was groundbreaking.”
Hillier says launching John Farnham’s Chain Reaction album with a show from Melbourne’s AAV Studios – where John and the band performed the new songs live – was a particular highlight.
“John was always a great guest.”
Elton John was another favourite.
“He was just incredibly giving of his time and loved everyone,” Hillier says.
Brian Travers from UB40
“The live performances were always a highlight – when Kate Ceberano did the show we had her band spread over three floors to get the sound right.”
But things didn’t always go according to plan.
Hillier’s personal disaster was dropping the f-bomb across the country.
“The producer had told me I had several minutes to fill at the end of the show: The guest had left the London studio, there were no callers and there was no guest locked in for the next show to talk about.”
“I had to fill three or four minutes! Not the 30 seconds I had calculated!”
“Jocks from around the country still send me tapes of that.”
“We even did a show that never went to air in Australia. It was made for a big European network, with Michael Hutchence and Andrew Farris of INXS.”
“It was scheduled for 5am and Michael got an early start to get in the mood, so when the first caller from Hamburg asked him what is was like to be a massive rock star Michael gave him a rock star answer … (hit the dump button NOW!)”
Hillier says Rocksat was the ultimate test of a host’s broadcast skills.
“It was live, so if a guest got caught in London traffic, a satellite dropped out, a caller went rogue or a producer’s maths were suspect (see f-bomb story), it meant you were always up and about, which I loved.”
“What broadcaster wouldn’t? From Tony down, everyone at MCM was so invested in the show week in, week out, it was hard work but such a joy when it went well which it almost always did (don’t mention show 13!)”
Kevin Hillier, Elton John and Patti Mostyn
With programs like Rocksat and Take 40 as part of the stable, MCM staff became well used to seeing a regular procession of music’s biggest names come through the doors of company headquarters on Melbourne’s St Kilda Road.
Most of the time, everyone kept their cool, But Dave Carter recalls one occasion where the entire office seemed to lose its collective mind.
“We used to say to all the staff ‘Don’t get too excited about someone coming in. It doesn’t matter if you’re the biggest fan in the world, they’re just people, and you’ve got to treat them like people. Don’t go all fan girl or fan boy on them.”
“That worked for everybody except Kylie Minogue.”
“When she came into the building, people were beside themselves. They just turned into mush!”
Jono Coleman and Jimmy Barnes
Pioneering ad-funded radio syndication, MCM created some of the country’s most memorable programs – from Planet Rock to My Generation.
But as McGinn points out, the media world has long since changed, and those days are gone.
“In the industry as it is now, syndication is essentially a non-event.”
“I have to say, starting an entertainment and media company in the eighties, and running it through the 80s, 90s and noughties was absolutely the best time to be doing it.”
“It was pioneering stuff.”
Robert Cray and Kevin Hillier
In 2016, McGinn sold the business he founded back in 1983.
“I look back incredibly fondly on those years. I also look back at particularly the 80s – our team was just extraordinary,” says McGinn.
“There were people there who just believed. The passion and energy in the organisation was phenomenal … fuelled with plenty of alcohol and lots of late nights,” he laughs.
“I’m incredibly proud of Rocksat.”
*Photos from private collection of Kevin Hillier