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.

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. 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.

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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.


Donald Robertson
12 May 2017


1 Discussion on “The History of Roadrunner—Introduction”
  • Hello Donald
    Have been reading with interest the posts on your blog re Adelaide (and Australian) music scene in the 70s. I was there, and knew many of the people and bands (Spare Change/Young Modern, JAB, Riff Raff, Angels, Accountants …). Went to Myponga fest when I was 13, also the Deep Purple/Free/Manfred Mann concert (and Led Zeppelin! Damn). Was in the studio audience for Vince Lovegrove’s tv show, and at many of the gigs at places like Countdown and the Arkaba, Maryattville and Tivoli, Glenelg Blues events, and some of the original punk shows like Radio Birdman. I can’t help thinking our paths must have crossed at some time! I knew Geoff Gifford, but I missed out on much of the Roadrunner mag because I moved to Sydney in 1978 to hang out with the post-Birdman crowd, and try to get ‘creative’ work.

    I emigrated at 12 from the Midlands in 1968 (ten pound pom, stayed at Elder Park). I travelled back to the ‘old country’ in 1983 – and like you, finally related to my Australian identity. I still live in Sydney, and try to catch live music when I can, but don’t keep up with any of the old crowd.
    My husband’s family are from Glasgow (emigrated to Adelaide long before, in 1839); we have visited a few times, and enjoy a good Islay single malt.

    Have been enjoying the Roadrunner archive, and love your blog! A fab blast from the past 🙂


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