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Phil Charley OAM, PNG commercial radio pioneer, dies at 89


THAT headline understates Phil Charley's achievements by a long shot, although it does point to one of the great successes of his long career in broadcasting.

You have to look behind the curriculum vitae to find the real essence of Philip Nivison Charley – which was articulated both in his positive impact on successive generations of broadcasters and his engagement with whoever he met throughout his long life.

Phil's career in radio began during the last years of World War II, after he was boarded out of the Royal Australian Air Force with a medical condition.

And this life's work was brought to an end just a few years ago when, in his mid-eighties and after 65 years in broadcasting, he decided to call it a day, for the last time closing the door of his office at Macleay College in Sydney's CBD,  where for many years after nominally retiring he taught the radio advertising course.

Phil died early Friday morning of an aggressive lung cancer, diagnosed only recently. Ingrid and I flew to Sydney to see him a fortnight ago and, despite his obvious frailty, we found him in good spirits and well up to sharing a conversation along the lines of “bastards we have known….”

Phil had met just as many as me, and given our 20-year age difference probably more, but he viewed all of humanity through a prism of sublimity and generosity of spirit.

With a bemused air he once told me that his superior at the Film, Television and Radio School, where he was supervisor of radio training, had said to him in acid tones: “Why are you so nice, Phil Charley!”

At a broadcast management training program we ran at Manila in the Philippines, he was known to everyone as ‘Friendly Phil’. The nomenclature stuck. The participants at the next workshop, up in the hills at Baguio City, had already heard about this charming, clarinet-playing Australian.

Phil had managed radio stations in Queensland and NSW before he headed for Papua New Guinea in 1970 with his wife Marie.

He and I had been recruited at the same time, me from the ABC in Port Moresby, Phil from commercial radio in Deniliquin NSW. We were posted as assistant managers to Radio Eastern Highlands and Radio Rabaul respectively.

Within a year, we were both managing our own stations: Phil set up the new Radio Madang and I was sent to Kieta to run Radio Bougainville. We talked frequently on the radio-telephone, comparing notes and swapping information.

We both found ourselves at Rabaul Hospital, despatched urgently by head office as stand-ins for local manager Paul ("Left half my guts in a bucket in the operating room") Cox amidst the Mataungan crisis.

We quickly decided one replacement manager was enough to take orders from the bedridden Cox so I hot-footed it back to Bougainville which had problems of its own. Reminiscences of this bizarre and somewhat macabre encounter always caused us to shake with laughter.

Phil Charley as a young broadcasterIn 1973, with independence rushing at us, Phil and I worked together in the policy and planning unit of the new PNG National Broadcasting Commission. One of our many projects was to introduce commercial broadcasting, which Phil had carriage of.

The Somare government of the time had pretensions to socialism and vehemently objected to our revenue-raising strategy. As I subsequently wrote:

"The next evening at our usual drinking haunt at the Boroko Sports Club, an apparatchik from the Central Planning Office approached me saying my job was on the line if the NBC didn’t back off its decision.

"Not long after this, Somare wrote to chairman Sam Piniau describing Phil and me as 'arrogant, overzealous, unprofessional and disregarding of authority'. That was enough for me. I quit. So did Phil, but subsequently withdrew his resignation.

"Somare eventually decided to amend the Broadcasting Act to remove the NBC’s right to introduce commercial broadcasting.

"But, in a dramatic day in the House of Assembly in early February 1977, the bill was defeated 41-31 on the floor of the House and on 1 March 1977 radio advertising was introduced on the NBC’s English-language service."

Phil had stuck to the job and guided that ship home.

Returning to Australia in 1979, he worked as operations manager for 2CH in Sydney - there meeting Greg St John who became a great mate - before taking up his training role at the Film, Television and Radio School. It was a job that fitted Phil to a tee, teaching young broadcasters the tricks and traps of the trade.

When he was awarded the Order of Australia in the Queen's Birthday Honours of 2002, the citation read “for services to broadcasting in Australia and the Asia-Pacific region, and through education and training, particularly the development of technical and practical skills and professional attitudes and disciplines".

It could have added "...and for winning friends for Australia wherever he roamed".

After our return to Australia, Phil and I continued to collaborate on many overseas projects. We managed broadcast management programs in Indonesia, the Philippines and Fiji. And along with Martin Hadlow, we helped kick start Radio New Dawn on Bougainville in the period following the disastrous civil war.

Phil, Carolus, KeithWe worked together on a pot boiler of a broadcasting management book called Manage by the Moment in which a bottle of good wine was expended for each page we wrote.

Phil’s life was accompanied by love, laughter and jazz – and exceptional friendships.

His great jazz collaborator and close buddy, Carolus 'Charlie' Ketsimur, was a prominent journalist who went on to become Transport and Infrastructure Minister in the Autonomous Bougainville Government.

He was in that role when he died just a few months ago. The picture is of the three of us during the visit Charlie made to Australia when we planned New Dawn FM.

Many people who read this will have known Phil Charley. On behalf of us all, no matter where in the world we may be, I convey condolences to Marie and the kids – Philip, Steve, Peter and Gina – and the entire lovely and talented extended Charley family.


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Allan Washington | Melbourne

Phil Charley was my boss at 2QN in 1967. A terrific person and a dedicated muso.

I’ve only just read about his passing and my condolences to his family.

Jade Hurley OAM

It is with deep regret and sadness that only today I learned of the death of Phil Charley.

When I hit rock bottom in the entertainment business, constantly getting ripped off (as most struggling would be entertainers were) by managers, club bookers and other scammers in those days, I thought that I would get out of "show business" as such, but stay in it in another form … and this was as a disc jockey.

I had toured in most places in Australia and the two I liked the most were Perth as a city, and Deniliquin as a country town. In Perth at radio station 6PR, I got to know the managers and announcers including Keith McGowan and many others, and in Deniliquin, I got to know Phil Charley as a generous manager of radio station 2QN.

Every time I would tour down in the Riverina, I would spend time with Phil and others at the station and they, just like the people at 6PR everyone we generous in promotion my shows and playing my records.

So, with my mind made up to get into radio, I called Dick Hemming at 6PR and Phil Charley at 2QN and asked if they had a spot sometime into the future to give me a go on air. It was only six weeks later that I got a call from Phil and I immediately got in my old FJ Holden and drove all the way from Sydney to Deniliquin.

Mind you, if Dick Hemming had called from Perth, I would have driven the FJ there as well.

I arrived in Deniliquin and Phil put me up at a motel for a couple of weeks whilst I found my on air feet. He started me doing nights and I absolutely loved it but soon found out that if you are going to mention the Mayor, do it in the proper way and don't criticise.

Much to my regret, I wasn't told this and after I gave then mayor Hector Campbell a real baking. I was marched into Phil's office the next morning and told in no uncertain manner that my radio days were over. Phil had no options as a country town is a close knit situation where everybody knows everybody and you have to live in a country town for 20 years before being classed as a local.

So a blow-in from Sydney with views that many in the town and area spoke to me about regarding the Mayor wasn't appreciated. However I was to find out later that I was spot on with what I had said and many appreciated it and felt sorry that I have been sacked.

Phil and I along with our families spent a lot of time enjoying each others company, him playing the clarinet and me playing the banjo (my second on-stage instrument).

Even after my 'termination' we remained close friends and I can never forget those special musical and social times we spent together.

I deeply regret not hearing of the passing of Phil and indeed, I am troubled by this.

What a remarkable life, what a remarkable human being, what a remarkable musician. What a remarkable friend.
Rest In peace dear Phil, I will always remember you.

My sincere thoughts to Marie and the kids.

William Dunlop

Phil Charley, Fede Meil Celte.

Phil was one of the greats - KJ

Alan Grant

I only recently learned of the passing of Carolus Ketsimur, and now Phil Charley. He was a fine man, a gentleman in every sense, besides also an excellent clarinet player in the Benny Goodman style. Rest in peace, Phil.

Jenny Alford

Hello Keith - Thank you for the opportunity to view these beautiful comments and your tribute again.

I wonder if i could ask you to forward my email address, as below, to Peter Charley, who has offered a copy of his tribute also.

Thank you in anticipation.

Peter's eulogy has now been published in PNG Attitude. It is a beautifully crafted piece of writing - KJ

Nigel Lloyd-Thomas

It is with great sadness that I heard of Phil's passing, through a jazz lover and good mate I met in PNG back in 1975, one Phil Donnison.

We will never forget the great Jazz at The Bird concert ostensibly organised by Mr Charley.

Rest in peace with all the great jazz musicians now in heaven.

Phil Pryor

Sad news of Phil's passing. We all enjoyed a story and a laugh over many great jazz occasions, playing, jamming, just enjoying. He was a sweet gentleman in the best sense, loving his family in grateful awareness and happiness. Vale.

Brian and Luisa Hungerford

A wonderful man. He gave everything to PNG and I doubt if Madang ever left him. He was so gentle and his music all Soul.

He looked after a great family and had everything anyone could want in a human being. He must have been sickened by Australian politics over the past few months. Perhaps it’s time that the few of us who knew a beautiful Australia – left it all behind.

Phil made a toast to Luisa’s family at our wedding in Tokarara and I remember his rich voice and his contagious laugh. His family will be lost for time to come. Slante Phil.

Roger & Anne Summerill

It is sad to hear the news about Phil.

He was a brilliant broadcaster, a gifted teacher and an excellent musician. But more than all that Phil was a true gentle-man in the real sense of the word.

Phil, may you rest in peace.

To Marie and Phil's family you are in our thoughts and prayers at this very sad time for you.

Dave Hetherington

Sad news. Thank you Phil for being a good friend and musical compatriot of my brother Olly (Nat Oliver). I guess they needed another muso up there. I can hear you both playing happy music!

My heartfelt condolences to you, Gina, and your extended family. Vale Phil.

Annie Paton

Phil was my first boss at 2CH. We shared so many laughs and good times. He was much loved by many. Deepest sympathies to Marie and all the family. Love Annie x

Andrea Williams

Fond memories of a jazzed up PNGAA lunch in 2008! A class act!
Sincere condolences to his family.

Phil Donnison

A true gentleman of jazz, Phil was much loved and revered by his family and mates. He will be missed indeed.

Trevor Jackson

So sorry to hear the news. I was a radio student when he joined AFTRS in 1985. He was much admired for his easy going nature and generosity of spirit. Condolences to Marie and family.

Murray Bladwell

Phil was a true gentleman who charmed those he met with warm intelligent conversation, great humour and much humility. A jazzman through and through. Bon voyage, Phil, you will be missed.

Nigel Milan AM

A truly delightful person. God clearly needed a music man. Deepest sympathy to the family.

Geoff Brown

So sad. Wonderful, wonderful gentleman. Condolences to Marie, family and friends.

Allan Kidston | Technical Officer, Broadcast & Film, DIES 1969-74

Very nice bloke. Vale.

Martin Hadlow

Great colleague, broadcaster, musician, friend. True gentleman.

Vale Phil

David Ransom

I think for those of us who knew him from Papua New Guinea days this is more than the passing of an old friend. It marks a slow turning out of the lights on a time that mattered to us all.

Of course, Keith, you have kept that time alive with your writings. I guess for Andrew Phillips and I that part of Phil's life is more about old memories, some of which we enjoyed together in the US recently after many years.

To me, Phil was a special player in all that - his geniality, his music, his broadcasting expertise - all valuable traits of a man I was proud to call a friend.

And Keith I thank you for that, as I think once back in Australia you helped keep PNG relationships alive, and certainly the friendship Rosemarie and I developed with Phil and Marie in Australia.

I especially recall the drop-in and play-your-own-instrument jazz night in Singapore where Phil on clarinet and another old codger on trumpet had them dancing in the aisles.

Now he's gone. And I hope I'll always remember the part he played in our lives.

Kelley White

Sad news Keith. So many fond memories of 'friendly Phil'. He was a very special person.

Andrew Leslie Phillips | New York, USA

Thank you for letting me know. Strangely David Ransom and I were just reminiscing about Phil (and you too) last Tuesday as we walked together down Fifth Avenue in NYC - David was here for his son Duncan's wedding. I hadn't seen David for many years and we spent most of the day together.

Phil was certainly special and I remember his baritone voice, his gregarious smile and pressed shirts as well as his generous spirit.

Andrew Greig

Good man, Phil, and a top clarinettist. He had a great run which we can celebrate.

Michael Baume AO

What a great bloke. Vale Phil. As an 84-year-old, I consider 89 to be far too young to go! And, by the way, Keith, you are definitely far, far too young - even to go to Queensland.

Steve Ahern | Kabul, Afghanistan

He was a truly wonderful, inspiring man who filled the room with positive energy.

He will be sorely missed and will stay in the hearts of so many people in the radio industry.

Leo Carroll

Will keep Phil in my prayers.

Pat Regan

He was a Godly man, love and sympathy to the family.

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