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From Relief Typist to the ABC MD’s Personal Secretary

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One of the most memorable recollections in our recent story about pioneering radio technician Stan Bancroft was his role in organising and co-ordinating the live broadcast of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing in July 1969. Another staffer at the time was Elaine Cooke, who was typing ABC radio science program transcripts as a ‘relief typist’ and vividly recalls the momentous day in July 1969 when astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon. It was the beginning of a 32-year career that led Elaine to the top of the organisation.

From Relief Typist to Personal Secretary to the ABC Managing Director

By Elaine D. Cooke / 15 September 2022

My employment at the ABC began not long before a most momentous event in history.

The lunar module of Apollo 11 touched down on the moon’s surface on 20 July 1969, and Neil Armstrong made his memorable statement, ‘One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.’

ABC radio covered every second of the ground-breaking mission. Dr Peter Pockley1, head of the Radio Science Programs Unit, led the broadcast coverage from the Forbes Street studios in Sydney. Dr John Challis was Executive Producer and Stanley Bancroft managed the technical details. I was thrilled to be there as part of the support staff.

 

Dr Peter Pockley (pictured below), and other senior members of the ABC team covering the Apollo 11 coverage (above) – Executive Producer, Dr John Challis; Producer, Kim Corcoran; and Technical Director, Stan Bancroft (pictured right).

Pockley and Bancroft had convinced NASA to allow the ABC to broadcast a continuous feed of the communication channel – known as the ‘Voice of Apollo’ – between the Apollo spacecraft and Houston, Texas, via Honeysuckle Creek in the ACT and using PMG landlines. This was put to air with commentary from Peter Pockley and analysis from a number of experts.

I well remember hearing the astronauts’ conversations with NASA, punctuated by long pauses in the relay of sound, as I sat behind my typewriter at 171 William Street, not far from the Forbes Street studios.

And now the Eagle had landed!  It was a never-to-be-forgotten moment in world history – and the ABC was there to cover the story. 

It had been quite a leap for me, too, a girl from the bush, familiar with de-trashing (cutting off dead branches on banana stools), to the day I joined the ABC in Sydney.  I started out on what was called ‘relief staff’, and was luckily assigned to the Science Programs Unit where a weekly program called Insight2 originated. I knew the program. I had been a listener. Now I knew the people behind it. I felt I’d ‘landed’ too.

Growing up with the ABC

I’d grown up on a banana plantation and saw-milling property in the small community of Moonee, eight miles (12 km) north of Coffs Harbour on the NSW mid-north coast. I’d also grown up with the Australian Broadcasting Commission. There was only radio back then, called ‘the wireless’; television hadn’t reached country areas. 

My father listened to the news bulletins and you dared not talk when the news was on, thus I learned early the importance of ABC News.

My mother, like thousands of other country people, listened to Blue Hills, the serial by Gwen Meredith, at two minutes past one each weekday.

And I was an Argonaut – ‘Cambyses 38’.  Daily, most of my classmates tuned into the ABC Children’s Hour featuring The Argonauts Club.We could sing the theme music, we delighted when our contributions were read out over the air. We knew about Ruth Park’s ‘Muddleheaded Wombat’ and G.K. Saunders’ ‘The Nomads’. We learned more about nature from ‘Tom the Naturalist’ (Alan Colefax) and ‘Linnaeus’ (Roy Kinghorn), about music from ‘Mr Melody Man’ (Lindley Evans), about art from Phidias (Jeffrey Smart), and about books from Icarus (John Gunn - my favourite). As explained in Wendy Borchers’ story about the Argonauts earlier this year, we were awarded certificates – I rowed all the way to ‘The Order of the Dragon’s Tooth’, once I’d earned 150 points from my regular written contributions. And I received a treasured ‘Purple Certificate’ (a higher level than the Blue Certificates), signed by ‘Linnaeus’, for my true story of the Spurwing Plover (‘Spider’) that my father raised from an orphaned hatchling, until he eventually answered the call of the wild and flew away.

I attended Kororo Public School, approx. 4 miles (6 kms) from Moonee. It was a small three-teacher school, and ABC schools’ broadcasts were an important part of the curriculum. So important were they that when the reception failed, as it did from time to time, one of my classmates was assigned the job of standing in front of the big wireless and jumping on the floor until the program was restored. This remedy never failed!

Joining the ABC

In 1968 I answered an advertisement in the paper for an ABC ‘relief typist’, urged on by an actress friend, Wendy Playfair3 (who did radio spots for the ABC, including The Argonauts). I had to sit a test for shorthand and typing speeds – skills learned at Coffs Harbour Technical College. My shorthand was 120 words per minute and typing, 60 words per minute. So I passed with flying colours! 

It was an exciting day when I joined the ABC. Relief staff were not casuals; we were recruited and sent to positions which were temporarily vacant, owing to the occupants being on holidays or other types of leave, or where there was work to be done but a permanent position hadn’t been created. It was a marvellous introduction to the internal workings of the ABC, its many departments and all the wonderful staff – including the invaluable tea ladies, mail boys, and commissionaires. 

I was sent to the Radio Science Programs Unit for my first day of work. It was here I met the unforgettable Dr John Challis4 who would later encourage me to return to the unit when another opportunity opened up. So, after completing another relief assignment, this time in Publicity, I gladly returned. 

Wearing headphones and sitting behind my manual typewriter, I began typing my way through huge BASF tapes, transcribing interviews with leading scientists.

Well I remember the day when I fast-forwarded a tape – and it got away from me!  To my dismay I was unable to stop it whizzing forward with increasing speed, and then snapping! I was sure my days at the ABC were over. With great good humour and many assurances that the tape could be fixed, John Challis set my mind at rest. I lived to transcribe many more tapes, a number of which formed the basis of an Insight series on astronomy. It resulted in an ABC booklet, Astronomical Insights, a copy of which Peter Pockley inscribed for me as ‘one who has seen these programs and the book through the tribulation of conception and birth’.  

Moving to the ABC’s Head Office

Later, I moved to the ABC Commission Administrative Office on the 12th floor of Broadcast House, which was then the ABC’s Head Office in Elizabeth Street, Sydney. A relief position had become available for a skilled stenographer to work for the head of the admin office, George Murphy. Mr Murphy had served in the Australian Army during the Second World War, both in Australia and New Guinea. He was in Darwin when the Japanese began bombing in 1942 and liked to tell me about it, including the graphic story of how he and his regimental colleagues didn’t realise at first that they were enemy planes. Everyone soon hit the ground when it became apparent what was happening!

As a lover of Pitman’s shorthand, I relished the opportunity of using and developing my skills. I ‘acted’ in this position – as the ABC termed it – until I was later appointed to it permanently. Another leap for me! 

The new job was one that would give me an understanding of the internal workings of the ABC’s governing board – the Commission. In time, I met all the Commissioners of the ABC. About three of them had been on the Commission when I was in primary school and I remembered their names from the front of the schools’ broadcast booklets. I would also meet the General Manager of the ABC, Talbot (later Sir Talbot) Duckmanton5, along with other members of management and staff. 

I remember a delightful conversation I had with Mr Duckmanton waiting for the lifts in Broadcast House. He’d flown on the then world-famous Concorde aircraft and he was only too happy to tell me about it when I asked – he’d enjoyed the flight and was delighted that I was interested in it.

As new appointments were made to the Commission, I met all of them. Names such as Arthur Lowndes6, Hal Lashwood7, James Tehan8 spring to mind. And later, the first staff-elected member, the colourful Marius Webb9.  Who could ever forget that mop-head hairstyle!

In 1982, I moved into a secretarial position in senior management – again, in an ‘acting’ capacity before being appointed. The ABC had a very practical method of developing its staff by providing opportunities within its structure for advancement. If you met the criteria, avenues opened up.

I was secretary to the then Assistant General Manager (Management Services), Keith Jennings10, while he was intimately involved in the transition from the Australian Broadcasting Commission to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Keith Jennings had strongly pushed to keep the ‘ABC’ acronym, as it was so identifiable all over Australia. I’m not sure if there was ever a serious threat to change it, but I do remember Mr Jennings was adamant that ABC be kept. 

I recall, too, a rare but famous typing error I made during my time in the AGM(MS) Office. Instead of typing that a pilotwas being developed in the Television Division, I typed plot. The secretary to the Assistant General Manager (TV), Ruth Sullivan, discovered the error and quipped that I was probably nearer the truth than I could ever have realised!

Once the ABC changed from Commission to Corporation, I became personal secretary to Geoffrey Whitehead11, the first Managing Director. He requested – in a very far-sighted way – that I be trained in the new word-processing equipment.  This was the biggest change for typists since the electric typewriter overtook the manual typewriter. Geoffrey was a dedicated MD. His biggest task was to implement the Corporation in line with the new ABC Act, which replaced the old Broadcasting and Television Act 1932. His tenure was short, but we still exchange Christmas cards and remember old times. Ken Myer was the Chairman of the ABC at this time, and Wendy McCarthy the Deputy Chair. I remember the very tall Ken Myer being most charming and generous, and Wendy McCarthy having an infectious laugh. For some task I performed for Mr Myer in the line of duty, I received a huge bouquet of flowers at my home.   

The ABC was on the move geographically in Sydney during this time. While its new headquarters were being built at Ultimo, the head office moved from Elizabeth Street to 150 William Street (not too far from 171 where I’d started working in the Science Unit). These were the days of computer screens linked to the ABC’s mainframe computer.

In December 1986, David Hill12 (who succeeded Geoffrey Whitehead as MD) walked into his new corner office in William Street, along with his wonderful liaison officer, (the late) Tony Ferguson. And so began another new chapter in the life of the ABC – and in my life. 

David took a vital interest in the ratings for ABC TV and Radio programs and eventually got the ‘Eight Cents a Day’ campaign underway, signifying the huge value the ABC was in every way to the Australian public. His management style was direct and dynamic.  I well remember him saying to me: ‘Don’t give me your problems, Elaine; just fix it!’ Needless to say, I rose to the challenge! He had a way of sweeping you along with him into new frontiers. The Pocket Kobbe’s Opera Book which he gave me one Christmas is inscribed: ‘To go with you on your adventure into the enchantment of the world of Opera.’

The Scottish-born ‘tea lady’, Lil, held David in great affection. She even wore her musical knickers (playing Jingle Bells) around the Board Room table to add a different kind of sparkle to the festive season one Christmas time. She knew David had a good sense of humour – and the Board, also.

It was at 150 William Street I was to meet the famous Liberal Party Senator, Neville Bonner, the ‘first Aboriginal member of the ABC Board’ (and the only Indigenous member to date). It was quite a treat to listen to him spar with David Hill. He’d inevitably arrive with the greeting, ‘How are you, you bloody white bastard!’, and the office would burst into laughter.

The move from rented premises to the ABC’s own building in Ultimo was in stages. Management was the last to pack up and go. My trusty small electric typewriter still accompanied me, along with my shorthand pen, as I joined my colleagues on the 7th floor of the new headquarters and moved into the age of the desktop computer. It was also the time of the emergence of the mobile phone. 

A couple of new faces joined the MD’s staff as others, notably Miriam Clancy and Gary Linnane, moved on.  We welded into a tight-knit group who shared a wonderful and exciting working relationship, which included lots of fun, along with hard work. There were five of us: Stergitsa Zamagias (who later married David Hill), Peter Morton, John Coghlan, Annie McCaig and me.    

It was incredibly hard saying goodbye to David Hill when his tenure finished as Managing Director, and we have remained friends to this day. I’ve since been able to do some transcription work for him for a couple of his wonderful books.

Brian Johns13 succeeded David. Apart from his time as MD of SBS, he’d been head of Penguin Books Australia, so I knew we’d have books in common. Another new chapter had started. Changes to personal staff happened also. Janet Clayton and Di Francis joined the team, as others moved on. Brian was a great lover of the Arts, history and humanities, and I remember him strongly supporting the then head of news, Paul Williams, in establishing Australian Story.  

I cherish the beautiful Lladró figurine of a girl with two cats (he knew I loved cats), that Brian and his wife, Sarah, gave me as a Christmas gift. 

The winds of change were again blowing through the ABC and, having worked for three MDs, I decided to take a redundancy when Jonathan Shier was appointed.

The ABC nurtured, expanded, educated and enriched my childhood and teenage years. As a staff member, the organisation continued to do that for me. It was a world of ever-widening horizons. I met the most interesting and amazing people and worked with cherished colleagues. I never walked on the moon like Neil Armstrong, but I walked the corridors of the ABC over many years, and for that, I remain deeply and profoundly grateful.


Footnotes:

1 Dr Peter Pockley – was the ABC’s first head of science programming, appointed in 1963 by the ABC Chairman Dr J.R. Darling.

2 Insight was a weekly radio science program, began by Dr Peter Pockley in 1965. It was replaced by “The Science Show” which premiered on 30 August 1975, presented by Robyn Williams.

3 Elaine and Wendy Playfair Williams have continued their friendship. Wendy is now a feisty 96-year-old living in Sydney.

4 Dr John Challis joined the ABC in 1965. He was a producer in Religious Broadcasts, Education and Science. In 1973, when Peter Pockley left the ABC, he became head of the radio science unit.

15 Talbot Duckmanton began at the ABC in 1939 as a broadcaster, rising to General Manager 1965-1982.

6 Arthur Lowndes was appointed ABC Commissioner in 1956. He served until 1974 and was vice-chair from 1971-1974. 

7 Hal Ashwood was a well known radio entertainer and television presenter. He was President of the Actors and Announcers Equity Association of Australia for 25 years and was a strong advocate for Australian programming. He was appointed to the ABC Commission by the Whitlam government in 1973. The Fraser government did not reappoint him when his term expired in 1976.

8 James Tehan was a member of the Country Party and a grazier from Victoria. He served on the Commission from 1971 to 1974.

9 Marius Webb was the first staff elected commissioner from 1975 to 1978.

10 Keith Jennings was appointed Assistant General Manager for Management Services in 1980. In 1982, he became the fifth General Manager of the Australian Broadcasting Commission and would be the last one before the organisation became a corporation.

11 Geoffrey Whitehead was the first Managing Director of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, January 1984 to December 1986.

12 David Hill was Chairman of the ABC between 1986 and 1987. He was Managing Director from 1987 to 1995.

13 Brian Johns was Managing Director from March 1995 until March 2000.


Elaine D. Cooke joined the ABC in July 1968, working as a typist in the Radio Science Programs Unit. Later, she moved to the Commission Administrative Office (‘a stenographer’s dream – I stayed for 10 years’, before becoming Secretary to the Assistant General Manager, Management Services). In late 1983, the ABC became a corporation, she was appointed Personal Secretary to the Managing Director and remained in that position serving three MDs, until March 2000.


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