Saturday 28 November 2009

Saturday SoapBlog: Denis Walls - The halcyon years of Cairns community radio

With the current turmoil engulfing Cairns Community Radio that CairnsBlog is investigating in a 4 part series, I have asked respected local commentator Denis Walls to outline his recollections of the organisation.

Denis was 4CCR presenter from 1991 to 1998 and president in 1995 and 1996.

In hindsight it’s easy to see the ‘90s as the halcyon years in Cairns Community radio.

Quality presenters like Tony Hillier, Grant Taffs, Annie Mitchell, Annie Boon, Kurt Derbyshire, Kim Coleman, Sharon Lenehan, Steve Wakeham and many others brought energy, passion and knowledge to their presentation and programs. Specialist knowledge across a range of programming areas was immense and the station was able to maintain its relevance on an FM band that had few intrusions.

The station started in 1985, broadcasting largely classical music but it was under the management of first John McBeath, then Tony Hillier and Grant Taffs in the 1990s, that the station broadened its appeal.

I presented G’day It’s Saturday for most of the ‘90s and saw it as an opportunity to tackle local and visiting pollies as well as interview sundry, often alternative identities from near and far, while leavening the show with music, comedy and comment in a partnership format which was fairly new at the time. Many of my radio interviews were transcribed for Barfly, which is how I came to write a regular column for the paper after leaving 4CCR.

In seven years of doing the show I had four great radio partners and, in collaboration with Barfly food writer and polymath Paul Cullen, produced and presented the national award winning History of Food series.

However, the demands of community radio are enormous, and after so many years at the station, including two as president, I was ready to move on and left at the end of 1998. G’day It’s Saturday was supposed to continue with Brynn Mathews as presenter but the conservative management at that time decided to can the show, despite the pleadings of listeners, because of fears that its outspoken nature was compromising funding being sought from the then Cairns City Council.

It was ever thus, with fear of upsetting the big, often illusory, sponsors you needed to survive. And funding problems got worse as the ‘90s progressed because of the opening up of the FM band to first Triple J, then Hot, Sea and the multiplicity of other pap FM stations that now crowd the airwaves. Many businesses that previously sponsored 4CCR now chose to advertise with the new commercial stations and didn’t have any change left over for poor 4CCR.

The funding crisis was exacerbated by the removal of horse racing, to narrowcast, from the afternoon schedule. This decision, while vastly improving programming, left a big hole in the budget. This required the 4CCR committee and management to organise more and more fundraisers and radiothons to keep the station alive. Burn out was inevitable and by the end of the 1990s most of the best presenters had left.

The station was ripe for retreat, first of all with a wand waving, absentee president who had no experience or interest in radio broadcasting but promised to keep the station solvent, and then gradually with a return to the private club mentality, and some of the same presenters, that characterised the early years of 4CCR.

In the 1990s, 4CCR was of course fortunate in having strong affiliations with Barfly and Johno’s Blues Bar, neither of which sadly now exist, but the station, then, was also frequently out in the community with its fundraisers as well as occasional live broadcasts. I haven’t seen a 4CCR presence at community events for years.

The very diversity of community radio is often its undoing. People get involved for different reasons and to present wildly different types of programs which often make it a nightmare for effective scheduling to try to keep listeners switched on - try keeping an audience when a country music show is followed by the Croatian hour.

With this diversity comes differing world views which often lead to strong disagreements at management and committee level. Most presenters, however, don’t see this as they just want to come into the station, do their show and go home.

Nevertheless, for most of the 1990s I consider myself extremely fortunate to have been part of the best little radio station in Far North Queensland.

Cairns would really benefit from a forward-thinking, active and engaged community radio. Money of course is key and I would love to know who is currently funding the station and if there is even an office manager.

It would be wonderful - through outlets like CairnsBlog, and the enthusiasm from current presenters of 4CCR expressed on this Blog, if the station were to rediscover some of the drive and purpose of those years.

NB: Part two of the 4 part CairnsBlog investigation, will feature next week.


Anonymous said...

I remember there used to be a terrific blues program on 4CCR and someone once did a weekly special about the late great Frank Zappa.

I was absolutely amazed, because it was the first time I ever heard Zappa played on radio anywhere in the world.

I was also a regular listener to G'day It's Saturday, but I haven't tuned in to 4CCR for years.

Tony Hillier said...

A point I made in a posting after Part 1 of the blog's 4CCR series might be worth repeating. Perhaps a public meeting should be convened, at which past and present members and other stakeholders and interested parties can exchange views and maybe find a solution to the present palpably unsatisfactory situation, as outlined by Michael Moore.

As Denis Walls' treatise eloquently conveys, public radio is a valuable community resource that can provide a real alternative to mainstream outlets, and simultaneously aspire to a vision of excellence.

Incidentally, "Grateful Mac", the blues presenter you allude to is Kurt Derbyshire, who had no equal in the country. During my tenure as Station Manager, I had the satisfaction of ensuring that his program, 'Blues Cruise" was broadcast to the rest of the community radio via satellite. If memory serves me right, the Frank Zappa special was produced by Brian Bolton, who is also based in BrisVegas these days. In its heyday, 4CCR introduced a lot of great music, in all manner of genres, to a significant listenership.

Donn and Judi Corcoran said...

It is heartening to see this intelligent and thoughtful comment and the comments from others on the desperate situation at Cairns FM 89.1/4CCR, a station which ought to be a valuable community asset and which receives over $200,000 in annual funding, much of it from taxpayers.

We, along with other concerned members, put in a lot of effort to return the station to genuine community control, only to see this destroyed again by the incoming President who seems to see himself as the sole decision-maker rather than the leader of a Committee.

It has become "my way or the highway".

He has actively worked to undermine the Committee elected in September, with the result that six of the nine members have resigned. Four members, including ourselves, were threatened with expulsion on scurrilous and false allegations and the long-standing and highly-regarded technician has been sacked simply because he protested about what was happening.

Thanks to CairnsBlog for bringing these issues to public notice.

Donn Corcoran
Secretary, 4CCR, August to November 2009

Judi Corcoran
Presenter, and Member of Managment Committee, 4CCR, August to November 2009