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Grace Gibson (1905 – 1989)

Date Posted: 22 October 2012

Born in El Paso, Texas, United States of America, in 1905, Grace Gibson arrived in Australia in 1934, planning to stay for only six months. Instead, she stayed for the rest of her life, and exerted a profound influence on Australian commercial radio programming in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. Originally brought to Australia by Sydney radio manager Alfred Bennett to set up a company that successfully sold American radio programs throughout the country, she went on to become the first woman to establish and own an independent radio production unit. As the person in charge of producing the lion’s share of Australian radio soap opera in the 1940s, Gibson therefore had a leading role in creating the greatest source of revenue to Australian radio during this period. She was an astute business woman with excellent international networks and great selling skills. And when it came to making good radio, in her view, the formula was simple. ‘It’s the story that counts,’ she told a journalist in 1949. ‘Tell a good story, tell it well and your soap opera will always be popular’ (The Sunday Herald, 6 February, 1949).

The daughter of an American rancher, Calvin Newton Gibson and his Mexican born wife, Margaret Escobara, the ‘clever and brash’ Grace Gibson graduated from high school in Hollywood to working for the Radio Transcription Company of America, where she worked as a salesperson selling radio programs to prospective sponsors. It was here that she came to the attention of Alfred Bennett, who convinced her to come to Australia to establish a company that would manage what was called radio transcriptions (syndicating American radio programs). American Radio Transcription Agencies (ARTRANSA) was the company they formed and Gibson was its first manager.

The company enjoyed extraordinary success, but World War 2 had an impact on the Gibson’s ability to run the enterprise. She had gone to the United States in 1941 to buy more programs but was stranded when America entered the war. By the time she was able to return in 1944, the ban on the importation of non-essential goods made radio transcription of US programs difficult. She adapted and decided to put her energy into creating Australian content by establishing Grace Gibson Radio Productions Pty Ltd in Sydney in 1944. By 1954, she was managing a company that put out thirty-two programs a week. ‘One does not usually associate a good business head with good looks,’ observed one journalist early in Gibson’s career. But clearly, as the journalist also noted, ‘Miss Gibson is an exception to the rule’ (The Australian Women’s Weekly, 2 March 1935).

What made Gibson so effective? She had a ‘hands on’ approach to her business, and a keen eye for talent, especially in her selection of drama directors and script writers. Ever aware of the power of a good story, she nevertheless noted that ‘in the early days, name players were a distinct advantage’ when it came to convincing audiences to listen. ‘They were good business for us.’ But as time passed, names mattered less. ‘Listeners’, she said, ‘prefer a good story, well told’. (The Sunday Herald, 6 February, 1949). By all accounts, another secret to Gibson’s success was her ability to command ferocious loyalty from her staff. Having a woman boss was even regarded as a pleasant novelty by some of her male employees. ‘Working for a woman helps you to understand them,’ said John Woodward, manager of one of her recording subsidiaries. I find it very pleasant.’ (The Sun-Herald, 6 June 1954) The success of Gibson’s production company also reflected her ability to understand her Australian audiences while maintaining an American international sensibility.

Gibson was successful in business and, eventually, successful in love. She married and divorced a couple of times before meeting and marrying the man who made her heart ‘go pit-i-pat’, an Irishman serving in the Australian Imperial Forces, Ronnie Parr (Randal Robert McDonnell Parr). She settled in Australia and they lived in Potts Point in Sydney. She was in her 70s when in 1978, she retired and sold her company. Her husband died in 1985 and she passed away, in Sydney, in 1989. Despite her love for Australia and her own, personal success, Gibson had some critical commentary about women’s place in Australian society and was concerned about the lack of opportunities available for women to shine in business, relative to those offered in the United States. ‘The field is much wider in the United States,’ she said, and there women do not have to fight so hard for recognition’ (The Sydney Morning Herald, 13 April 1937).

NIKKI HENNINGHAM
University of Melbourne

Click here to listen to an extract of interview with Grace Gibson:
interview with Grace Gibson