Sunday Soapbox: Graham Mack pt 3

How an airconditioning mechanic working in Sydney Australia became an award winning broadcaster in Britain

Graham Mack was born in Liverpool England and became an Australian citizen in 1993. He’s an AFTRS graduate and worked on the air here at 2QN, 6KG, 2PK, 5SE, and 2GO.

He’s won some of the industry’s biggest awards as a talk show host and music jock, on commercial radio and The BBC. Since 1997, he’s been working on radio stations in London and all over the UK. He is currently the Program Director and Breakfast Show Host at BOB fm.

In a weekly Sunday Soapbox series on Radio Today, Graham shares with us some very funny stories from his time learning about and then getting onto Australian radio.

There’s a saying in Australia, “If you want to get on in life, you have to, bite off more than you can chew, then chew like buggery”. During the six months I spent on the broadcasting course at The Australian Film Television and Radio School, twice I was sent out to live and work on regional radio stations. The first one was 2QN in Deniliquin. The town, known locally as “Deni”, is in the Riverina region of New South Wales close to the border with Victoria. All of the twelve students on the AFTRS broadcasting course were sent out to different radio stations. I’d been sending tapes and getting feedback from Tony James, the Program Director at 2QN for a little while, so I asked if I could go there.

I got on a Greyhound bus in Sydney one Sunday afternoon, waved goodbye to Julie and after a change of buses in Canberra arrived the next morning, 725 miles away in Deniliquin. The population of the town was around 7,000 but when I got there, they were working on that. There was a huge billboard on the main road that showed silhouettes of a family of rabbits. The slogan above said “Do it in Deni”.

Tony James met me from the bus. He shook my hand and said, “Welcome to Deniliquin”. Then he said, “Did you get much sleep on the bus?” I said, “Yes”, even though I’d been awake for the entire fourteen hours I’d been on the road. “Good” he said, “You’re on the air from 2pm to 7pm”. Wow, I’d never actually done an airshift on a commercial radio station before. All of my experience was in community radio. This was really exciting!

It turned out that I was staying with Tony and his wife Rhonda at their house. I dropped off my bags, had breakfast then got a ride to the radio station with Tony.

I spent most of the day getting to know everyone, writing some commercials, practicing local place names, dubbing audio and finding my way around the radio station. My first shock was that 2QN had an outside toilet. I thought this was unusual in 1993 but as it turned out the next commercial radio station I worked on had an outside dunny as well (more on that in another episode).

2pm came and with it, my big chance to impress a potential employer. If I messed it up, there would be nowhere to hide. I’d be having dinner with the James’s later that night.

The airshift was, and still is, the worst I’ve ever done. To say it didn’t go well is like saying the Titanic had a leak. One of the many things that went wrong before 3pm has given Tony James a radio disaster story that he never gets tired of telling. Thanks to a combination of sleep deprivation, nerves and a complete lack of experience, it soon became apparent that I had bitten off way more than I could chew and was well and truly buggered.

The show started at 2pm and the first hour of the five hour program was the busiest sixty minutes of my life. I had to play the music on the printed playlist in the correct order from vinyl records, CDs, and tape cartridges. Carts, as they were known were loops of tape enclosed in a plastic shell about the size and shape of those plastic cases double CDs come in. I had to play commercials on cart from a list at specific times, read live commercials, play the correct station ID carts between the songs, read the weather (over the jingle on the weather cart) twice an hour AND have interesting things to say in between. As well as all that, I had to call a random listener off air from a list of phone numbers and record a conversation on to reel-to-reel tape which consisted of me asking the person I’d called if they knew this hour’s ‘Cash Call’ amount. If they knew the exact amount of money I’d announced just after the news, they would win a hundred and twenty-seven dollars and sixty-two cents. I was warned by the program director that the listeners’s reply would start with, “..I don’t know, I wasn’t listening” and that before I played the call on the air, I would have to use a razor blade and splicing tape to literally cut out the bit when they said they weren’t listening, because we had to give the impression that EVERYBODY was listening. To do this, I had to switch the console to monitor the ‘cue’ channel, put my mike and the telephone channels into ‘cue’, dial the ‘Cash Call’ number, record the call, (they said they weren’t listening) cut, splice and cue up the tape ready to play, load the ‘Cash Call’ music cart to play under the recording, and switch the console back to monitor ‘on-air’. I had to do all of this within the time it takes to play one song, it was hectic.

With so much to do and think about, I’d completely forgotten about ‘back timing’. The news came down a line from Sydney at precisely the top of every hour. You had to get everything to finish exactly ten seconds before the end of the hour, then play the ten second news jingle and open the news fader, there was no margin for error.

With the minutes in the hour running out, I added up the times of the next few things I had to play before 3pm and discovered I was going to be exactly one minute fifty-two seconds short. I hadn’t learned how to talk to time yet and I didn’t have the confidence to ‘fill’ for what would be nearly two minutes, so I decided that I would start the last song on my playlist for that hour then run out of the studio, down the corridor to the record library, find a song that was exactly one minute fifty-two in duration, run back and get it on the air as the last song on my list finished. If I started the song I’d found as the other one finished, that would fill up the missing time. It was a completely insane plan. In the history of recorded music, there are hardly any songs with a duration of only one minute fifty-two seconds but in a mad panic, it made perfect sense to me.

When I got to the record library I didn’t have time to check the duration stickers on the vinyl records or CDs. To do that, I’d have to pull each one out from the shelf to look at it. My only hope was the music that was on cart. Music carts were stacked one on top of the other in racks on the wall. My finger ran down the racks past the bottom right hand corner of each cart where the duration was marked. I must have checked the duration of nearly a hundred carts, there was still no “1:52″. I could now hear the chorus of the song on the air repeating which meant it was about to end. My finger moved faster down the carts, it sounded like someone spinning the Wheel of Fortune. Then suddenly I saw it, “1:52″! I could not believe my luck! I pulled the cart from the rack, legged it down the corridor, burst into the studio, jammed the cart into the machine as the previous song faded and at precisely two minutes and two seconds to three (ten seconds added for the news jingle remember) I hit ‘start’ and collapsed into the chair.

For about three seconds I thought I’d got away with it. Then I heard the song I’d chosen. – It would have been fine if this was December but it was the month of March and 2QN Deniliquin was playing Neil Diamond’s version of “Jingle Bell Rock”.

Next Sunday, another instalment from Graham Mack.

Listen to “Mack Nuggets” at

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