Budget woes: Unrest as salaries go unpaid
Getting ahead of the curve

Radio Days: Return to the ABC

Radio Days - journalKEITH JACKSON

SYDNEY 1985 – I first began to keep a journal in 1973 during my last months in Bougainville. Over the next 15 years I was faithful to it except for the period at 2SER-FM when my days were too long and crowded and my fidelity lapsed.

In the beginning, it was a work diary and was consequently terse and utilitarian.

But it soon became something else, more descriptive and observational - a record not just of decisions and commitments but of issues and adventures, important people and conversations, significant insights, and articulations of my own feelings.

Since those days when they were written, I have rarely ventured into those diaries. The exception was when I spent five years largely annihilated by chronic fatigue syndrome in the early 2000s.

During brief periods of relief from the curse – I transposed a couple of diary years from written scrawl to word processor, a practice discontinued as the worst of my illness passed.

Those motley diaries, perhaps 20 in all, cover much of my Radio Days – a bit of Bougainville, more of Indonesia, much of the Maldives, a little of 2SER-FM and, in great detail, my work with the ABC between 1985 and 1988

In this current meandering and sketchy account of my broadcasting career, I have not consulted those diaries, figuring this is not a memoir but a series of reminiscences of my 22 years in broadcasting that someday may interest my grandchildren if ever they wonder what I did with my life.

For this episode, however, covering my transition from the International Training Institute (which closed forever just two years after I left) to a much more complex and challenging role in the ABC, I decided to let my diary tell the story of those first four weeks when I implanted (I was going to write rooted) myself in one of Australia’s best known, and arguably most important, organisations.

Extracts from my journal: 28 January – 24 February 1985

Monday 28 January - Sydney

First day of my second go at the ABC. Departed 1969 as a junior producer in Port Moresby; returned 1975 as a controller in Sydney. Quite a journey in between.

Visit ABC chairman Ken Myer, of the Myer shopping dynasty, in his top floor apartment at Elizabeth Bay with views across Woolloomooloo to the city on one side and down harbour to the heads on the other.

Radio Days - Ken and Yasuko Myer
Ken and Yasuko Myer. Ken was a quixotic man who led the ABC through turbulent times often in a turbulent way

The décor is a curious mix of Japanese and Western. He greets me in what look like shortie pyjamas, insists I leave my shoes at the door and asks his wife Yasuko to bring us a pot of jasmine tea. All this is done with self-conscious affectation as if he believes I think it’s peculiar.

He also has a penchant for retail shopping analogies. When I say creative people must be allowed to make mistakes to encourage them to take risks, he responds, “Yes, like the young buyer who orders 100,000 when we can only sell 75.”

I talk on how I see the priorities of my new job, Ken interpolating as he sees fit. Accountability to parliament and sorting our media relations are my priorities.

Ken reveals a detailed understanding of the industry and political environment in which the ABC is operating. He is big on technology.

And when I ask why the ABC board met twice in December, he says tongue in cheek: "I firmly believe Christmas should be the busiest time of the year”.

After an hour and a half, Ken concludes the conversation by saying he wants me to attend all board meetings. We seemed to get on well. Good start.

Tuesday 29 January - Sydney

To the city early, arriving at Temple Court just before nine. Check the matrimonial lists. My divorce from Sue is set down for ten – the third in line. My briefcase and I are searched for guns and I go to Court 2. Sue and her girlfriend Carol are already there. The earlier cases are not, so at 10.01 Jackson v Jackson is called and it’s all over by 10.09.

Return to the International Training Institute for final housekeeping. As acting principal I’d not arranged the traditional degrading ‘farewell afternoon tea’. I made my farewells personally and moved out as I had arrived 21 months ago – unobtrusively. But what a 21 months.

Friday 1 February - Sydney

My daily route to Broadcast House. Stroll through Taronga Zoo, five minutes from home, to Athol wharf, ferry to Circular Quay and a brisk walk up Phillip and Elizabeth Streets. First meeting today was an unhelpful briefing from senior corporate relations direct reports. They don’t seem to know what’s going on.

Radio Days - Richard Boyer
Dick Boyer - ABC board member and son of onetime chairman Sir Richard Boyer. Dick was dogmatic and conspiratorial but his passion to clearly define the values and principles that should guide the ABC was admirable

Board member Dick Boyer wants the ABC to have a ‘philosophy’ and managing director Geoffrey Whitehead has sicked him on to me. The draft has merit but is turgid and unpublishable.

I meet with Dick and his buttressing academic, Dr Glyn Davis, and argue the paper should limit itself to the ABC’s mission, purpose and principles and no more. Dick seems to accept this.

I say I’d like someone from the board’s policy secretariat to work with him on a revision. Dick dislikes the policy secretariat. They’re smart – and strong. But he eventually agrees.

After the meeting, I talk to secretariat director Judi Stack. She thinks Dick’s ideas are haywire. I say he’s getting somewhere. Judi assigns Helen Mills to work with him. I figure I’ve done some successful corporate relating.

When I tell Dick he’s got Helen as a collaborator, he gives me a dark look and says enigmatically it cost him $20,000 of his own money to be a Board member last year.

Saturday 2 February - Sydney

Shopping this morning. Bloody tailor still hasn’t altered my new suit. I’m annoyed. Need it for Tuesday when I go to Canberra to meet communications minister Michael Duffy. Try working at home but Ingrid’s son Evan is watching Tarzan on television so go to an empty, silent Broadcast House for a solid afternoon’s paperwork.

Monday 4 February - Sydney

First full day at my desk after all last week’s meetings. There is much to do. Revamping office procedures to finishing a speech for Geoffrey to give to the Australian Association of National Advertisers (‘The Ratings Chase and Corporate Underwriting’). The ABC’s official position on underwriting (sponsorship) is that it’s a dead issue. But it’s being actively investigated behind closed doors as a revenue-raising option.

Meet with Geoffrey and finance director Allan Le Gallant about tomorrow’s meeting with Duffy in Canberra. The ABC is asking for $434 million for 1985-86; the Finance Department is offering $370 million. The ABC believes the lower figure will cause big problems.

Radio Days - Whitehead & Stack
ABC managing director Geoffrey Whitehead and policy secretariat head Judi Stack. Judi was a strong and pragmatic leader; Geoffrey not so much

Tuesday 5 February - Canberra

To the national capital with Geoffrey flying first class for the first time in 10 years (those indulgent Papua New Guinea expatriate contracts). Yes, first class. ABC senior management has certainly learned how to look after itself.

ACT manager, Philip Koch (brother of Chris, now an author, who trained me in radio production 18 years ago), meets Geoffrey and me at the airport.

We go to the ABC studios where Ken Myer joins us for a final briefing. I’m told Duffy doesn’t want me included so, with time to kill, I decide to take a cab to the newly constructed, still treeless satellite suburb of Belconnen and the Department of Communications.

This turns out to be a useful idea as I encounter the departmental officer responsible for ABC matters, an anxious John Gillam. He points to a heap of red files on his desk. “Your ministerials,” he says gloomily – urgent enquiries from the minister about the ABC’s sins of omission and commission. One of which, I learn is responding tardily to ministerials.

Lunch with Dick Boyer, who suspects finance minister Senator Peter Walsh is pushing sponsorship on the ABC and that “elements in management are sympathetic to the idea”. He’d be livid if he knew how diligently the policy secretariat was pursuing this notion.

Radio Days - Michael_Duffy
Communications minister Michael Duffy. A most likeable man and beholden to no Labor faction. The ABC never had such great support in Canberra than when Duffy and shadow minister Ian Macphee bore responsibility for it 

Wednesday 6 February - Sydney

Geoffrey calls the executives together for a debrief on yesterday’s meeting with Duffy. He and Le Gallant managed to improve the government’s offer by $25 million to $395 million while holding the line on our $434 million bid.

Geoffrey decides to brief the unions on budget constraints and staff reductions. The old hands are agitated that he intends to take the unions into his confidence on this issue. So am I, a new hand.

Cutting staff is an incendiary topic. I admire Geoffrey’s willingness to be candid with the unions but decide to prepare the ground for a quick ABC response in case there is a leak to the press.

Thursday 7 February - Sydney

It leaked. The proposed staff cut surfaces on our own national news at one o’clock. Corporate Relations gets a press release out and I brief the media. But Geoffrey throws his burst of candour into reverse, refusing an invitation from our evening current affairs program, PM, to be interviewed about the cuts.

PM journalist Steve Sailah calls and asks me to intercede. Geoffrey says he’ll rely on my judgement and I say he should do the interview by phone and pre-recorded. I’m already getting savvy that this man has difficulties interacting face to face when confronting stressful situations.

Radio Days - clips
ABC staff cuts always cause turmoil inside the organisation and stir up a frenzy in other media

I brief Geoffrey on the likely line of Sailah’s questions and we discuss his answers.

I then arrange with PM’s producer to provide me a tape of the unedited interview, ostensibly for distribution to other media but also to apply some pressure on PM to do a fair edit.

The broadcast interview is robust but Geoffrey, in a previous life the BBC’s Westminster correspondent, sounds strong and decisive – three times negating Sailah’s suggestion that volunteering staff cuts is a “pre-emptive buckle” to government.

ABC employees constantly accuse management of meekly abdicating to one party or another. ‘Pre-emptive buckle’ is the memorable expression coined by broadcaster Tim Bowden. Fortunately for us the MX missile crisis and the Trimbole drug czar affair dominate today’s headlines. The possible staff cuts story quickly loses momentum.

Friday 8 February - Sydney

During yesterday’s interview, Geoffrey said the ABC is perceived as a “sexy corporation”. This is reported with mock concern in the Telegraph and the Australian. I do a first live interview in my new role and feel disappointed that I failed to deal with the questions more crisply. I’ll improve as my knowledge of the ABC deepens.

Monday 11 February - Sydney

Radio Days - ABC logo
The ABC's waveform logo has been refined over the years,  and this is the correct appearance as of the 1980s. Upside down and back to front was never the go

Anxiety hovered over me all day as I took numerous meetings in a crash course to learn this organisation more quickly. I find it stressful to be confident and decisive with incomplete knowledge.

A long meeting with the two managers of my slack and truculent media unit. They sense I’d like to see a change of personnel, meaning them, which is true, and they are defensive and full of excuses.

I have two messages: ensure we provide the agreed information to the media and ensure we get it right. I express displeasure that the large embossed ABC logo on the front of the just published Annual Report is upside down and back to front. Signals incompetence.

As I move through the meeting schedule and directors and staff talk to me, I search for facts, validating statistics, points of reference, frameworks – frequently frustrated at my inability to derive a context for proper comprehension and analysis. I knew this would be tough, the ABC is a complex place, but….

It’s somewhat dispiriting, although I know time in the job will cure the condition. Late in the day, I confess my tentativeness to finance director Le Gallant, who says I’m doing OK for a two-week old.

Tuesday 12 February - Sydney

I spend most of the morning at the Board of Management – a monthly event at which three elected staff members meet with top management. Every issue, no matter how trivial, is pursued down its burrow to vacuity in a meeting that is long, boring and does nothing to inspire its stated purpose of promoting industrial harmony.

Wednesday 13 February - Sydney

The ABC will try to maintain a direct line with communications minister Duffy to secure his support for our 1985-86 budget bid. Geoffrey is anxious to circumvent the Communications Department fearing it may “do the dirty if it thinks we’re after more than our fair share”, whatever that means.

We’re prepared to tolerate a bit of aggravation and argy-bargy if we can add another $20-30 million and get closer to our $434 million figure.

This evening, Ingrid and I decide our wedding day will be Saturday 25 May.

Thursday 14 February - Canberra

At seven in the morning, the Cahill expressway at Circular Quay is choked as motorists slow down for a view of the QE2: still gridlocking traffic on its third cruise to Sydney. My ABC driver, shrewd in the ways of Sydney motorists, takes an alternative route and gets me to Mascot in good time.

Radio Days - Bob Lansdown
Communications department secretary Bob Lansdown. I got on well with Bob and appreciated that he let me execute the ABC's political work in Canberra without interference. He had served in PNG as a soldier in World War II

My day at the Communications Department starts with permanent head Bob Lansdown, a gruff, old-style Canberra public servant.

I assure him the ABC is tightening up its management performance and seek his views on me making direct approaches to the minister’s office and federal politicians rather than going through the department each time.

Lansdown tells me he has no objections provided I keep the department informed. He agrees the new management team should be getting out more and representing the ABC, adding that board members should not be sent on these missions.

“They’ve already developed a reputation for indelicacy and inappropriate utterance,” he says.

First assistant secretary Peter Westerway (known as ‘the silver fox’ for his shrewdness as much for his immaculate mane of grey hair) says there’s considerable antipathy towards the ABC in Cabinet.

This doesn’t especially surprise or concern me as it was an issue I’d addressed in the job interview. I believe I can turn things around in Canberra. It’s just going to take me a few months.

When I get back to Mascot, it is now chock a block with cars. The sightseers have flocked to the airport to glimpse the Concorde, which has brought passengers to join up with the QE2.

Friday 15 February - Sydney

Geoffrey advises me that, to avoid protracted litigation, the ABC has reached an agreement with NSW Premier Neville Wran who’s been suing us for defamation over a Four Corners program, The Big League.

Geoffrey won’t disclose the terms but asks me to prepare an announcement. He tells me I’m to refer to a statement, not an apology; an agreement, not a settlement. I draft a few paragraphs eschewing the words ‘apology’ and ‘settle’.

The ABC newsroom in Brisbane chooses this day to propose that my old mate Sean Dorney accompany foreign minister Bill Hayden on an official visit to Papua New Guinea, from where Sean was expelled just last year following a mismanaged dispute between the PNG government and the ABC over an interview with Irian Jaya rebel leader James Nyaro. Sean was collateral damage.

Sean Dorney reporting in PNG  1989
Sean Dorney reporting in PNG. The ABC's blundering led to his expulsion from the country in 1984. On his eventual return he was welcomed as a hero

The Brisbane newsroom’s proposal for Sean to return to PNG under cover of the foreign minister shows a lack of sensitivity bordering on provocation. Sean is smart enough to step aside before the matter becomes a major issue and the ABC dodges a bullet.

My correspondence unit has left a letter to a Canberra doctor in my in-tray for signature. It says there’s nothing the ABC can do about incidental cigarette advertising on radio and television and brags of the ABC’s public spiritedness in running quit smoking announcements.

I rewrite the letter thanking the doctor and saying he has stimulated a review of our policy. I can see no reason why on radio we constantly refer to the ‘Winfield NSW Open’ when we can simply say the ‘NSW Open’. Incidental visuals on television are hard to control but with audio we should be able to do better.

Saturday 16 February - Sydney

Radio Days - Ranald Macdonald
Ranald Macdonald gave the ABC the critical appraisal of its 1983 election coverage that it commissioned but didn't like. I found him easy to deal with and able to come up with a compromise

The newspapers give prominence to the ABC statement on the resolution of the Wran defamation case. Despite our carefully crafted words, the Sydney Morning Herald has us ‘settling’ and the Telegraph has us ‘apologising’.

Everyone assumes the ABC has caved in and I feel disappointed. Our Four Corners people didn’t assist the cause by accusing ABC management of ratting on them.

Monday 18 February - Sydney

David Dale in the Sydney Morning Herald calls the ABC’s handling of the Wran affair “a public relations disaster” but is at least aware it was an agreement to end the matter not a capitulation by the ABC. I suspect the Four Corners guys briefed him. I’m afraid more such ‘public relations disasters’ lie ahead if we continue to work against ourselves.

In the evening I open Hal Holman’s art exhibition at the ANZ Centre. In my speech, I recall how, when I first met Hal, I was writing and he was illustrating a range of school publications in Port Moresby. Hal also painted many portraits in Moresby, even though the clientele tended to be undiscerning. Portrait painting as a retail business has its hazards, not least that if the client dislikes the final product you're left with no sale.

One Saturday morning in Moresby's insalubrious Badili Club, Hal and I were having a pre-lunch beer when through the front door sailed a 20-stone man with half-a-dozen framed painting under one arm. The giant stomached the bar, purchased a stubby that disappeared into the palm of one hand and made a bee-line for Hal. It was then that I realised Hal had employed a marketing consultant.

Not Barry Stern, not Christopher Day, not Trevor Bussell, but a former heavyweight wrestler and Stadium prelim boy who was a debt collector when he wasn’t moonlighting as artist's agent. “Yorta buy a pitcher,” he urged some luckless drinker. “Theeza bloody orright… yerzl buy one?"

Tuesday 19 February - Canberra

To Canberra to meet with Dick Boyer and the rest of our ‘ABC philosophy’ team. It is painstaking work as we move through the redrafted paper. Most points are argued and we move on only when consensus is reached. We end the meeting without an agreed document.

Dick doesn’t help by taking occasional vindictive snipes at Helen Mills from the Board secretariat, which he sees as a rival for influence. Later, when we’re alone, I take up this with him, pointing out it’s not helping us reach an ‘ABC philosophy’ which can be put to the Board.

In my mind I constantly test what the developing philosophy asserts in terms of what will be political and media interpretation. It contains absurdities, one section suggesting that the ABC has taken over from the church in determining Australian values.

Thursday 21 February - Sydney

Geoffrey refuses to be interviewed for the UK Guardian so I do it.

Friday 22 February - Hobart

The Tasmanian ABC advisory council meets in a hot and cramped room and I spend most of the day with them. Our managers can’t cope with advice and their resistance to suggestion and criticism turns dialogue into vituperative and unproductive debate. The ABC hates receiving advice.

Saturday 23 February - Melbourne

I check in at the Australia Hotel and write to state general managers to persuade them to adopt a more positive attitude toward advisory councils. The ABC seems chronically impervious to its accountability and primary responsibility to its audience.

Radio Days - ABC Board 1983
The ABC Board as it was in 1985 when I joined. At front, chairman Ken Myer and his deputy Wendy McCarthy, who guided the organisation through some difficult times, especially Myer's sudden and tempestuous resignation

Visit former editor of The Age Ranald Macdonald at his vast South Yarra home. We’d asked him to write a report, for public release, on our 1983 election coverage. Nearly two years on it’s still doing the rounds.

Ranald’s convalescing after two weeks in bed with a slipped disc. He has an easy charm and discusses without rancour the ABC’s criticisms of his report.

His clear preference is for his original report, strongly criticising our coverage of the election, to stand. But he suggests the board, in its own comments, might gently point out where it disagrees with the report weaknesses. I say the compromise sounds fine and I think our Board will agree.

In the evening to a Public Broadcasting Foundation dinner. I have just resigned my presidency because of possible conflicts of interest with my new role in the ABC.

The seating is perfect public broadcasting pluralism. I sit between Liberal powerbroker Tony Staley, who has taken over from me as PBF president, and Jean McLean, Labor’s socialist left candidate for the seat of Boronia at next Saturday’s Victoria state election.

Sunday 24 February - Sydney

Fly back to Sydney. Ingrid has placed a deposit on a semi-detached cottage in Mosman. We look at it and, after some agonising, agree it is not for us. Continue as renters for a while yet.


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Simon Davidson

Hi Keith. Thanks for sharing a bit of your life.

I started a scripture journal in 2010, which fuels my creative thinking and writing.

I read a text and ask three question. What does this text say? What does this text say about God? What does it say about me?

The answers to these three questions make up the insights I keep in my scriptural journal or diary. I start from the four gospels and then went to Genesis in the Old Testament.

Now I am in the book of Ezekiel.

But I never kept a personal diary until late last year.

Keeping a diary is part of my personal discipline and self mastery. I have been religiously keeping my diary until now and I find it helpful in many ways.

Thanks for sharing your diary. I see that the one you shared about your trip to England a few years ago was more comprehensive than this one. I believe you have grown over the years.

Thanks Simon. 'Radio Days' comprised extracts of hundreds of pages of my journals. I agree with you that keeping a diary is a good discipline and can be particularly helpful to writers - KJ

Lindsay F Bond

One ought never underestimate capabilities of folk reached via 'wave' through PNGAttitude, thus I had already tuned in that math at:
ABC keeps us all endlessly connected?

Bernard Corden

The upside down and back to front ABC logo may have been the precursor to Bob Hawke's infamous state visit to Canada in 1985 when the Ottawa sidewalks were festooned with New Zealand flags.


Lindsay F Bond

Somewhat less smoke and errors, Keith, but that logo, does it not more than once, rise from behind a downplay?

Bill Kennard created the wave form logo in 1965, deriving his inspiration from an oscilloscope, used for measuring broadcast frequencies. Interesting summary (with the changing design of the logo over the years) here....


And a nice technical demonstration here....


Martin Kaalund

Dear Keith - You met villagers, politicians and academics and you are still standing.

I wish to ask you whether you knew Bill Standish. On his death I looked at his biography. It would appear that he left extensive interviews with historical PNG figures, such as Dr Gunther but did not bring things together into his life and times.

I feel his hopes were not fulfilled. Did you read or were you offered access to his records?

He had me stay with him in Port Moresby and visited me in Marawaka, and I appreciated his company.

When I asked Kundiawa residents about him they commented, but I did not find a friend of his.

Hi Martin - Bill and I trod some of the same paths but never met. Perhaps some of our Simbu or Canberra friends who read this will be able to answer your important questions - KJ

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