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Landline - 'The beating heart of the ABC'

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By Peter Lewis, 9 February 2023

Rural and regional broadcasting has been a mainstay of ABC programming for nearly eight decades. It’s provided a unique on-the-ground insight into the lives and businesses of Australians outside of the capital cities, and both Landlineand The Country Hour remain favourite programs in the rural regions and among many in the cities too. Pete Lewis came to rural reporting late, after many years in news and current affairs but, as he writes here, it was his time on Landline – which returns to ABC TV this Sunday – that brought to him ‘the beating heart’ of the ABC.

From the big end of town to the end of the bitumen – my 20-year road trip 

Former ABC Managing Director and now University of Sydney Vice-Chancellor Mark Scott once said the further you got from the ABC’s HQ in Ultimo, the closer you got to the beating heart of the public broadcaster.

He was addressing an event to celebrate 1000 episodes1 of the award-winning rural current affairs TV program, Landline – so he would say that, wouldn’t he?  

Yet many of us gathered at the appropriately named 100 Acre Bar in leafy Brisbane that night understood exactly where he was coming from.

So do the men and women who live and work across regional, rural and remote parts of Australia and for whom Landlinehas become a Sunday lunchtime ritual.

Back in 1945 when John Douglass established a specialist rural unit within ABC Radio, most Australians had a direct connection with the bush, wherever they lived.

Later that year he launched The Country Hour, which remains a mainstay of daily rural news and information on local radio and online in each state and territory and is Australia’s longest-running radio program.

Click here for audio: ‘Click Go the Hand Shears’ ABC Country Hour founder, John Douglass broadcasting from a shearing shed.

Rural extension officers were appointed to gather local interviews and reports in major regional centres.

In the early days the program also included radio serials such as The Lawsons and from 1949 the spectacularly successful Blue Hills which continued until 1976.

Television added another dimension to the ABC’s rural coverage, initially with a focus on commodity reports with To Market to Market then gradually with more nuanced and in-depth analysis through programs like A Big Country, Countrywide and for the past 30 years, Landline. 2

These days the ABC employs around 50 specialist rural reporters and presenters working on content for a range of local, state and national programs and increasingly digital platforms.

Those lucky enough to get their start with the ABC in the bush quickly developed a unique set of skills, from the opportunity to travel extensively and work independently, to presenting programs and becoming part of small local communities.

Rural reporters need to be resilient and resourceful as they are usually hundreds if not thousands of kilometres from their city-based editors.

Many of their stories spring from face-to-face contact with those riding the highs and lows of agricultural commodity prices, highly variable weather and equally unpredictable political and regulatory environments.

I came to rural reporting comparatively late in my career.

I had no family background in farming, no studies at Ag College or any stints jackerooing.

I was raised in the 1960s on a quarter acre block on Sydney’s North Shore before being swept up into the peripatetic lifestyle of my Dad’s job as a bank manager – with more moves than a chess game!

My lucky break was being born into a family of avid readers and storytellers and so journalism struck me as a splendid way of seeing the country and spinning yarns for a living.

It rarely disappointed.

By the time I got my chance to go bush and work on Landline stories I had worked across most ABC Radio and TV news and current affairs programs, including a stint in the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery in Canberra and the last seasons of state-based 7.30 Reports.

You used to get a fairly free rein on Landline to develop story ideas, travel and shoot them, script them and post-produce them.

You worked on the road with just a cinematographer and a sound recordist, and largely were responsible for the logistics and planning that went into assignments which invariably could extend for a couple of weeks if you were travelling interstate.

The real pleasure and privilege of this kind of storytelling was that it brought you in contact with people who did interesting, important work often in spectacular parts of Australia.

The other main point of difference was that we had time to do their stories justice – not just some fly-in fly-out, ‘once over lightly’ treatment like mainstream news and current affairs programs that focussed more on the cult of personalities rather than content.

The Landline stories themselves tended to flow like cold molasses and there was careful attention to how music and editing could enhance the experience for viewers.

One of my favourite yarns was an extended piece on R.M. Williams – the self-educated saddler from South Australia who created the eponymously named global fashion brand.

We were able to spend a few days with him at one of his family’s properties in Central Queensland; and film him working cattle on horseback and teaching the next generation how to work leather into a whole range of useful things from plaited kangaroo-hide belts to bridles and other horse tack.

We learned that aside from his beloved bush, R.M.’s other great passion was poetry – particularly the work of Scottish-born horseman, jackaroo and drover, Will Ogilvie – which he recited for us over a few ‘phlegm-cutters’ at sundown.

For much of its time on air, Landline’s production team has boasted some of the ABC’s most experienced and accomplished long-form journalists and producers like Kerry Lonergan, Prue Adams, Sean Murphy and Tim Lee; award-winning cinematographers like Laurence McManus ACS, Ron Ekkel ACS and John Bean ACS as well as vastly experienced craft editors like Kim Cardow, Russell Maggs and Brad McCrystal.

Landline consistently wins state and national awards for excellence in rural journalism and over the past decade has been just as successful on the international stage.

But its crowning achievement is that for most of its 30 years on air, Landline has enjoyed overwhelmingly positive feedback from country and city viewers alike.

And despite periodic attempts by ‘carpet-strollers’ at the ABC’s Sydney HQ to shift its focus to more of a rural lifestyle program, it has stood the test of time.

People get the fact that it still goes the extra mile to get good stories and that at its best it helps build understanding and an appreciation of what goes into growing food and fibre for Australia and for the world.

*Landline returns to ABC TV this Sunday, 12 February, at 12:30 pm. Individual state editions of The Country Hour air at 12 noon each weekday on all regional ABC Local Radio stations


Pete Lewis is a former Landline reporter and executive producer. He is now the director of Brisbane-based consultancy Way With Words after a 40-year career in print & broadcast journalism. He is a former delegate to the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists (IFAJ), immediate Past President of the Australian Council of Agricultural Journalists (ACAJ) and a Life Member of the Rural Press Club of Queensland.


Footnotes

1 The 1000th episode of Landline was broadcast on 7 September 2008.

2 Landline started in 1991 and celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2021. See the anniversary program here.


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