The History of Roadrunner—Introduction

When Martin Sharp, the internationally acclaimed Australian artist, died in 2013, I read that the University of Wollongong had created a digital archive of the Sydney and London Oz magazines that he was such a part of. I remember having a look and being impressed—not only that someone had put in the time and effort to do it, but that it was freely available to all. Then when Sharp’s friend and Oz colleague Richard Neville died in September 2016, the archive was mentioned again. I had coffee with former Roadrunner art director Geoffrey Gifford that same week and told him I was considering getting in touch with the university to see if they’d be interested in digitising Roadrunner. ‘Do it,’ Gifford said. So I did.

Michael Organ at the university was most encouraging and so I arranged to drive my collection of Roadrunners down the Princes Motorway from Sydney to Wollongong. I also contacted Lucy Spencer at the Arts Centre Melbourne, which held a copy of the only one I was missing—the final issue, dated January 1983. Lucy was kind enough to send the copy to Wollongong for scanning.

Michael Organ set up a page from which all the issues could be accessed and included a link titled ‘Roadrunner history’, which led to a short post on my Roadrunnertwice blog. I felt the post didn’t adequately tell the story, so over the summer of 2016-17 I dug out the letters, sales figures, financial records and other documents I had kept, consulted the issues I retained and wrote a personal history of the magazine that is presented here.

When the digital archive was published, I drove down to Wollongong to pick up my copies. While I was there, Michael Organ did the following interview with me.

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Magazines don’t just happen. They are created, they have a lifespan and (usually) they die. I talk a little below about the life cycle of magazines construct developed by a Dutch academic and how it could be applied to Roadrunner. But I think it’s also interesting to consider the magazine as a product of its times.

The punk/new wave music explosion of the mid-1970s and the accompanying do-it-yourself ethos was the inspiration. The burgeoning live music scene in Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney provided the exposure for new homegrown talent—bolstered by airplay on ‘alternative’ radio (including 2JJ in Sydney, 3CR and 3RRR Melbourne, 4ZZZ Brisbane and 5UV and 5MMM Adelaide). As CBS Australia managing director Paul Russell—an Englishman fresh from New York—put it in an interview in the June 1980 issue of Roadrunner, ‘This country has a sort of rock and roll farm system where the venues and the geography spawn these acts who can play and make money and live. If people want to rise to the top, they’ve got a better show, more lights, more money to help them get there.’ And in every mainland capital, Roadrunner was up the back busily taking notes—all through the glory days of Australian pub rock.

But developments in technology were also important in making the means of production available—even to a bunch of penniless South Australian public servants, Uni students and music fans.

For Roadrunner’s first five issues we sneaked into Adelaide University’s radio station 5UV at night to use its IBM Selectric, or ‘golfball’ typewriter. This enabled us to set columns of justified type and by using a range of ‘golfballs’, to access different fonts and sizes. From issue 6 onwards, we switched to another new technology—photo typesetting. This was slightly more expensive, but provided a much greater range and sophistication of typescript. From that same issue, in September 1978, we switched printing format. For print runs in the thousands, offset printing on newsprint at Bridge Press in the SA regional town of Murray Bridge was quicker and cheaper than the Empire Times sheet-fed press at Flinders University.

‘This country has a sort of rock and roll farm system where the venues and the geography spawn these acts who can play and make money and live.’ —Paul Russell, CBS Records Australia.

Those technologies sustained Roadrunner through its lifespan. The demise of the magazine in 1983 was not down to changing technology—which is not to say that the pace of change slowed at all. The following year saw the launch of the Apple Macintosh personal computer, then in 1985 the Apple LaserWriter printer and Aldus PageMaker software. Desktop publishing was born—and in 1986, US computer magazine .info became the very first desktop-published, full-colour, newsstand magazine.

No, the main external factors that contributed to Roadrunner’s expiration were changes in the media mix and the music scene itself. The early 1980s saw Roadrunner’s advertising base under pressure from all sides—from below by free street press titles such as On The Street and tagg, from new similar titles like Melbourne’s Virgin Press and VOX and from above by the new commercial FM music stations. And in the UK—where music trends continued to be set—we watched the torch of cutting edge rock journalism pass from the weekly ‘inkies’ (New Musical Express, Melody Maker and Sounds) that had trumpeted punk and new wave, to the colour glossies (The Face, Smash Hits and No.1) that were riding the New Romantic boom. Roadrunner actually made the change to a glossy with its final issue, but was unable to sustain the transition.

Looking back, Roadrunner provided the best publishing apprenticeship one could possibly hope for. I learned about writing, interviewing, reviewing, editing, sub-editing, typesetting, photo reproduction, bromides, layout, printing, distribution—oh, and a little bit about managing a small business! These were skills I was able to employ when I moved on to Countdown Magazine, Fairfax Magazine’s music education series Roll Over Beethoven and then as publisher at the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal.

A brief word about the life cycle of magazines construct I have used to describe the stages Roadrunner went through. Dutch academic AJ van Zuilen formulated the construct in 1977 in a thesis looking at US mass-market magazines in the period 1946-72. Although Roadrunner could never have claimed to be ‘mass-market’, the five stages van Zuilen identifies seem to fit Roadrunner’s life cycle (March 1978 to January 1983). Rather neatly, each stage also corresponded to a year of the magazine’s life.

David Kent applied van Zuilen’s life cycle to Go-Set magazine in his 2002 thesis on ‘The Place of Go-Set in Australia Rock and Pop Music Culture 1966-74’, which is how I became aware of it.

I would summarise the stages as follows:

  1. Development stage. The objective is to test, introduce and make the reader (and advertiser) aware the magazine exists.
  2. Growth stage. Sales of the periodical tend to increase at an accelerated speed. At this point the magazine has found an initial acceptance on the part of the reader and the advertiser.
  3. Maturity stage. The audience at which the magazine is aimed has largely been contacted and circulation starts to level off. The magazine may become indistinguishable from other publications and may lose its earlier exuberance.
  4. Saturation stage. Heavily increased expenditure on promotion is needed to keep the magazine going. Reduction in editorial budgets often results in a turnover of staff and a drop in editorial quality.
  5. Declining stage. Circulation sales tend to show a strong tendency to decline and advertising sales also drop. This stage eventually leads—often after a prolonged struggle to survive—to the death of the publication.

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Two years after Roadrunner bit the dust I was invited to speak at a conference on the topic of the rock press. Following is part of what I said:

The dilemma faced by any music magazine trying to give coverage to new, original and independent music is simple. It’s how to foster worthy and interesting acts while getting the advertising support of the mainstream music industry. When that mainstream industry hits the financial skids, as it did two years ago, the rock press is one of the first areas to suffer, in the form of reduced advertising. The independent music industry is not successful enough, at the moment, to support a national music magazine.

A by-product, and an important one, of the demise of independent music magazines, is the lack of outlets for new writers. In the evangelical period of the late seventies, most new writers were fans who had passionate beliefs about the worth of the bands and the music they were writing about. That passion and belief meant that they didn’t mind receiving paltry payment (or no payment at all) for their labours. They were part of a movement—fighters for a cause—the new wave overthrowing the old. Where are those causes today? Where are the new music freedom fighters with their pens mighty as any sword? If they do exist, I’m not reading them in any Australian music magazine.

Freedom fighters? Crusaders with a pen? My, those were different days! Of course, this was before the Internet and blogging. These days, anyone and everyone can be a rock critic. And the Internet has not just transformed music journalism and criticism. Digital disruption has stretched the music industry as a whole almost beyond recognition.

So, for those who were there and would like to remember—and for those who weren’t who would like to find out what it was all about—here is every issue of Roadrunner magazine and the story of the people who made it happen.

 

Donald Robertson
12 May 2017

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Next: The History of Roadrunner—Part 1: Development Stage.

The History of Roadrunner (PDF 429 Kb)

Every issue of Roadrunner (in Historical and Cultural Collections, University of Wollongong).

 

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