Radio Days: In the beginning
20 April 2020
GAGL, 1966 – I’d been teaching in the New Guinea highlands for two years at the one-teacher, 12-student Australian curriculum primary school in Kundiawa when Konedobu (Pidgin English for ‘place where big men give orders’) decided I was old enough.
With me having reached the significant age of 20, Konedobu determined I had accumulated enough chronology to be dispatched as head teacher to a more remote primary school – a fully-fledged institution with real classrooms and 150 students.
The Kundiawa A School had been located in the bar of the Chimbu Club, where the day’s first drinker – mechanic Cec Schultz - would sneak through the rear door at 10.30 each morning and fumble around before the gentle hiss of gas into a keg could be discerned followed by the soft squirt of 10 fluid ounces entering a glass.
Lessons for the year had only just begun when, in February 1964, soon after arriving in the township, I was assigned to trek through lands south of Chuave on a two week patrol led by District Officer Laurie Doolan as part of the conduct of PNG’s first national parliamentary election.
It was a perfect introduction to the Territory of Papua and New Guinea. A day walking up and down ridges and crossing precarious bridges; a day taking votes; repeat for two exotic weeks.
Under the bivouac each night, the pressure lamps creating a warm glow as the mist settled around the mountains, I watched the older men drink overproof rum and water and listened intently to their stories of the world war, their first contacts with unknown tribes, “bloody Canberra” and bastards they had known.
If that election patrol had been an education, and it was, then life in Kundiawa was also a learning experience. I learned the practice of teaching simultaneously across seven grades, how much I could drink before toppling over, how inconvenient it was to be lost in a cave, what a fine and stoic people the Chimbu were and how to survive journalism with no knowledge of defamation law.
Within a few months of arriving in Kundiawa, I had begun publishing a newsletter – the Kundiawa News - first as a joke, then as a passion. I didn’t know it at the time but it was an initiative that would contribute more than a little to my subsequent career.
And here at Gagl, in early 1966, I found myself in charge of a proper school: three pitpit and kunai huts with dirt floors, two conjoint classrooms with concrete floors, iron roof, no walls and a water tank, and four teachers’ houses for the three coastal New Guinean teachers and me, just turned 21 and inordinately proud of my patch.
The nearest expatriate settlement was Mingende mission station five kilometres along a rough road and which, to my exasperation, seemed to be the only Catholic mission in the Territory where the occupants didn’t drink. Not with outsiders, anyway.
Fortunately, about eight kilometres in the other direction at Kerowagi was an Australian patrol post replete with airstrip, a clutch of trade stores and plenty of hardened drinkers in the Territory tradition: stubby in hand; chip on shoulder.
Every two or three weeks I’d walk the pleasant track from my school to Kerowagi for a weekend unshackled from education. And, in between, on the steep slopes of the Bismarck Range where the yar trees grew among the clouds and the village people made sure I was safe, I had my school, my books, my shortwave radio and my typewriter.
One night, marking school work and distractedly listening to a clumsily produced radio play crackling through the static from the ABC in Port Moresby, it occurred to me that I too could write in a style no less turgid and vapid.
So next morning, the Standard 6 schoolboy selected as that day’s runner carried with him to the airstrip my official education correspondence, the monthly grocery order for Burns Philp in Goroka and a brief letter to the ABC offering my services as a radio scriptwriter, a skill foreign to me although I had written revue sketches and felt I had the general drift.
Some weeks later, to my surprise, I received a commission to write a maiden script on copra growing in New Guinea – a subject about which I still know nothing.
With the assistance of a Tolai teacher colleague, I ploughed through the technical bits as briefly as I could and dressed those bare bones of substance within a cloak of adventure. After a month or so, a letter arrived bearing the ABC logo and advising me that the script had been accepted.
It revealed I would be paid a fee of $30 ($400 in today’s money) and a further amount of $15 each time it was repeated for a maximum of two repeats at which point the ABC would own my work.
Furthermore, the ABC commissioned another script – this one on fishing, about which I also knew little.
My eyes glistened with avarice at such largesse, and I knew instantly that broadcasting was the career for me. I just didn’t know how to get from Gagl to Broadcast House at Boroko, let alone Sydney.
Footnote: The only complete set of the 50 original issues of Kundiawa News reposes securely in the National Library of Australia. I have copies of them all. 'Broadcasting in Tongues' will be an occasional series
Good yarn Keith. I wonder if my grandchildren will look upon newspapers as something that people read in the olden days.
Pre-Covid-19 when I used to travel on a bus there I’d find a free Metro newspaper that is owned by the Daily Mail and was first published in 1999. It is now alleged to be the most read of all newsprint in the UK with well over a million printed weekly Mon-Fri.
It normally takes me 5 but certainly no more than 10 minutes to read. Ideal for littering the floor of the vehicle or better still to blow around on the damp pavements like a wet Echo.
I gave up buying daily newspapers once I could use a computer in 2000. It enabled me to read The Times which was the broadsheet favoured by my betters of the A or B social grades; especially the bowler hat brigade of The City and considered by many to be the world’s best ‘Quality’ newspaper.
Then Murdoch started charging us to read online and miserly git that I am I stopped viewing it and turned to others sources of news.
In Cardiff we have several free community glossy magazine issued quarterly that are quite readable. In the Vale we have free delivery to homes of newspapers like the Barry Gem dedicated to four different communities.
These are all a part of the Tindle group which has over 150 titles in its UK coverage. None of these provide real news as such due to the time span between publications. So Daniel Kumbon’s South Wales Echo/Western mail continue to be the local rag but with a diminishing readership.
I have seen two suggested dates for the demise of newspapers as digital news continues to expand. I was recently annoyed with my TV supplier removing Al-Jazeera & RTV as news channels that were originally in my broadband ‘package’.
I’m thus stuck with BBC where I find its News Channel lacking in depth perhaps because the reports seem designed for reading on the tiny screen of a mobile phone on the Tube or crowded trains and buses. Perish that thought!
Previously I was able to balance BBC stories by checking them out viewing the now missing two and so felt afterwards that I was getting a broader world view.
Because of the interfering adverts I am prejudiced against Sky News which is now the only alternative on my TV screen to BBC’s. So the loneliness of the computerholic is the only real answer.
Sadly I look like being forced to contribute far more to the monopolistic Murdoch empire if I am to get better news cover. It annoys me because I once was forced to pay extra 3 times in 13 months for their so called family or basic package.
I would deny that description as surely not every family needs horse racing, porn, food, falling auctions or even religious channels. Yet Sky will not allow me to enter their digital warehouse to select those channels that I will watch the majority of my time.
Crazily when I did have Sky I watched a tiny fraction of the 400 plus channels and thus avoided a lot of their advertisers’ crassness engulfing my mind with inane ramblings of how a car can ‘supply ones alleged inner emotion’ as it sucks up saltwater on a beach somewhere rusting its bodywork; or their sofa adverts offering eternal special discounts to persuade me to buy a new ‘reduced even further’ £500 bargain sofa every year.
Isolationitis I guess is affecting my ageing cortex as I hanker for the glorious days of black and white 10” screens showing snooker! Now that would have been the most exciting programme since Fanny Craddock.
Here is a copy & paste from The Conversation dated Feb 15th 2016 by Brian McNair in his post: ‘The death of newspapers – have we reached the tipping point?’:
‘Something to consider: newspapers were archived and available for study (look at the fabulous Trove website). You could compare what a politician was reported as saying now with what he said two years ago. Electronic copies/databases of newspapers made it even easier. But if it’s all just online, you have stories/websites that get changed / updated several times a day, and where are they archived? How many versions will exist and will they be publicly available? It could be all very post-modern.’
Richard you shouldn’t complain about having to call Aussie Rules rather than League.
Mate on my very first sports afternoon as a new immigrant teacher in a West Australian wheat belt Junior High (an unknown institution in Wales) my head master sent me to what I thought was a rectangle grassed field which he called an Oval.
That was a strange way for an educated man to describe a pitch I thought. Perhaps it was a bit like the silly name boxing ring for a square?
My concern grew when I saw that there were in fact four posts at each end of the playing area. What was the devious minded purpose behind allowing a wider goal area? Had some liberal minded educator decided to give the wimps a better chance of scoring? Did they use the left and right hand gaps between the central posts?
Anyway I knew how to blow a whistle. It wasn’t long before I had cause to use it after seeing what was surely a deliberate off-side. Sadly I was corrected by several of my class who informed their Pommie teacher, ‘No off-side in ‘rules’ sir!’
“Look,” I was not going to be shafted by this lot, “I’m the referee here!”
Exasperated they cried out, “No such thing….sir (I think they wanted to call their new idiot-‘Mate’) You’re an umpire!”
I thought, ‘What the hell is this primitive state doing to rugby? It has extra posts each end and now the referee is an umpire.’
Alas there was more to come.
“Time for first quarter sir!” someone yelled at me. So I learnt another rule of Aussie Rules. They have three intervals during a game. The only reason I could think of was that growing plenty of oranges in the state it was one way of getting rid of excess stock.
It certainly had been an afternoon for suckers. The following Fridays in this Junior High I was allocated the safer option of taking a primary grade in more organised tunnel ball types of exercise.
Posted by: Arthur Williams | 21 April 2020 at 04:26 AM
There's been an enormous change in how the print media works these days, Phil, particularly in Australian regional journalism.
The big boss of our particular group, 'The Cat' (Anthony Catalano), has closed four regional printing press sites. In our state the Sunraysia Daily (Mildura), the Swan Hill Guardian and the Gannawarra Times (Kerang) have all closed their doors.
They are still able to be read on-line, of course, and in the Sunraysia Daily's case the Saturday edition is still available in hard copy.
But the old Diggers and their missuses don't know how to log-on efficiently on their devices to read on-line and with self-isolation in full swing have no young family members to tell them which keys to hit.
The Diggers tell me this at Saturday footy matches across Bendigo/Kyneton/Castlemaine/Gisborne.
The reverse is true for the young blokes. When I go into the change rooms after a match to interview a coach or a captain the young players pipe up: "When will this story be up on the Addy website, Richard?"
When I tell them I'll type my 500-520 words by 10.45 am Sunday and send it off they reply: "Great. We'll read it on our phones while having a Sunday beer with the mates."
Usually it's up on the Advertiser website by 12.30 or 12.45 pm on Sundays. The young fellers never, ever buy a hard copy.
I'd reckon there would be closures/on-line editions only in regional South Aussie, Along the Murray River and certainly in the S-E corner.
Posted by: Richard Jones | 20 April 2020 at 04:27 PM
Posted by: Adrian P Winnie | 20 April 2020 at 04:00 PM
Enjoyed reading this Keith, can't wait for the next piece .
Posted by: Rose Tongamp | 20 April 2020 at 03:58 PM
It's strange how serendipitous chance encounters alter our lives Richard.
I had a chance meeting in the street in Adelaide a few weeks after I'd gone finish with a bloke who had worked at the South Australian Museum.
He had left to take up a new job in Canberra running a national Aboriginal site recording program, an initiative of Nugget Coombs. I'd been sending the odd interesting artefact to him at the museum while I was in PNG.
We exchanged a few pleasantries and then out of the blue he said, "How would you like a job?"
That's how my 'career' as a kind of anthropologist / archaeologist / historian began and I was still doing it 45 years later.
Posted by: Philip Fitzpatrick | 20 April 2020 at 03:26 PM
Fantastic stuff KJ.
Like you I grew (very) tired of the chalkie routine and hankered after a career as a journo: print and radio. Okay -- maybe you weren't as sick of it as I was.
To this end I very nearly applied for a vacant job at Broadcast House, but with the ESS (employment security scheme) banner fluttering quite briskly on the horizon I was advised against it by our Moresby accountant.
Still, you and I crossed paths at the Lawes Road office of the Post-Courier in 1969 as we compiled our reports and summaries for the South Pacific Games coverage.
I recall you considered the track and field events more noteworthy than the fisticuffs at the boxing tournament.
You were immersed in broadcast affairs long before me, although we have both had stints in community radio.
You were in New England and i was on the central Victorian goldfields in Bendigo.
I also did three years calling AFL footy for the National Indigenous Radio Service whose reach in outback Australia exceeds even that of the ABC.
Changing from live calling of rugby league in PNG to Aussie Rules was quite a step.
I was lucky to fulfill my print journo ambitions by working for a quarter-of-a-century at the Bendigo Advertiser. Founded in late 1853 just two years after gold had been discovered, the Addy is a Victorian state institution.
I served as Addy sports editor for 17 years.
And how did this employment come about? Well, after driving around regional Australia for a couple of months after Xmas in 1976 I wandered into the foyer of the Bendigo Advertiser.
Who should be standing there talking to his accounts and advertising staff? None other than the late, great Douglas Lockwood who'd earlier served as Post-Courier managing editor as well as in the same role in Bendigo.
"I didn't know you were back in Oz. How'd you like a job here," were his opening remarks.
I started in May 1977 and still to this day - and despite advancing age - type up a Bendigo league match report on the laptop for Monday's editions.
When, and if, the 2020 season ever gets underway I'll be back at it this winter, huddled up in coat and scarf with notebook and pen in hand
I stayed on in the PNG Admin until Xmas 1976.
As the venerable saying goes, Richard, old sports journos never die, they just lose sight of their balls - KJ
Posted by: Richard Jones | 20 April 2020 at 12:07 PM
Keith, we are enriched by this leaking of real nius.
Now (hic) about that (hic) deflamintamination flaw...
Posted by: Lindsay F Bond | 20 April 2020 at 08:11 AM
Keith - Gagl was the first school I ran in the Highlands in 1969, having first served four years on the coast previously.
It was a terrific experience, but I would not have survived without the support of the two male Simbu teachers there. Both are now deceased.
Walking down to Kerowagi was always a challenge if the bottom bridge had been washed away!
Posted by: Gordon Shirley | PNG bush teacher, 1964-72 | 20 April 2020 at 07:22 AM
Wonderful stuff Keith - hopefully this will be Chapter 1 of your book along with your other book based on the best of your posts on PNG Attitude.
Posted by: Charlie Lynn | 20 April 2020 at 07:05 AM