From reel-to-reel tape to digital broadcasting, ABC Canberra’s Louise Maher reflects on 38 years on air – Radio

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As a radio journo and broadcaster, I’m used to condensing huge amounts of information into biteable chunks.

But 38 (and a half) years of radio? Ironically, I never really wanted to be on air.

I wanted to write for a newspaper.

The year I left school, I made it onto the shortlist for a journalism cadetship with the Sydney Morning Herald but lost out in the final round.

Devastated (at the age of 18 I thought my life was over) I reluctantly started a communications degree.

Then, miraculously, six months later, I was offered a job at Radio 2GB by the wonderful journalist and broadcaster Vincent Smith.

In the early 1980s, 2GB was serious about news and ran a well-staffed newsroom.

Sadly, Vincent died too young in 1991.

I’m eternally grateful he took a punt on me.

It was highly unusual for a teenage girl with no experience to be offered such an opportunity.

It was true, but I was surprised he could even see me over the bulky manual typewriter.

Once they got used to me, the older reporters took me under their wing.

It was sink or swim and I paddled furiously.

Soon I was reporting on the courts (my one morning of legal training involved an older journo explaining the role of the magistrate, prosecutor, defendant etc), strikes (I crashed the news car on the way back from covering my first prison officers’ walkout), fires (including a blaze in a Kings Cross hotel which killed nine people) and murders.

A fully fledged ambulance chaser.

A few key stories have stuck with me.

One weekday afternoon a woman was shot dead at an outside cafe in North Sydney.

Her body lay on the ground, covered by a sheet, but I could see the blood pooled around it and one uncovered arm, with a gold bangle at the wrist.

Suddenly, she wasn’t a murder victim, she was a real person.

Another day, a teenage girl was reported missing from one of Sydney’s wealthier suburbs.

My shift editor told me to go through the phone book to find the girl’s mother and ask her to issue a plea for the girl’s return that we could run in a radio news story.

I found the mother and started recording an interview with her on the reel-to-reel tape recorder in the corner of the newsroom.

At the start, she was composed, but after a few seconds she started sobbing hysterically, pleading for her daughter to be found.

I was stunned.

My editor could hear what was happening and came rushing over excitedly.

“Great stuff, you made her cry!” he said.

I was appalled.

I hadn’t tried to make the poor woman cry and never would have wanted to.

I felt her pain, I didn’t want to exploit it.

A few days later the girl was found dead.

As I recall, she had taken her own life in a cemetery.

In the meantime, I learnt how to shout out questions, scrawl answers in a notebook, bash out three pars and get my mic on the TV.

I learnt how to file voicers with walkie-talkies and how to persuade strangers to let me dismantle their landline phones.

We attached alligator clips from tape recorders to the handsets to send back actuality to the studio.

I saw bodies at the morgue (that’s a whole other story), people crying in the dock and crowds rallying in anger and protest (or to mob Prince Charles just after he got engaged to Lady Di).

The downside was the shift work.

And mispronouncing words in news bulletins because I’d never heard them spoken out loud. (I’m looking at you, ‘awry’.)

From there it was producing breakfast radio and current affairs shows, followed by a year as a NSW state political reporter.

In an unrelated event, I dropped a case of beer bottles on the marble floor of the parliament building just as Nifty walked past. (We were preparing for the press gallery Christmas party.)

He picked his way around the puddles and smashed glass.

Next, I was posted to Canberra, a tiny office in squishy, smoke-filled Radio Alley in what’s now Old Parliament House.

Just hours after I got my press pass, a news veteran took me aside to warn me not to get too caught up in the “bubble”.

I didn’t.

At the end of that year I quit to follow my heart to Central Australia.

I was told I was “a silly girl” who would never work in Canberra again. Yeah, right.

Alice Springs changed my life.

I discovered a world I hadn’t known existed and fell into a job with the ABC, then just an outpost of the station in Darwin.

Now I was reporting from remote Indigenous communities, interviewing people who had English as a fourth or fifth language.

I met lawyers, linguists, anthropologists, artists, doctors and environmentalists all passionate about their work.

I was cajoled into broadcasting the Saturday breakfast program (gardening and vinyl LPs) and discovered I liked presenting shows. (I was very snooty about wanting to stay a ‘real’ journalist.)

After six years, and with two little kids in tow, I headed back east, to manage the ABC station at Bega.

I was still enjoying being on-air but, at the age of 30, realised that management wasn’t my thing.

I headed back to the Canberra press gallery, this time in the new Parliament House, working for Radio 2UE.

Elections, budgets, endless Question Times and overseas trips.

I still have my media pass from the APEC meeting in Bogor, Indonesia, and the Coke bottle I drank from as John Howard was led around the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. (I don’t usually drink Coke but it was such a bizarre clash of communism and capitalism.)
Running a press gallery bureau was intense work, but nothing like the craziness of today.

Nineteen years ago I started at what’s now ABC Radio Canberra. (Our former name ‘666’ was far more evocative).

I presented the morning show for five years, the drive show for eight and for the past six years have been gathering and making stories as the field and online reporter.

But that tells you nothing really of what an amazing ride it’s been.

Covering the 2003 Canberra bushfires was one of the biggest stories of my career.

While my own suburb still smouldered (17 homes burnt down in my street) and with the city still under threat, we became the city’s lifeline.

Canberrans turned to us for information, support and comfort.

Some shared stories of loss, others offered help.

I’ve interviewed my favourite writers (Margaret Atwood twice!), ten centenarians for a series for Canberra’s 100th birthday, and hundreds of people who’ve shared the most amazing, inspiring stories.

I’ve presented outside broadcasts, MC’d events and chaired public meetings — all the things you do when you’re a face of the much-loved ABC.

I’ve adored visits to schools, and making my Treasure Trove podcasts about the precious objects in our national institutions, especially the sneak peeks behind the scenes.

My work has taken me from Docker River to Washington, from Montague Island to Berlin.

I’ve had great opportunities and the best adventures.

The bosses who put their faith in me, my talented and passionate colleagues, old and young, who’ve taught me everything I know, the producers who pumped out shows day after day, the people who let me ask all those questions and the listeners who let me into their lives.

Not to mention the technicians who wave the magic wand that puts our voices into the air.

I still haven’t worked out how that happens.

It’s hard to leave my ABC family, but then, my ABC family will always be around me.

Thank you from the bottom of my heart to everyone who’s ever held my hand, walked beside me or propped me up.



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