Monday 7 August 2017

Working for the wonderful wireless (now better known as "the radio")

My brother, Jeffrey, contacted me from Australia the other day to report that he had been browsing through the books in a charity shop in the city of Geelong when he came across 3AW is Melbourne - 75 Years of Radio, a weighty tome published in 2007.


3AW was my employer for five years in the mid-1960s when I worked in its Macquarie Network newsroom in Melbourne as a writer and reporter and, sometimes, an overnight (very bad) newsreader. As my brother flicked through the book, he found that I had made a contribution to the chapter on the radio station's news department. The book is long out of print and no longer available -- except, perhaps, in a few charity or second hand shops -- but I tracked down my own copy and scanned the relevant pages.

Journalists and radio buffs may find it interesting to read of a time when Australian commercial radio took news seriously, both as a generator of audiences and as a public service. When I was at 3AW, we had a newsroom staff of around 20 journalists, including a political reporter, Frank O'Brien, based in the state parliament building, and a police reporter, Mal Cochrane, stationed in the scruffy press room at police headquarters in Russell Street.  Frank had a Saturday job, calling the horse races for ABC radio, and politicians who liked to bet on the gee gees would often seek his inside information about likely winners. Mal was what was then called a "leg man". Put another way, he would gather all the necessary information, then phone it in to a desk writer to turn into a story. In addition to Frank and Mal, there would be at least one or two general reporters darting about in their radio cars from one news event to another.

We also had radios tuned to the police and fire services, so we were always immediately aware of serious crimes and disasters. We all had to know the code numbers used by the police. I still remember after all this time that a "12 and 16" was a road accident requiring an ambulance. A "35" was a stabbing and a "69" was not code for a sex act but for a murder.

Sometimes we would beat the police to the scene. Our monitoring equipment, both in the newsroom and in the radio cars, was officially illegal, but the police and fire services knew we had it and the police would sometimes make informal press announcements over their networks. Sometimes they would reveal that they were having difficulty getting to the scene and would ask us not to approach it until their patrol cars arrived.

It was incredibly draining, competitive work, but it could also be very exciting. Under editor Corbett Shaw, who died last year, I learned a great deal about what makes writing for the ear so different from writing for the eye. Another skill I acquired was that there was no such thing as  "writer's block" when churning out bulletins in a ferocious cut throat environment where every second counted. Thinking time at 3AW was a very rare commodity.

Corbett was a tough, chain-smoking boss. I was recruited from Radio 3BO, Bendigo, where I had a most enjoyable two years under editor David Horsfall. I found 3AW an entirely more rugged world, but I greatly admired Corbett's supreme skills as a radio news editor.

Corbett willingly promoted those who "delivered the goods" for him, but it was not unknown for him to hire someone on a Monday and fire them by Friday. On one Saturday, when he discovered that his journalists had taken an extended lunch break at a nearby pub, he drove into the newsroom from his home in an outer suburb of Melbourne, fired everyone -- I think there were about five journalists on duty that day -- and took over the shift himself.

In my time with 3AW, it was usual for female journalists -- both in print and broadcasting -- to be assigned only "soft" stories, usually about women's issues. Although just a few women journalists were employed in the newsroom at AW in my time, Corbett was always prepared to give them what might be called "proper stories" to do.

If Corbett had a sense of humour, I don't recall that he ever brought it to work with him. I doubt that anyone would have contemplated an over-familiar shortening of his name to "Corb" or "Corby". When I finally fell out with him in 1968 and resigned over issues too complicated to recount here, I told him I was going to seek experience abroad. He wished me the best, but his parting words were that while I was a competent journalist, I wasn't good enough to make it in international broadcasting. I confess to gaining a petty delight in informing him six months later that I had been offered a job in London with  BBC World Service News -- the start of a career that lasted almost 30 years with that fine organisation.

Most of the daytime and evening bulletins at 3AW were read by professional broadcasters, rather than the newsroom journalists. The majority were hugely skilled, having to read most stories on sight, due to the bulletins often being delivered to the studio just seconds before transmission. But not all were brilliant. One, a former famous radio actor, had to be sent on his way because he couldn't stop himself from announcing "Here are the headlights" instead of "the headlines".

3AW's news output -- particularly the half-hour breakfast, lunch and early evening bulletins -- was greatly respected and a "must listen" by the great and the good of Melbourne. Certainly these bulletins were superior to the rather tired and unimaginative ones then put out by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. But that didn't stop some mischievous stunts, most of which on reflection were rather infantile.

One such stunt, pulled a couple of times in my memory, was to give a newsreader a story announcing his own death. As our style was to put proper nouns in full caps to give the newsreaders a chance to scan ahead for tricky names, none of them failed to spot the fake story in time to skip it. 

Then there was the time when a bulletin had to be read from the mobile studio parked in the courtyard. As the bulletin progressed, a colleague turned the fire hose on the studio, causing it to rock furiously and noisily. Incredibly, the bulletin was completed without the newsreader exploding in rage or collapsing in laughter, but the listeners must have wondered about the background noise. 

On another occasion, a former colleague threw fistfuls of wheat into a studio during a live sports broadcast, then followed it with a startled and noisy rooster. The presenter tried to kick the rooster away with his foot but that just caused it to make even louder squawking noises. Eventually, the presenter began laughing uncontrollably, generating complaints from the stations that were receiving the sports information on relay. Despite the complaints, the prankster was allowed to keep his job.

There was another stunt that began well enough but turned out to be not so amusing. The station management thought it would be a great idea to have the alternating overnight female presenters do a joint show for New Year's Eve. It proved to be a very bad idea. The women arrived for duty having partaken of alcohol and were in high spirits. While a friend of mine was reading the bulletin, the women did the can-can across the studio, eventually causing him to laugh just as he was reading a story about a fatal road accident. The family of the dead person complained but somehow the matter was hushed up and the two women survived to do further separate and much more sober shifts.

Then there was the occasional embarrassing clanger, the worst being when a music program was interrupted by a news flash announcing the unexpected death of a famous Australian woman. I can't now remember who the woman was, but the flash was immediately followed by the tune that had already been cued on the turntable by the DJ, unaware of what was to be revealed in the news flash. That tune was The Old Grey Mare Ain't What She Used To Be.

Nowadays, 3AW's newsroom -- along with most others in Australian commercial radio -- are sad shadows of what they used to be. Radio newsrooms have been reduced to one or two journalists being on duty at any given time, rarely able to venture out to do any on-the-spot reporting. Some radio stations do no local reporting at all.

A friend gave me one example of what happened when his city was hit by a devastating storm a few years back. It was at the weekend and the local station was closed and relaying network programs from elsewhere in Australia. These programs could not be broken into without the manager's approval, but he was away somewhere out of contact. The result was that the station failed to broadcast any advice about the storm. Despite this being in serious breach of the requirement that the station act as an information service during a civil emergency, I understand no disciplinary action was taken by the broadcasting authorities.

That grump aside, it you fancy learning more about the Good Old Days of Australian commercial radio,
click here. You will also find other items, some quite amusing, in my 3AW archive. A Walkley magazine obituary written by Corbett Shaw's son, Roderick, is here.

Finally, a little plug for my books: The true and tragic story of a Baptist missionary scandal and cover-up,
God's Triangle, and a thriller set in a BBC bureau in the Middle East, The Mortal Maze.

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