Who put the R in AFTRS?

Comment from Peter Saxon

It started out as AFTS back in 1973. The R wasn’t shoehorned in between the T and the S until 1986.

Success has many fathers but no artistic endeavour as audacious as a world class film and television school from a then considered “culturally cringing” country like Australia would come to fruition without political will… and funding. It fell to Liberal Prime Minister (1968-71), John Gorton to come to the conclusion that it was in the national interest to export Australian culture to the world like the Americans do, through filmed performance art – but only if the quality of our product would be a match for theirs.

“We cannot be a hothouse for mediocrity.” Barry Jones

In 1973, Barry Jones’ opening remarks as the founding Chairman of AFTS Council declared, “The School must act as a revolutionary force. There can be no half-measures. We must create one of the world’s great schools or we must abandon the project at once. We cannot be a hothouse for mediocrity.”

I doubt that many, if any, of the fresh-faced students of AFTRS 50th intake, who attended the milestone anniversary last week, could have answered a question about Barry Jones or Australia’s 19th PM,  on The Chase to save their lives, even with $50,000 on the line.

But the smaller, more illustrious crowd representing AFTS’ 1st intake of 1973, knew exactly who Gorton was – even more so, they knew who the 21st PM, Gough Whitlam (Labor) was. It was on his watch (1972 – 1975) that AFTS was officially opened. Incidentally, in the same year, Whitlam, a ferocious champion  for the arts, authorised the purchase of the Jackson Pollack painting Blue Poles for the then outrageous sum of $1.3 million. Despite widespread criticism at the time, it has turned out to be an amazingly astute investment with the painting recently valued at around $500 million.

Quick quiz: Who was the 20th PM who filled in the gap for about a year in between Gorton and Gough?

Answer: Who cares?

Alright, it was Billy McMahon (Lib) who, let’s face it, was eminently forgettable as a Prime Minsiter.

Leaving out McMahon, that brief period of rule by the 19th and 21st PMs ushered in a kind of mini-Renaissance reminiscent of the Florentine Medici family but on a shoestring.

The glue that held the show together from concept to commencement was a committee comprising writer Peter Coleman, broadcaster and columnist Phillip Adams and the extraordinary Barry Jones, the undisputed Pick-a-Box quiz champion, radio presenter, Labor MP, well-versed in both the arts and sciences. At 90, Mr Jones is still very much alive, as evidenced in a recent interview conducted by the current AFTRS Council chair, 3AW’s Russel Howcroft, a video of which was played at last week’s event.

Reflecting on the need for a national school, Mr Jones said of the role of the Arts in Australian life, “It has got to be priority… it really matters. It’s not just icing on the cake. It’s central to explaining who we are. The arts are not peripheral they are central; creativity is central to the abundant life.”

The first intake of twelve students in January 1973 included talent the likes of  Phillip NoyceGillian Armstrong and Chris Noonan

The R goes into AFTS

To be fair, back in 1986, the idea of radio becoming part of a film and television school was not an obvious match. In those days, well before the world went online, there was television, newspapers and radio with virtually no overlap as there is today, while film had even less of a relation to radio. What’s more, radio didn’t quite fit the AFTS mission statement of showcasing Australian culture on a world stage.

Nonetheless, the radio industry recognised the standard of excellence AFTS had achieved in electronic media training and could see how it might help provide a yearly crop of quality, job ready, applicants.

It didn’t hurt that the versatile Barry Jones was one of the pioneers of talkback radio, in 1967 working at 3DB (now KIIS 101.1) in Melbourne.

Today, the major commercial radio networks together with Commercial Radio and Audio (CRA) as well as Community Broadcasters through CBAA, continue to fund the R in AFTRS. And AFTRS, have indeed fulfilled the promise of a fresh supply of industry ready graduates each year. As importantly, those who enrol as students in the full diploma course can be confident of landing a job in the industry when they graduate. In fact, more often than not, they are offered jobs even before graduation day.

In the end, it’s all about story telling.

Today there’s more to AFTRS than a predominantly domestic radio school bolted onto one of the very top film and television academies in the world. In the end, whether it’s radio, film or television, it’s all about story telling.

Podcasting has become the new, more intimate way of telling a story, listener by listener – the way stories have been handed down by our First Nations people for more than 40,000 years – albeit with higher tech features like on-demand and rewind.

Podcasting, this new yet ancient audio only discipline, quite rightly falls under the auspices of the Radio School at AFTRS. Who better to do audio than radio people?

Since 1973, AFTRS has launched the careers of over five thousand film, television, radio and new media professionals, and AFTRS graduates have been nominated for and won a slew of prestigious gongs…including a haul of Academy Awards, AACTAs, BAFTAs, Golden Globes and Emmys as well as ACRAS and New York Festivals Radio Awards.

Among AFTRS’ best and brightest alumni are globally renowned directors such as Academy Award © winner Jane Campion (The Power of the Dog, The Piano), Gillian Armstrong, Chris Noonan, Cate Shortland, Alex Proyas, and Phillip Noyce; Academy Award © winning editor Margaret Sixel (Mad Max: Fury Road), Academy Award © winning cinematographer Dion Beebe (Memoirs of a Geisha) and Cannes International Film Festival Camera d’Or winner Warwick Thornton. The short film MumLife was selected In Competition at the 2022 Cannes International Film Festival. The film was directed by Ruby Challenger and written by Gerard Dewhurst from a story by Ruby Challenger and Claudia Shepherd, all 2021 AFTRS Master of Arts Screen students. Key creatives on the international hit TV series Heartbreak High include AFTRS alumni showrunner Hannah Carroll Chapman, writer Thomas Wilson-White, script producer/writer Megan Palinkas and editor Andrew Macneill. AFTRS alumni continue to achieve in the global industry with other recent successes including Cate Shortland’s direction of the hit film Black Widow, composer Jonathan (Joff) Bush’s award-winning music for Bluey, DOP Zoe White’s credits on TV series such as The Handmaid’s Tale and director Shannon Murphy’s success on international television programs including Killing Eve.

Australia’s airwaves are also filled with AFTRS Alumni, including Nova FM’s Tim Blackwell, from Kate, Tim and Joel; 2GB’s Greg Byrnes (Head of Content, Nine Radio); SCA’s Melanie Withnall (Head of News and Information) and Rohan Edwards (co-host of Hot Nights with Abbie Chatfield); ABC’s Michael Mason (former Head of Radio), Simon Marnie (host of Weekend Mornings, ABC Sydney), Alice Moldovan (Producer, Conversations) and Nick Findlay (Music Director, Triple J); and ARN’s Mike Byrne (Content Director, WSFM).

Philip Noyce, whose early films such as Backroads, Newsfront, Dead Calm and Rabbit Proof Fence were at the forefront of Australia’s film renaissance, and whose stellar international career includes titles such as Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, recorded a message for the incoming 2023 cohort saying: “Maybe today you take for granted the opportunity to make films in Australia but when this film school started, there was almost no film industry to join. I’m here after 50 years still saying action and cut. That’s the only job I’ve ever had ever since I left the film school.”


Main Pic: Radio class of 2021 – supplied



Peter Saxon – Managing Editor