“Incidentally, how do you download this stuff? What sort of wave do you get into your computer?”
That was the first thing Russ Walkington said when I interviewed him at the Seniors’ Expo in July. He was asking how I could transfer the voice recording of the interview from my phone to my laptop, and I didn’t even know a wave was involved! Russ’s sixty years’ experience as a top-rated radio personality has seen him learn about travel, storytelling, community – and yes, radio waves.
Always “a bit of a gasbag”, Russ joined radio in 1952. The “Travelling Radio Man” has rolled with all the changes in radio since then and his global adventures continue as a volunteer at 4CRB, Australia’s biggest community radio station for seniors.
A Story from Radio’s Early Days
The station’s Gold Coast headquarters holds a copy of every song the station has played since it began in 1984. One room is full of old-style records. From there you walk past the live broadcasting room where a member of Parliament is doing Q&A with listeners, down a corridor to a much smaller room stacked with cassette tapes – remnants of the nineties. Before the transition to CDs and then digital music, Russ and his colleagues would often have to rush to untangle cassettes that had broken mid-song.
“It was frightening!” Russ admitted. But sometimes the hitches were opportunities.
“It’s a historical tale that on a country radio station, through an open window (we lacked air conditioning and soundproofing and that sort of thing), there were cicadas on the trees and one flew in and dislodged the pickup on the record that was being played, and trying to explain what had interrupted the program I just threw my voice into a sort of falsetto pitch and had the little insect talk.”
So it was that one hot day early in Russ’s career, Gerald the Grasshopper was born. You may even have heard him when you were younger: he became a favourite character in the children’s segment of Russ’s breakfast programs. Russ sometimes meets strangers in the street who listened to Gerald when they were kids.
What Russ Has Learned About Theatre of the Mind
If technology had been more advanced back then, Gerald might never have been created: today’s tech means you can edit out errors for a perfect broadcast. But Russ prefers mistakes. He believes the station’s 65 000 listeners can relate to bungled sentences or mispronounced words much more than seamless speech.
Throughout his career Russ has also noticed that listeners are more interested in the unusual than in celebrities. Like the taxi driver who told Margaret Thatcher how to run Great Britain while driving her home. After that enlightening trip, Margaret invited her spontaneous advisor in for a cup of tea! This driver was one of the more memorable guests on Lunch with Russ, a talk show Russ hosted on 4BH before he joined 4CRB.
Lunch with Russ was no ordinary radio chat. It involved an actual lunch with a dining table and waiters, the cutlery clinking in the background, because Russ views radio as “theatre of the mind”. The idea is that from their armchairs, listeners can conjure up the people and places they hear about, which means there’s no single Gerald the Grasshopper or Cecil the Sinister Snake. This concept is the basis of his other talk shows, like his Armchair Travel Hour on 4CRB.
4CRB is Connecting Community
Russ began organising and leading “Come Away with the Personality” travel tours in 1974 and continues them at 4CRB. Listeners who don’t physically come on the tours travel with Russ in their imaginations to over thirty countries during 4CRB’s Armchair Travel Hour (10am on Saturdays). On this program he recaps his latest tour, and shares interviews with people he met along the way. Russ remarked that his tour members find the people they encounter the most interesting part of the trips.
“Temples and natural things – waterfalls, that sort of thing – monuments, are all very interesting but they invariably say, almost monotonously, “We loved meeting the people”. “The people of Cambodia are divine”, was one reaction we got.
And I think that that’s one of the great by-products of travel and communication in that it makes people aware that there aren’t all that many differences between people and they can get on if they’re left alone.”
Russ believes his travel shows are bringing listeners closer to each other as well as to the global community.
“We have people who listen to us every Saturday morning in Adelaide, and they come from Adelaide to join the group from the Gold Coast. So that establishes how this thing can make a togetherness that’s more than just a local audience, because they see themselves as 4CRB listeners.”
Russ is looking forward to his upcoming river cruise tour in Cambodia and Vietnam, and 4CRB’s next big project: a green room for livestreaming.