PORT MORESBY, 1969 – For some minutes my eyes remained fixed on the newspaper advertisement.
Placed under the logo of the Department of Information and Extension Services, it sought three assistant managers for government broadcasting stations in rural areas of Papua New Guinea.
The colonial Administration, fed up with the ABC dragging its feet on extending its own PNG services throughout the Australian territory, was building its own radio stations and looking to recruit expatriate managers.
I knew this had to be my next job. The one that would take my career beyond the bureaucracy of the ABC – which had allowed me to build upon my previous brief media career but which I felt was tying me down.
If I succeeded in grabbing one of those three jobs, my ambit would extend beyond the typewriter and the production studio to encompass management. It was an attractive proposition.
I was interviewed by H H (Jim) Leigh, the controller of Administration broadcasting, who seemed more delighted in hijacking me from the ABC than anything he read in my slender curriculum vitae.
“They’re hopeless over there at Wonga, father!” he bellowed. “Pathetic! No bloody idea at all!” Jim knew only one tone – belligerent.
It was a short interview in which I was given the clearest indication that one of the three jobs would be mine.
They were announced not long afterwards and, along with my name, were those of former Vietnam war correspondent Paul Cox and long-time Australian broadcast manager Phil Charley, both in their mid-forties.
Despite the 20 year age difference, I became very close to both men, with their starkly divergent personalities, and learned a lot from them about journalism and broadcasting.
The pugnacious Cox stayed on in PNG, where his career ranged from journalism to prime ministerial adviser, until he died there in 1999, his obituarist writing, “He talked straight and wasn't afraid to hit hard when needed.”
Charley eventually returned to Sydney as operations manager at 2CH, he and I working together on many assignments down the years.
When he died in 2014, I spoke at his funeral of how he had “viewed all of humanity through a prism of sublimity and generosity of spirit.”
During my interview with Jim Leigh, apart from the fact I was seeking to abscond from the ABC, he was particularly impressed that I had a command of Pidgin English, which was a considerable asset in managing a rural radio station.
Indeed, it was impossible to be an effective broadcaster in New Guinea – producer, reporter, announcer or manager – without acquiring a reasonable knowledge of Pidgin, or Police Motu if you were in Papua.
At the hotel on Arovo Island in Bougainville in 1972, I spent an unproductive session at the bar arguing with Australian press gallery journalist Mungo MacCallum about whether Pidgin was a real language or not.
“How on earth,” Mungo said, peering incredulously through permanently bleary eyes, “how on earth could anyone take this language seriously? I mean, listen to this,” and he opened his notebook and read slowly: “Piano. Bikpela bokis igat wetpela na bilekpela tus sapos tyu paitim em strong I singaut nogut tru.”
I was amused at Mungo’s unwitting adoption of an old Pidgin joke. It gave Mozart’s Piano Concert in A Major an entirely new dimension to call it ‘Mozart’s concerto for a big box with white and black teeth which, upon being beaten, bellowed furiously in A Major’.
The late 1960s and early seventies were marked by rapid political change in Papua New Guinea. For everyone bar the most unobservant, independence was on the way.
The establishment of the University of PNG in 1965 had been both an important educational milestone and a prodigious step towards nationhood. Like many of the icons of change in the Territory, it drew more than its fair share of derision from local whites.
‘Bikpela skul bilong oli,’ it was referred to derisively, oli having replaced kanaka as a term of racist smear. The implication was clear. Any university that gave degrees to blackfellas (especially where most whites didn’t have one) couldn’t be up to much.
But for me, it presented a marvellous opportunity. The ABC was keen on its education staff having degrees so I had enrolled at UPNG in 1968 to study economics part time. I’d just completed my second year when Jim Leigh gave me the new job.
He told me I’d be appointed to Radio Rabaul as assistant manager to John Waters. Accepting the offer, I said I’d present myself in Rabaul in February 1970.
This was when the passenger-cargo vessel Francis Drake was scheduled to dock there after Sue and I had spent eight weeks steaming around the ports of Asia on our first overseas trip.
It was with some delight that I wrote my resignation letter to Malcolm Naylor advising him I was leaving the ABC.
At that point, of course, I had no idea that 15 years later I would be back with 'Auntie' in a very different role and a very different place.
This is the third in an occasional series of memoirs about Keith’s career in broadcasting