Long before podcast documentaries, ABC Radio pioneered the audio documentary genre with countless programs and series produced over several decades. Some of the most outstanding of these documentaries were made by Tim Bowden. He led the way in Australian oral history documentary-making with his iconic Taim Bilong Masta – a series looking at Australia’s involvement in Papua New Guinea, pre-independence – and with other landmark programs including Prisoners of War – Australians Under Nippon. In this first of a two-part series, Tim tells of how he fell in love with radio, his early reporting days and starting the PM program, and the serendipitous breaks that led to Taim Bilong Masta.
Taim Bilong Tim
By Tim Bowden / 15 March 2022
It would be sheer fantasy to imagine in these difficult times of ABC budget cuts that a radio producer would be given five years to work on two oral history projects. Firstly, Taim Bilong Masta – The Australian Involvement With Papua New Guinea, made up of 350 hours of raw material edited into twenty-four 45-minute documentaries. Secondly, Prisoners of War – Australians Under Nippon which spawned sixteen 45-minute programs plus ten half-hour documentaries, in a series called Survival, featuring the extraordinary experiences of individual POWs. This was achieved in the years between 1978 and 1984.
Where It All Began
The records show that I joined the staff of the ABC as a Talks Officer in Launceston in 1963, although my introduction to tape recorders began in 1957 when I moonlighted for the ABC while I was a cadet reporter for the Hobart Mercury.
This came about because a senior Talks Department executive in Sydney, James ‘Big Jim’ Pratt came to Hobart in 1957 to act as State Program Director for Tasmania. He looked up my parents as they used to take part in dramas staged by the Hobart Repertory Society in their younger pre-war days. Over drinks and dinner, Jim asked them, ‘What’s the boy doing these days?’ My parents explained I was a cadet reporter with the Mercury and Jim said, ‘Well tell him to call round to the ABC to see me and see if he can do some work for us.’
Not quite sure why I was doing this, I went to see Big Jim at the ABC, which like the Mercury was located near the Hobart Post Office. He took me to see Anthony Rendell in the Tasmanian Talks department. Anthony, who went on to join the BBC, suggested I could do a piece for a local radio colour spot imaginatively called Tasmania Today which was run just before the 7 pm evening news.
Now in those days the ability to record outside the broadcasting studio was very limited. The reel-to-reel tape recorder had not long been invented, and the only alternative before that was a broadcasting van full of cumbersome equipment which actually cut an acetate disk that could be later played back in a studio on a turntable. This was the case in World War II when ABC foreign correspondents took these cumbersome, largely unprotected vans, close to the front line to record their eye-witness reports.
My first radio report for the ABC was recorded on, would you believe, a clockwork tape recorder where the sound was electrically recorded, but the spools of tape were driven past the recording heads by a clockwork mechanism, which saved battery life. This meant the reporter had to juggle a formidable STC microphone (shaped like a black club with a silver grill) in one hand, and, with the recorder slung around the neck by a sturdy strap, get ready to wind the spring up with the other hand like an organ grinder, as it only maintained the correct speed for four minutes.
Well, a bit less than that, which meant that unless you wound up the spring a bit earlier, your interviewee’s voice on playback, quickly rose to what sounded like a growing hysteria, until it turned into total gobbledygook! There was no speaker on the clockwork recorder but if you held the microphone up to your ear, you could hear the replay through that. There was a lot to think about, as well as what questions you needed to ask. Getting all that right was stressful for a rookie radio reporter but it was also exciting.
In my case, Anthony Rendell suggested I go across to the Hobart Town Hall where a wool auction was being held, with my recorder, and record what he called ‘a bed of sound’ of the yips and yelps of the bidding for at least five minutes, which could be used as atmospheric colour in the later editing process. Then find an auctioneer or wool buyer who was good ‘talent’ as we journalists say, and then return to the ABC where Anthony would help me edit it all together.
Remarkably, all this worked out. I found an auctioneer who could have talked under wet cement, and who told amusing stories about the perils of his craft.
Back at the ABC, Anthony showed me how to edit audio tape with a pair of scissors. He used a reel of white sticky tape, which, after cutting the audio tape with scissors at an angle, pushed them together with his fingers and placed the white tape across the edit and then trimmed off the edges to the same width as the audio tape.
We then used three Byer tape recorders to finalise the program, one with the edited interviews and the second with the ‘yips and yelps’ of the auction, and then these were mixed onto the third machine.
That night I anxiously stood by the radio at home to hear Tasmania Today go to air. It all worked as planned, and I was instantly hooked on radio. How many words would I have to write, I wondered, to capture the magic of ‘actuality’ – the sounds and feeling of being there. And I loved the extra dimensions added by the wool-buyer’s voice. Apart from his amusing tales, his personality, came through with his irony and humour. I doubted any story I wrote for the Mercury could ever get anywhere near what radio could do, no matter how many words I wrote.
I was excited by the unique power of radio to create pictures in the mind. Even ‘Big Jim’ Pratt was pleased with my first effort and so was Anthony. I can’t remember what they paid me, but it was probably about four guineas. They asked me to keep in touch and do more assignments. I had used a nom de plume on air, ‘Jim Gibson’ (my middle name was Gibson). Clearly the Mercury bosses were not ABC listeners, and I got away with double-dipping for another year until I decided to leave the Mercury and freelance full time for the ABC.
A current affairs radio reporter – and starting PM
In 1960 I finished my Bachelor of Arts degree and jumped on a ship and headed off to England where I was able to use my radio experience to freelance for the BBC’s General Overseas Service for the next two-and-a-half years. I was offered a permanent position with the BBC but decided not to be an expatriate Aussie and worked my way back on a cargo ship to Australia.
That’s when I applied for a job with the ABC in Launceston in northern Tasmania, in 1963, just after television had come to the island state. In early 1965 I applied for the job of Talks Officer in Singapore, and briefly became a war correspondent in South Vietnam among other less hazardous South-East Asian assignments. In mid-1967 I was transferred to New York.
The ABC News Department would not let current affairs journalists report for ABC News because they believed Talks Department staff were not only untrained journalists, but tended to have long hair, wear corduroy trousers, suede shoes and have questionable sexual habits.
But as a ‘proper’ journalist, I was allowed to send cabled dispatches to News. (The senior ABC news executives of that time were all ex-newspaper men who preferred their overseas ‘journos’ to file their stories as if they were working for a newspaper and to be read by announcers. They thought of tape recorders as instruments of the devil.) Things did improve in later years.
In the meantime, I broadcast reports and documentaries to the ABC’s current affairs radio programs until 1968 when I was ordered back to Sydney from New York to start the new evening current affairs radio program PM to complement the morning’s AM, which had started three years earlier.
In those days I was able to order up a staff of seven that I had scrawled on the back of an envelope (those were the days) and my aim was to make it a very different style of program than AM which was devised and ruled with a rod of iron by one of the most unpleasant colleagues in the ABC I ever encountered, Russell Warner. Among his draconian rules for AM was that no item was to run longer than 90 seconds and it was compered by announcers, the first of which was Robert Peach (cousin of Bill Peach who by then was compering the highly successful and innovative television current affairs program This Day Tonight).
Before I left New York I had visited the broadcasting companies there who were running radio current affairs and news programs, and quickly learned that the comperes were all journalists – invariably men in those days – and that stories were run as long as they needed to be, particularly in the event of breaking major news events. I decided that PM would be fronted by journalists who could react to unfolding events, not announcers who could only read what was put in front of them. I would also run major breaking stories for as long as was necessary and not be straight-jacketed by Warner’s draconian dictums.
PM first went to air on 9 July 1969, after the five-minute 6 pm news bulletin until 6.30 pm, on what is now known as the Radio National network. It was also broadcast on the Third Network which went to all the regional ABC stations.
I did make one basic mistake, and that was to alternate two comperes, John Highfield and New Zealander Lawrie Bryant, each night. A year later my successor as Executive Producer, Clive Speed, quite rightly made it one compere, leading to highly successful broadcasters like Paul Murphy and Huw Evans in that role, solo for many years.
A novice at This Day Tonight – briefly!
I was the Executive Producer of PM for only one year, because Peter Hollinshead, my former boss in Singapore and now head of Current Affairs in radio and television, moved me to This Day Tonight as an Associate Producer despite me then knowing bugger-all about television. I tried to learn quickly.
On arriving back in Sydney Peter immediately imported many of his former staff in South-East Asia to key positions in his new empire. Tony Ferguson from the Singapore office was appointed the new Executive Producer of TDT, Don Simmons (who had been covering the Vietnam war in Saigon) also went to TDT and I went there from PM. These imports were known by the existing Sydney staff of TDT as SEAP (the South-East Asian Push).
But power politics in the ABC were about to change my own situation drastically. Peter Hollinshead was replaced by TDT’s original Executive Producer, New Zealander Allan Martin, at the end of 1973. Not surprisingly SEAP members were purged. Tony Ferguson was important enough to be kicked upstairs to be the Executive Producer of Four Corners. I was not prominent enough to be worried about so, I was sent back to Current Affairs Radio which was now run by my old nemesis, Russell Warner, who set about with some glee to make my life as unpleasant as possible.
From Current Affairs to Radio Features
After a year of professional purgatory, I decided a change was necessary. I rowed my refugee’s boat across William Street in Sydney from the ramshackle Current Affairs building to the then Westpac complex on the northern side of William Street, where I had negotiated an attachment to the Radio Drama & Features Department (RD&F).
RD&F existed mainly to produce radio plays, commissioned from established writers, and then hired actors to perform the dramas that eventually went to air. They also broadcast ‘features’, where I hoped to make my mark producing and presenting radio documentaries.
Fortunately for me, the ABC had recently been broadcasting a series of documentaries from the BBC, Plain Tales of the Raj, where fruity-voiced old Poms (and their wives) reminisced about the glory days of British India. They were produced by the eminent BBC program-maker Michael Mason, whom I was lucky enough to meet in London on my way to a broadcasting conference in Berlin in 1985.
He was delighted that an Australian broadcaster had been influenced by his series and told me how he compiled the programs once his interviews with the former British Raj brigade had been recorded. I was fascinated to learn he had begun with Indian music he had recorded, and then blended in the edited segments of the voices later. I told him how his programs had literally changed my life as a documentary maker. This is how it happened.
Not long after Plain Tales of the Raj had gone to air, the Head of Radio Drama & Features, Richard (Dick) Connolly came into my office with a listener’s letter motivated by the BBC series. It was almost a one-liner, ‘Why doesn’t the ABC make a series of programs about Australia’s very own colony, Papua New Guinea, like the BBC’s documentaries on the British Raj?’ Dick handed it to me and said, ‘Would you be interested in doing something like that’?
‘Why yes,’ I said.
‘How long do you think it would take?’
‘Oh at least a year,’ sez I.
Well two-and-a-half years later the 24 episodes of Taim Bilong Masta (literal translation: ‘The Time of the White Man’) – The Australian Involvement with Papua New Guinea went to air, in three series of eight programs. It drew on recorded interviews and first-hand accounts of Australia’s administration of PNG from 1906 until its independence in 1975.
Taim Bilong Masta
In the late 1970s there were still many Australians who had first gone to work in Papua New Guinea (PNG) well before World War II, and were known as the ‘B4s’, who were living in retirement there.
I was quickly made aware that a colleague, Daniel Connell, who worked with the ABC’s Radio Education Department had been seconded to Port Moresby and the National Broadcasting Commission of PNG, and on his own initiative had begun recording 30 valuable hours of interviews with important Papua New Guineans. These included Lady Rachel Cleland (wife of one of the early Administrators, Sir Donald Cleland), the Governor-General Sir John Guise, the long serving Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare, early gold prospectors like Claude and Ivan Champion, and key indigenous figures like Bernard Narakobi.
Daniel agreed to come on board with me and was seconded to the Taim Bilong Masta project on his return to Sydney.
I knew very little about Papua New Guinea. What was needed was someone who could keep us on the straight and narrow and recognise when tall tales needed to be treated with scepticism.
We were recommended to Dr Hank Nelson, a historian at the Australian National University who had lectured at the University of Papua New Guinea for many years. He agreed to take on this advisory role on the understanding that while I would be responsible for the radio documentaries, he would write the book of the series.
Hyland Neil Nelson originally hailed from the hamlet of Boort in Victoria but was always known as ‘Hank’ for reasons I can’t remember ever knowing.
Daniel and I went down to Canberra to discuss the project with him, but our timing was unfortunate. We turned up as his house in the suburb of Kaleen, but he seemed very preoccupied and constantly left us in his study while he went into his living room for extended periods. It turned out we had chosen the afternoon of the AFL Grand Final, and Hank was a passionate follower of the code. Despite that we managed to agree on how things would go forward.
As Hank Nelson recalled:
Through many conversations and draft programs the scope of the series was gradually defined. Then with a 50–page document headed, ‘For the perusal of interviewers with hangovers who fear that inspiration will not strike with the turning on of the tape recorder’, Bowden began the bulk of the recording. Connell again began collecting material, and other ABC or freelance interviewers were employed from time to time. Eventually some 350 hours of conversation were recorded. Interviews with such central figures as the explorer Michael Leahy, Father William Ross, the Reverend Ben Butcher and Sergeant John Guise were taken from the ABC Radio Archives and added to the reels of tape that covered a wall of Bowden’s office. The collection, classification and preservation of these interviews would alone have justified the expenses of the project.
Papua New Guinea during Australian Administration times
The first program was completed in September 1980 and the last of the 24 in November 1981. Working part time as a research assistant, Susan Crivelli auditioned all the tapes marking up the most pertinent sections, as transcripts would have been far too expensive.
At various times I rang Hank in Canberra to find a coherent structure and we adjusted our plans in accordance with the strengths of the material. With the dialogue edited down to about 40 minutes for each program, I posted a copy to Hank on cassette. Then drove to Canberra to record his editorial comments.
Most of the interviews I recorded were in Australia where many patrol officers, administrators, missionaries and plantation owners had returned to live in retirement. But during the last six weeks of the project I flew to PNG and recorded interviews in Mount Hagen in the New Guinea highlands, Lae and Port Moresby. I also went to New Britain and flew to the island of Bougainville.
Early in my interviewing I hired a car in Lae on the coast and drove up into the mountains to Mount Hagen. The road was unsealed and as I drove higher towards Mount Hagen I was startled, when negotiating a hairpin bend, to see a group of painted warriors with feathered head-dresses and long bows, aiming (it seemed to me) straight at my car. I stamped on the accelerator and skidded around the bend to get out of harm’s way. It was only when I looked in the rear-vision mirror that I saw the straw target on the bank on the other side of the road which I had temporarily blocked!
When Hank Nelson had been working on the structure of what we hoped to achieve, he had noted that it might be difficult to get European planters to be frank about the sometimes violent punishments they inflicted on their indigenous workers.
I kept this in mind while doing interviews in the Mount Hagen area, and met up with an Australian planter on a surprisingly cold and windy morning in the Highlands. He had managed coffee plantations in the 1960s. Now it has to be admitted that I did have a savage hangover on that occasion, and, for reasons I can’t quite recall, I decided to do the interview outside near a corrugated iron shed on his property. There was a cold wind blowing and an unsecured sheet of corrugated iron on the side of the shed was going ‘flong, flong’ which I decided to put up with. I recall my interviewee was called Rod, and I asked him without much hope of frank disclosures about how he disciplined his local labourers.
‘Actually we used to thump them,’ he said. ‘You had to be careful where you hit them, because curiously enough they have rather sensitive skins and used to bruise quite easily. In addition to that, most of them have swollen spleens due to malaria, and if you punch them in the body, you can rupture their spleens quite easily.’
I asked Rod what he did instead.
‘Interesting that you should ask that. We mostly used to smack them across the side of their faces with an open hand, so that would make plenty of noise.’
As he began to elaborate on this, I heard a ‘flick, flick, flick’ sound coming from my tape recorder, looked down, and to my horror I saw that the take-up spool had filled up, and the loose end was flapping around. I hadn’t recorded anything of what Rod had been just saying! So, I apologised to him that I had to change to a new quarter-inch-tape, which I did, inwardly cursing myself over what I had missed.
I really did not deserve this, but when I got under way again I repeated my questions about violence to his labourers, and he said it all again with knobs on!
Sometimes our interviewees broke briefly into Pidgin English [now called Tok Pisin], the lingua franca that Papua New Guineans and Europeans used to communicate with each other. This was necessary because Papua New Guinea is home to a staggering 850 local languages – which makes their country the most linguistically diverse place on this earth!
Having lived and worked in PNG for many years, Hank Nelson was familiar with Pidgin, and was also fair-minded about how it was translated. I was amused to find out that the Pidgin for a piano (and I hope I have this spelled correctly) was supposedly, Big black bokis fightim’ teeth allatime cry out. Hank said that it was unlikely that this was so, but on the other hand it was a colourful example of how Pidgin worked, so we would run with it.
The project comes to fruition
Taim Bilong Masta first went to air on Radio 2, now Radio National, in 1982. The ABC had also just begun to market audio cassettes of its programs, and Taim Bilong Masta* sold many thousands of copies.
To give an idea of how comprehensive we tried to make the Taim Bilong Masta documentaries, here is the list of the twenty-four 45-minute episodes:
1 Never a Colony
2 The Good Time Before
3 God’s Shadow on Earth
4 The Loneliness and the Glory
5 On Patrol
7 The Boat Came Every Six Weeks
8 Masta – Me like Work
9 The Violent Land
10 Moneymakers and Misfits
11 Wife and Missus
12 Growing Up
13 Into the Highlands
14 The Promised Land
15 First Contact
17 The Good News
18 The Mission Rush
19 You Had to be Firm
20 Across the Barriers
21 Courts and Calaboose
23 A Reason for Being There
24 Going Finish
While this series was being produced, I managed to convince the Director of Radio Drama & Features, Dick Connolly, to approve the setting up of the Social History Unit with me as its Executive Producer, Daniel Connell and Stephen Rapley as producers in Sydney, and Bill Bunbury contributing from Perth in WA.
First, though, I needed a break. I was completely exhausted, with repetitive strain injuries in both arms from all the typing and editing, and I badly needed to spend time with my family after neglecting them for so long while pre-occupied with Taim Belong Masta. But it wasn’t to be. Hank Nelson phoned with a suggestion for another project – one that in my view would be of even more historical importance than the colonial experience in Papua New Guinea.
Next week: Part 2, Surviving in Captivity (the story of Prisoners of War – Australians Under Nippon.
*The Taim Bilong Masta audiobook is available on Audible.
Tim Bowden is a broadcaster, journalist, foreign correspondent, radio and television documentary maker, oral historian and author. His background in journalism includes current affairs, news and feature and documentary work in radio and television. He is also the author of seventeen books. Tim received an Order of Australia for services to public broadcasting in June 1994. In May 1997 he was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Letters from the University of Tasmania. He was born in the island state of Tasmania in 1937, and like most island people, believes they hold special values.