HE started WA’S first experimental radio station 100 years ago, played a key role in creating Perth’s first commercial radio station 6WF and The Royal Flying Doctor radio service, and had many technical firsts in his field, but most sandgropers will have never heard of Walter “Wally” Coxon.
Well now the “Godfather of Perth radio” is finally getting the recognition he deserves in the unique Fringe show Ghost in the Machine, dedicated to the life of the trailblazing and eccentric radio engineer.
Set in the historic Wireless Hill Park – where in 1912 the first wireless communication took place between the east and west coasts of Australia – the event is part theatrical walking tour and part interactive fun with attendees getting to play with some vintage electronic goodies at the Wireless Hill Museum, including some very cool proto-synthesisers.
The tour is hosted by a theatrical version of Coxon, played by comedy actor Paul Rowe from Genrefonix, a Perth based arts/music collective.
“Rowe is loud, funny, confident and larger than life, and perfectly suits the portrayal of iconic figures from yesterday who broke new ground through their force of personality,” says Will Axten, who came up with the idea for Ghost in the Machine.
“Rowe has embraced the character and conducted extensive research into Wally’s life and exploits.”
Coxon was the first person in WA to communicate with South Africa, Java, Holland, England and America using morse code, and in 1918 he was the first in Australia to demonstrate music and speech broadcasts, transmitting from one side of the Perth Agricultural Show to the other.
Unlike other Aussie states, WA never had a strong amateur broadcasting scene, but Coxon was granted WA’s first broadcast licence and began transmitting from Highgate in 1921 (call sign 6AG).
He played a key role in establishing Perth’s first commercial radio station 6WF, which eventually became ABC’s 720 AM, becoming its chief engineer in 1923. Along with Bert Stevens, Coxon was the only regular Perth broadcaster at the time – transmitting a Sunday evening concert from his lounge that established an audience for 6WF – and is touted as the first person to identify the need for a high power radio station in WA.
If that wasn’t enough, he also pioneered technical work for the Royal Flying Doctor radio service in WA, and manufactured and sold his own radio – the futuristic-sounding ‘Coxon Communicator’.
“We were looking for a format to tell the the story of radio in Perth and the history of the Wireless Hill site, and to place it all in context with the amazing array of old and new sound laboratory technology that is currently installed in the Wireless Hill Museum,” Axten says.
“Wally jumped out of the history books as a uniquely talented individual and a pivotal innovator that helped create the sounds of WA for so many people.”
Ghost in the Machine is the brainchild of Axten, a vintage electronics and synthesiser enthusiast from Greater Fremantle.
During the height of lockdown he created the Signals Sound Laboratory, part educational workshop, part music studio, crammed with old vintage synthesisers, analogue recording equipment and electronic gear.
“Ghost in the Machine provides the audience with extra special access to the Signals Sound Laboratory currently inside the Wireless Hill Museum. There are many interactive exhibits and music synthesisers to play with,” Axten says.
“The Lab has been set up for the ‘Cold War to Dance Floor’ exhibition, which explores the amazing history of sound technology.”
So far Signals Sound Laboratory has been a bit of a nomad flitting between venues in metropolitan Perth, but from late 2023 they will be based permanently at the Old Custom’s House in Fremantle in collaboration with Artsource.
“Our goal is to offer members and the community with ongoing access to a unique sound laboratory suited to a wide variety of applications. We welcome interested artists, young or old, to get in touch with us,” Axten says.
Ghost in the Machine is on February 17 as part of Fringe World with three evening shows at Wireless Hill Park in Ardross. For tix go to fringeworld.com.au/whats_on/ghost-in-the-machine-fw2023.
by STEPHEN POLLOCK