Radio Stories From Papua New Guinea

This article forms part of the Radio Heritage Collection ©. All rights reserved to Ragusa Media Group, PO Box 14339, Wellington, New Zealand. This material is licenced on a non-exclusive basis to South Pacific DX Resource hosted on for a period of five years from April 1 2002. Author: Keith Jackson

IN THE BEGINNING (Gagl, New Guinea, 1965)

In 1965, after my two years in Chimbu, it was decided I was old enough, at the formidable age of 20, to be sent to a more remote school, Gagl, as head teacher.

The nearest expats were at a station 5 miles away, which to my frustration seemed to be the only Catholic mission in PNG where they didn’t drink.

Fortunately, 8 miles in the other direction was a patrol post, a clutch of trade stores, an airstrip and plenty of hardened drinkers in the Territory tradition – stubby in hand, chip on shoulder.

Every two or three weeks I’d walk from Gagl to Kerowagi for an unshackled weekend. In between, on the steep slopes of Mount Wilhelm where the yar trees grow among the clouds, I had my school, books, shortwave radio and typewriter.

Distractedly listening to the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) service from Port Moresby one night, it occurred to me that I too could write such unfailingly turgid material.

So, next day, the Standard 6 boy selected as runner carried to the airstrip correspondence, the monthly grocery order and an offer of service to the ABC.

Some weeks later, to my surprise, I was commissioned to write a script on copra growing – a subject I still know nothing about. It was accepted, earning me a fee of £15, nearly a week’s pay.

I knew instantly broadcasting was the career for me. My life’s work had begun.

WELCOME TO THE ABC (Port Moresby, 1967)

Eventually the ABC offered me a full-time job as a producer. The ABC’s New Guinea manager in the mid-sixties, Fortnum, I’ll call him, was a big rather dim man who’d been a Tasmanian cricket commentator in those unproductive days fore the Apple Isle discovered the NSW second eleven.

He was one of those pompous, old school ABC types who referred to senior managers and cleaners – at opposite ends of the social scale – by their Christian name, who gave middle managers and junior producers the appellation “Mister”, and called everyone in between by their surname.

As a junior producer, I was Mr Jackson. And he was Mr Fortnum. Except on one occasion when we were sitting together in a small aircraft being seriously tossed about by a tropical thunderstorm. Responding to my nervous observation that it was “a bit bumpy Mr Fortnum”, he invited to call him Malcolm – “until we get back to Port Moresby, Jackson”.

I’d joined the ABC full of pride and excitement, both of which were ponderously squeezed out of me by the ABC’s famous bureaucracy. Later I realised I hadn’t so much been attracted to management as driven to it by those executives I came across in that first stint with Auntie.

ABC staff used to say – they probably still do – that half the organisation is trying to put programs to air while the other half is trying to stop them. Broadcaster Mike Carlton tells the story of the time he went to the ABC’s technical store to borrow a portable tape recorder. He was informed there was only one left – and that he couldn’t have it. “Why not?” he asked. The clerk scratched his head, thought for a moment and explained, “Well, someone might want it.”

Anyway, after three years, I quit the ABC to go to Rabaul in the north-east of New Guinea where I’d been offered a position as assistant manager of the local radio station.


It was impossible to be an effective broadcaster in New Guinea – producer, reporter, announcer or manager – without acquiring a reasonable knowledge of Pidgin English – or Police Motu if you were in Papua. I spent a long and unproductive evening arguing with journalist Mungo McCallum who was on assignment for Nation Review, about whether Pidgin was a real language or not.

“How on earth,” Mungo peered incredulously out of what I came to realise were permanently bleary eyes, “how on earth could anyone take the language seriously.” “I mean, listen to this,” and he opened his notebook. “Piano. Bikpela bokis igat wetpela na bilekpela tus sapos yu paitim em i kraiaut nogut tru.” I had to agree with him. It gave Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D Minor an entirely new dimension to call it Mozart’s Concerto for a big box with white and black teeth which, upon being beaten, bellows furiously in D Minor.

The late 1960s and early seventies were marked by rapid political change in Papua New Guinea. The University of PNG was established and I took my Arts degree there as a part-time student. I shared the same Politics Honours class with Rabbie Namaliu and Ben Sabumei – later respectively PNG’s Prime Minister and Defence Minister – and Ted Diro (later deputy prime minister and then a captain in the Pacific Island Regiment) lectured us on why the Army should stay out of politics.

The establishment of the university was both an important educational landmark and a prodigious and symbolic step towards nationhood. But like many of the icons of change in the Territory, it drew more than its fair share of derision from local whites “Bikpela skul bilong oli,” it was called dismissively. The implication was clear. Any university that gave degrees to blackfellas couldn’t be up to much.


When I arrived in Rabaul early in 1970, the most hated man was not one of the leaders of the feared Mataungan Association. It wasn’t John Kaputin, who had shocked the colony by marrying a white woman. Not Oscar Tammur whose inflammatory speeches ignited the anti-colonial passions of the Tolais. Nor Damien Kereku who had threatened that the gutters of Rabaul would run red with the blood of Europeans. No, the man most hated by the white settlers of Rabaul was Australia’s most mercurial politician, Gough Whitlam.

Whitlam had visited the town some months before I arrived but people would still become abusive at the mere mention of his name. “I don’t know exactly what kind of Australian it is that settles in New Guinea,” he had said at a cocktail party, “but it’s a very inferior breed.”

Whitlam did more to establish the agenda for political change in PNG than any other Australian. When I arrived in the Territory in 1963, Menzies was saying Australia would be in New Guinea for a hundred years. Whitlam changed the psychology on both sides of the Torres Strait – and the relationship between the two countries has benefited greatly as a result. To be fair, it must also be acknowledged that Andrew Peacock continued the process after Whitlam was sacked in 1975. Interestingly, Peacock regards his stewardship over PNG’s independence as the greatest contribution he’s made in politics.

I’d gone to the Gazelle Peninsula as assistant manager of the Government broadcasting station, Radio Rabaul. To the local Tolais the station was a hated symbol of Australian colonialism. For much of the year I was there, armed police guarded the studios and the homes of our announcers and reporters.

1970 was a year of high drama in the Gazelle. There was anger and there was violence. John Gorton was confronted at Rabaul Airport by 10,000 hostile and noisy members of the Mataungan Association. It was disclosed later he had a revolver tucked under his jacket. A typically gung ho Gorton thing to do, it was also very foolish. He would have been torn limb from appendage if the Mataungans knew he was armed.

As well as reporting on the Mataungan uprising for Radio Rabaul, most of whose listeners wanted to burn it down, I continued studying economics. Bent over the desk, ceiling fan stirring thick air, sweat dripping into eyes, trickling down nose and dropping in plump lumps all over Watson’s “Price Theory & Its Uses”.

Then the phone would ring with advice of trouble in Matupit or Vunapaladig or Kokopo and I’d head off to cover the story. I always had two hopes: that the batteries in the tape recorder wouldn’t run dry and that the police had the area properly staked out so I wouldn’t blunder into a situation where I’d meet a whole lot of listeners. It had only happened to me once and had frightened me a great deal.

A month before my final economics exams, the Controller of Broadcasting, Jim Leigh, rang from Moresby. Leigh later went on to a stormy, stressful and short career as secretary of the Queensland National Party.

“Congratulations father,” he shouted down the radio telephone, “we’re promoting you to station manager. Over.” “Gee, thanks, Jim. Where to? Over” “No thanks required father. You’re off to Radio Bougainville. Over.”

THE TOUCHSTONE OF SECESSION (Bouqainville: 1970-73)

Bougainville is a magnificent pearl of an island -matching every requirement for the Paradise designer label. When I arrived there late in 1970, Kieta, the capital, was an idyllic seaport. White sandy beaches, a fine harbour to sail on, offshore islands for picnics and the joie de vivre of plantation life. But a few years previously, CRA had discovered copper, gold and silver on Bougainville – an event which signalled the end of its age of innocence.

The Bougainvilleans’ relationship to their land is spiritual. Land is part of the soul, not a commodity to be bought, sold or traded.

So when a vast tract of land stretching from the east coast to the west was acquired for the copper company and its associated facilities, dumps, roads and towns – and when labourers from the rest of PNG were brought in to work the mine – the Bougainvilleans innate sense of difference became something much more tangible. A tangibility that eventually came to be represented by one word. Secession.

The Bougainvilleans are a handsome people, so black they are purple. They feel ambivalent about whites, who by and large are tolerated. Their fellow Papua New Guineans, however, are regarded with scorn and hatred and are referred to derisively as “redskins

Radio Bougainville was my first station as a fully fledged manager. And like Radio Rabaul, it had run into problems with the people it was broadcasting to.

Soon after I arrived, I did a stocktake at the station. The storeroom was crammed to the rafters with new radios – still in their cartons. In those days, to encourage radio listening, the Government gave radio sets away free to the people. I asked why the radios hadn’t been distributed. The people don’t want them, I was told.

And more than that. Stories had come back to the station about villagers burning their radios and chopping them apart with axes. “The Government station broadcasts propaganda,” they said. ‘it tells us the copper mine is good for us -and we know it isn’t. So we don’t listen.”

The conclusion was inescapable. There’s no point operating a radio station that doesn’t have an audience. Having been through a similar experience in Rabaul – with all the threat that involved – I wasn’t anxious for a repeat.

Indeed, the Kieta radio station was notorious for its pro-Government, anti-islander broadcasts and the only instruction I’d been given by the Controller, Jim Leigh, was to regularise the situation as best I could.

In practical terms this involved getting the District Commissioner and his cohorts off the air and totally excising their influence from the station’s programs. The police guard was removed from the studios. We took advice from village leaders and offered Bougainvilleans a greater say in what was broadcast, putting more of them on air. We held huge outdoor concerts for local string bands and dancers. We went on patrol to villages armed only with our tape recorders.

I also decided to recruit and train more young Bougainvilleans to work at the station. The inimitable Jim Leigh called me on the radio telephone from Moresby to advise me on this process. “Father,” he said, “there are only three rules about selecting staff. One, be rational not emotional. Two, put ’em under pressure. Three, check their references- Over.”

As luck would have it, Jim was in Kieta for his annual inspection of the station when one of the young hopefuls came in for interview. Jim told me he’d sit in on the session to see how I went.

The applicant was a handsome 18-year old Bougainvillean woman from a nearby village. When she walked into my office, Jim was immediately infatuated. He simpered:

“What’s your name, dear.” “Perpetua Tanaku, came the reply, “but my friends call me Pepi.” “Pepi,” Jim sighed. And the delightful Miss Tanaku added: · ‘Pepi is short for Perpetua and comes from the word perpetual which means everlasting.”

The preliminaries over, I was just about to jump in and ask my first objective question which I hoped would put her under pressure when Jim leapt to his feet and said, “You’re hired”.

Pepi was a charming woman but, alas, a poor radio announcer – and she left after a few months. Last year, watching the news on television, I saw her for the first time since I left Bougainville 18 years ago. She was being interviewed in a jungle hideout to which she’d fled with her husband, James Ona, the Bougainville rebel leader.

She appeared tired and ill and had lost all her top teeth. Then, a few weeks ago, a one paragraph story in the Sydney Morning Herald conveyed the news she’d died of pneumonia. Bougainville is such a sad place now.About the author: Keith Jackson worked for ABC Papua New Guinea from 1966-76 and later as head of policy planning for NBC. He received the Independence Medal (1976) for services to broadcasting. Keith founded 2SER-FM Sydney and 2ARM-FM Armidale and worked as UNESCO radio advisor in Indonesia, India, Philippines, Maldives and Fiji. Before founding his own PR company he was general manager corporate relations for the ABC.

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