The History of the ABC in PNG by Graham Taylor & Janis Kleinig
This article is based on the talk given by Graham Taylor at the Adelaide 18th Annual PNGAA Luncheon on Sunday, 28 April 2019, on ‘Aunty ABC’s Role in Papua New Guinea’, and its contribution to the development of PNG during the years 1945–1987.
GRAHAM REFLECTED ON his thirty-year career in the ABC, in particular his time in Papua New Guinea broadcasting to expatriates in English and in indigenous languages of Papua New Guineans. He began by describing two important aspects of the ABC’s early history. The first, and of special significance, was the fact that in the early 1930s the British BBC encouraged the four dominions of the then British Empire—South Africa, Canada, New Zealand and Australia—to establish their own publicly-funded broadcasting organisations modelled on the BBC’s own charter as a national public service non-commercial broadcaster. This sisterhood of members would exchange programs, train and share broadcasting staff, and share technical knowledge.
The second was in 1932 when the Australian Scullin Labor Government responded to these heart-warming ideals. The Postmaster-General of the day, the Hon. James Fenton, spoke in the House of Representatives at the second reading of the bill to establish the ABC.
But that was eighty-six years ago, and in the decades since then, as the ABC sought to honour the challenges of its patriotic charter, Graham and other long-serving colleagues are reminded of the declaration—spuriously attributed to the great Roman scholar, Gaius Petronius, who died in AD66—which said:
We trained hard … but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into new teams we were reorganised. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganising … and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency and demoralisation.
The successful outcome of their endeavours to create a world-standard broadcasting entity can be seen in the fact that today the ABC enjoys the confidence of Australians and is seen as one of Australia’s greatest institutions. Turning to the precursor to ABC broadcasting in Papua New Guinea, Graham referred to General Douglas MacArthur’s 1942 decision to establish a military staffed, low-powered radio station badged 9PA, broadcasting rallying propaganda supporting the Allied military campaigns in Papua New Guinea. In February 1944, with the Japanese invasion no longer imperilling Papua New Guinea, the ABC’s then general manager, Sir Charles Moses, accepted control of 9PA and so began three decades of ABC broadcasting in Papua New Guinea.
The ABC’s 9PA programs were first presented by Australian announcers located in bush timber, grass-roofed studios in Wonga Valley on the outskirts of Boroko. They were supplemented by recorded tapes of Australian ABC programs air-freighted to Port Moresby for replay, or picked up on air relays from ABC domestic radio in Australia and Radio Australia. The expatriate Australian staff—administration and programming—flew in and out of Port Moresby on two-year postings.
These English-language programs were listened to with great loyalty by those with powerful shortwave receivers and/or on battery-driven sets. However, there was no adequate reception for many in isolated locations. Furthermore, the English-language programs critically disadvantaged the non-English-speaking indigenous peoples.
In 1958 the ABC resolved to establish its own Papua New Guinea indigenous broadcasting directorate. And this is where former patrol officer, Graham Taylor, entered the fray. His first task was to recruit and train a new team of indigenous broadcasters speaking to their own people in their own languages. Graham’s Papuan team was led by Raka Saini, an immensely talented young man from Suau, east of Port Moresby. Raka had been schooled by the LMS in his village and was selected for secondary studies in Queensland and on his return sought a career in broadcasting. He became a critically important leader of his new team of Papuan broadcasters.
Another talented recruit was Christian Rangatin, a young man from Lemakot village in New Ireland, who had also been sent to secondary school in Queensland. On Christian’s return he was seen as a budding cadet journalist and later became PNG’s first accredited professional journalist.
Graham worked on air with this team preparing and presenting a daily weekday program, PNG Gabana. It was badged as ‘Papua New Guinea Gabana’, being the police Motu word for the traditional garamut, which always served to call villagers to attention. The languages/dialects spoken were simple English, police Motu, Suau, Orokaiva, Roro and Kuanua. This new indigenous language program—comprising news, current affairs, talks—aimed at helping indigenous peoples work towards improving their lifestyles with music often recorded in isolated centres.
In 1962 the ABC decided to establish its first multi-lingual regional radio station—9RB Rabaul. Graham was appointed Regional Manager and immediately set about converting an old copra shed on Malaguna Road as the studio headquarters. He had a team of six expatriates on rotation from ABC Australia, which he augmented by recruiting and training another team of local broadcasters led by three young New Guineans: Robin To Papat, Jack Ainui and Joaph Eramus.
9RB became a viable multi-lingual radio broadcasting service that covered the Gazelle Peninsula, the Duke of York Islands, and the southern half of New Ireland where Pidgin and the Tolai dialect Kuanua were commonly spoken. The multi-lingual radio programming from 9RB quickly became an important part of daily lives. There were days when programs reached as far afield as Manus.
With the rapid expansion of the expatriate population in the administration, in private enterprise, in the missions and elsewhere—plus the gradual advancement in the education of indigenous people—accelerating the more widespread understanding of English, the multi-lingual ABC began to play an increasingly important part in the lives of local people.
Beyond the few main centres there was no immediate access to daily newspapers, and there are many who would say that in the three decades of its existence ABC radio played a key role enabling listeners—expatriate and increasingly indigenous listeners—to keep abreast of news from the outside world, from Australia and within the Territory itself.
And be it political, social, economic or other important issues, the expatriates in a range of places—provincial centres, on remote outstations, plantations, mission stations, schools, mining camps and hospitals—within range of the ABC in Papua New Guinea and Radio Australia, relied heavily on the ABC for information from their homeland. We can all recall ABC’s coverage of political news, major stories, major sporting events—at home and abroad—the Olympic Games, test cricket, football grand finals, tennis championships, and the Melbourne Cup and its gambling sweeps.
Within the Territory a daily news coverage was compiled by ABC journalists, Geoffrey Luck, others including Angus Smales and more recently, Sean Dorney. Their bulletins were augmented by reports gathered from ABC correspondents living in provincial centres and remote locations in the Territory. They were known as ‘stringers’ and one of whom, Robin Radford who was at the lunch, had reported regularly from Kainantu in the Eastern Highlands.
Aside from news, listeners relied heavily on the local ABC for local weather reports, shipping news, regular market prices of copra, rubber, coffee and other primary industry products, gold and in due course oil, timber and other emerging products and industries.
Graham finished with two important points about the ABC’s presence in Papua New Guinea. First, the ABC’s PNG radio network became the template for the establishment, come Independence, of the now flourishing PNG National Radio and Television Broadcasting Commission and so the ABC’s spirit lives on.
Secondly, the wheel has turned and we expatriates now living at home in Australia, with fond memories of our time in Papua New Guinea, find ourselves relying on the ABC in Australia to inform us about important events in self-governing Papua New Guinea. And so our links with the ABC forged in the challenging times in the Land of Dohori, before self-government and independence, remain with many of us to this day.
Graham concluded his talk with an especially memorable incident.
In the 1980s Graham was the General Manager of the ABC’s Collinswood complex in South Australia. It was the early evening of a working day. He was alone in his office when the commissionaire in the entrance lobby said an elderly gentleman wanted to see Graham who identified himself as ‘Sir John …’ but the commissionaire had not caught his surname.
The gentleman was escorted up to Graham’s office; there was a knock on the door and an elderly gentleman entered, carrying a large brown-paper bag. Graham immediately recognised him as Sir John Guise, first Governor-General of Papua New Guinea. They had met casually in years gone by but were not close personal friends. Sir John settled himself into an easy chair and for the next half hour or so they chatted amiably in a light-hearted discussion exchanging stories in English, Pidgin and police Motu.
Eventually, Sir John stood up declaring that it was time for us to drink a toast to the ABC’s historical involvement in the development of his country Papua New Guinea. From the brown-paper bag he withdrew a bottle, Graham produced a couple of glasses, and they drank a hearty toast, then Graham escorted Sir John to the Commonwealth car for his ride back to the city.
Graham recalled that as a generous, unsolicited, remarkable tribute to the ABC’s presence in Papua New Guinea from the man who, as the first Governor-General was the leader of his people, and a vivid reminder of Sir John’s statesman-like response when in 1975, accepting the reins of self-government and independence from Australia, declared to the world:
… today we are lowering the Australian flag
… we are not tearing it down.