ABC-9RB Rabaul: Early days by Graham Taylor
In 1958, as an aspiring family oriented young Kiap concerned about our future well-being in Papua New Guinea, I job-hopped into the ABC. It proved to be an inspired decision.
This second career as a national broadcaster spanned three decades. I did my time on air, as a globe-trotting foreign correspondent, and finally as a senior corporate manager at home in Australia.
This first ABC appointment in 1958 was as the Director of the ABC’s indigenous broadcasting unit in Port Moresby. I recruited, trained and worked with a team of young Papuan and New Guinean announcers on air daily from 9PA and the short wave VLT stations in English, Pidgin, Police Motu, Suau, Orokaiva , Roro and Kuanua.
In the early 1960s, the ABC harboured intentions of establishing Regional Radio stations in Rabaul, Lae, Madang, Goroka, etc., but these plans were overtaken by events and Rabaul was the only one established. In 1962 I was appointed ABC Regional Manager at Rabaul with the challenging task of establishing 9RB.
First up we needed suitable premises and we settled on a lease of a large empty igloo-shaped copra shed on the corner of Malaguna Road and Bay Road. This cavernous space allowed for administration, a newsroom, a record library suitably enclosed for security in arc-mesh, a sound-proof studio and a transmission hall for the 9RB transmitter and associated equipment. Local contractors attended to the open planning modifications and PMG technicians installed the studios and technical equipment.
My job was to manage the station, do my time on-air, liaise and represent with the public, and generally defend the ABC’s good name and honourable intentions and reputation.
My fellow ABC announcers included expats Jeff Gately (“Gaiters”), Tony Lee (“Tea leaf”), Rodney McNeill (“Rodders”), Colin Bartlett; and locally recruited and trained Tolai colleagues Robin ToPapat, Joaph Erimas and Jack Ainui. Robin, the senior, was an inspiringly competent communicator. All of them worked hard to attract our local indigenous audience. ABC Journalist David Ellis joined the team as did Skip Humphries as Record Librarian. A local Chinese lass Mary Rose Chow became our receptionist and secretary.
With construction completed, I ordained that 9RB should be officially opened at 3.00 pm on the chosen Saturday afternoon. The ABC’s Papua New Guinea management had granted me a pitiful entertainment allowance hardly sufficient to defray the costs of a modest celebratory afternoon tea of beverages, sandwiches and stale lamingtons. I illegally plundered my embryonic Repairs and Maintenance budget and provided some strong drink.
I invited a gathering of august expat and indigenous guests including such luminaries as DC Foldi, bankers Neal and Clarke, Shell’s area manager Olympian Gosper, traders Stobo, Corbett and other town bizoids eg Hopper, Thurston et al. One enquired whether he could bring his young children to this exciting event and in what proved to be an ill-judged decision I agreed.
Right on the dot of three o’clock, Jeff Gately, chosen to make the momentous announcement, switched on his studio microphone. The red “On Air” warning light outside the studio came on. “Gaiters” launched into his breezy welcoming spiel: “Good afternoon everyone … it’s three o’clock and welcome to station 9RB’s … The ABC’s new Regional Radio Station broadcasting to you from our studio in Rabaul’ … and then turned on his turntable to play Credence Clearwater’s Bad Moon Rising.
In the igloo the hushed party-goers waited expectantly near the carefully placed speakers to hear the first welcoming sounds to be uttered from 9RB. Alas!!!, not a crackle, not a murmur, not a sound was heard.
Sensing disaster I dashed into the studio: “Jeez Gaiters, we’ve got a problem we can’t hear you outside … we’re not on air … do something”. A stunned Gaiters sat in disbelieving silence.
The radio engineer abandoned his guests and rushed to the transmitter hall where he quickly located and solved the problem. The aforementioned toddlers, bored witless by adult partying, wandered aimlessly around the transmission hall, came upon the winking blue, red, green and yellow lights on the gently humming transmitter, twiddled the control knobs and effectively sabotaged our transmission.
I raced into the studio: “Gaiters, we are on air now: give ’em your spiel again” and so he switched on his microphone and dutifully began his “Good afternoon everyone … the time is ten past three and welcome, etc. …” And so in a manner of speaking 9RB was officially opened a second time.
Life was never dull at 9RB. One frustrating problem was that whenever we experienced a guria [earthquake], often half a dozen or more times a day, the turntable needle on the vinyl LP disc would jump the tracks and screech across the disc creating an unholy sound. Our technicians, it seemed, had overlooked the need to mount our control desk on rubber insulation.
The station went on air at 6.00 am. The duty announcer was the only person in attendance. His job was to arrive at 5.30 am, unlock the building, gain entry, switch on the power to warm up all the gear, tune into an ABC station in Australia and check that our studio clock was showing the right time and then phone DCA at Matupit Airstrip to obtain their morning weather forecast.
Sometimes this worked but frequently there was no response from Matupit. Faced with the prospect of no weather report the announcer on duty would be obliged to engage his own creative talents and compile his own report. We became amazingly adept at this. So long as we mentioned intelligence such as there being a long low south easterly swell, seas that were generally smooth but rough in places, that there was chance of a shower or two especially in the late afternoon, and/or that the winds would be light and variable but fresh and gusty in places, etc., etc., we could safely cover just about everything from a balmy day to a howling tornado.
The announcers were not without their idiosyncrasies. Tony Lee was such a sound sleeper that he often failed to wake up in time for his early morning 6.00 am start. He overslept so many times that in the end I demanded that he should have at his bedside a loud bell ringing alarm clock located in an empty galvanised rubbish bin to wake him from his slumbers.
One Sunday morning my wife and I were driving somewhere along Malaguna Road when on my car radio I heard the duty announcer introduce a Mantovani Orchestral LP. The first track was Charmaine and we listened as it started to play. Suddenly it retracked and played again and retracked and replayed again. I waited impatiently for the announcer to respond but as we drove Charmaine kept on retracking.
I raced back to the studio, rushed in only to find the studio empty and the LP still blithely retracking on the turntable. Charmaine had been belting out for twenty or thirty times. A few minutes later a sheepish announcer appeared. He confessed: he had put the LP on the turntable and then had dashed off homewards to grab a sandwich. Alone in the studio deserting his post was an unforgiveable sin. His career in broadcasting was short-lived and his farewell lacked affection.
The administration’s Wally Sidebottom, in charge of the Rabaul Botanical Gardens, gave David Ellis a story bemoaning the lack of rain and the effects of a drought on the Gardens. Reading the story in our news bulletin, Gately was uncertain and flummoxed as to the correct pronunication of Wally’s surname. Anxious not to offend Wally and with the best noble intentions Gaiters prudently settled for “Siddy—bot-tom”. Wally, entertaining mates in the bar of the Rabaul Club, heard the bulletin. Within seconds my evening dinner was interrupted by an outraged apoplectic Wally on the telephone demanding a full and complete apology for perceived insult.
Our Tolai colleagues, for whom English was not the first but their third language, struggled manfully on air with the likes of Chopin, Bizet, Tchaikowsky, Khachaturian, Mussorgsky, et al.
When Skip Humphries and Diane, the Record Library Assistant, decided to marry the civil ceremony was conducted by the DC in his office chambers just before closing time. Inevitably there was long gap between the timing of the ceremony and the arrival of guests for the mandatory wedding breakfast strategically arranged at the Rabaul Hotel. The wedding party—including my wife who was bridesmaid—relieved of the ceremonial pressures found themselves in need of a refreshment or three. With in their view the sun well and truly over an early yardarm they took to imbibing. By the time the invited wedding breakfast guests arrived at dusk the wedding party had difficulty remembering their names let alone those of their guests. The late arrivals soon caught up however and a jolly grand time was had by all. Random blood tests of this truly memorable occasion would have created medical history.
My abiding memory of 9RB relates to one Sunday morning in late September 1963. On the Saturday evening Shirley and I had enjoyed a happy and expansive dinner with close friends Kevan Gosper and his wife Jillian. Late to bed I had but a few hours sleep before rising at 5.00 am as the duty announcer for transmission starting at 6.00 am. I made my way to the studio, cranked up the electronics, and in accordance with usual custom selected a bright cheerful happy get-up-an-go recording to start our transmission. My choice, JP Sousa’s stirring march Stars and Stripes proved to be an apocryphal choice.
Sitting quietly at the console waiting to go on air I suddenly realised that I had not checked the accuracy of the studio clock. I tuned into ABC stations in Australia to check the time to be confronted with sad, serious, sombre music. Where was the normal cheerful Sunday morning programmes? Then I heard the dramatic announcement.
I raced out to our Record Library, grabbed the first sombre-sounding music LP I could find, dashed back to the studio, cast the Sousa aside just in time to go on air with: “‘Good morning everyone … you are listening to ABC Regional Radio 9RB Rabaul … my name is Graham Taylor … its six o’clock … and we begin with the shattering news that overnight America’s President John F Kennedy has been assassinated … we will be crossing to Australia shortly for ongoing coverage”. With that I played my sombre music while I monitored ABC in Australia for an opportunity to cross for relays of further news.
Meanwhile my thoughts turned to Kevan Gosper no doubt still sound asleep. I knew Kevan had an abiding interest in the United States having graduated from Michigan University with a highy acclaimed reputation as a track and field athlete. And so I rang him. I can still remember his astonished and concerned reaction.
Notwithstanding such excitements and disappointments 9RB bowled along merrily and soon acquired an appreciative and attentive not to mention critical audience no longer frustrated by fading signals from 9PA Moresby or the wavering transmissions of the short wave VLTs.
I farewelled 9RB at the end of 1964 to take on new exciting responsibilities as an ABC Foreign Correspondent in SE Asia never quite forgetting my loyal colleagues and our happy go lucky days at 9RB.