I met with both sides and after talks with Norm Spencer I opted to stay with my original choice, to set up News and Information at 3MP, an incredible opportunity to start from the beginning.
It’s a long time ago but I remember there was Brian Rangott, Mike Walsh, Joff Ellen and Judy Pollock among the main shareholders. Ray Bean was the GM, John Lloyd, from KZ, had moved into the job of Sales Chief, Murray Korff was the Chief Engineer, Geoff Charter was in the Programming chair and I was working side by side with Geoff Brown from early in the piece as we were charged with assembling a wide range of community licence promises, some of which were going to be extremely difficult to meet.
We were lucky to win the support of several modern-thinking religious leaders in the community, otherwise I think some of the religious commitments might have made us sound like a country station on a Sunday morning (no offence I hope). Ray, Geoff and I worked for some time to convert a lot of the religious content into genuine community information. It took a bit of discussion but we were able to convince the local churches to run "informationals" across the schedule, professional 30-second clips which accented the community side of the various churches... counselling, youth work... a series of direct messages from the church aimed at solving community problems rather than 15-30 minute lectures by clergymen. This method turned out to marry directly into the general profile of the station. These prestigious, community oriented information pieces certainly did no harm and we have to regard them as a key success.
On the news front, I had Barry Owen, Ray McGhie, Peter Young and Col James with me, among others, and we were looking for a central plank to make us stand out from the rest. I sat down with the map of Melbourne and kept looking at the geography. What was there here that we could use to cement our image? I kept returning to the Bay. Now, Melbourne is a very unusual city. Sydney is very aggressive, incredibly competitive and very, very confident. Melbourne is very internal. There are no show-ponies in Melbourne. Have a look at their stars. Most are "nice guys" who are never overtly stars.
Very few people succeed in Melbourne, saying publicly "look at me, aren’t I terrific?" Sorry, I digressed there for a while. The more I looked at Melbourne the more I saw this huge tract of water smack in the middle of the city... Port Phillip Bay. Funny thing about the Bay, hardly anybody seemed to talk much about it, certainly not boast about having it (nothing like Sydney Harbour, for example). I said to Ray that we should wade into the Bay big time... We should own it from the moment we went to air. But I didn’t know how.
Then one night at my home in Mount Eliza I was wading through files and files of ideas and research and I put two things together. "The BAY and the WEATHER." It all became clear. We could own the Bay via the weather. I couldn’t do a deal with the Weather Bureau but as I looked around we could come to an exclusive agreement with the local Volunteer Coastguard. They were the people, after all, who had to head out on to the water if someone had to be rescued. But how do you take advantage of any such association? How does it transfer to, if you like, controlling the territory?
By bringing in a RED and BLUE ALERT system, that’s how. I think the idea came to me about 10 o’clock one night and my colleague Geoff Brown was in the lounge room within 15 minutes as we reviewed the whole scheme.(I should point out that Geoff had almost moved into our lounge room permanently by this time as we spent whole days working on all of this critical on air content... More behind the scenes stuff on this subject later on.) It only took Geoff 30 seconds to look at me, smile knowingly, and confirm that it would do everything we wanted. It would, in one simple stroke, give us critical ownership of a key geographical area. And it wouldn’t be just for summer, this was a 12 month deal.
But did General Manager Ray Bean want ownership of the Bay? Was that his plan as well? We put the idea to him the next morning, pointing out that we hadn’t even discussed it with the Coastguard hierarchy. Ray was pretty much like Geoff: it took him about 30-seconds to nod in agreement and give us the go ahead. There were long talks with the Coastguard because what we were asking was a 24 hour, 7 day commitment. Mind you, there was a huge plus in the prestige factor to the Coastguard as well. In the end we did the deal, which included a stack of "informationals", voiced by the Coastguard themselves, about boating and boating safety. These guys became local celebrities within weeks of MP going to air. But it was a significant responsibility for the top officials at Coastguard headquarters.
By the time we got to air we not only had red and blue alerts but Ray and Murray had briefed the architects and the news and studio block had a RED and BLUE light alert system.
When the light went on the jock knew that he had to play the appropriate cart several times an hour.
The alert could be phoned in by Coastguard at any time and be on air in minutes. It worked wonderfully.
And of course The BAY theme was perfect. Little did Geoff and I know when we put the original proposal together that Ray had already been considering our programme positioning sales pitch... "Bay city radio". Now, we knew why he smiled and nodded in approval that morning.
The other plus was that the station theme music was being done by Peter Best. He was also charged with doing the news theme. We played around with all sorts of stuff, including a montage of famous moments in history, but it was just too long and too over the top. Not the sort of image we wanted to portray at MP. So in the end Pete came up with a short, simple news thematic which worked admirably.
Then, we got to talking about how we could individualise the news ,making it instantly recognizable.
And we came up with a plan to add SFX to the weather. Pete went crazy, and ended up giving us about a dozen weather variations. If it was sunny we had this soft, sunny theme we played under the weather. There was this gorgeous tinkly thematic we could play under the weather if it was really cold and rainy. I know it created a bit of flack in the trade... I can imagine what the team at AW would have said about such sacrilege, but I think it worked exceedingly well in augmenting the on-air sound. Ray wanted "fresh" and the weather thematic s certainly met the station criteria.
The other stuff we did was to run a series of historical pieces, researched by either Col or myself, which followed key news broadcasts during the day. These usually ran an average of 30-seconds and were "think pieces" about something significant or potted versions of famous happenings which had occurred on that day. The first one I did, on our opening breakfast show, was an investigation on whether it was possible to build a bridge across the Bay entrance. If you want to go from the Peninsula over to Geelong and along the Great Ocean Road you have to go north into the city, across to the west and down the Geelong Road, a journey of more than an hour. Putting a bridge across the Entrance would have reduced that to 15 minutes. It actually excited a lot of interest, to tell you the truth ,and I got a lot of calls from engineers commenting on the project.
Col also did a series on the assassination of JFK, summarising all of the ballistic information which suggested that if Oswald had indeed shot Kennedy then he must have been the best marksmen in the history of the world. This was Robin Hood with a rifle. This too excited a bit of comment. So the general theme of providing a news service, high on information input, seemed to work pretty well.
Geoff and I also pioneered a lot of local historical stuff which Andrew Rutherford was to expand into the VICTORIA STORY series in later years. We took famous buildings and well known sites in the area and told their stories, along with info on how to get there including a Melway reference.
I had talks with the man who owned the Melway maps - Iven, a really terrific bloke - who agreed immediately to allow the map references to be used on air. In fact,he loved the idea so much he put 3MP ads into any spare space he had as part of the deal. It didn’t cost us a razoo.
I hope you’re all following this?
Everything seemed to be moving along nicely... The format was in place, Ray was assembling the cast, Murray and his engineers were working on the complex job of getting our signal right and so Ray and I went to meet the Chairman of the Control Board, Myles Wright, who had to sign-off on the license.
We had a most convivial meeting during which he asked us a lot of probing questions, concentrating on the various promises made in the original application, finally announcing that he would not be signing our license as we had not meet quite a few of our crucial local requirements.
There was a strange quiet in the room as he smiled and said goodbye, until we came back with a new plan.
I drove back to Frankston absolutely shocked. Ray headed off to the city for an important meeting, doubtless about what had just happened. I got back late in the afternoon and rang John Lloyd who was similarly shattered. So I thought I’d better do something about my main areas of interest to see if the original promises could be accommodated in some way. Yes, I rang "Old Faithfull", Geoff, and we sat up until around 3:30 in the morning using the same methodology - converting everything to across the station "informationals" - to see if it would work.
We took our finished product to Ray first thing that morning and he was suitably impressed.
I don’t know how important this was but I can only report the next time we went to the Board the license was officially approved.
Now all we had to do was to get our signal correct, ensuring that it wasn’t impinging on other stations, especially at night. Easier said than done. Murray Korff was practically living at the transmitter site, along with a team of fellow engineers... Consultant Tom O’Donohue, Control Board reps Frank Waldron, Ray Kelly and Dave Paget, and RCA techs Jim McGrath and John Innes. I don’t want to depict myself as "Mr Goody two shoes" but I took an increasing interest in events at the TX, not necessarily because of completely altruistic motives but essentially because, if they failed, I would’t have a job and we’d just bought a lovely home in Mount Eliza.
So, I started making regular trips to the TX at night, and gradually my wife Anna started preparing food for the gang there. Eventually this turned into a sort of nightly ritual. When the techs were working at night, and I think it was pretty much 7 days a week, I was there with the food, to run messages, make phone calls and provide whatever help I could.(Anybody who’s known me for longer than 15 minutes would know that this did not include any technical matters. Frank and technology parted ways a long time ago and we’re not going to be reunited.) I don’t think it’s possible to describe how all of these people just came together to get 3MP to air.
You wouldn’t think the Control Board Techs would have had any more than a bureaucratic interest in events but let me tell you they were down there in the trenches, night after night, trying to get the signal array correct. This went on and on for some considerable time. We couldn’t go to air till the Control Board approved the performance of the transmitter, especially that the signal was not causing any problems for any other operators. Truly, I didn’t think it would ever be solved. One night the group had been going from sun-up till 2:30 the following morning when Murray Korff fell asleep standing up and started to fall forward into the back of the open transmitter. As I remember it, Tom O’Donohue and Frank Waldron leapt forward grabbed his shirt and pulled him back from almost certain death.
"That’s it," said Frank Waldron, "we’re all going home to get some sleep."
Eventually there was this magic moment when we got 5 K signal to air. It was perfect.
I raced home, grabbed a magnum of Stonyfell champagne and we toasted the future of MP as we sent out our first official signal. It was 2:42 AM, July 21, 1976. Harry Wilde was the announcer back at the station in Frankston and the first track played on Melbourne’s newest station was John Paul Young’s "I hate the music". Never has a song sounded so good.
As a matter of interest I still have the bottle of champagne, appropriately marked with all the salient details, which I’d love to pass on to 3MP if anyone is interested in preserving some of the station’s history. Feel free to call me and I’ll ensure it’s delivered safely. Otherwise it’ll probably end up in a garbage bin somewhere. That would be a pity because so much went into that first signal and MP became an immediate hit, an unsual blend of local and big city radio, a format which later worked a treat for WS in Sydney.
One of the other tactics much discussed by Frank and Geoff in the wee small hours of the morning was how to carry a substantial "local" load without appearing to be a country station. Everyone, especially Ray, knew we’d be dead in the water if we sounded provincial.
We could control a lot of on air content, but not the ads. Everyone forgets that the audience’s perception of a station is not just from the music, news and the jocks but from the commercial content as well.
We knew John Lloyd and his team could sell MP’s schedule many times over from the local market but what would that do to our image as a major metropolitan station. How would we sound if every second ad was for "Harry’s hamburger stand" in Frankston? Bad, that was the answer. So we spoke at length to Lloydie and his sales team, explaining how - though heavy local advertising would pay our bills - it might also destroy the station as a major player in a big city. The programmers had nightmares that the audience perception of MP would be that of a "country station". The sales team was terrific. Everyone co-operated to achieve the right balance even though it often hit the sales guys in the hip pocket for the first three months. Anyway, the joint was a tremendous success from day one .We were elated.
I’m remembering back to those days... I don’t know whether I mentioned the jocks, but I’m recalling John Burgess, Brian Bury (absolutely wonderful bloke),Richard Combe, Dean Matters, Keith McGowan and others to whom I apologise. My memory is shot.
Have I mentioned that we returned to the traffic girls concept and that I contracted a range of businesses, mainly service stations, on key roads across the metro area? This not only gave us excellent updates on traffic, but also good sources for happening news. The other thing I did was do a deal with a major provincial newspaper chain, who happily supplied us with all of their weekly publications in return for a mention as the source. This also provided us with some top news stories. I remember we lead our breakfast news with one story from Western Victoria on a Tuesday, only to see it pop up as a big deal in the Herald the next afternoon. I loved that.
The other interesting story is what we did during the great petrol strike in the mid-70’s. As fuel was running out we found more and more people in our local Peninsula area were finding it harder to get to work. So I put a concept to Ray that we set up a "car matching" pool. There was one card file of people who could offer lifts and another composed of those who were looking for a lift, willing to help pay for the petrol. Ray loved this idea from the first 10 seconds and it was on air the next day. The girls set up a special office with the phone lines open from 2-4 every weekday afternoon. We took down the details and put the two groups in contact with each other. Really a tremendous success.
The only thing was I was awake in the early hours one day and I thought, "Hang on. What happens if there’s an accident involving one of these match ups? Are we liable?” We had a big meeting the next morning which resulted in a series of on-air disclaimers plus a half-page ad in B&T.
MP was a wonderful learning process and let me place on record that Manager Ray Bean never ever rejected any of my good ideas. I was backed all the way.
But you know me... I got restless. I tried to talk Ray into creating a new position where I could be a Special Assistant to the Manager charged with coming up with all these schemes (Look, I had a million ideas in those days, and candidly I didn’t feel much like putting them forward and having somebody else claiming them as their own). But there was no such position available and Brendan Sheedy was looking around for somebody to take over DB NEWS. I took one look at the Herald Sun facilities and thought, "If anybody is going to make a play for NEWS AND INFORMATION it’s got to be DB." So I made the change amid much sadness, really. But I’d spent the past 12 months putting a peak-hour NEWS AND INFO clock together and I knew it would work in a major city. I just wanted the chance to do it.
That took me out of leafy Mt Eliza and up north back into the big city. Was it a mistake? Look it was just another chapter and I always knew radio was like Broadway... You had to accept you’d win some and you’d lose some. But that’s another story for our next chapter, providing your reporter actually gets off his backside this time and gets it done. Thanks for all your emails, reminding me that the latest chapter had taken a bit too long, including the enquiry from a colleague of years ago who asked if I’d actually passed away between chapters? Still hanging in there mate...
by Frank Avis | December 24, 2008
I finally got back to Sydney, twenty years after heading into country radio, to join 2GB as News chief.