PORT MORESBY 1973-74 – As I returned to Port Moresby in October 1973 after six months developing an educational radio operation in Java, life in Papua New Guinea was in upheaval.
The rush towards independence was well and truly on and the impacts were tangible as many expatriate public servants readied themselves for imminent redundancy.
In broadcasting, the Administration’s 16 district radio stations were just about to be amalgamated with the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s expatriate-oriented service with the formation of a new entity on Saturday 1 December.
This organisation had been designated the National Broadcasting Commission of Papua New Guinea.
Most of the expatriate managers at district stations were being replaced by Papua New Guineans and I found myself re-assigned from Radio Bougainville to the ABC’s former headquarters at Broadcast House, Six Mile, to head up a new unit, the functions of which were vague.
“You know what to do,” the NBC’s recently appointed chairman, Sam Piniau chuckled. I did. Surrounded by senior managers on secondment from the ABC, he wanted some arm’s length support from people he knew.
I’d taken over Radio Bougainville from Sam in 1970 and, during a two-week handover period, we’d developed a good relationship – sharing similar views on everything including politics and the future of broadcasting. We’d kept in close touch since that time.
In Indonesia I’d been regularly informed of developments in PNG by Sam’s close adviser, New Zealander Ian Mackay, former director-general of the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation, who was on the verge of retirement.
He’d let me know that I definitely would not return to Bougainville. I arranged for my goods and chattels to be shipped to Moresby.
When they arrived, it turned out the household gear had been loaded into one huge, custom-built five-ply crate. Despite all the arrows (now pointing towards the ground) and ‘store in a dry place’ warnings, it had left sitting upside down outside a warehouse. Most of the contents were much the worse for wear and my fine drinks cabinet matchwood.
While I was in Yogyakarta, Mackay had involved me in planning for an expansion of educational broadcasting in PNG which I thought may be a precursor for the role heading that area of the new NBC.
But when I returned to PNG, I found that the expatriate ABC managers had nabbed most of the top positions, amongst them education, finance, personnel, news, programs and the plum role of deputy chairman – who was my old sparring partner Malcolm Naylor.
They were subordinates to Sam, but the ABC types were effectively continuing to run the new organisation. The more experienced district station managers were largely unwanted adjuncts – placed in subsidiary support roles or squeezed out altogether.
Few of these men cared much for the regions beyond Moresby or understood the intricacies of programming for other than Australian audiences. As the director of programs told me once, "If I don't like the program myself, I'm pretty sure it's right for the audience."
My own appointment was as head of a small unit wanted by Sam Piniau but otherwise considered to be displaced persons– just me, former Radio Eastern Highlands manager Phil Charley and former Department of Information relief manager Dick Barlow.
The ABC guys had found quarters for the three of us in a small open-fronted office opposite the men’s toilet.
It was probably meant as a put-down but fed our black humour as were able to observe and comment on the many comings and goings across the corridor.
Sam had wanted me to define a role for us, which was not difficult. We’d had many conversations in the past about what kind of a broadcasting system an independent PNG should have.
There were a heck of a lot of challenges facing broadcasting in PNG.
The district network into which Jim Leigh had put so much work still needed four stations to be completed.
The ABC’s national shortwave service was technologically out of date and its programming was a mélange of expatriate orientation and schools broadcasts.
There was no plan to integrate the ABC and Government Broadcasting Service into a cohesive entity.
There were very few trained Papua New Guinean managers.
There were growing demands for television.
And there was hardly any money to fund a national broadcasting operation and few available revenue streams.
I let Sam know that my small unit – now designated the research unit – should be given a corporate planning role, that we could provide policy advice and were well placed to provide a liaison function between headquarters and the district-based stations.
I also wanted to set up publications and audience research functions. Beyond that, I said, anything else you want us to do. He agreed and we got down to work.
The ABC enchiladas were suspicious. Who was this interloper?
I’d learned enough about management in the previous few years to know that if you want to make an initial good impression deliver tangible action not plans.
We had to have a plan – and a good, comprehensive one – but first we had to get buy-in that we were the people to do it.
Very quickly we produced publications (including a guide to every program at every station in PNG and an in-house magazine, Transmitter) and completed some revealing audience research work.
Initially, listener surveys were undertaken around Port Moresby, a project in which we involved many broadcasting staff as volunteers to gather data by door-knocking Tokarara and other suburbs.
This activity also built our relationships with Papua New Guinean headquarters personnel who, at that stage, were still new to us boys from the bush.
Over the course of 1974, the research unit extended its work in trying to create a unified and well-informed organisation and I was assisting Sam with much policy and planning work.
I was invited to sit on the executive committee with the other senior managers, which caused some angst amongst the ABC guys, but gave me a great perspective across the operations of the whole organisation.
I was increasingly happy with work and life in Moresby. I resumed studying at the University of PNG (which I had relinquished during my time in Rabaul and Bougainville) and kept match fit with squash and tennis and sessions at our favourite NBC watering hole, the Boroko Aussie Rules football ground.
I also enjoyed the palpable air of excitement that was growing in the capital as Papua New Guinea moved closer to independence.
Change was in the air and, over time, the ABC expatriate managers were gradually leaving for jobs back in Australia and being replaced by talented Papua New Guineans like Ovia Toua, Kahi Vila, Carolus Ketsimur, Chris Rangatin and Ubum Makarai while leaving behind good operators like Sean Dorney and Bob Lawrence.
Towards the end of 1974, satisfied that the research unit, although tiny, had demonstrated it could make a useful input to the new organisation’s operations, I talked with Sam about elevating and broadening its role by establishing a new component of the NBC, the Secretariat.
The NBC needed a planned approach to its role within an independent nation not the branch office incrementalism of the past. This was going to be a big job and we had to be resourced to do it.
I prepared a proposal for a policy and planning secretariat and put it to Sam. The unit would report directly to him and its main purposes would be to expand our role in policy development, corporate planning, financial sustainability, stakeholder relations, audience research and publications.
Sam said it was what he was looking for and we won the subsequent bureaucratic battle in the executive committee to create a unit of 10-15 people, including Papua New Guinean understudies.
It also required a bigger and better equipped office. The booth opposite the gents’ toilet was left to its own devices.
The Secretariat’s major task, which would take most of 1975, was to embark on the preparation of the NBC’s first five-year plan.
This evolved from a declaration of principles and objectives agreed by senior managers to guide the development and operations of the national broadcaster.
And so it was that the NBC developed a strong policy and planning function and a corporate view of how it should operate.
After a year’s work, and on the threshold of independence, two organisations were being successfully rendered into one.
But neither the PNG government nor the ABC was funding the organisation adequately and increasingly this would become a major problem the Secretariat was asked to address.
One step was to reduce costs, and it did not take long before the ABC types were referring to our outfit as ‘the Gestapo’ as we sought to get rid of expensive expatriates and replace them with local employees.
But cutting costs was never going to be enough. If this organisation was to flourish, we had to develop sustainable ways of raising revenue. It was the sort of dilemma to keep a young man awake at night.
Things were about to get interesting in the NBC, and some serious political issues were to emerge.
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