On the wireless…

It began, really, as a moment of true serendipity.  One of those spur-of-the-moment yet slightly calculated decisions that led to the opening of a possibility, that made reemerge memories of a childhood dream so long forgotten about: the Studio 4.

Earlier this year, I was sitting at my desk streaming RNZ on my PC.  I was listening back to the previous day’s The Panel show, with Jim Mora, and they were talking about the recent death of the very first winner of noted candy-confection singing comp, Eurovision.  They played her song, Refrain, which must have sounded – even then – like an attempt to push back against the looming youthful Rock & Roll rebellion.  They then compared it – disparagingly – to the 2016 winner, Jamala.

I don’t know why, but I found myself quickly in the midst of writing an email to the show’s producer, Caitlin.  Fair enough, I said, if you didn’t like the song; music is, after all, a completely personal and subjective exercise.  But oh what a shame, as the song you dismissed has the most fascinating backstory.

I’m a bit of a fan of Eurovision, you see: its campy and spectacular embrace of the ridiculous, the outrageous, the it-makes-no-sense-so-therefore-it-makes-perfect-sense nature of it all.  It appeals to the part of me that loves the complete artifice of pop music that nonetheless masquerades as something real, ‘authentic’. 

A couple of summers previously, I had sneakily devised a way I could frame the first lecture of my event studies course around Eurovision, using it as an example of how a single event made a whole bunch of the course’s theoretical issues visible.  So I knew all about its backstories.

So I sent it off, and thought nothing more of it.  Admittedly, and here’s the calculated part, I did send it from my work email, with professional title noted in the auto-signature.  They’d be more likely to read it, I thought, even if I did sound like a raving loop.  I’m a raving loop and published author, after all!

Two days later I received a reply.  You sound like you’ve got a lot of expertise about Eurovision, it said.  Why don’t you come in and talk about it as part of the Tuesday music feature with Jesse Mulligan, it suggested.

Geva, my excitable Facebook message began, I’m going to be on Jesse Mulligan’s show talking about Eurovision!  Geva was one of the first people I messaged.  Even though I had long known about Eurovision (hello, ABBA), it was Geva who really introduced me to it, a decade earlier when we were both music students at the University of Otago.  Well, what else do you do in Dunedin?

I can’t deny I was secretly – not-so-secretly – chuffed.  I’d seen and heard friends, colleagues, fellow university staff, on TV and radio many times over the years.  How cool would that be, I wondered?  To be able to speak as an expert, to such a large audience, a much larger audience than the tens of people who no doubt ever really read the stuff you publish as part of the job (“publish or perish”, as we call it in the biz).  Maybe I’m being a little harsh, but for sure an average of 273,000 people were not reading my academic outputs!

So, a few weeks later, I found myself nervously walking up to the RNZ Auckland studios for my radio debut.

It went amazingly well.  To say I came away elated, on cloud nine, is still an understatement.  Coincidentally, Jim Mora was filling in that day, and the rapport felt instant, like a couple of chums chatting convivially.

Despite this, I had no intention of listening back to it.  Too many memories of the first times you hear your recorded voice played back to you as a kid, and recoil in horror; well, at least I did.

And then a message.  You sounded great, very natural.  Then another, you have a great radio voice.  Then another.  Ahh, whanau (family) and friends, so reliably supportive.

But it made me wonder.  So, when I got back to my desk, tentatively, cautiously, I downloaded and pushed play.  And, ever so slowly, my unease slipped away; down through my tense shoulders, spine and thighs, now relaxing, and quietly fell silent.  I started to enjoy it; much as I had enjoyed making what I was now listening to.

And then the memories came flooding back.  All of a sudden.  And I was quite taken aback that I had so completely forgotten, buried away into the nethers of a dark and dusty subconscious, that, ironically, aside from first wanting to be a teacher, the second thing I ever wanted ‘to be’ as a child, was a radio announcer.

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So completely had I wanted to be a radio announcer that I – must have – begged my parents to buy me a Studio 4 for Christmas.  Somewhere in the massed piles of loose family photos – Dad was a professional photographer you see – there is a photo of my reaction, so innocently and completely unable to mask my whole-of-face joy upon revealing its glistening box-full of promise.  I vividly remembered that photo.

And so I became a radio announcer.

I had already starting amassing a collection of tapes, spending hoooooours listening to the FM radio station on Dad’s proper, flash stereo with a proper equalizer and levels and red record lights, waiting for that perfect recording, where they didn’t talk over the top of the song.  

So I had my music library, and now I had a way to talk over the top of the songs, adding sound effects, and using my ‘equaliser’ to lower and raise volume and mix song, voice and sound effects.  Every hour I’d read the ‘news’, using the beeping-alarm effect button to mimic the news pips.  

In addition, I found an instrumental song on one of Dad’s old tapes – ‘Sirius’ from the 1982 Alan Parsons Project album, Eye in the Sky; don’t ask me why I can remember that – and I’d use it as backing for the ‘weather report’. I even had an old plastic lid that sat on the corner of my desk, against the wall; to me, that was the padding that you’d have in a studio to make the broadcast sound ‘proper’.

And that is how I spent my weekends.  My tapes were housed in pale blue cases with clear plastic snap-button lids; one, then two.  Eventually, I had to move the tapes into a desk drawer, where they all lined up in alphabetical order, the mishmash of fonts and colour and record company logos mesmerising my young eyes; entry points into an industry that fascinated me.

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That innocent inability to be anything other than honest also eventually led me to ring that radio station, ZMFM.  I wanted to come in and look around because I want to be a radio announcer, I must have said, all of nine years-old; me and my mum and some friends.  Amazingly, they let this precocious child do exactly just that. 

I can still remember Nick Tansley taking us into the studios, showing us how they recorded their shows, how they played the songs on-air.  I’d never seen the types of cartridges and tape machines they used on their radio station; I was further mesmerisingly spellbound.  The other kids waited with bated breath for us to return, where we had to give S Block a full rundown in front of a special assembly; a very special show-and-tell.

That was thirty years ago now, amazingly, and I really had completely forgotten it all. Had.

The weekend after the Eurovision show, with friends over for lunch, we were talking about the success of Ireland in the competition (winning four out of five years, from 1992-1996), and, wondering out loud about the simultaneous success of Irish popular music at the same time, I wondered whether I could swing this opportunity that random email had ushered forth, into maybe, perhaps, possibly, another slot.  They had already asked me to come back, post-Eurovision 2018, to give a short musical critique, which I did a few weeks later, so I jumped at the opening.

Super gratifyingly, not only did they allow me to come back to talk Irish pop, but allowed me to follow that up with Latin pop, Pacific pop, musical urban legends, the music of Trinidad, and, finally, fittingly, an obscure Xmas songs special.  

Are you sure, I said after about the third approval, I don’t want to feel like I am monopolising your music slot.  Not at all, was the response, we’re appreciative of the content; cash- and resource-strapped public broadcaster I guess.  Mutually beneficial arrangement, I suppose.  For sure one of the highlights of my year; this momentous year of change about to properly kick off.

If I were to say that this serendipity and rediscovery of memories has reignited that long-forgotten dream, then certainly the target demographic, the intended purpose, has aged thirty years in the intervening period too.

My university generously provides a retraining allowance as part of its severance payment; an allowance that would pay for about half the cost of radio school in Wellington. 

My logical brain tells me to use it for further education papers, maybe some further research methods training; logical further development and upskilling along the path I’ve been walking for a decade.  The other brain, with one foot in the late-1980s, is not so sure.  I’ve got about a year to decide how I want to use the money.

Makes you think, eh?!

– JMC

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