During my time at 2DAY Grant Goldman asked me if I'd do some news lectures at his radio school. It was a really interesting assignment and I threw myself into the role. It allowed me to come up with a programme which proved really useful when my teaching career took off in another direction.
A short time after I finished my lectures with Goldy's group Lois Baird, head of the Radio Division at AFTRS (Australian Film, TV, Radio School at Macquarie) rang to ask if I could do some guest lectures.
These ended up going for a couple of years and they were very enjoyable.
AFTRS was a separate organisation but just next door to Macquarie Uni and was a very "hands on" operation.
My programme usually operated in this format:
THE BIG STORY. We all sat round a desk, playing radio journos, dealing with a big story.
I usually gave them an initial report, for example, two planes have crashed in the Canary Islands, or Prime Minister Harold Holt is reported missing while surfing at Portsea, etc. They spent the next couple of hours writing updates and bulletins and figuring out how they were going to chase the story.
It worked really effectively. I also explained to them that, as the story unfolded and they realized it was going to be really big, it was their duty to be on the lookout for soundbites which they could reserve for the newsroom history tape (if they had one) for future use. I gave them the example of the listener who rang me at 3XY back in the 60's to report on the Westgate Bridge disaster. I said how his report on watching the bridge come down contained a lot of static, but that I opted to leave the eyewitness report uncut, preserving the static. I hear the report from time to time and the static in between the man's sentences gives it an amazing authenticity.
We also always checked the morning news. Each student had to tape the 8 AM news on a particular station and we then sat down that night and compared the product and debated what the various newsrooms decided to do and how they did it.
We ended the programme with everybody doing their own bulletin and reading it. I think that anyone going through the process would have emerged with a very realistic understanding of how a radio newsroom works.
I'd even use background tapes as they tried to prepare their bulletins so that they'd be happily typing away only to find themselves constantly pressured by announcements coming down the line from Police PR, Ambulance, Fire Brigade Central Control, Weather stats, etc, etc. One thing I can tell you is don't go into a newsroom unless you can deal with a lot of intrusive noise.
We enlisted a range of top names on the final night to critique and just plain rap with the students which was excellent exposure to the trade. These included Steve Blanda, Arch McKirdy and some of my own staffers, like Michelle Aleksandrovics and Toni Anne Mathews, who were able to give the class a realistic view of what they were looking at if they chose to go ahead and seek a career in radio news.
One of the key Frank Avis teachings was the use of "INDICATORS". I've been using them since my days at 7HO in Hobart and the key reason is the belief that a journalist should not only report the news but should, where possible, put it in CONTEXT. This is the reason I always dragged my Frank Avis files with me from newsroom to newsroom. Because I always wanted to keep information IN CONTEXT.
The theory is extremely simple. Let's say Sydney had an incredibly cold night in mid winter and actually recorded an official snowfall in the city. It's obviously a good story but gets even better if you know that it's Sydney's first snowfall since 1868. So your story suddenly becomes something else... That Sydney has had its first snowfall in 141 years. (PS. I'm only making up this information by the way so to give you an example. I haven't checked Sydney's snowfall figures, though I suspect it's quite rare).
It's not just the fact that our temperature overnight was minus 6 but that the city has had "it's coldest August night in 110 years".
We used to discuss this sort of thing a lot at 2DAY FM and MIX 106.5. I remember we were always looking for information which would stick in our audiences' mind. Classically, we were looking to build up this basic trust with our listeners so that they could depend on us to give them critical information, providing them with a weapon in the constant battle for one-upsmanship.
Just imagine four people are having their morning coffee at work, sitting round discussing the day's events. They get to saying "how cold it was last night". Three of them then go into great detail about how it got down to minus 6. Then the fourth member of the group, the one who's been listening to our station, is able to slip in and say, "It was our coldest night in 110 years." Cop that guys, that's a real clincher. It tells you not only that it was cold but HOW COLD. It is an INDICATOR that puts the information in context. You can use these INDICATORS effectively on a wide range of stories.
I recall something really nice happening after my classes. I'd been talking to students about making sure you get the interview at the scene and I remember telling them that if they were in a situation where the TV crew went in one direction and the other journalists in another, GO WITH THE TV CREW. It wasn't that the TV crew would always get their eyewitness, but rather that the eyewitness would always find the TV crew
. Everyone laughed at the time, but somebody must have been paying attention because one morning I got a call from a student, I think it was Catherine McGath, who said she'd been working in I think it might have been Wollongong radio when she faced exactly the situation as described. All the journos went running in one direction and the local TV crew went in another. She took a couple of steps in the direction of her opposition journos and then remembered the AFTRS advice. She stopped and ran after the TV crew. She was the only radio journo to get the eyewitness. Boy her boss was impressed. I just love phone calls like that.
The other thing that happened while I was at 2DAY FM was that I joined a tour by travel reporters for a month in India. The trouble was the whole thing was a bit of a mess and 28 out of the original 30 journalists canceled out. That left just yours truly and Ted, a cameraman from the Courier Mail, who actually took the trip. We both wanted to cancel but organizers begged us to carry on. We did so, but it was so embarrassing as we arrived at City after City with officials looking at the two of us and asking, "Where's the other 28?"
I only mention this because it was quite a highlight seeing this incredible country and it allows me to pop in a couple of shots of Ted and Frank in India (with apologies to our high tech team at Production Headquarters).
So back to radio. Oh yes and I'm realizing my brain hasn't been working that well. I should also be remembering other identities at 2 DAY, including Warren Burr (went on to 2KY I think), Graeme Virgo (he did some work for me later at 2UW/MIX), Norris Smith, Richard Wilkins (you know where he is now), Rachael Mackenzie, Lee Wallis, John O'Donnell, Mike Hammond (now the "voice and face" of Foxtel), Mike Petrie and Matt McGrane (I was sitting at a bus stop outside Aus Film Corporation in Kings Cross last year and this tall guy sat down on the seat, looked at me and said, "How are you Frank?" It was Matt. How he recognized me from 2 DAY FM is beyond me but there you are).
I remember leaving 2 DAY FM. I think I was called in to the GM's office - as I recall Bob Scott, ex WS, had now taken over following Austereo's arrival - and we agreed that I'd be moving on with Glen Daniel, also ex WS, taking over as ND. It was all very civil and to be honest I was happy to move on. Well, I was just preparing to leave the newsroom for the last time when the phone rang. It was radio legend Ken Sparkes who had taken over assisting 2SM. He wanted to know if I'd do the breakfast slot at SM.
Frankly, I just wanted to take a couple of months off while I assessed my career. I was seriously thinking of setting up a syndicated travel show across Australia. Anyway I went down to Blues Point Road and had a coffee with Sparksey who told me he'd need me to start on Monday morning (It was now Thursday afternoon). I wanted to say NO, I knew I should say NO, but this was Ken Sparkes. A seriously nice bloke so I said YES.
Then I found out that the News Director Anne Edwards was on holidays in deepest Africa. I told station management there wasn't the faintest chance I'd start work without the approval of the ND.
Sometime Saturday Ken rang me to say they'd phoned her and everything was fine.
Oh God, it wasn't good. The station was on its way down to the canvas and was continuing with a mixed format which just wasn't going to hold up under the pressure of FM and specialist AM'ers.
But Ken and his associates were so committed and so keen to make it work that it was impossible not to want to help.
We all tried pretty hard, really, over the next 12 months or so.
I remember quite a few people there... James Knight, Bronwyn Martin, Gareth Macrae, Katherine Hynes, Normie Rowe amongst them… But I think we all knew the place was heading for a brick wall.
Eventually, they called us in to tell us SM had been sold and I had a chat to the new operators who said they planned to specialize in COUNTRY MUSIC. I nearly fell over, rolled my eyes and said they'd be destroyed in the Sydney market. They responded that they'd carried out a wide-ranging survey and found out that the people were desperate for Country music. (John Laws gave Brendan Sheedy the same advice about programming 2 DAY FM. PS He didn't take it.) I don't know where they surveyed but they could have saved themselves the money and just asked me. I think we all know what happened to that concept. I know I walked out of the front doors at SM muttering, "I've got to get out of this industry."
I have to admit that I would desperately love to programme 2SM, even today, when it has suffered untold damage in the marketplace. I've written several letters to the owner explaining how the station has to go into specialist programming and what that should be. But so far all I hear is silence.
Ah, but that's another story.
So bye bye 2SM. I sort of hung around for a while, did a bit of advisory work, potted around until I got a call from UW asking if I could fill in for some weekend news. I did this, probably just OK, and eventually I did some Breakfast news filling in when Ross Symonds went on holidays. Then UW and Pam Mackay parted company and I found myself back as ND at a metro station again. And it went reasonably well. I was hired by the GM John Williams, probably the best station manager I've worked with to be honest.
He spoke directly and honestly to me, never went back on a deal and always took responsibility when he felt it was appropriate for him to do so. I found him absolutely excellent. Cherie Romaro was back as PD and I also remember our Chief Engineer Bob Girdo, senior programmers Peter Sinclair and Dave Smith (I think Dave was the PD who nicknamed me "the Leg", as in Legend, which was very kind), Ellie Specht, along with news staffers David Glyde, Jacqui Dolan, Angie Nelson, Jenny May, John Kesby, Keith Chalmers, Ken Hose, Toni Anne Mathews (she now goes under the name Toni Mathews at ABC NEWS so I have to ring her again to tell her I love her full name), Deborah Knight, John Costello and Peter Switzer. With the full support of John and Cherie I set about cleaning up the joint. We dropped as many of the notorious "voicers" as we could and strove to use only genuine actuality. I think it made a huge difference. I know I had a really nice message one day from a senior programmer at the ABC of all places, congratulating me on the clean sound we'd achieved at UW News. I didn't even know the guy, so that was very, very nice to hear. It's amazing how you hear all the bad stuff but not a lot that's positive.
I also had a similar experience during the Great Bushfires that threatened to destroy Sydney in that period. We virtually had to run the newsroom from 5 AM to around 3 AM for a fortnight while the fires burned through Sydney. Anyway the first thing I said to the staff was to listen to the opposition stations and note the overall impression of "hysteria". Reports just happened, the stations ran from scene to scene with the obvious conclusion that the audience found it really difficult to understand just what was really going on.
We instituted a clear policy to START WITH AN OVERVIEW and then to cover the area geographically. The result was that our listeners had a regular update which summarized the situation and could then follow the rest of the hour with specialist information, area by area. I got a really nice phone call from a senior officer at Fire Control after everything had quietened down and he told me that we were the only station they were listening to, the only place that seemed to make any overall sense. That was another one of those unexpected calls which we all love to get.
The next amazing event was the decision to change UW from the AM band to MIX 106.5 on FM.
I'd already had the unusual honour of putting two new stations to air, 3MP and MMM, and now I could include switching an AMer to FM, a different beast indeed. We'd already been softening UW news so it wasn't a big step to move into an FM format which was looking for a strong female component, 25's to 45's. The one big decision was Breakfast news, especially with the unexpected decision to bring Mike Carlton back from London to launch the FM format in Breakfast. Our reader was Ross Symonds, a nice man, and a top news reader. The trouble was that we no long wanted a "professional reader", we wanted a conversationalist, someone who could pass on the news in a natural style without surrendering authority. The answer was Michelle Aleksandrovics, easily the best female reader I've heard in my career, and one of the top five, male or female. She and Carlton were not together that long but they were absolutely brilliant. Mike quickly involved Michelle in Breakfast as the two teamed up like a dream.
Before that though we had the great difficulty of discussing the decision with Ross who had worked long and hard at UW and was something of a figurehead there. Once again, GM John Williams stepped forward and took responsibility for this difficult assignment which I'm know he handled with great sensitivity.
The changeover went exceptionally well. I've got to say I was amazed when they told us Mike Carlton was going to do FM breakfast, but I've got to admit that after 6 weeks or so I saw tremendous potential in the presentation especially with Carlton increasingly using the softening influence of Michelle.
The problem was the show was cluttered with a lot of additional stuff, including a comedy group.
It was really difficult to be on the sidelines there, listening to the show, and wanting to say to the Management/Programmers that the whole thing had to be "de-cluttered". I wanted so much to say to somebody, "Just let the music, news and info roll and Carlton will do the rest," but I couldn't intervene at that level. Sadly, the experiment ended after that first year and we'll never know what would have happened. What I do know is that Mike could have carried a lot more of the load. He was a Sydney institution, he knew how the city and the nation clicked, had a great sense of humour (quite vicious if required) and all we had to do was run the music and the info and just let Mike be Mike. He didn't need all of the additional gunk, it just clogged up the arteries. Oh well, it's gone now but the original idea was not far short of the mark. This concept should have worked. Don't you hate that when it happens?
Just a promo for something I plan at the end of this series, when I'll name my TOP FIVE RADIO VOICERS. Be advised MIKE CARLTON will be top of the list. Best voice I've ever heard.
Finally, the end came at MIX when the station changed hands, to be taken over by the company that also owned 2WS. We then went through a long and difficult process when the owners tried to combine the two newsrooms, to save substantial costs obviously, which would have operated out of WS.
We fought hard and, if I remember correctly, John Williams actually eventually won the battle, convincing the company that we needed to be in Neutral Bay but something happened to me… I suddenly got very old and simply decided to fade away. It was a funny decision. Things were going fine and my staff was very supportive but, what can I say? I just ran out of steam. Wanted a rest. And so I walked off into the sunset. But I still miss going over to the Oaks in Military road, meeting John Williams, sticking a steak on the barbecue and gossiping about radio.
I didn't do a great deal after that. Brendan Sheedy hired me to fill in for Angie Nelson for a fortnight at SKY NEWS but, so typical of my life, I got this horrendous flu the night before. I filled myself with some anti flu pills and kept using a nose inhaler every couple of hours but I was a hospital case by the first afternoon. I tried to keep going but I was very ill and could hardly talk so it was an overwhelming relief when PD Huw Drury rang and suggested a few days off. Boy,did I need it. Anyway, I filled in for a few nights and that was it, thank God. I think it was a big hint from fate that my time was up.
My final installment next time will update my career, but how many times can you say, "Nothing's happening," and conclude with a few opinions including the BEST VOICES, my THREE FAVORITE INTERVIEWS, some assorted TOP TENS and a few examples of what I've been doing lately (none of which could be regarded as remotely important).
Thanks for staying with me.