A manager for all seasons – David James

In late 1974, before there was a radio station called 2MBS-FM, before there was a building for it to broadcast from, before there was any equipment, David James became the first station manager. Apart from him, everyone would be a volunteer – even down to the commercial suppliers, persuaded – usually by David James – to donate equipment. The FM band was virtually untried. A baptism of fire is how James remembers it, or like being thrown off the deep end. He stayed in the job four and a half years, until early 1978, by which time the station was running on lines he helped map out. This story has a sequel – years later, in 1985, the organisation found itself again in rather urgent need of a manager such as it remembered David James as being. By a happy chance he proved available again, and there was a second coming, easing for twelve months the transition from a general manager to a reaffirmed station manager role.

How did David James and MBS become thus linked? Through someone familiar to our readers: Trevor Jarvie, secretary and animator of the Music Broadcasting Society. Out of the blue, one day, seated in the control room at Channel 9, James got a phone call: “I think it’s time for you to quit your job, David, and to come and set up a radio station,” Jarvie said, following up with, “we’d offer you money!”.

The arbitrary deadline for going to air was one month away.

David James was already a committee member of the Music Broadcasting Society, and familiar with its aims, though he admits that, as a shift worker in commercial television, he was as sporadic in his attendance as was Trevor Jarvie at meetings of the Australian Tape Recording Society, where the two men had met. When in 1973 the fledgling MBS put on a set of four concerts at East Sydney Technical College’s Cell Block theatre, it was David James from the Tape Recordists who captured them – partly with a view to having on tape something local, to be broadcast should a station evolve.

Most urgent of James’ tasks on taking up his new job was finding a ‘home’ – premises which could include a broadcast studio. As well as making many phone calls, James remembers traipsing the streets with committee members looking at possibilities– even caravans? Then, like manna from heaven, a Mr. Shirley offered rooms in Alexander Street, Crows Nest, for a peppercorn rent. Empty premises – more phone calls necessary, begging equipment, broadcasting hardware .…on air in less than a month. Turntables, microphones, mixing desks – expensive, but almost all donated. “The money we didn’t have,” James recalls, “I’d already spent on office furniture”.

Legions of early volunteers encountered David James around Crows Nest and St. Leonards. Not just at the radio station, but in the street, and in the local eateries. Born within cooee, and schooled there, David James seemed destined to work in the locality. Nobody thinks it was for his own convenience, when he found a second and permanent home for the station, that it was in St. Leonards (76 Chandos Street), yet this was a building in which he had worked when it was a studio doing sound for films (and TV, including Skippy the Bush Kangaroo). No wonder James reacted with a thrilled “Oh do you?” when the owner, asked about MBS renting the whole of the building, said that he wanted to sell it. MBS soon nerved itself to buy, and to raise the money. David James helped draft a brochure: “Help Put us in a Home of our Own”.

Fast drafting and typing were among his skills, and among the myriad tasks that fell into the station manager’s lap. But, if the station was to be run by volunteers, then why not entirely by volunteers? Who better to ask than the first and for some time the sole employee? James thinks the Board of MBS, especially Trevor Jarvie and Michael Law, thought a manager would “glue it all together”. One employee only, though James soon persuaded the Board he needed an assistant. A vast amount of his time – more than he had, really – was spent on the phone, answering and making calls. Someone had to be available to do this, preferably the same person, and during hours when many volunteers weren’t available. By default, the job became more that of an administrator than of a station manager – hence the need for an assistant.

David James drew up for himself a duty statement, as station manager of 2MBS-FM, containing 58 items. But it was hardly a case of all-knowing leadership, let alone of ‘in the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king’. The essence of it for the manager – as the one full-time paid staff among volunteers – was delegation, and coordination, and if that failed: “No. 18 – Make decisions that I wish other people would make”. No. 48 read: “Be advised often on trivia which I don’t wish to know but if I didn’t know I’d be worse off”.

Though his eyelids often drooped from sheer exhaustion, David James managed to carry on. His background and experience equipped him well. Losing his father at age 11, he left school at 15 and went to work at the Bank of New South Wales for eight years. He began evening classes at the Marconi School of Wireless, but his considerable technical knowledge came mainly from electronics hobbies, and “reading a lot of technical magazines and books”. Whereas for other MBS founders radio and sound were a hobby, they were David James’ profession, and that suited him to a manager’s job among technical and broadcasting enthusiasts. As for the jostling of human wishes and needs – the bank experience helped with that. James believes dealing across the counter made him a good listener, and an interested one, however odd the person, or the request.

David James, like so many MBS volunteers, was an untrained lover of music. He has worked professionally with music of many kinds, and since his association with MBS has been drawn more to the kind of music it broadcasts, especially to choral and organ music.

On James’ to-do list was one strong negative: “No.53 – Ensure that I never speak on air”. He came perilously close, when continuity of on-air presentation was threatened, sometimes pushing reluctant first-time presenters behind a microphone soon-to-be-live. Many of the voices heard on air in 2MBS’s early years were recruited by David James, the manager helping shape the on-air sound of the station. In all aspects of his job, he says, “what I liked was matching volunteers to tasks”. A telephone caller asking about the possibility of announcing on 2MBS would be put in touch with David James, who made a first assessment, of voice and of musical knowledge. To the station manager also would often fall the emergency of finding a replacement, at short notice, for a presenter who had suddenly become unavailable.

Alexander Street was cramped and uncomfortable, and it was obvious that larger premises were needed. But there is nostalgia – closeness breeds intimacy. In the thick of it was David James, barely managing, by his own admission. “Had Charles Noble not walked in a couple of days after we went to air I don’t know what I would have done”. Noble, a volunteer in his 70s, was soon given the title office manager. “Can I do anything?” he had asked, and was given all the new subscriptions to process and the telephone to answer. Then came Jock Weir, put in charge of the station’s record library, scant at first, but fast growing. Then came Karl Sorensen as Jock’s assistant…a typical pattern, volunteers offering professional work, lifting the load from James’ shoulders, and working under his benevolent coordination.

And friendships, many friendships were formed. Pizza, shared sitting on the office floor, while programming, slotting programs, cataloguing, or taking a break from a technical working bee. Then there were more comfortable meals (and red wine) in the favored local eatery La Goulue. “MBS has always been a social organization,” David James has been known to say still today. There was a downside – marriages have been made at the station, but David James has also commented on the incompatibility of marriage and MBS. That and a growing family may have influenced his decision to leave – the first time – exhausted, but proud, not least for having met a novel challenge. He managed the first radio station in Australia staffed at first by none other than volunteers. The one exception is remembered fondly as an exceptional manager.

David Garrett

David Garrett has been associated with Fine Music 102.5 since before it hit the airwaves 40 years ago. A regular on-air presenter, he is also a former Board member and Treasurer of the organisation. David is well known as a writer and speaker on music and history. His Ph.D. from the University of Wollongong explored how the Australian Broadcasting Commission became a presenter of concerts and builder of orchestras. David has taught history at Monash and Sydney Universities. For thirty years he was a music administrator and programmer, for Sydney Philharmonia, then for the ABC and Australia’s six symphony orchestras.

The research and writing for Fine Music: Forty Years of FM Broadcasting are made possible through a generous donation from station volunteer and former Chairman Ron Walledge.

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