by Dr Mark Hayes
It’s the 100th anniversary of the birth of the major media scholar, Marshall McLuhan.
They’ve certainly put a very significant amount of time and effort into this exercise, including unearthing old video from his June, 1977, visit to Australia, including the June 27, 1977, ABC TV show, Monday Conference, presented by Robert Moore.
I have to confess to never having been a close student of McLuhan, though, as an undergraduate, I read his three major books, and tried to make sense of what he was on about, without too much success.
However, I vividly recall his visit to Brisbane, while on that 1977 tour, as I actually attended and reported upon his public lecture.
It happened like this…
As a young, keen, and eager journalism undergraduate at the University of Queensland, with the encouragement of some of my then lecturers, I and some of my student colleagues were deeply involved with the venerable UQ Union’s organ, Semper Floreat, with some serving as editors after a typically lively election campaign involving, among other things, the stacking of the then Union Council to stitch up the needed votes.
Queensland, in 1977, was ruled by the very conservative Country – Liberal Party coalition government, headed by Premier, Joh Bjelke-Petersen. Ten years later… well…
It was a heady time to be a student, and a journalism student at that. What was part of the fun was that most political factions on campus hated us because, while we were generally of a left-ish hue, tinged with nascent green and environmentalist tendencies, we generally were not aligned with any of the several left wing, or right wing, student groups. None could get a line on us, or lean on us, politically. They all hated us, which suited us just fine.
What we were largely committed to, aside from having a good time, was at least attempting to do quality campus based journalism, as opposed to student journalism. We sought to take ourselves, and our sometimes stumbling and sometimes extremely effective journalism, seriously.
So, there I was, shoulder length hair, battered sneakers, jeans, faded old high school shirt, curled up across two arm chairs in the Semper office in the UQ Union Building, with dawn’s light coming through the windows, trying to get a few minutes sleep before shambling off to get some sort of education later, when the Goddamn phone rings.
Semper, in those days (he occasionally tells his students, trying not to bung on a fake Yorkshire accent and channeling the Pythons) was literally pasted up, with formatted copy spat out of an irascible IBM golf ball typewriter about as intelligent as an early model digital watch and as noisy as a jack hammer, and then carefully sliced up using a surgical scalpel to fit on tabloid sized, marked up, sheets. The copy was waxed on the back so we could stick it down.
We being students, we’d usually leave the paste up of the paper until a day or two before we had to have the completed page sheets boxed, signed off by the Union President – who copped the defamation writs as the legal Publisher of the thing – and taxied and then bussed to the printer, then based at Warwick, south-west of Brisbane.
The printers, who gave us a good deal, and who were based in a town on the southern edge of Queensland’s (Australia’s ‘deep north’) Bible Belt, deepest Country Party territory, though it a right hoot that they printed this scurrilous student rag the State Government, if they could get away with it, would ban, and not just for obscenity.
Student journalism usually gets banned for printing lots of f*cks and similar rude words, running pictures of naked and near naked people doing very adventurous physical things with each other, better shoplifting or student allowance rorting techniques, offering advice on how to cultivate certain kinds of medicinal herbs indoors, and how tell the difference between poisonous and edible fungi, the latter only eaten to enhance one’s spiritual experiences, you see, while listening to Tangerine Dream or Pink Floyd Really Loud.
The State Government would have liked to shut us down because we’d periodically investigate the Premier’s and the Cabinet’s share portfolios, correlating these with major development or mining decisions, some being on aboriginal lands or former church missions, or, when major demonstrations occurred, we’d be in the middle of them, taking pictures of known and suspected Special Branch cops, often in mufti and voting to march, and then beating the crap out of, and arresting, demonstrators, some of whom were friends of ours. The pics and the stories always got a prominent run in Semper, much to the annoyance of the cops and the government.
Because Semper, and Brisbane’s first community radio station, 4ZZ-FM, then housed in the basement of the UQ Union Complex, generally shared the same independent left-ish politics, and even many of the same volunteers, who attended many of the same parties, and demonstrations, we had a lock on ‘the underground’, knew what was going down, often broadcast and wrote about it all, and the mainstream media, or some of it anyway, quietly asked us for tips or contacts occasionally. We were reliable, very well connected, and largely knew what we were doing as starting out journalists.
That’s campus based journalism.
Semper paste up sessions went for a couple of days, and nights, straight, only interrupted by occasional Uni classes, fed by pizza, lubricated by buckets of coffee, a few cartons of beer, with 4ZZ blaring on the wireless playing the most obscure Prog Rock, and then Punk, the announcers could find, with short-ish breaks to burn off the stronger effects of smoked medicinal herbs, only imbibed to improve our souls, you understand, or, the smoke was so thick anyway you’d get ripped just breathing in the Semper newsroom.
Occasionally, some total fool would drop a tab of acid, or gobble some edible medicinal fungi, go off their heads, start waving a paste up scalpel around, and we’d have to calm them down.
So, muggins is stretched out trying to have a short kip after a self-administered 36 hour newspaper paste up session of caffeine poisoning, beer drinking, cardboard tasting pizza eating, secondary dope smoke breathing, and sleep deprivation, smelling like a rugby union team’s locker room after the match and minus the liniment, having bundled the paper off to the printers by the very early dawn light, and the Goddamn phone f*cking rings.
“Is that Mark Hayes?” the breathless, excited voice asks.
“Yeah,” I reply, through a mouth tasting like I’d been licking the floor clean.
“It’s Blair Edmonds from the ABC,” he says. “So pleased to have found you.”
Blair ‘Silver Tongue’ Edmonds was something of a Brisbane radio institution, with whose mellifluous voice I’d almost grown up listening to on ABC Brisbane radio 4QR. (Audio tribute to Blair On Line.)
Not quite my whole life flashed past my bleary eyes, but I did wonder what I’d done lately, and why the hell the ABC was hunting me about it.
Paranoia Rises was one of our watch phrases in Queensland at the time, and we at Semper, and 4ZZ, has lots to be paranoid about because we knew, had very ample reasons to be certain, that the Queensland police were out to get us.
Apparently, Blair had rung the UQ Journalism School chasing me, and they’d passed on details of my probable location. You can run, but you can’t hide, it seemed.
“Err,” I ask, mentally assembling a few more brain cells into a functioning, waking, order. “How can I help you.”
“Look,” Blair says, “I want you to go into town and do an interview for us. We’ll pay you, of course.”
“I can’t afford a taxi to get to your studios,” I confessed.
“Don’t you worry about that. Just get a cab to us and we’ll fix you up,” he insisted.
Is this guy having a go at me, using one of Joh’s lines, or just scaring the crap out of me?
So, muggins, feeling more like Boris ‘The Mummy’ Karloff’s stunt double than a young, keen, and eager UQ journalism student just head hunted by The ABC for an as yet unspecified, paying, radio interview job, calls a taxi, and heads to the ABC’s radio studios at Toowong.
Taxi pulls up, and Our Reporter starts to get out, only to, in no specified though totally confusing order, shake hands with Blair Edmonds, who looks nothing like I’d imagined he’d look in the flesh, have a Besser Brick, or Cinder Block, size and weight Nagra™ reel to reel tape recorder kit shoved into my arms by a guy I later learned was the Station Manager, Andrew Buchanan, and have some ABC taxi vouchers put into a shirt pocket by a solicitous secretary.
(The Nagra came in damned handy later when, while doing more freelance gigs for the ABC, in the middle of demos which got rather ugly, I could swing the machine around to protect myself from some looming demo monster, cop or crazed protestor, and my physical interlocutor would always come off second best, while the recorder stayed fully intact and operating throughout. Still think I have grooves on my right shoulder from the Nagra’s strap.)
Mr Edmonds shoves dazed and confused UQ journalism student back into the taxi and announces, more for the taxi driver than for me, ‘cos the driver at least does need to know where we’re going next:
“You’re going to the Crest Hotel to interview Marshall McLuhan in half an hour, so get moving,” he says, waving me off.
‘S-h-i-t!‘ thought I, now fully alert, adrenaline coursing into my brain, ‘I’ve got to interview Mr Media Himself and I look and smell like I’ve slept in the park across from the hotel.’
So, I found the venue, and an ABC Radio Current Affairs reporter I knew from sight, who kindly gave me some gaffer tape to stick my microphone on the lectern, and Prof McLuhan duly appeared, talked for about 40 minutes or so, I asked a few questions, and Real Reporter and yours truly shared a taxi back to the ABC.
To this day, I have no idea what Prof McLuhan actually said in Brisbane, though he probably was in a ‘zone’, with a mental set speech Front of Mind, as one often does when on lecture tours, so his remarks are probably much the same as on ABC TV’s Monday Conference a few days later.
What did get my attention back at the ABC were the forms they had me sign when I turned the recordings into two 30 minute pieces of radio, using a splicing block, razor blade, and splicing tape – State of the Art Technology ! – and then, what really got my attention, was the cheque which turned up in the mail a week or so later.
Thirty-four years later, with ABC Radio National playing quite a bit of McLuhan himself, and a lot of commentary about him and his work, not much of which I can claim to really understand even now, I can look back on my very first professional paying gig as a broadcast journalist with some pride that it involved interviewing Marshall McLuhan in person.
And you try telling that to the young people today, and they won’t believe you!
As an important PS:
There is a serious message in this, probably, self-indulgent piece of nostalgia on my part, which I pass on to students occasionally.
If you, as a keen and career minded journalism student, want to get yourself Noticed by a potential employer, get involved in your local and available campus-based and/or community media, and take what you’re doing seriously, well above and beyond just doing your assessments in your formal studies. You might find your lecturers and tutors would encourage you if they learn that you’re serious.
Your local campus-based newspaper may be a disgrace and not worth taking seriously. Instead of whingeing about it, form a collective, get yourselves elected or appointed editors, and turn the rag into something of which you can be proud. You’ll learn all sorts of useful things which might deepen and extend your formal studies, stretch you and push you into other areas of experience and skilling, and a prospective employer would probably take you more seriously as a result.
I walked out of UQ with a BA(Hons) on my degree form, but I also reckon I got another BA at least in experience, extra knowledge, and skills which have served me very well subsequently, thanks to my work on Semper and 4ZZ.
The ABC just didn’t ring UQ Journalism to chase me on a punt. They’d seen my work in Semper, heard me on 4ZZ, thought, ‘This one might be worth a closer look,’ tracked me down, gave me a gig, I delivered for them, and my professional career was underway.
If you look at the CVs of quite a few leading journalists, media identities, and journalism and media academics, or ask them about how they got their start when they come to campus to speak, many will reflect very favorably on their experiences with campus and/or community media. The Roll Call of former Semper editors, reporters, and 4ZZ folks, now in very senior media and academic positions speaks for itself, and the same could be said of other campus-based media operatives throughout Australia and New Zealand.