Chapter 4: The “Argus” Broadcasting Services

The “Argus” was a Melbourne morning newspaper which began publication in 1846 and ceased publication on 19th January 1957.

Like its rival Melbourne morning broadsheet “The Age”, the “Argus” owned and operated a provincial radio network, called the Argus Broadcasting Services. There were three broadcasting stations in the network — 3SR Shepparton (known as “3SR Heart of Victoria”), 3YB Warrnambool and 3UL Warragul.

3SR was the key station in the network, operating on 2000 watts, and at that was one of the most powerful commercial radio stations in Australia. 3YB and 3UL were on the much lower power of 200 watts.

Some time in 1939 I heard on the grape-vine that there was a vacancy for an announcer with Argus Broadcasting Services.

So, with the aid of the home-built sound-on-disc recorder which my father and I had constructed (see Chapter 2), I recorded an audition disc of myself reading a few commercials.

I then sent the disc to Mr S.J.A. Kemp, Superintendent Manager of the Argus Broadcasting Services. Mr Kemp was affectionately known throughout radio circles as “Uncle Sid”. He was also known as the meanest man in Australian broadcasting.

Your ability to get a job with the Argus Broadcasting Services did not depend on your expertise at the job. It depended on your willingness to accept the minuscule wage which they were offering.

Sid Kemp had a derelict public phone booth, which was probably a P.M.G. throw-out, erected in his office on the fourth floor of the Argus building on the corner of Elizabeth Street and Latrobe Street. Dangling from a hook in the phone booth was a cheap microphone.

The output from the microphone terminated in a pair of headphones on Sid’s desk. So, if you auditioned at Head Office for an “on air” job, you squeezed yourself into the phone booth, whilst Uncle Sid sat at his desk and listened on the headphones.

Fortunately I escaped this indignity. My home-made recording sufficed, and I found myself appointed as Night Announcer on 3SR.

On the Air in Shepparton

At the time (1939) I thought the studio at Shepparton quite opulent for a country radio station. It was on the first floor of a building on the corner of Maude Street and Fryer Street. The ground floor was occupied by the owner of the building, who ran a drapery store.

There was one large studio, a large record library, a general office, an office for the manager, and an office for the studio manager.

(Early in 1999, I visited the old 3SR Studio premises. The space is virtually derelict. Nothing to show that this is where people like Vic Dinenny, Tony Strange, Terry Hill, Vern Maycroft and Elizabeth Mummee once worked and entertained the people of Central Victoria.)

There was one important room missing — a toilet. It didn’t matter very much from nine to five, when if nature called, and you were on air, you could always find someone to stand in for you, and play another record, whilst you dashed across the road to a toilet block in an adjacent park. But at night, when the announcer was in the building on his or her own, all you could do was put on a 12 inch 78 (no microgrooves or CDs in those days) and make a frantic dash across to the park and back within the space of four minutes — for that was the running time of a 12 inch 78rpm disc.

As a result of this activity, the Night Announcers at 3SR became quite fit.

When Uncle Sid Kemp eventually complained to the owner of the drapery store that this lack of toilet facilities wasn’t very satisfactory, the owner (who obviously was from the same mould as Uncle Sid himself when it came to money) replied that he couldn’t afford the cost of installing toilets in the building, but he was willing to stand the cost of installing a commode in the general office.

Fortunately, to give Uncle Sid his due, he rejected the offer and the nightly sprints continued.

The manager at 3SR was a wonderful person called Vic Dinneny.

The Studio Manager was Anthony Strange, who possessed a lovely lyric tenor singing voice. When Tony Strange eventually left 3SR, one of his later assignments was playing the role of Franz Schubert in the musical “Lilac Time” for J.C. Williamson in Melbourne.

After that, I think he returned to his native England.

I enjoyed working at 3SR, and I learnt a lot at the expense of the Shepparton listeners. I was still learning, when on the 3rd of September 1939 Hitler invaded Poland and my next assignment was in uniform.

War Service And Heidelberg Hospital

During the war years, which I don’t want to remember, I served firstly in an anti-aircraft company, then in a searchlight unit, then in a heavy wireless unit, and then finally I was medically re-assessed because of some strange stomach complaint, and I ended the war years on the Army Education Staff at the Heidelberg Military Hospital.

It was whilst at the Heidelberg Military Hospital that I met a patient who was from an Army Concert Party. He was a ventriloquest — Ron Blaskett. At the time of writing this, 55 years later, I still see a lot of Ron Blaskett. We work together doing research at the Performing Arts Museum.

When the war finished, I went back to the Argus Broadcasting Services, but not to 3SR. It was then that my Broadcast Operators’ Certificate came in handy.

When Uncle Sid Kemp told me across his desk in Head Office in the Argus Building that I was to commence as soon as possible as Second Engineer at 3YB, he added (encouragingly), “Yes! It’s a nice little radio station. I’m sure you’ll fit in very well”.

3YB … The Travelling Broadcaster … Radio on the Rails

First a little about the unusual history of 3YB, which was unique in the annals of Australian radio.

It was the brain child of a fellow called Jack Young, who was the first announcer appointed to 3BA Ballarat.

Back in the middle thirties, Jack Young realized that there were many districts in Victoria which could not receive any radio stations. And he believed it could be a good business proposition to supply a broadcasting service to these neglected areas.

So he came up with the idea of a travelling radio station, which would travel Victoria, setting up temporary operations in towns which were beyond normal radio range.

A company was formed and a licence was granted for 3YB (after “Young of Ballarat”) to operate a radio station anywhere in Victoria outside a radius of 30 miles from any existing station.

A radio engineer, Bert Aldridge, built the transmitter; an “A” Model Ford and a “T” Model Ford were acquired to house the transmitter and the tiny studio, and away they went.

Manager was Vic Dinneny — because he had contributed the grandiose sum of 69 pounds to the project.

For the next eighteen months they roamed all over Victoria, setting up operations in isolated areas, which up till then had been outside the range of existing stations.

After eighteen months on the road, they relinquished the two cars and hired a dis-used Royal Railway Carriage (built originally for the Prince of Wales visit at the turn of the century) and made an arrangement with the Victorian Railways to tow them to whatever location they wished to travel.

Eventually, they decided to set up permanent residence in Warrnambool.

Radio in the Cottage

I realized when I saw the place for the first time that Uncle Sid was preparing me for a bit of a shock. 3YB in those days (1945) was situated in a little country cottage on the northern outskirts of Warrnambool, adjacent to the bottom end of the Botanic Gardens.

The cottage was five-roomed, two rooms on either side of a central passage, with a kitchen and a bathroom stuck onto the left hand side of the dwelling.

The first two rooms, one on either side of the passage, were general office / record library, and the room on the other side of the passage, the one and only studio. Just enough space in the studio for the announcer’s desk and an upright piano of doubtful vintage.

There was a large clock hanging on the wall.

The announcer’s desk was fitted with three turntables — two running at 78rpm, and the third with a variable speed centrifugal governor would run at any speed from 33.3rpm to 78rpm.

That was used for playing the serials, usually of 1/4 hour duration on large 16-inch discs running at 33.3rpm. The adjustment of the speed control for this turntable had been broken, and had been replaced by a piece of string which was tied off on some handy protrusion on the desk.

If a programme was running late, or you wanted to get home early after the night shift, you could adjust the piece of string, speeding up the turntable, until Bob Dyer sounded a bit like Donald Duck.

The control room, housing the transmitter, had been the bathroom. That was where I sat out my shifts, keeping an eye (or two eyes) on the meters measuring plate and filament current, and measuring the high tension voltage on the plates of the tubes in the final, or output stage.

P.M.G. regulations specified that these readings had to be recorded in the log book every quarter hour, a typical example of bureaucratic humbug.

It was pretty boring, because the readings never changed from hour to hour, or from day to day, so sometimes when the Chief Engineer/Manager was in the town shopping, I would just fill in the log book a couple of hours ahead, and then have a quick forty winks whilst the coast was clear.

The Chief Engineer/Manager was Harry Fuller — a brilliant radio engineer. Unfortunately his experience as a manager was not of the same high standard.

After about two months as Second Engineer, I was demoted or promoted (I’m not sure which) to the position of Chief Announcer. I’m not certain whether this was because the then Chief Announcer was unbelievably bad at his job, and any replacement had to be better, or because I was a dismal failure as an engineer.

Anyway, whatever the reason, it was a job more to my liking. From the control room my centre of operations moved to the front office which was presided over by a lovely young lady called Teresa (“Terry”) Madden and her assistant an attractive teenager, Colleen Ryan.

The role of Second Engineer was taken over by Alec Smith, who up to that time had been engineer at 3CS Colac.

Oscar Henry — The Man From 3YB

The other member of the staff at 3YB was Oscar Henry, a local lad who had just been discharged from the Army. Oscar had a good “on air” personality and his knowledge of the local scene fitted him well for the position of sales representative.

As such, he was known by all the business people in the town as “The Man from 3YB”. They were accustomed to his frequent visits when he would try to convince them of the value of sponsoring a programme or an event on the station.

Very often his sales pitch convinced them.

Much of Oscar’s success as a salesman was due to the fact that he was country born and bred. He was a local boy. He could talk to country folk on their level. It was a revelation to accompany him on one of his sales expeditions.

I remember the day he was trying to sell a half-sponsorship in one of our “ball” or “district dance” broadcasts.

(Every dance in the country was always referred to as “a ball”, usually in honour of the local entrant in the “Miss Shorthorn Quest” or something similar.)

On this occasion, the local businessman who was Oscar’s target was also a dairy farmer and Oscar tracked his victim down in the cow-yard.

It was a typical cow-yard, ankle deep in a mixture of mud and well matured cow-manure, with the cows milling around waiting to be milked and improving the shining hour by adding materially to the turgid mire beneath their feet with that supreme indifference to social etiquette which cows are prone to exhibit at such times.

To complete the picture, it was raining. I stood uneasily in the background whilst Oscar launched into his sales pitch with the farmer-cum-businessman.

Sales pitch? Well, they talked about cows in general, about these cows in particular, about dairy prices last year, dairy prices this year and what they might be next year. They talked about the man’s children and their progress at school. Oscar enquired solicitously about the health of the man’s wife. But never a word about sponsoring a “ball” broadcast.

The conversation went on for half an hour and — by now drenched to the skin — I thought “For heaven’s sake man, when are you going to get to the point!”

He never did!

Eventually the farmer said, “Well, I’d better get on with the milkin’ ”.

Oscar said, “Yeah…right Jack. It’s been beaut talking to you. See you again soon!”

He began to walk back to the car parked some distance away — and I followed him. Then suddenly Oscar stopped, turned and shouted to the farmer, “By the way Jack — we’ve got a ball broadcast on Friday night from Yarpturk. Put you down for a half sponsorship?”

“Yeah! O.K. Oscar. That’ll be fine. See you!”

We resumed our walk back to the car. Oscar had made his sale. His technique would have horrified the “Porsche-powered persuaders” of St Kilda Road.

But Oscar knew country folk — and that’s why he was the best salesman 3YB ever had — The Man From 3YB!

Up In Smoke

On 16th April, 1945, there was a fire in the cottage, which completely destroyed the transmitter and the studio, and severely damaged the rest of the building.

The first inkling that Alec Smith or myself had of the fire was when the 10.20pm news relay from 3UZ in Melbourne suddenly ceased. In the silence that followed, both of us could hear a loud crackling from the private residence part of the house, where Harry Fuller and his wife Cath and baby son Trevor lived.

What’s more, there was smoke curling up from the crack under the door that led to the Control Room from the rest of the house.

Alec carefully opened the door and in a moment, the draught had fanned the flames, and the whole place was ablaze.

We saved what recordings we could. Thankfully the piano in the studio was beyond salvation. It was a blessing in disguise. The instrument had never stayed in tune.

Cath Fuller and baby Trevor were away on holidays at the time and Harry was at the local cinema on his own.

Suddenly Alec and I heard the scream of Harry Fuller’s Morgan Sports Car as he raced up the driveway to the house — a distance of several hundred yards. Harry screeched the car to a halt, jumped out and raced across to the front steps of the house, where Alec was gingerly making his way down with his arms full to his chin with 10 inch and 12 inch 78rpm recordings (the only recordings in use at that time).

Harry, white-faced, yelled, “What happened Alec. What happened?”

Alec, always a fairly stoic character, didn’t pause in this precarious progress down the steps. He reply was unhurried, simple and to the point.

He merely said in his resonant drawn, “She caught fire Harry, she caught fire!”

She caught fire alright. We were off the air for three weeks while a new studio and offices were built on the first floor of the T&G Building in the centre of the city of Warrnambool.

A new transmitter had to be built, and new aerial masts erected — more solid than the old wooden ones, which on several occasions had been knocked down by the resident cows which grazed in the paddock in front of the cottage.

The old 3YB had been bucolic radio and no mistake. The cows would frequently come to rest against that part of the cottage which was the outside wall of the studio. The studio window was often open, for there was no other ventilation. As they stood underneath the open window, the cows would ruminate in bovine fashion, chew the cud, break copious wind and pass water.

All this provided a kind of bovine counterpoint to what the announcer was saying at the time.

New Studios and New Faces

With the opening of the new studio, new staff were taken on, and the old staff remained. So now we had, in addition to Teresa, Colleen and Oscar, Ken Warne, Guy Crittenden, Ian Westcott and Margaret Broad.

We devised new live programmes, like “Warrnambool on Parade”, a once-weekly local variety show, “Personality of the Week”, and so on.

As an ancillary activity, we even co-opted Warrnambool’s best known professional photographer, who privately was a 16mm movie enthusiast, and we produced a local drama on film, called “Footsteps in the Sand”. It was terrible, but the locals loyally encouraged us and came along to see it when we showed it at the Warrnambool Town Hall in aid of one of the contestants in a local Queen Contest.

We fostered some unusual talent, like the lady who frequented the studio begging us to allow her to play her zither on air. Believe me, Anton Karas had nothing to fear.

The owner of a local drapery store insisted on doing his own commercials live. Whenever he came to the studio to do this commercials, he said he would sing as well in response to numerous requests.

We strongly suspected that the requests were not only numerous, but were fictitious. He seemed to know only one song, a plaintive ballad called “I’ll Walk Beside You”. His voice was loud and un-musical. So what! He had signed a long advertising contract, for which he paid regularly and on time. His money was good, even if his singing wasn’t.

Then there was our “tame” pianist, who played for “Warrnambool on Parade” and other live spots. His name was Arnold Westgarth.

He was a brilliant musician — a wonderful pianist — but he was very fond of the amber fluid. If, in his slightly befuddled state, he made a mistake when playing on air, he would swear loudly and savagely kick the front of the piano.

I think everybody became accustomed to it, and it no longer bothered them.

“The Silver Fish”

While at 3YB, I wrote a children’s radio serial running about six or seven episodes titled “The Silver Fish”, and performed by Teresa Madden, Alec Smith and myself. It was terrible. I wrote the scripts in my almost illegible handwriting, which made it increasingly difficult for Alec and Teresa to read.

The basic plot concerned the “Silver Fish”, which was a flying submarine, combatting the evils of the world — particularly the Japanese. Remember this was just a year after the end of the war!

We felt that a flying submarine was a sufficiently bizarre concept to capture the interest of our juvenile listeners, if we had any!

I recall this primitive foray into the hallowed realms of radio drama (I was and still am a frustrated radio actor) because when I mentioned the idea to our station manager, Harry Fuller, he immediately memoed Mr Kemp, Superintendent Manager of the Network.

The memo requested permission for me to proceed with the concept of a children’s radio serial.

Back by return memo came the answer, “Permission granted to Mr Howson to proceed with the children’s serial, provided that he supplies his own paper and carbon paper for the scripts.” I have mentioned elsewhere that Sid Kemp was known throughout the trade as the meanest man in the broadcasting industry in Australia.

To save any further memos, I wrote the scripts in longhand on scrap paper!

Some of the episodes, to cover a holiday period, were recorded on the home-built disc recorder which my father and I had constructed in our workshop at “Moodanong”, Burnett’s Road, Castlemaine.

The Cecil Mariott Story

Perhaps the most unusual personality who came our way at 3YB was Cecil Mariott. This is his story!

Cecil Mariott was an out-of-work itinerant Shakespearean actor and once a year the studio at 3YB echoed to Cecil’s resonant tones.

Cecil travelled Victoria in an old Chevrolet Tourer, in the back of which were several kerosene tins and his wife. In the kerosene tins, Cecil — like Macbeth’s witches — would concoct a fearsome brew called Sun Furniture Polish.

An unkind rumour had it that Sun Furniture Polish would not only remove stains from your furniture, it would also remove the furniture if you used enough of it.

Also packed into the old Chev was a collection of the most fiendish and impossibly melodramatic radio scripts ever brought together at the one time. Most of these lurid tales of sin and sensationalism dated from the theatre of the previous century.

Cecil’s “modus operandi” was simple. Arrive at a country town which had its own radio station and offer to present gratis a selection of hitherto unheard radio masterpieces performed live in the local studio.

All the station had to do was undertake to advertise Sun Furniture Polish for a week. Cecil would then flog the polish to all the local stores who knew they would sell it, because it was being advertised on the local radio station.

So for a week we’d have “The Mystery of the Marie Celeste”, “Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”, “Jack the Ripper” and “ Murder at the Red Barn” with all male parts being played by your “star”, Cecil Mariott, while the part of the ravished heroine would be played by the station junior office girl, whoever that hapless female happened to be at the time. Her ability to read lines had nothing to do with her selection — availability was the key factor.

But the real hero of all of Cecil’s plays was the sound-effects man. You must realize that all of Cecil’s characters apparently lived in houses with bare wooden floors and obviously stomped around in oversize football boots at all hours of the day and night.

So heavy footsteps were the order of the day!

The cast was also wont to indulge in sword fights, pistol duels, knife thrusts, heavy body falls, drinks and poison potions. Then there were screams and death rattles to round off a nice family entertainment.

The sound-effects man was responsible for all these noises.

Of all the sound-effects heroes that we had, Oscar Henry was the greatest. Oscar devised a contraption like a “Cigarette Girl’s” Tray, which hung around his neck at a perilous angle. On this he placed knives, pistols, the occasional hammer, a pumpkin to be stabbed (sounds more squelchy than a real body), several glasses of water and a large empty jam tin.

Thus equipped and wearing his heaviest boots in which he could “clump” up and down on a piece of strategically placed timber on the floor, Oscar was ready for the fray.

Oscar also built an outrigger on his tray to hold his script. Unfortunately the script would often fall off this device, leaving Oscar with nothing but intuition to tell him when the next effect was needed, or what it was. Tricky!

If Oscar made a mistake, which naturally he did from time to time, Cecil’s malevolent glare in Oscar’s direction would have killed a lesser man, but Oscar would merely smile sweetly in return and press on doggedly to the end.

Cecil Mariott’s productions may have been melodramatic and his performances lacking a little finesse, but at least he was bringing a touch of originality to country radio at a time when the main bill of fare seemed to be an endless procession of one hillbilly song after another.

Ah yes! I remember him well!

After four years at 3YB, where I attained the impressive title of Studio Manager/Night Announcer, I decided that it was time the Melbourne radio scene learned how things should be done — and I was the person to show them!

So my mother and I packed up and moved back to our old home in Kenmare Street, Mont Albert. When we moved to Castlemaine, the house had been “let”, not “sold”, so it was still there waiting for us.