We arrived in Perth and the weather was beautiful.
6PR had already launched its format “Gentle on Your Mind” but it still hadn’t succeeded in the ratings. I wish I’d been there from day one, but my arrival was in the early stages and just in time to ride the elevator up to the next floor.
Gordon Leed was ND and I remember Tom Drewell, Tony Stanton and Col James in the newsroom as well as RW, of course–the man running the show, Cherie Romaro doing the music and Tony Hartney, Ted Bull, Dean Matters and I’m sure many others who will remind me that my memory is stuffed.
The music was excellent and Rhett ensured that there was a direct link to the audience with a lot of information including, believe it or not, lost dog and cat announcements.
The news team was really good, particularly with RW’s policy allowing us a certain latitude. We called it “soft editorial”, in that if the story was sad we were supposed to sound as if it saddened us. If it was happy then our delivery was supposed to underline that. The policy makers weren’t even averse to a certain amount of “internal commentary” providing it didn’t impinge on our responsibility of fairness in reporting. The three people doing the on air work were well experienced so I think we managed to stay on the right side of the knife-edge.
I note 2SM launched a roughly similar style, a bit different featuring Brian White and Steve Leibman, a year later. Indeed, Garvin Rutherford actually offered me a position there in that period but that’s another story, a rather strange story, for later on.
I arrived in WA just as the con men were busily infiltrating the state financial system. We had pretenders setting up multi-million dollar international conglomerates and even establishing “banks” using, of course, somebody else’s finance, much of which was subsequently lost forever.
If you want to know the inside story of this wheeling and dealing, involving the financial vultures and their friends “in high places” just get one of the books written about the era. Or go to the library and get a few back issues of the Financial Review. She was a funny old state in those days, folks.
The first thing I noted was the distance between the media and the authorities, especially the police. The WA police, I think, regarded most journalists as pests that needed to be kept at a distance.
This came to a head shortly after my arrival when Perth actually turned on a genuine, national story – a big payroll heist. I whipped down to the scene with my recorder only to be told that we weren’t allowed into the area or to talk to anyone in charge.
After an hour or so a man emerged from the building and gave a statement to the gathered TV and radio journos. He was very good. He took us through the whole robbery, how it was done and what avenues of enquiry the police were pursuing. “Wow,” I thought, ”what a terrific police PR man.”
I wrote down his name and asked one of my fellow journos what his position was only to be told that we’d just been briefed by a journalist from WA Newspapers. Police had taken this trusted journalist on to the scene, given him a full briefing and – out of the goodness of his heart apparently – he’d decided to share some of the information with the rest of us.
I was dumbfounded and went back to work, ringing the Police Minister’s office to ask what they were running here? I guess that caused a bit of friction and apparently a fair bit of embarrassment for Gordon, for which I belatedly apologise.
I certainly learned quickly that the local police did things differently in WA.
Of course, the mid 70’s were dominated by one sensational story: Cyclone Tracy in Darwin.
No one had any idea just how disastrous it was in the early hours. I know Gordon made initial attempts to get someone up to Darwin, suggesting we could tag along with one of the air force crews heading North. The authorities in Perth just laughed and made it clear there’d be no one else on board the flights. It was virtually impossible to get anywhere near the place. We kept getting all of these calls from the Eastern states ,wondering when we’d have someone on the scene. It took a few hours for someone in Sydney to actually look at a map of Australia and realise it’d be a lot faster to send a reporter from Brisbane or even Adelaide. Anyway, we all know now that it was extremely difficult to get anything in or out of Darwin in those early days.
That was almost certainly one of the most frustrating stories of my career. Authorities just weren’t deeply into Public Relations at the time and it was extremely difficult to get any actuality/comment.
I just loved the PR music format. It remains my equal favorite with the 2DAY FM adult format of the 80’s. Although I have to confess I also loved the music of 2MMM FM when we went to air in 1980. And PR was beautifully sold to the advertisers, with a sophisticated campaign featuring the “butterfly” motif. We’re attaching an example so you’ll get the idea.
After a few weeks at PR it became obvious that the station’s real ratings were significantly higher than the returns we were getting in the surveys. The same thing happened to 2MMM FM in Sydney in later years. This is one of the most intriguing issues in mass marketing: why do the survey audiences take so long to catch up with the real ratings out on the street?
We’re plagued I fear by the phenomenon of “residual goodwill” where a station manages to maintain its ratings figures when every man and his dog knows they’re going down the drain. It can be a radio station, TV channel, even a restaurant or hairdressing salon.
Whatever it is, the audience perception that the company is still a major player takes a long time to evaporate. So you can have a station management getting all the signals that it is in decline but receiving a different story in the monthly ratings. It’s hard to take tough action when you’re still hanging on in the ratings. Like a footy team that is clearly in trouble continuing to just hold on, within a win or two of making the finals.
The trouble is the ratings suddenly catch up with the word from the street and when they do it’s usually in a fairly dramatic fashion. All of us know stations which have just managed to hold on to the rating middle ground for two to three years and then – all of a sudden – Wallop. They suddenly lose 30 % of their audience. The problem is they lost those 2 to 3 years when they should have called in the cleaners and gone for a new format.
I can’t tell you a great deal more about my time in Perth except that gradually I wanted to get back to the main game. There was an offer from 2SM but when I flew across for my interview the situation seemed to have changed.
Then I was approached with word that Norm Spencer (of channel 9 fame) was hopeful of a new Melbourne licence, operating out of Frankston. I won’t need to tell you how putting a whole new station together grabbed me. I just wanted to get over there and do it, so the Perth adventure ended and I guess I let Rhett down by heading back East. Sorry about that.
It was a privilege to watch PR’s programming, though, and a great experience to see the ratings eventually catch up with the real world.
There is one story that remains to be told about PR, a story that is I guess almost mystical in how it demonstrates that journos sometimes know there’s a story there, when no one else can sniff it out. We seem to be able to smell it.
It was I think a holiday Monday and Col and I were the duty team for the afternoon news. We looked at each other in alarm. There was absolutely NOTHING happening. As far as I could see ANYWHERE ON EARTH. Certainly nothing our audience would have wanted to know about anyway.
We did the 1 O’Clock bulletin which was full of politics (Australians absolutely HATE politics and politicians which will probably come as a tremendous shock to the ABC and all the TV networks. The law is don’t run political stories unless they really are genuine stories and never allow yourself to be sucked into a story by politicians or unions. They are so good at that). Sorry, I digress.
Back to that Monday afternoon. We got to 1:30 and I said to Col, “Stuff this, we’re not going to run another bulletin like 1 O’Clock.”
“Well,” he said, “ if there’s no news, there’s no news.”
I picked up the WA phone directory, divided up the state and announced that we were going to ring every police station we find. There was a story out there, we just had to find it.
Col didn’t necessarily seem convinced but he went hard at it. We rang police stations across the state asking if there was anything happening. We were knocked back at every turn. Remember the police in WA were operating like an army unit in WW2 in those days, working on the adage “Never give the enemy anything.” After half an hour that’s what we had, NOTHING.
We did the 2PM news, looked at each other and got back to the phones, knowing we couldn’t possibly inflict that sort of news on our public again in an hour’s time.
At 2:15 I spoke to a Sergeant on duty in a seafront town south of Perth. I asked for the umpteenth time if anything had happened and his reply was, ”No one’s told me anything.” He was pretty grumpy so I got off the phone and looked for the next contact.
Then I paused and asked Col to take a breather. I remember saying to him that the officer never said a direct “NO”. He chose to say that no one had told him about anything.
I started smelling a rat and Col was just as suspicious. The more we talked about it the more we came to the view that the Sergeant didn’t say NO because he was trying not to tell us something but didn’t like to lie so directly
Maybe Psychology 1 was starting to pay off.
We formulated a plan to test our theory, ringing the local Ambulance station, intimating that we already knew something. The next 5 to 10 minutes were really quite astonishing. I’ll try to reduce it to transcript so you get the picture.
FRANK: Hi, sorry to bother you on a holiday Monday.
AMBULANCE OFFICER (Like he was taking a call from his mother in law): Yeah, that’s alright.
FRANK: We’re just checking on an incident we understand you’ve had down there this afternoon.
AMBULANCE PERSON: Oh. Who told you that?
FRANK: We were just talking to the local Police Sergeant. (Well, it’s not a lie is it. We were just talking to him. It’s just that he didn’t say anything.)
AMBULANCE PERSON: Well, you don’t need anything from me than do ya?
FRANK: Well, we really like to double check with all of the services involved, you know, we hear they had to call you out.
AMBULANCE: Ok, how many did you hear?
FRANK (Interesting question, as I haven’t got a clue what he’s talking about, so just choose a number): I think they were saying there were two.
AMBULANCE: No, it ended up three. One died at the hospital.
FRANK: Thanks very much. That confirms three dead at the scene… Right?
AMBULANCE: That’s the best I can do for you. Ok?
FRANK: Thanks very much. You’ve been very helpful. Thanks again.
Now what incident are we talking about?
Col hits the area phone book, gets on to the local store and we find out that a mother and two of her children had wandered out on to a sandbank, not realized the tide was coming in and drowned trying to get back to shore.
Not exactly the joyful story we were hoping for on a holiday afternoon, but a big story nonetheless, and a tragedy that travelled interstate within the hour, courtesy the PR news team.
Col later joined me at MP in Melbourne and then went on to the chief of staff chair at TEN.
We used to talk occasionally on the phone in the 80’s and we always remembered that strong incident which reinforced another unwritten rule: listen to what they say but also pay great attention to the way they say it.