Saturday, September 21, 2013

Remembering Arch McKirdy, the man who made the ABC real

The presenter of Australia's most popular radio program had a wicked secret he kept from his 1960’s ABC audience.

After ten each night he introduced it with the words: “This is Arch McKirdy inviting you to ...relax with me.”

Over time the gap between the “to” and “relax” became longer and longer. During the break he would turn off the microphone and glare through the glass into the ABC Forbes Street control room with a “watch how long I am going to stretch it tonight” expression. The staff would squirm as the gap grew and grew.

After seemed like an eternity he would turn his microphone back on and finish the introduction. Then he would then turn it off, hit the talkback button and roar with laughter.

Arch and Relax with Me were legends well before he joined the ABC.

Born in country Victoria into a musical family (his father ran country dances and encouraged Arch to play drums and guitar) he auditioned for the job of cadet announcer at 3TR Sale in 1941 at the age of 17.

Its sister station 3SH in Swan Hill was short staffed because of the war and he moved there for a few months before joining the army, on the usual condition that he could return to his job when the war ended. Within two years the army had shifted him to its entertainment unit where he toured the Pacific for the rest of the war becoming a singer and comedian and mixing with some of Australia’s best jazz musicians.

Back in Victoria he did a music appreciation course and then headed to Sydney and 2UW where he took over Bobby Limb’s midday show and then an evening program called Starlight Serenade which he renamed Relax With Me.

‘Modern jazz’ would have been one description of the music, although he preferred the less-specific “music for adults” which gave him licence to play whatever seemed right for the mood he was trying to create in the minutes leading up til midnight. Tony Bennett, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald made frequent appearances as did Artie Shaw and Louis Armstrong who would drop in and play their favourite records when they were in town. More than a radio program, it was a chance to “sit down, share a piece of music and talk together”.

Tobacco giant Philip Morris noticed and showered dollars at the program and at Arch personally, moving their money with him as he moved to 2SM and then 2GB, all the time presenting Relax With Me and all the time sponsored by Ardath cigarettes.

In his 2005 ABC Andrew Ollie memorial lecture broadcaster John Doyle recalled his family sitting around the lounge room in at night in the 1950s “letting Arch McKirdy guide us through Benny Golson or Oscar Peterson or Charlie Parker.”

“With voice alone he fashioned the smoky atmosphere of a New York Jazz Club,” Doyle said. “His live commercials for Ardath had him ignoring the copy and the ad would sometimes be reduced to a pause, followed by the sound of a match being struck and an ecstatic draw.”

(Arch discretely moonlighted for one of the other Philip Morris brands, intoning unseen in radio, television and cinema advertisements: “Where there’s a Man, there’s a Marlboro” - a source of amusement to those who knew the wiry and diminutive figure.)

All the while he was juggling parallel careers as a co-host Channel 7 children's television show The Land of Make Believe and as the promoter of jazz concerts showcasing Australian talents such as Don Burrows and Julie Bailey.

At the height of his commercial fame in 1964 he infuriated Philip Morris by moving Relax with Me and his audience to the ABC where it could no longer be sponsored but would be heard coast to coast seven nights a week. He said he did it partly because he could see the way the commercial radio was moving. The Top 40 would soon smother other programs.

An “odd fit” at first according to ABC colleague Margaret Throsby he soon made the program the nation’s most popular, drawing listeners in to a mesmerising mix of quietly spoken intimacy and sensuous sounds.

Throsby says he told her the title of the program was iconic.

“I don’t use that lightly. He used to say more babies had been conceived to his program than any other,” she says. “I hung on his every word. He was a gentle man and a gentleman, and a generous man, who really deeply understood what broadcasting is all about.”

Then in November 1972 after 2403 shows for the ABC and aged just 48 he moved into management. His new title “Director of Radio Presentation” scarcely seemed worthy of one of Australia’s most loved broadcasters. Yet Arch had plans for the job few in the ABC of time foresaw.

For next two decades he took by the hand young broadcasters such as Norman Swan, Geraldine Doogue and Fran Kelly, teaching them to speak not the Queen’s English as the had previously been required, but how to do something closer to making love to their audience.

He would start by telling them to put the width of a fist between their lips and the microphone, and then ask them to imagine a personal friend on the other side (for him it was his wife Margaret). Then he would ask them to talk to that person; not to read ‘one, word, at, a, time’, but to talk in groupsofwords, breathing and pausing naturally while thinking about what they were telling that person and why.

Many of his students would have once been regarded as unsuited for broadcasting. But he never tried to change their voices, merely how they were used.

“It was about your brain as much as your voice,” said Doogue. “His contention was that you had to remove every barrier between yourself and your audience, to let people see who you were. And you had to like who you were.”

Arch himself went further. He would recall how during Relax with Me he would occasionally pretend to forget a an artist’s career highlight, ask for help and then thank the listener who phoned in. He never wanted to be seen as anything other than the listener’s friend.

He probably gave different advice to everyone who saw him.

“He was a brilliant diagnostician,” said Swan.” He would zero in on a small problem, your particular problem, and fix it.”

“It was bespoke service,” said Doogue. “He would unlock whatever it was that worked for you, because your voice is so personal. He would never offer too much, because confidence is fragile.”

In the early 2000s he worked at SBS, training ethnic broadcasters to speak real English, rather than the stilted sentences they had thought were appropriate. At the SBS Dateline he would come down from his home in the Blue Mountains to guide video journalists through the process of talking to viewers as if they were on location.

He died on August 26 aged 89 surrounded by family. He left behind his first wife Frances and her sons Grant, Mark and John and his second wife Margaret and daughter Megan.

And he left behind a legacy greater than his on-air contribution. The generation that followed communicates naturally in large part because of Arch.

His grandson Lewis is on Triple J. On Friday August 30 ABC Jazz paid a tribute to Arch by re-broadcasting his final two hour show. The tribute started at 2pm, as Lewis was doing his show. The synchronicity of two McKirdys broadcasting simultaneously on ABC radio made the tribute more poignant.

Peter Martin was trained by Arch McKirdy. Peter Wall worked with Arch McKirdy on Relax With Me and is a former ABC radio manager.

In The Sydney Morning Herald

Recommended listening

. ABC Jazz: Remembering Arch McKirdy

. Radioinfo - Vale Arch McKirdy

. ABC Radio National. Death of a broadcast legend

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