Chapter 6: This Is The News

At some time in 1950, it was decided that the Argus Newspaper should commence a radio news service, comprising five 8-minute bulletins seven days a week.

There would be a bulletin at 6.45am, 7.00am, 12.30pm, 7.00pm and 10.20pm. The service would originate from a news studio on the top floor of the Argus building on the corner of Elizabeth Street and Latrobe Street, in the city, and would be networked through 3UZ, 3KZ, and the Argus network of country stations — 3SR Shepparton, 3UL Warragul and 3YB Warrnambool.

Sid Kemp phoned me and asked me to call at his office in the Argus building. There he offered me a position as one of the staff radio newsreaders.

Head of the Radio News section was Gordon Bell, a man with a show-business background and an authoritative news-reading style.

Gordon Bell rostered himself on permanently on the 12.30 bulletins, which was a good arrangement for him, because it meant that he would not have to get up early in the mornings, so that he could be at work by 5.30am, or remain at work until 10.30 at night after reading the late night bulletin.

There were two of us shared those duties. Initially it was myself and Frank Holbrook. Frank had been an announcer at 3AW. We used to alternate the morning shifts and night shifts week about.

Apart from reading the news, we had to prepare it in collaboration with a veteran Argus journalist, Jack Richards.

Jack firmly believed that a news bulletin wasn’t worth its salt unless it contained at least one “news-flash”. So it was a common occurrence for Jack to burst into the studio in the middle of a bulletin and thrust a piece of grubby copy-paper in your hand, with the word “FLASH” scrawled across the top of it, and beneath that a hastily typed item which Jack considered of major importance.

Unfortunately, Jack’s typing skills had deteriorated with the passing years, which meant that every item he typed would be scrawled over with pencilled corrections which were not only themselves illegible, but very often made the rest of the copy illegible.

If any of us were in the middle of reading a bulletin, and the studio door suddenly burst open to reveal Jack frantically approaching the microphone, his hand clutching a piece of copy-paper, we groaned inwardly before intoning the time-honoured phrase, “Here is a news-flash” and then stumbling our way through the item.

I had two traumatic experiences during the four and a half years that I was reading Argus Radio News. They remain vivid in my memory.

The first occurred on a Saturday night. Saturdays were quiet days for a morning newspaper, for in those days there were no Sunday newspapers — so there was no paper to prepare on the night before. The building was virtually deserted.

We used to prepare the news in the editorial department on the third floor, then catch the lift to the top floor where the studio was located.

On this Saturday night with the prepared bulletin clutched firmly in my hand, I entered the lift, pressed the button for the top floor and waited. The lift lurched into motion as was its custom and proceeded upwards.

Halfway between the two floors, it suddenly stopped, and no amount of button pushing or jumping up and down would induce it to move.

It was about twenty minutes to 7.00pm. At 7.00pm I had to be in the studio ready to cross to 3UZ, who were the originating station for the news. I yelled and yelled — but there was no-one in the building.

I had almost reconciled myself to spending the night in the lift, when suddenly I heard footsteps. Someone was climbing the stairs. I renewed my yelling, this time with success. The Good Samaritan was a cleaner who had come in to do some cleaning so he could have more time off on the next day — Sunday.

I was just able to squeeze the bulletin through the narrow crack at the bottom of the door for the next floor. At the same time I asked the unexpected saviour to grab a taxi and rush the bulletin to 3UZ, at the top end of Bourke Street, and to ask the “on-duty” announcer to precede the news with an announcement to the effect that “Denzil Howson is stuck in a lift in the Argus Building and is therefore not able to read this bulletin”. I did this not for any self-aggrandisement, but to let Dot know where I was. I knew she dutifully listened to the bulletins, and would panic if I wasn’t reading this one.

Meantime, when my Cleaner friend returned, he phoned the lift company, and eventually I was released.

My second traumatic experience as an Argus news-reader occurred again on a Saturday night. By this time the Saturday night bulletins were preceded by a round-up of sporting results prepared and presented by Percy Taylor, a very competent sports journalist.

On this Saturday night, I was making my way to the top floor and the studio, knowing that Percy Taylor at that moment was on air with the sports results, when I suddenly met him coming down the stairs, clutching a sheaf of papers with the results.

He thrust them into my hand, pointed upstairs in the direction of the studio, then mouthed the words, “I can’t speak!” and pointed to his throat.

I knew immediately what had happened. He had suffered the same complete loss of voice which I had experienced on more than one occasion — some form of nervous reaction.

I ran up to the studio, and prepared to resume the sports results where Percy had left off. He had reached the Racing Results.

I know nothing about most sport. I know less than nothing about Horse Racing.

I blindly read the meaningless words on the sheet. I realized when I had finished that I had horses riding jockeys, trainers riding horses, jockeys riding trainers — it was a complete disaster.

I read the normal news, then surreptitiously caught the lift downstairs and escaped into Latrobe street before anyone could accost me.

Oddly enough, no-one ever said a word about it, but I was a very worried news reader for the next few days!

Some of the other news readers who worked with me during the time I was reading Argus news were Bob Walters, Alex Scott and Laurence Costin.

After leaving Argus Broadcasting Services all of them pursued very successful careers — Bob Walters and Laurence Costin in radio and Alex Scott enjoyed a distinguished acting career in film and television in Britain.

I mentioned earlier that Gordon Bell, boss of the Radio News, selected the mid-day shifts for himself, leaving the lower minions like myself to handle the early morning and the late night shifts.

This suited me fine, because it left me with most of the day free — and that meant I could take another job to bolster my meagre “Sid Kemp” type salary at the Argus.

That other job (which in reality was two jobs) is the subject of our next chapter.