1900 - 1988 | Victoria | Broadcaster
The English-born Moses migrated to Victoria at 22. His soft British accent earned him an audition as a sports announcer for the ABC. He had a quick rise and was general manager for 30 years until 1965. He supervised the establishment of Australia’s first national television network in time for the 1956 Olympics. He was the star commentator for the famous synthetic broadcasts of the 1934 Tests from England, the driving force behind Prime Minister Curtin’s determination for the ABC to develop an Australian national consciousness and culture and shepherded the development of State orchestras. Against the wishes of some other managers, he backed the establishment of Four Corners.
Charles Moses came to the ABC in the year it was founded, 1932, and left it in 1965 having been the general manager (today’s managing director) for 30 years.
The ABC was created at a time when print was a mature, dominant medium in Australia
and radio itself was young. Radio listeners, just as television viewers later would, required licences purchased from the Postmaster-General.
In 1932, only 6 per cent of Australians had a radio licence. During Moses’ early years, with listeners attracted by new content on the ABC, that figure rapidly escalated.
The prevailing view of the ABC’s mission was like the enlightenment project set out by Matthew Arnold in Culture and Anarchy – a responsibility to carry “from one end of society to the other the best ideas of the time”. By doing this, it would address inequalities of wealth and opportunity, education and power within Australia.
Since the nation itself had been created only 31 years earlier, Australia was still in the process of defining itself. The ABC was to help develop that sense of Australian identity and to bring Australians from all over the country, who were otherwise divided by distance, together.
Moses, as a founding father of the ABC, was gifted with incredible energy, confident diplomatic skills and a grand vision for the medium of radio itself. He saw the ABC as the means through which radio might live up to its greatest possibilities.
The ABC’s first Annual Report in 1933 set out for the ABC a dilemma that would long haunt Moses’ term – how to set the balance between entertaining programming and the educational and cultural. The Commissioners wrote “While full attention will be given to the important national duty of improving standards of culture and education in Australia, the inseparable element of entertainment will at no stage be overlooked ... If good work is to be done it must be done by pleasing listeners. Enlightenment must come through entertainment.”
Much of what we know about Moses is found in the official history of the ABC, This is the ABC by Professor Ken Inglis, covering the years 1932 to 1982 – when the Commission became a Corporation. It serves as Moses’ unofficial biography. And like many subjects before him, Moses often interpreted events set out in This is the ABC very differently from his biographer.
He was born in the first month of the 20th century, and prior to joining the ABC, had tried his hand at farming, selling real estate – and cars – and worked as a physical training instructor. Tall and powerfully built, he was also a great sportsman, having played Rugby Union, soccer, cricket and hockey, with some discus-throwing and amateur boxing for good measure.
Wood-chopping was his hobby and passion, and visitors to his office were sometimes challenged to compete with him in tearing up telephone books and races on the office stairs. As if his seeming indefatigability was not enough, Moses was also good looking, having been described by conductor Bernard Heinze as “one of the most handsome men that I had ever seen in my life.”
One of his most significant early achievements was inventing “synthetic” cricket broadcasts, whereby live play would be simulated by tapping a pencil on a hollow piece of wood as commentary was pulled together from telexes from England. The resulting growth in radio sales – and with them, licences – led to a doubling of licensing revenue within one year. Moses persuaded the Postmaster-General that some of the extra revenue the latter received might be used not just for further ABC programming, but to develop the ABC’s regional radio network. From then on, the national network began being extended to various regional centres across the nation.
Many other great icons of the ABC came into existence during Moses’ term, such as The Argonauts, The Country Hour, the ABC’s independent news service in 1946, The Majestic Fanfare, which introduced the news, the ABC Orchestras and Radio Australia.
In 1956, ABC Television was just as impressive an innovation as ABC Radio had been 24 years earlier. Fewer than 2 per cent of people in Sydney and Melbourne had TV licences at the time. The ABC’s service was created on the “proof of concept” principle, after Moses had told Government that it could begin transmission with minor additional funding.
Interviewed in 1982, he said “... the Post Office and the Minister and the Government were satisfied that we could start a service in Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth and Hobart on a shoestring … (and) within a year it was so clear that television was going to succeed that even the Treasury was prepared to provide money”.
Later, he would personally approve – against the advice of the ABC’s own bureaucracy – the establishing of one of the most significant programs in Australian television history, Four Corners.
Moses was also instrumental at the birth of another icon, the Sydney Opera House. He set up a meeting between himself, New South Wales Premier Joe Cahill, and Eugene Goossens, conductor of the ABC’s Sydney Symphony Orchestra, after which Cahill committed himself and his Government to the project.
When Moses became General Manager of the ABC in 1935, the job had not been advertised, and the length of his term had not been set in any contract. When he retired from the ABC 30 years later, he was able to look back on not just years of continuous growth and development for an ABC he had lived for and loved, but at an institution which had become inseparable from Australia’s sense of its own identity. And no chief executive since has equalled either the term or achievement of Charles Moses.
He was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1954 and was knighted in 1961.
Mark Scott was the managing director of the ABC from 2006 to 2016. He is now the Secretary of the NSW Department of Education.
Moses conducting the radio commentary and sound effects during the 1934 Ashes Test series.
‘Moses, Sir Charles Joseph (1900–1988), Neville Petersen, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, Melbourne University Press
This is the ABC, K. S. Inglis, Black Inc, 1983.
'A Biography of Sir Charles Moses', N. Petersen, Global Media Journal, vol 3, no. 1, 2009
Rite of Spring: 75 Years of ABC Music-Making, M Buzacott, Harper Collins Australia, 2007.