Jones files: The lighter side of broadcasting in PNG

By Richard Jones

I’VE been broadcasting either from the studio or from outside locations since the mid-1960s.
I lived in Papua New Guinea from 1963-76. PNG was the Territory of Papua New Guinea before self-government in 1973 and independence in 1975.
When I started calling amateur boxing tournaments from ringside for the ABC’s 9PA Port Moresby-9RB Rabaul radio network the apparatus and the way in which we worked was fairly rudimentary.
The finals of the Papuan Amateur Boxing Association tournament always went to air, topped only by the national championships of that particular year.
The national titles were staged on the New Guinea side in Rabaul, Lae or Madang and in Moresby every alternate year.
To get the fighters and officials representing Papua to the national title bouts on the other side of the country we chartered old DC3s, the workhorses of the air in Pacific island countries of the time. I have no doubt that in some out-of-the-way places in Asia or Africa the occasional DC3 still rattles down the runway before lumbering into the air.
But back to the commentating. Located as we were square-on to the ring with the ABC techs in close attendance behind, at the end of each round we needed to watch which way the boxers were spitting.
The corner attendants would hold out buckets for their charges to spit into. At an outdoors venue such as Moresby’s Sir Hubert Murray Stadium, it was common during the south-east trade winds season for the spray, mixed occasionally with blood, tended to cascade down an unwary commentator’s cheek.
At after-tournament drinks one night my wife and her girlfriends complained about the unwanted watery substances which had drifted their way. No thanks for the complimentary ringside seats — just remarks about unsavoury saliva.
The highlights of the PNG fight game came when professional boxing really grabbed hold of the public imagination in the early 1970s. We had two fighters — Martin Beni and Johnny Aba — who were ranked in the Commonwealth’s top ten in their weight divisions.
The ring was located right in front of the Sir Hubert Murray stadium grandstand, with row upon row of seating spilling back across the grass on the other three sides.
On the evening when Beni fought South Australian Colin Cassidy for the Commonwealth’s No. 6 spot in the light-welterweight division, Chief Minister Michael Somare (now Sir Michael Somare) successfully moved in the House of Assembly that standing orders be suspended and members adjourn to the stadium beside the bay in the suburb of Konedobu to watch the big fight.
As the official MC, as well as the blow-by-blow on-air commentator, I remember watching in amazement from centre ring as black car after official black car drew up outside the main gates. Parliamentarians by the dozen emerged to snare their allotted ringside seats.
No one was ever quite sure about the size of the crowd that night. The best estimates came in at between 12,000 and 15,000. But how many people were perched in the branches of trees overlooking the ground, as well as those standing on bus roofs parked around the oval’s perimeter, we’ll never know.
Beni won on a TKO (technical knockout) in the sixth round amid frenzied euphoria from spectators. I don’t think my announcement of the official result was ever heard beyond the first two ringside rows.
It was the between-rounds commentary aspect of the PNG fight game that was extraordinary. It was easy enough for me to intone: “Beni goes into a crouch, throws out a tentative left. Cassidy weaves back, lands a right then is caught by a crunching Beni left hook as the Aussie moves away onto the ropes.”
As soon as the bell to end the round was sounded one of my special comments men would sum up the action in Pidgin English.
He had thirty seconds to complete this task. For the next thirty seconds my other co-commentator would summarise in the lingua franca of the Papuan coast, Hiri Motu.
I was quite competent in Pidgin but had only a smattering of Motu. The summaries had to be all done as soon as the bell rang for the start of the next round. There’s only a minute’s break between rounds.
The other two commentators were fluent English speakers, of course, and they were occasionally called on in mid-round to give their assessments of the way the bout was progressing.
The three-language scenario might happen in other cultures, although I’ve never read about it.
I believe it was a unique innovation for, first, the ABC and then PNG’s National Broadcasting Corporation, which took over all radio duties some time before Independence.

The other sport that was regularly broadcast was rugby league. Papua New Guinea is believed to be the only nation on the planet where rugby league is the national code.
It has been huge there since the late 1950s. Every year two inter-Territory matches were played between Papua and New Guinea.
As for boxing and other sports, Moresby was the venue when it was Papua’s turn to act as host. The towns of Lae, Rabaul or Madang would host the big match when it was New Guinea’s turn, taking it in rotation.
Occasionally the Highlands towns of Goroka or Mt Hagen would be the New Guinea venue.
Anyway, for about three years I was the rugby-league scribe for the twice weekly South Pacific Post, later the national daily Post-Courier. And I was asked to help call the Inter-Territory league matches: the highlights of the PNG sports year.
As a Victorian writing rugby league (long before there was a Melbourne Storm playing) it caused Queenslanders and punters from NSW a lot of heartburn and angst — but that’s a story for another day.
One year we were in Rabaul for the first match of the series. A flimsy bamboo and kunai grass structure had been erected, and that’s where the broadcasting headsets had been arranged.
Standing up to call the action down the far end of the field, my over-enthusiastic co-broadcaster leaned out to see if a tackler had taken the ball carrier over the sideline.
He stood on a key component of our “broadcast house” structure and the whole thing tilted. Not quite as severe as Pisa’s leaning tower, but alarming nevertheless.
As we were perched some metres above the crowd, we remained seated for the rest of the afternoon no matter where the ball or the players went. No comfort stops at half-time, either.
As it was we had to align ourselves somewhat unnaturally just to ensure the whole thing didn’t collapse.
A relieved three or four blokes scuttled down the ladder onto terra firma at the end of proceedings.

Comments

  1. johnharms says:

    Richard

    Really enjoyed your yarns, and would love to hear more.

    My family has had a connection with PNG since the mid-60s. My wife had the first nine years of her life in Madang. MY uncle was a Lutheran pastor at various places: Bulolo, Minyamya, Goroka, and Lae. My aunt was a nurse on Kar Kar Island. Sport was big among the ex-pat and local populations.

    You probably know Sean Dorney, the ABC correspondent, who is from Queensland (Townsville or Charters Towers I think). He actually played for the PNG rugby league side and may have even been captain.

    When I was teaching at St Peters in Brisbane I was involved in the Aus=aid program which brought students down from PNG. The boys were keen rugby players – and very talented (and supremely strong). St Peters had a black-line, rather than a back-line.

    JTH

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