I arrived in a major mainland capital in the mid-'60s, ironically not as a career move but due to personal tragedy. My life was clearly in chaos and I was lucky to have my friend Woody, now working in Melbourne TV, to look after me.
My first appointment was with 3UZ to see if I could get some work with their news team.
I did an audition and News Director Clive Waters took me into his office, apologising that they had nothing to offer at this time, but asking if he could make a call on my behalf. This was astonishingly good of him. I've no idea why he went to all this trouble but within an hour the tape had been dispatched to 3XY's John Burls and I found myself starting at the XY newsroom the following morning.
I walked in and was handed the 9 AM bulletin which I read reasonably well.
Minutes later General Manager Bob Baeck called me in, said he was impressed and I was officially hired.
Bill Passick was News Chief and I remember Ian Major as the Footy/Sports Chief (absolutely lovely man), Ray Woods was in the Programming chair, Frank Welch in Accounts, and the famous character Wally Chamberlain was the Chief Engineer (you couldn't understand what "character" really meant in radio until you met Wally). Please add to the list of XY identities: Bill Acfield, Vi Greenhaulgh, Jeff Warden, Paul Konik (the laconic Mr Konik), Johnny Young (soon to be found YTT on TV), Barry Seeber, Jeff Sunderland, Bruce Mansfield (anyone who wants to know what radio is really about needed to hear Bruce sign off to Jeff at midday—some of the funniest and most inventive material I've ever heard), Graham Berry, the living legend Jack Dyer doing the footy with Maj, Cyril Stokes, Pam Peters (Mike's Secretary), David Shoreland, Wayne and Maurie Kirby, Geoff Hiscock, Ken Hibbins, Alf Minister, Clyde Simpson, John Magee, Barry Looms, Iven Walker, Paul Sime, Col Denovan, John Boland, Laurie Bennett, Jack the cleaner (who became something of a legend), Jim (the dear man who answered the front door and manned the switchboard at night) and many others. Sorry, my memory no longer behaves properly.
Of course, we were joined at various times by celebrities like Graham Kennedy and Mike Walsh who did 9-2 during this period. In fact Mike did a really good mixed music/interview series from 9-11 and Graham had lots of fun doing 11-1 with Moondoggy at the panel.
I worked particularly closely with the Mike Walsh show and my favorite moment was the brainwave I had when I heard Phyllis Diller was coming to Sydney, but wouldn't be playing Melbourne. When she arrived I rang her management and said what would it take to get her on a plane to Melbourne briefly where Mike Walsh would declare it "Phyllis Diller Day". Her only obligation was a brief appearance in Mike's show around 10.30 and then to be guest at a special luncheon, including 100 lady listeners.
I was thinking, she's going to ask for 100's of Dollars, I think the Manager was particularly concerned, but her response was amazing. Nothing. No money. Get her a plane ticket and a hire car with driver and she'd fly down. It was a wonderful day. Phyllis, who turned out to be a really lovely person, was greeted like royalty, which she regarded as only fitting for a person of her status. She was a very big star at the time, even in Australia, so this turned out to be quite a coup.
This was also the time when Tiny Tim came to Melbourne and we came up with this plan to get him exclusively on to the Mike Walsh Show. In fact, we took the suite next door to Tiny's room at his Melbourne hotel where I stayed that night to make sure he could be intercepted in the hallway the next morning. I did a series of tongue-in-cheek reports through the night, updating the Tiny Tim story, always ending with the same tag line, "This is Frank Avis. I'm just a suite away from Tiny Tim." I don’t know why but I always thought that was really funny.
Anyway, my insider in the entourage gave me a call at 9:30 and I was waiting in the hallway, ready to pounce, when Tiny left his room. He gave me a terrific interview, including a few bars of "Tip Toe Through he Tulips" (God, it was awful) and we raced the tape back to Carlton, edited in a few Mike Walsh questions and, fair dinkum, you would have thought he was sitting there in the studio.
Ah, what happened to Tiny Tim? And to Miss Vicki? I'm not sure I recall the answer but instinctively, I know it wouldn’t have been good.
There were several really big stories in Melbourne during this period.
The disappearance of Prime Minister Harold Holt. Washington stations rang us for interviews for weeks and they kept asking the same question, "How is it possible the Prime Minister was allowed to go into the surf alone?" I think if he'd been an American he would have had six Secret Service agents swimming out there with him.
The Westgate Bridge collapse. I spent all afternoon at the scene and I remember Danny Webb and I were standing together when they found one of the last of the bodies. We looked at the remains and the man had no face. Danny and I looked at each other, filed our last reports, and went home. That was enough for anybody. This disaster incidentally gave me one of my first great examples of how to use radio "sound" to advantage. I often used the edited tape when I did my news lectures at AFTRS. The caller came in around midday and luckily we ran tape immediately, getting his introductory words. He said, "I think... I think... I just saw the Westgate bridge fall down." There were long pauses in between and a bit of static. Normally we would have tightened all of this up to give us a 30-second grab, but considering the gravity of the story – I think the death toll was over 30 – I closed my eyes and listened to the sentences. In the end I left in a lot of the pauses and the static. The static gave the eyewitnesses account a sort of eerie quality, adding to the atmosphere. I haven't got the tape anymore but I still remember how it sounded that day.
Then there were the bushfires. Tthis raises another unusual memory. I remember the bushfires were burning across Western Melbourne and one of our reporters had been stopped on the Geelong highway amid fears the fire would cross the road. I’m not sure who it was. I have memories of John Magee or maybe Frank Marston. Anyway he called me on the two-way and said a convoy of vehicles was going to attempt to head South and he wanted to join them to get closer to the fires. I said, "Of course, what are you waiting for? Get in the line and go!" I don’t know why this happened but some minutes later I called the reporter and asked if he had set off. He said he was just about to but he had a bad feeling about the trip. I responded that I had the same feeling and we called it off. That afternoon, the fire swept across the highway at Lara and I don't think anyone in the convoy survived. Strange, hey?
Oh yes, and I have to recount another weird story from those days. I know it sounds strange all of these odd things happening during my career, but this one was really quite unusual and was witnessed by a large number of people including police, who actually arrested me briefly during their investigation.
The morning papers started to run stories about a suburban house which was having rocks rained down on it every night. I can’t remember where it was, I think one of the middle-class Southern suburbs. Anyway we went down and did several interviews and it transpired the people in the house believed that the rocks were coming from one of the houses above them. Apparently there'd been a falling out with the neighbours some time back.
Just how these people managed to throw hundreds and hundreds of rocks in a few minutes wasn't addressed at the time.
So the police finally got sick and tired of the whole thing and sent half a dozen patrol cars down to the house and nearby streets to personally witness the phenomenon.
A few journos, including myself found out, and couldn't resist taking part in the operation.
I parked up near the neighbours, who I'd been told, were the prime suspects.
Anyway, around 9 PM there was this hell of a commotion as all these rocks rained down on the house, right on schedule.
I'd turned off my lights so I wouldn’t be seen by the neighbours and gunned the news car up the street to see if they were throwing the rocks. Unfortunately, there was a police officer nearby and he pulled me up, thinking I was acting very suspiciously, and was in the process of taking me in for questioning when another officer I knew intervened. The bottom line is that the rocks never came from the "offending house" and after a few nights they just stopped altogether. We never found out where they came from.
PS. I'm not making this up. Check the Melbourne Sun's files. It'll all be there.
It was also during this time that I filled in as the football moderator when Ian Major made the unexpected decision to switch to 3KZ. So I entered the world of Aussie Rules doing the Thursday night teams with Jack Dyer (along with Barry Cable and, after that, Bobby Skilton) and Saturday afternoon calling. We did the second half of the Seconds game and then the main game with updates from our round the ground reporters. I absolutely loved Jack Dyer and Bob Skilton and I would often joke about how unfair it was that jack hadn’t won a Brownlow Medal as Best and Fairest (Bob had won three) as he was such a fair player who wouldn’t hurt a flea. The fact was of course that Dyer, they didn’t call him Captain Blood for nothing, was one of the most feared players of the 30’s. When Jack went through a pack he always seemed to manage to emerge intact on the other side leaving half a dozen opponents on the ground behind him. One day he shirt fronted one bloke so hard that they had to carry him off the ground. The opposing coach ran on to the ground and threw a blanket over the player, covering his whole body. Jack looked over and thought, "What are they doing that for?". The opposing ruckman looked at Dyer and said, "Jeez Jack, you've killed him." Dyer was useless for the rest of the game. He couldn't kick straight and he kept pulling out of contests in case he hurt somebody and Richmond got done.
As Jack left the field, expecting to be arrested, there was his victim, as large as life chewing on an orange and winking at him. Jack never pulled out of a contest again. I've spoken to a lot of experts who remember the '20s, '30s and '40s and most of them say the same thing: if they could have picked a team of all time greats, Jack Dyer would probably be in their first 5 choices. He wasn't pretty but he was tough and relentless. If you’re not a VFL/AFL fan this probably won’t interest you but the WA great Barry Cable finally came across to Victoria at this time to play for North Melbourne and XY signed him up as our special commentator.
He joined Jack and yours truly for the Thursday night teams show. I hadn't realized 'til our first show that Barry had never met Jack and that Jack had never seen him play. I told Jack how brilliant Cable was when I saw him at the '66 Carnival. It was obvious Barry idolized Jack from the moment they met.
Sadly Barry’s form was well down in the first few matches. His famous drop kick was virtually gone and he spent most of his time hand-balling. Jack was increasingly embarrassed as the three of us met every Thursday night. Then one Saturday afternoon Barry started kicking again and it was Jack's great pleasure to name him our Man of the Match in an XY game of the day. Only then did Barry tell Jack what was wrong. He rolled up his trouser legs one Thursday night and the two legs were virtually blue, covered in massive bruising. Barry had been kicked in a trial game apparently and could hardly walk, let alone run and kick, in his first four games. But he never offered an excuse and he never revealed his injury 'til it was virtually healed. He just kept plugging away as best he could. Jack just looked at Barry and nodded quietly in approval. It was emotional stuff. On Thursday nights I walked with giants.
But it all had to end. XY was about to turn to a new format and Bill Passick rang me to say he was switching from AK to CH.9 and would I like to take over? I met N.D Mike Schildberger, took the job and sadly announced I was leaving XY.
They'd been so good to me but I knew it was time to head off to something different... 3AK "where no wrinklies fly", Rhett Walker and an unbelievable format change from Rock and Roll to Beautiful Music.
That's our next adventure...