The Radio Station
I have one primacy that no one could ever take away from me. My voice was the first one to have been heard on air at the Brisbane radio station 4EB.
It was in 1978 when I first found out that it might be possible to broadcast in Czech. The Government had decided to issue some new broadcasting licences, and one of them was to be for the ethnic broadcasting in Queensland. Several organisations were interested, in the end there were two serious applicants. EBAQ (Ethnic Broadcasting Association of Queensland) had won in the end, and I had joined it, even though its reputation of being somewhat leftist in its political orientation made me hesitate a bit. The Greeks and Italians, who had much preveiled, had no such experience with the hardcore Marxist inspired regime as I had. Even some of my countrymen, those who came here soon after the war and were not there in early 1948 when the Communists took over, did not have it, and were therefore more vulnerable to the socialist ideas, which could be very catchy or downright alluring. But I was not into politics, I simply wanted to be a propagator of culture, and nothing else.
One of the ardent socialists I got to know soon after my arrivaval here was Henry Zehr (1929-2016). Henry came to Australia in 1949 when he was a bit over twenty, therefore young enough to learn to speak English perfectly, but too old to completely lose the original accent. He married into the family that was traditionally “labor”, which is how the Australian members of this party spell its name. The British, of course, spell it “labour”, and with Henry we have had an ongoing argument about this. When I write my articles for the Czech magazines, I always spell the Australian Labor Party as “Labour”, to which he always had objections. My side of the argument was that those Czechs who know English would know the proper i.e. British way of spelling the word. If I wrote it without the “u”, in their eyes I would be the one who has no knowledge of correct spelling; therefore I have to spell it correctly, the way the Queen does. “Labor” is an Americanism, and it has crept into the labor scribes’ vocabulary early, through the backdoor of the unions.
Henry Zehr was a candidate into the state parliament shortly before we arrived here, and he had lost only by a handful of votes. Being an accountant by profession, he held a similar post in his party, and when the radio corporation was formed, he was a natural choice for the treasurer. At the beginning, we two were the only Czechs; no Slovaks were on the horizon yet, nevertheless, we had formed an official Czechoslovakian group. The original idea was that the individual groups would be formed to mirror the national units or states people came from. But that had soon hit a snag. The language groups that in Europe belonged to now disbanded Yugoslavia wanted each to have their own broadcasting. Therefore it was added into the constitution that groups can also be language based. The upheavals that were to come in Europe by the end of the eighties were thus foreshadowed by what was happening here about a decade beforehand. It had also affected our group ─ originally known as the Czechoslovak group ─ and by the mid-eighties it became two groups, the Czech and the Slovakian.
By the time we were ready to begin broadcasting there were altogether sixteen language or national groups. A studio was built in West End, comprising of an office, a small common room and the actual studio, which was a sound-proof box the size of a small bathroom, which in summer was just as steamy. On the opening day ─ 1st December 1979 ─ it was decided to present our individual programmes in blocks of about twenty minutes each, while there would be celebrations in the nearby park. The groups presented their programs in alphabetical order, and as there were no Albanians, Bosnians or Bulgarians as yet, our Czechoslovak group was to be the first to go. That’s how it came about that my voice was the first to be heard in the ether, and for the record I add that for the first musical tunes to be broadcast I had selected the Slavonic Dance No. 3 by Antonin Dvořák.
It was a period that I would call the true pioneering. At first the broadcasting was done only on weekends and a couple of weeknights. There were only a handful of us who could understand how the broadcasting panel in the studio worked. The most important parts of it were the microphones, the turn tables for records (CDs have not quite yet put down the roots), a tape and a cassette players/recorders.
The Saturday following our first broadcast was remarkable, especially for me. Being one of the approved panel operators, I was going to first present my programme in the Czech language at 8 am, and then be available as an overseer/panel operator, until 2 pm. To understand what work the studio moderator/operator in the seventies did, you have to forget about many of the gadgets that our present times offer us. Other than the microphone, the backbone of all broadcasting provided the two turntables for vinyl records. There was also the reel-to-reel tape recorder, and the miracle of modern technology, the cassette recorder! Typical vinyl record contained a number of tracks, and if you needed to have one of them ready for broadcasting you had to set it up properly. Because of this there were two identical turntables, one on either side of the broadcasting panel. While one was being played, you had to set up the other, which meant getting the needle in the exact spot where the record begins, then moving the wheel half a turn. I will not describe the fine details; suffice to say that when a song being played was not particularly long, sometimes it was quite a bit of struggle to have the one that was to follow it ready in time!
Naturally, I hoped that the groups due to come that morning would bring their own operators, maybe with one or two exceptions. As it happened, none of them did. The Germans immediately after me relied on my services, as had the Dutchmen, Vietnamese, Croatians and Poles. The worst of all: it had turned out to be the hottest December day on records, with temperatures outside reaching over 40ºC. I described above the process of setting up the vinyl record, and how it requires concentration and precision. It’s even harder to do this with sweat constantly dropping from the tip of your nose onto the vinyl surface. Some good soul brought me two large bath towels; with one I was drying my face and hands, while the other was hanging on the railings outside, where it dried out almost instantly. It probably was the hardest six hours of work I have ever done, and that includes digging up trenches on building site in London! Soon after this, a rather noisy, but functional air-conditioning unit, had appeared in the studio, which some philanthropist gave us.
At about the same time I had another harrowing experience. Again, I was to do the first programme of Saturday morning. I arrive to the studio about half an hour in advance, opened up with my own key, waited for the technician to get the station moving. I knew my way around the studio, but how to start the whole thing, which buttons to push, remained a mystery to me. The technician was nowhere to be seen, later it turned out that his car broke down. In the pre-mobile era it was near impossible to communicate something like this. In despair, I called the number of the president of the station, Gaetano Rando. He was somewhere in Sydney, but his wife Rita said that she had seen it done and that she would try to talk me through the process. She was recalling, while I was oscillating between the telephone and the main panel, pushing buttons, moving runners, etc. Finally she said that should do it. With about a minute left, I darted into the studio, set up the record of Smetana’s dances, ran outside and into my car, where I turned on the radio. They happened to be playing Smetana!
By the mid-eighties I had been broadcasting for several years; then we had moved away to Ipswich, where our son Darius was born in 1985, so I gave up the radio for a time. When I came back I was soon elected onto the board of directors of the station. By then the station had been in existence for more than ten years, and had changed a great deal from the small operation it once was. In the early days we had moved a couple of times to a different premises, but now the station 4EB was fully owning a new building at Kangaroo Point (left), next to Yangaba, the place we had spent the first night in, after our arrival into the country. I had been holding the position of Programming Co-ordinator for a couple of years, which meant chairing monthly meetings of all group leaders. That could get rowdy at times and required a mixture of patience, diplomacy, but also some decisiveness. By that time, the number of groups was approaching 50, which the station has even now. Naturally, there were various frictions, differences of opinion, etc., which I had to, with the help of others, smooth, solve, prevent.
Typically, problems would arise periodically within any of the groups. Nearly always there would be a rivalry between two or more personalities. People who had been active culturally in the land of their origin, or who had such ambitions, find it difficult to get such opportunities in Australia, mainly because of the language inadequacies. I have already mentioned how hard it is to learn to speak the English language without an accent for those who came into the country after they reached the age of about 16-18. Ambitious individuals, who would have otherwise found their place in the society, would be somewhat limited, or at least lack the self-confidence to, for instance, run for some public office. Becoming a moderator, or even leader of a language group in public broadcasting, would be a highly desirable position to them, perhaps even worth a bit of fight. Especially if they belong to any of the larger ethnic groups in Australia, such as the Greek, Italian, Chinese, Vietnamese, etc.
I will tell you about one case that had tested our diplomatic abilities quite a bit at the time. There was a fierce competition for the position of one of such strong groups, and as always the case, there was a winner and a loser. The latter found it difficult getting over the loss, was revengeful, perhaps also wished to raise his profile. In any case, he had begun to carefully monitor the programs of that particular group, as they went on air. With the stopwatch in hand he would follow the length of sponsorship announcements, question the appropriateness of some content, etc. Whatever discrepancies he found he would described in letters he had sent directly to the Government commission in charge of public broadcasting. He would bypass the station management, because he did not trust us. Eventually, his efforts had found some echoes in the bureaucratic organisation, and we had received a visit from Canberra, in shape of two-member investigating team. It was an odd couple, indeed. The younger of the men was conservatively clothed and meticulously mannered; his colleague was an elderly gentleman in a trendy small clothes and wearing a large pendant earing. A Pole, a Greek and a Czech had sat at the table with them, and listened patiently to the man with the earring, and watching it swing violently to the rhythm of his enthusiastic politically correct Canberra speak. We were prepared, however, and when he had finished, we could point out what the guidelines said, and what the interpretations might be. To cut the story short, the result was that the two had left with an apology and a determination to make the guidelines their organisation issues tighter and more comprehensible. Plenty of work for the next few years. Before they left, I took them through the building and showed them the studios, which by that time looked rather impressive. The bureaucrat with the eardrop, charged with overseeing the mass media, had inadvertently admitted that it was the first time he had seen a radio studio…
The Sydney Olympics
Before the year 2000 Olympics in Sydney, I was contacted by the organisers, if I would volunteer to act as a “language expert”, based in Brisbane, for the duration of the Games. Brisbane hosted one of the groups of the soccer tournament, as well as several training camps for the Czech athletes, and some interpreters were needed. It would have been hard to say no. The Czechoslovak Club in Brisbane had expected, as I had only found out later, to be offered the position for one of its prominent members. I had parted with that society due to some differences of opinion some years earlier, and they now felt that I had beaten them for the prestigious position. I had no idea that it caused them such grievances, as I had not canvassed for it at all. But there are many pettifogging issues floating within the ethnic communities, and this is one of the reasons why I try to stay out of it. I have always viewed my broadcasting activities as, and I hate to use this very much overexposed word, multicultural, rather than orientated towards a single community. Perhaps I should describe myself best as a Czech culture propagator.
It was interesting getting involved with the Games and meeting some of the top sportspeople and those around the teams. It was still more than a year before the attack on the New York Trade Centre, but something was already in the air, and the security measures were abundant. That had spoiled somewhat otherwise nice experience. I can imagine that these days it must be substantially heavier, and that I was lucky to catch the Olympics still at the relatively easy period.
The Radio 4EB also was not comparable in the 1990s to what it was like fifteen or so years earlier, in the pioneering period. It had, and still has, as I believe, around 12,000 members/subscribers. Whereas once we had to share one tiny studio, which during the changes of programmes was very tricky, now we had two spacious broadcasting studios, where one could simply switch from one to the other. We also had an identical third studio, to serve as a backup, and to be used for recording. For the simple recording there was another, small studio. In addition there was a large studio with the proper equipment for recording, which could be hired out to various bands, etc. In it we also recorded a musical that I had written and directed, about the devils and political correctness, called Asylum seekers in Heaven. It was taken up by some of country’s other radio stations.
On the board of directors, for three years I held the position of Vice-President, which meant that on occasions I would also act as the President. Nevertheless, I had never seriously considered running for the presidency. By the time I would have been ready to do that, I had made up my mind that this was not the way I wanted my life to shape up. It was nice going to various functions, mix with the politicians and various interesting people, which as the station’s representative I was being invited to do, but it had its shady side as well.
The Board of Directors of the radio station 4EB in the late nineties.
Within a year after the picture above was taken, five of the people in it have moved to the Other Side. Three succumbed to cancer, two to heart attacks. Only one was older than sixty, the youngest was only 42. It looks quite staggering, but I think that I have at least a partial explanation to this baffling phenomenon.
People who tend towards the kind of exposure ethnic broadcasting would offer them, are generally ambitious, but also altruistic types. They apply themselves thoroughly and most enthusiastically. As I have already stated, within their own communities, particularly the larger ones, there is a great deal of competition for the limited number of positions such operations as the public broadcasting could offer. For those who get there, a lot of time and energies is being spent and, in this case at least, it was taking its toll. Already in my late fifties, but with still a relatively young family, it was time for me to reconsider. I had just begun my writing career, and had decided that, even though I came to writing rather late, it should not be a short one. Besides, I had not quite yet intended to attend my own funeral. I’d already been attending far too many!
Interviewing Květa Peschke, the future Wimblrdon doubles champion, at the Gold Coast tennis tournament
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