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Friday, December 21, 2012

Bmag Dec 18th 2012 - Let's talk!

The greatest lesson I have learned in 2012, and one which I now hope to pass on to anyone who will listen, is the importance of talking things out. Radio station 4BC had a great line in its recent TV advertising campaign: “Talk is cheap but it can free your mind. It can start a war. Talk can end a war”. It’s so true. I want to tell you a story that goes back to a bmag column in July. The story ends a week ago, with me and a bloke called Brian having a good old laugh in the coffee shop which is situated directly underneath my radio studio at South Bank.

On 10 July, I suggested a possible compromise and way forward on the issue of same-sex marriage. I wrote: “We need two different types of marriage, to be known as a Church Marriage and a Civil Marriage. A Church Marriage would remain between a man and a woman – unless religious leaders one day decided otherwise. A Civil Marriage would include same-sex couples.” That column generated more feedback than any other I have written, but one email stood out. Among those disagreeing with me was Tony Salacich who wrote: “I’d like to meet and talk for an hour about the issue.” He went on to say: “My attempts at writing to [writers of ] other newspaper articles were either poorly received or misunderstood.” And so I agreed. It was the first time I’d ever sat down with a stranger (albeit a bmag reader who felt he knew me) to discuss a difference of opinions.

And it was great. We talked for just over an hour and I came to understand why Tony, a former high school chaplain, was so protective of the institution of marriage. I’m not going to elaborate here because it involves other people in Tony’s life, but it’s fair to say we both walked away with a greater appreciation of each others’ views.

So inspired was I by Tony’s enthusiasm for sitting down over a cup of coffee that I then invited another bmag reader, who had also disagreed with my same-sex marriage compromise, to do the same. I guess she thought I was being provocative, for she replied: “Thank you Spencer but I think I’ll give it a miss. I’m just hoping that some of what you write is just a job to you and you yourself are a moral and courageous man.”

Fast-forward to earlier this month and a Twitter user by the name of @GuruatLarge decided to let fly at me one night, saying (among other things): “You ruined my radio station with your knob (sic) ego.” Again I channelled bmag reader Tony Salacich with my response: “Come and have a coffee and we can chat about this.” Well blow me down if he didn’t say yes! So just last week, @GuruatLarge (real name Brian King) and I spent a good 45 minutes thrashing out our differences! Except, it wasn’t really like that.

We probably spent 10 minutes discussing Brian’s concerns – worthwhile reminders for me about what listeners want and need from a radio station – and then we just connected as blokes and shot the breeze. Turns out Brian’s a musician whose band has been trialling an unusual new recording technique – he’s going to send me one of his songs to play on 612 ABC Breakfast – and we both have a fascination with a phone app that lets you identify aircraft. We finished with Brian taking a “selfy” photo of the two of us, which he later tweeted with the message: “Had a great time talking radio with @SpencerHowson this morning. Great bloke to talk to.”

 What Tony and Brian both taught me is that we should take the time to talk – and, more importantly, listen. How many times have you complained about something and felt your concerns weren’t even heard? So if, like me, you’re in a position that involves customer contact and the odd complaint, see if you can’t take a moment to understand where they’re coming from. Often that’s all any of us want – to be heard. And so we come to the end of my second year writing for bmag. Thank you for reading and engaging. It’s a real thrill for me to have this exchange of ideas every fortnight. Keep the emails coming. May I wish you and yours a very Merry Christmas and Happy Chanukah.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Bmag Dec 4th 2012 - Christmas music

Warning: the following column may contain traces of Wham! To mark my 20th Christmas on ABC Radio, I’m going to share with you the four key lessons I’ve learned about broadcasting at this time of year. You won’t agree with all four. You may not agree with any of them. But in order to avoid vigorously hand-written letters from well-meaning arguably-traditional listeners, I do my best to comply with the following:

Firstly, don’t talk about Christmas until December. That is, unless you’re joining the chorus of disapproval about the shops putting out their decorations too early. (What I love about the annual “it’s not Christmas yet” Talkback-101 are the people who get riled in October or November because they’ve just noticed the trees and baubles for sale at their local department store. Try August!)

Secondly, never shorten Christmas to Xmas. Not that this is a problem when you’re speaking on the radio, but as soon as you write Xmas on social media, in a Christmas card, on the net or in an email, expect to be criticised. (Similarly, try never to write or say the word “kids” – “Dear Mr Howson, a kid is a baby goat.”)

Thirdly, Christmas is Christmas. Christmas is not “the holiday season”. I know that if I start wishing my radio guests and listeners “happy holidays”, I can expect letters. Throwing in the odd “and Happy Chanukah” seems to go down well – no complaints so far – just as “Happy Eid” at the end of Ramadan never attracts listener complaints. So just say what it is (Christmas, Chanukah) instead of trying to say nothing (Happy Holidays).

But the number one lesson I’ve learned from 20 years of Christmas broadcasting on the ABC, is that a carol can be a song but not all songs are carols. Rudolf, the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Jingle Bells are not carols. They are songs. O Come, All Ye Faithful is a carol. Fair enough, too, I’m not going to disagree. For all that, I do love Christmas.

As one of my Twitter followers @NikitaBombita said the other day: “Christmas really is the most wonderful time of the year. I will forever be a child a Christmas. A child who drinks beer at Christmas.” I think that will be my motto this year! My Christmas playlist Apart from the booze and food, and being with family and friends, and just watching children’s faces, I also derive much joy from playing Christmas songs (both on the radio and at home). So I’ve come up with a list of my all-time favourites.

These are the songs I wait for all year! Expect to hear the following on 612 Breakfast over the next few weeks: Band Aid Do They Know It’s Christmas?, The Muppets It Feels Like Christmas, Michael Crawford O Holy Night, Chris Rea Driving Home for Christmas, Louis Armstrong Is That You Santa Claus?, Tim Minchin Drinking White Wine in the Sun, The Andy McDonell Contraption Xmas in Scarborough (his spelling, not mine!) and Wham Last Christmas! (Hey, at least there’s no Nickelback in that list!)

And finally, here’s something you might not know about Christmas. Brisbane Riverside Lions Club helps Santa write to South East Queensland children. Applications for letters close on 12 December. It costs just $3, with the money going to research for juvenile diabetes and children’s cancer. Find out more at

The numbers game

From the last issue of bmag (20 November), several readers correctly answered the homework question. Andrew Kopittke was the first to point out the signs on Oxley Road (as you approach the Ipswich Motorway) say M2 instead of M7. Andrew emailed: “I used to live just near that sign and saw it lots and never realised it was wrong!”

And Katherine May responded to my pointing out the time/date combination of 8.09 on 10/11/12: “I had to share my awesome set of numbers. My birthday is 10/09/1981. I can add up the date of my birthday to get my age (eg 10+9+12=31). I’ll never have problems figuring out how old I am!” Katherine, and others who share this obsession with number patterns, I hope you have special plans for 12.12 on 12/12/12 next week! We won’t see a perfect set of numbers like that until 1 January 2101!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Bmag Nov 20th 2012 - Motorway numbers

It’s always good when you find someone who shares the same interests as you, especially when those interests are a touch esoteric. All those eclipse-chasers I met in Cairns, for instance. They’ve now gone back to their daily grind, but for a brief moment we were united by our shared passion for the ultimate occultation, the obscurity of the sun by the moon! Similarly, I’m discovering more and more people who share my enjoyment of patterns in dates. You may recall I dedicated a whole column (bmag, 21 February) to the subject. Imagine my joy when someone tweeted me at 8.09am on 10/11/12 just to make sure I had noticed the sequence!

Another slightly geeky fascination of mine, as yet unexplored here in the pages of bmag but rekindled this week by reader Andrew Birch, is the alphanumeric naming of our motorways. Andrew wondered if I had noticed the recent addition of an M4 (I hadn’t). He was also keen to point out the curious case of the missing motorway, the M6 (I’ll explain shortly!). My interest in alphanumeric motorway names comes from growing up in the UK. A trip to Manchester would begin on the A6, before we joined the M6 at Preston and then the M61 and M60. It’s a different language but it’s just how everyone speaks. Here, it’s never really taken off. The M1 to the Gold Coast was our first, yet despite us also having an M2, M3, M4, M5 and M7, noone seems to use those names. If I’m telling someone how to drive from Ipswich to Mt Coot-tha, I’ll say come up the M2 onto the M7 then the M5. Often I’ll have to start again: “Come up the Ipswich Motorway, go past the Logan Motorway exit and onto the Western Freeway.”

Of course, with the advent of in-car GPS devices, does anyone really need to know the names of roads? Probably not. Just as the internet has rendered unnecessary any knowledge that you once kept in your head. Call me old-fashioned, but I like to think there are things I know without having to consult a piece of technology. And so, for the record, here’s how the motorway numbering works.

The odd numbered roads run (roughly) north-south and the even numbered roads are west-east. The M1 goes from the Gold Coast to the Sunshine Coast via the Sir Leo Hielscher (Gateway) Bridges. The M3 (A3 in parts) is the Pacific Motorway from Eight Mile Plains to the CBD, along the Riverside Expressway, up the Inner City Bypass to Lutwyche and Gympie Roads, meeting the M1 at Bald Hills. The M2 is an odd beast. Travelling from Ipswich, M2 refers to the Ipswich Motorway as far as Gailes. Then the Logan Motorway takes on the name M2, but not for the entire length of the Logan Motorway. Turn onto the Gateway Motorway at Drewvale and you’re still on the M2 (until you meet the M1 at Eight Mile Plains). The M7 is the Ipswich Motorway from Gailes to the Clem7 Tunnel and on to the new AirportLink toll road. And the M5 runs from Springfield to Toowong and will continue into the Legacy Way tunnel once completed.

So what about the missing M6? The section of Logan Motorway from Drewvale to the M1 at Loganholme still carries the old designation “Metroad 6” (a six in a hexagon) and has yet to be renamed. Main Roads Minister Scott Emerson tells me the introduction of new signage has been gradual: “On top of the cost of replacing signs on the primary route, there is also the cost of signage of the tributary routes.” But there’s a twist when it comes to the M6. Mr Emerson says: “As you know it was sold off by the previous government so signage is now a matter for Queensland Motorways.”

This just leaves the brand new M4 which, as Andrew Birch recently discovered and was excited to share with me, is the Port of Brisbane Motorway from the M1 near the Gateway Bridges to the Port of Brisbane. How could you not be fascinated by all of that?! Now here’s some homework for you! Next time you drive south along Oxley Road, see if you can work out what’s wrong with the signage as you approach the Ipswich Motorway.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Bmag Nov 6th 2012 - Slow news day, neighbourly wifi names

If there’s one expression I wish the 1990s ABC TV show Frontline had not taught people, it’s “Slow News Day”. Research tells us people want light and shade in their news reporting, not just serious analysis or world politics, yet you spend just two minutes on radio discussing a fun topic like the direction people like to cut their sandwiches (I prefer mine triangular, my wife likes hers in rectangles) and someone will pipe up with: “Slow News Day?”

I’ve kept quiet about this until now. I understand that some people want deadly serious topics all day, every day; others, incidentally, demand more good-news stories from the media, so you can never please everyone all the time! But something happened that has caused me to break my silence! Discussing road safety last week, I asked listeners to remind me which way you should look when crossing the road (was it left-rightleft or right-left-right?). That was enough to see Petros tweeting “Slow News Day?”

Well no, Petros, it’s very simple. I didn’t want anyone, especially children, getting the wrong information and putting themselves in danger. So you can put away your convenient threeword cover-all media critique. And just in case you’re wondering, in Australia you should look right, then left, then right again.

Rental register feedback

In the last issue of bmag I asked you what you thought of a register for rental properties and their agents. The suggestion was made by 612 listener Steve who had an issue with overhanging branches from the rental property next door. Unable to find out from the tenants, Steve struggled to identify the property manager to discuss chopping back the trees.

In response, Alicia Wright emailed: “I couldn’t help but feel sometimes renters get a bad rap. We’ve had plenty of neighbour problems in the past but the main offenders were people who owned houses in the street. Who do you complain to when the problem is the owner?” I want to be clear about this. I wasn’t having a go at renters and I don’t think Steve was either. It’s just that sometimes – when it’s about trees, fences, development applications and the like – you need to contact the owner or their agent.

Matt Troughton offered a tenant’s perspective: “We rent and had a neighbour complain directly to our agent about our dog barking. The agent would give us no info, no times or dates, due to ‘privacy issues’. It would have been easier to solve the issue if [the complainant] had come straight to us!”

Don’t steal my internet

Still on the subject of neighbours, I hear the latest way to send a passive-aggressive shot over the fence is to hide messages in the name of your wireless internet network. Some people never allocate a name but it can be handy if you have several networks within your home, perhaps one for guests and one for your family.

Technology commentator Peter Black mentioned the phenomenon on my radio show, citing overseas examples like “Stop Stealing My Paper” and “Your Music is Too Loud”, but it took very little prompting to gather similar WiFi names from around Brisbane.

Emma Gunders told me: “We’ve got ‘Don’t Steal My Internet’ somewhere around us. We think it might be the new people across the road.” In Sam Eeles’s street there’s “Get Your Own WiFi”. And Ian Harper’s computer picks up the very pointed “B*gger off”.

Thankfully, from what I can gather, many of the creative WiFi monikers in Brisbane are merely aimed at soliciting a laugh. Around Guy Law’s place, there’s “Your Mum” and “Free Willy”, Jen Hansen picks up the groanworthy “PEN15”, Alexandra Nash’s neighbours have “Boobies (.)(.)”,

Cath Allen says there’s “Surveillance Van 4” somewhere near her and Sarah Margrath’s devices pick up “Where are my pants?”

James Kennedy is someone who has a message hidden in his WiFi name. He told me: “Spencer, the kids named my network ‘Furious Dad’. As a result the neighbours are very well behaved! LOL.”

And Susan Hetherington recalls: “Ours used to be called VirusVault. The IT man who set it up said it would deter people.” Okay, I know you want to do it. Go ahead, put the magazine down for a moment and see what WiFi names your phone or tablet can pick up where you are right now!

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Bmag 23rd Oct 2012 - Rental owner register

Fences, trees and noise – these are the big three when it comes to disputes between neighbours. In an ideal world you are on good terms with the folk next door, you casually mention the issue and you come to some sort of agreement. But things can become complicated if your neighbour is a tenant, rather than an owner-occupier.

When 612 Breakfast listener Steve had a problem with overhanging trees from the rental property next door, he had a terrible time identifying the real estate agent managing the property. Steve told me he couldn’t get the information from his neighbours and ended up having to track down the owner, who put him onto the property manager. “They said ‘you shouldn’t have contacted the owner, your first point of contact should always be the manager’ but you can’t find out who the manager is!” Steve recalls.

The whole kerfuffle prompted Steve to email me, suggesting there should be a register of rental properties and their property managers. Says Steve: “If you live next door to really nice people, you jump the fence and say ‘Hey Bill, we need to do something about the trees, can you give me the phone number of the real estate manager?’” But Steve’s neighbours were not so cooperative: “Absolutely not and I bet there are a lot of people in Brisbane and surrounding suburbs who are in the same situation,” he says.

I invited Steve onto my radio show and here are just some of the responses that came in during and after the program: Naomi emailed: “I think the rental register is a great idea. Our former tenant had a drug lab. Luckily the owner of an adjoining unit contacted the building managers who contacted our agent. It would have been much easier if they could have gone straight to a register.”

Anne tweeted that a register would have been handy for her: “Had a problem with noisy neighbours once (renters) and ended up ringing all the local real estate agents to find the property manager.” And Fiona texted: “I totally support the register! If there’s something wrong with my house, I want and need the property manager to know ASAP!”

But, according to Cameron on Twitter, it shouldn’t be that hard: “Any real estate agent can look up a property to see which real estate is managing the property. Walk in and ask.” Tell me what you think at the email below.

Antonia Mercorella, general counsel with the Real Estate Institute of Queensland, sees merit in the idea: “Something like that could be a good idea. It would just be a matter of how that register is developed, where it’s maintained and who maintains it. “Certainly the act that covers residency tenancies in Queensland is administered by the Residential Tenancies Authority. The conduct of real estate agents is governed by the Property Agents and Motor Dealers’ Act and that’s looked after by the Office of Fair Trading. “My gut feel is that a register of this nature would be maintained by one of those two parties.”

But is a register really needed? And who would pay for it? Antonia Mercorella concedes it’s not an issue that comes up frequently: “In most instances, the tenant will disclose that they are renting and then go one step further and disclose the identity of the agent managing the property and you can then proceed to communicate through that agency.”

Barbecue hot tip

It’s that time of year when friendly neighbours start to invite each other over for barbecues. So here’s a handy hint, suggested to me by my Radio National colleague Ian Townsend. To save money, always run two gas bottles. If you only have one bottle, you risk running out while you’re cooking for guests.

So, to avoid such embarrassment (not to mention ruined food), you tend to exchange the bottle too early, before it has expired, hence wasting whatever gas is still in the bottle. By interchanging two bottles you can always comfortably cook away until the very last gasp of gas, before subtly and seamlessly slipping the other bottle onto the barbecue.

You then have all the time in the world to replace the first bottle, which becomes your standby. A simple idea which will have you cooking with gas!

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Bmag Oct 9th 2012 - Rolf forgets, Canberra remembered

Rolf Harris knew he’d stuffed up but it would be 20 years before he fully understood the consequences! This week 9 October marks the 30th anniversary of the Queen closing the Commonwealth Games in Brisbane.

My favourite 1982 story comes not from the closing ceremony but from the opening, where thousands of school students formed a map of Australia with red, white and blue placards. One of them was Katherine, now a Taringa hairdresser, who (about 10 years ago) let me in on a little secret. It seems the children were getting their cues from Rolf Harris as he sang Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport. Trouble was, Katherine told me, Rolf forgot the words: “Good old Rolf missed out a whole verse!”

Years later, I surprised both Katherine and Rolf by introducing them to each other on radio. He confessed: “I’d written a special verse about when the Games are over with that final hurrah, don’t go rushing home, stay and have a look around Australia. That was the gist of the idea, and I forgot all about it. I’d sung the song for 20 years and you go into automatic mode. I just left out the last verse.”

Katherine chimed in, laughing: “That was the cue to turn the placard over and pick up another one.”

Rolf replied: “Oh Lord! I mucked your bit up. I’m terribly sorry. Can I apologise in retrospect?!” Now, whenever Katherine cuts my hair, she talks about the day Rolf Harris personally apologised to her!

School trip a hit

In the last issue (bmag, 18 September), I told you how much I’d been looking forward to accompanying Jack’s year 7 school trip to Canberra. I’m pleased to report the week was everything I had hoped for and more. Children at that age (11 or 12) are great company. On the one hand, they’re cheeky and fun. On the other, they have a real thirst for information.

At the National Gallery, they were fascinated by the painting technique and story behind Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles (controversially bought by the Whitlam government for over $1million and now worth more than $40million). At the Australian Electoral Commission, one girl challenged the law that says anyone given a three-year (or more) prison sentence cannot vote. Our guide was stumped! And at Parliament House, when Australia’s young MP Wyatt Roy asked the students for the main issues facing Australia in 2012, hands went up straight away, with climate change and same-sex marriage topping the list.

In the bus there was much singing and laughter, and Gangnam Style (look up Psy on YouTube if you don’t know what that is) was the dance routine du jour at lunchtime (yes, I may have been the one who started that!)

The teachers were pretty good company too! And hard-working! They were on the job from 7am till 9pm every day. I saw how being a teacher is as much about emotional wellbeing as helping children to learn, not to mention ensuring you don’t lose anyone along the way! I also realise now how challenging it must be for male teachers in this “all men are paedophiles” society. They have to be oh-so-careful.

There were several times that I thought about this (and I know the other six parents did too). For example, as we left Brisbane, Jack asked me to take lots of photos. It took me a few days to be comfortable doing so if other children were going to be in them. (Thankfully I did, as one of Jack’s friends lost his camera and we were able to send him photos I had taken). I always sat myself next to the boys on the bus, never a girl. I know, I was probably overthinking it. But then on the last morning, when one of the boys gave me a big hug before turning to a male teacher, he was told kindly but plainly, “we don’t hug teachers”. It’s a shame that it’s come to that, but you can understand why.

That aside, I would strongly encourage any parents who are given the opportunity to join a school trip or camp to do so. You’ll enjoy observing your child in learning situations, interacting with others and having to be independent, and you will come away knowing so much more about your own son or daughter.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Bmag 18th Sept 2012 - Off to Canberra, gift voucher rip-offs

As you read this, I’m on a year seven school trip to the nation’s capital. No, I’m not looking for sympathy. I’ve been looking forward to this week for six and a half years and I’ll tell you why. As a really young fella growing up in the north-west of England, London was the most exciting place you could ever hope to visit. To do so was rare and it was special. With Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament, black taxis and red doubledecker buses, London was the Land of Oz and the train line from Preston to Euston was the yellow brick road! Then in 1981, just before my ninth birthday, we moved to Australia.

Of course, London retained its magical status and I still pinch myself whenever I’m there, but I soon found myself looking up to Canberra in exactly the same way. I first made it to Australia’s capital city when I was 13, part of the formative experience that was a driving holiday down the New England Highway, across to Broken Hill, then down to Adelaide and Melbourne, and finally up to Canberra and the Snowy Mountains. Road trips have been in my blood ever since. But I digress.

What I’ve never understood is why we in Australia make such a sport out of hating Canberra. It’s packed with sites of national significance, yet people laugh if you tell them you’re going there. Sure, it might not have the most exciting nightlife in Australia but it is our capital city and the thought of flying down with Jack’s year seven class is bringing back all those tingly thoughts of a childhood trip to London.

So keen am I on Canberra that when Nikki fell pregnant in 1999 and we were looking for a special somewhere for our final childless holiday, that’s where we went. We could have chosen a tropical island somewhere, or the hustle and bustle of Sydney, but instead we had a week in Canberra. And now I’m dying to get there to share my love of the capital with my son. And that brings me to the other reason I’m chuffed to be heading down.

We’ve known about the year seven Canberra trip since Jack started primary school in 2006. For all these years, we’ve plotted for me to go as one of the parenthelpers, so that Jack and I can have a boys’ bonding week. You may have noticed I’m not on the radio this week. Now you know why. I’m also taking next week off!

I have a feeling I’m going to need an extra week just to get over the excitement of a trip to Canberra! And that’s my excitement I’m talking about!

Gift vouchers

On a completely unrelated topic, why must shops impose expiry dates on gift vouchers? I recently found in my wallet a voucher for a coffee shop that was given to me a year ago. It literally was one day from expiring. If I hadn’t used it, that $30 would have just evaporated. Only, it wouldn’t have disappeared, would it? In reality, the coffee shop would have kept it. Why can’t shops just hold the money (which they receive when they sell the voucher) and allow you to use your voucher at any time, forever?

With complimentary or discount vouchers, there is an argument for shops spreading out redemption. They can’t afford to have everyone claiming their free or discounted goods or services on the one day. That, I understand. But when it comes to gift vouchers, the shops are sitting on the cash, not to mention the interest it’s earning them.

Then, of course, you get the situation where shops go into administration and won’t redeem vouchers or they have rules stating you must spend a certain amount in order to use your voucher. Again, they have the cash! What happened to it? It’s worth noting that some shops don’t have expiry dates.

And yes, I acknowledge that ABC Shops are among those that have expiry dates, so I’m certainly not claiming the moral high ground for the ABC here. It all makes me think the best gift voucher around is cold, hard cash. It’s the gift voucher you can spend anywhere, anytime!

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Bmag Sept 4th 2012 - Public service job cuts

With the state budget looming, we should soon see an end to the uncertainty hanging over our public servants. It’s three months since we were first warned as many as 20,000 could lose their jobs. Thousands already have. Not frontline staff, we’ve been assured. But then Glen Elmes, Minister Assisting the Premier, admitted on my radio show that “frontline” had been redefined, making thousands more public servants potentially disposable. To be “frontline” under the LNP, you must spend 75 per cent of your time dealing directly with the public. Under Labor, it was just over 50 per cent.

I’m a public servant (albeit Commonwealth) so I decided to apply the 75 per cent test to what I do. Despite hosting Brisbane’s top-rating breakfast radio show with around 200,000 listeners every week, I’m not sure I would qualify as “frontline” under Campbell Newman. Yes, I’m on air three hours a day, and yes I regularly speak at service clubs, but what about the hours where I’m not in direct contact with listeners? Reading books and news articles, watching news programs, sniffing around for stories, auditioning new music, surveying outside broadcast locations, generally absorbing popular culture in order to inform my radio show, the list goes on. Is all that being a frontline public servant? It wouldn’t be in the Queensland Public Service. But would anyone notice if the federal government decided the ABC didn’t need radio announcers? Just between me and you, I think that they would.

My point is this – I can understand how Queensland public servants are nervous right now. I can also see how nebulous it can be to just pick a number like 75 per cent to define “frontline”.

Premier Campbell Newman repeatedly says that everywhere he goes he is thanked for cutting the public service, that it’s only public servants and the unions who are angry. For example, he told 612 ABC Brisbane’s Steve Austin: “I spent seven hours at the Exhibition (Ekka) and I can tell you that I had one person come up to me and express some negativity. For the rest of the seven hours, I had people coming up, shaking my hand saying ‘we know it’s tough, please keep doing what you’re doing’.”

I don’t dispute the Premier has his supporters. But maybe it would be healthy for him to be exposed to what others are saying. And so I asked my radio listeners to imagine bumping into Campbell Newman. What would they tell him? We received 58 calls, 24 of which were supportive of the Premier’s actions. Just under half. Fifty-eight might seem a small sample but, for radio talkback on one specific question, it’s actually a decent number. Think of it as more qualitative than quantitative, more focus group than phone poll.

You (and the Premier) can listen to all the calls at but here’s a selection:

“Well done Campbell. Mate, it’s about time those blokes got out and got a real job. Save that money. Make the state proud again,” says Corey, from Coolum Beach.

“Campbell Newman is doing a good job taking away a lot of the public servants’ jobs. They’ve been superfluous for a long, long time. We’ve had a lot of friends in the public service and they’ve had RDOs and sick days and extended leave on our taxpayers’ money and I don’t think this is very fair,” says Cheryl, from Ipswich.

“Thanks very much Campbell for what you’re doing. Don’t worry mate, there’s a very large silent majority who are also very pleased with the way you are handling this state,” says Trevor, from Birkdale.

“If I saw the Premier in a public place, I’d tell him well done, keep going,” says Kevin, from Macdowall.

“You have no idea how much damage you’re doing. Someone needs to stop you before it’s too late,” says Mary, from Goodna.

“There are a lot of people feeling bruised right now. Compassion please,” says Jenny, from East Brisbane.

“There was never any hint of this in your campaign. It’s not what we voted for,” says Dylan, from Kenmore.

 “Belt tightening is all very well but such severe cuts could actually drive Queensland into recession with so many public servants losing their jobs and the rest looking over their shoulders and unwilling to spend,” says Karen, from Wavell Heights.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Bmag 21st August 2012 - Childhood mementos

I have just taken possession of an envelope full of my very own ginger baby curls from 1974. I’m not entirely sure what to do with them – reaction from friends ranged from “ewww” and “spooky” to “that’s disgusting and sweet at the same time” – but I am thankful to my Aunty Margaret for keeping them all these years. (Hey, I know someone who’s kept every toe nail he’s clipped and someone else who has both of his sons’ foreskins to present to them at their 21st birthday parties. Now that’s disgusting!)

Back to the suddenly-far-more-savoury envelope of 40-year-old Spencer hair. This, combined with moving back into our home post-renovations, has seen me contemplating the treasures we keep, and those we throw out or misplace, especially from childhood. I have shoe-boxes full of theme park and special event (think Commonwealth Games, Expo 88) souvenirs, medals, report cards, love letters, vinyl records, books, model trains and other toys dating back to the ’70s and ’80s. Even my high school blazer!

But you can’t hold on to everything forever. And eventually, if you don’t do it yourself, your own children will have to deal with these trinkets. That’s why Claudette Prince recently put her Sydney 2000 Olympic Games torch on the market. Claudette told me: “No-one in the family knows I’m doing it. They’d tell me not to. I’ve got a fairly large family and when I leave this mortal coil they’re going to be saying ‘what are we going to do with all this stuff of Mum’s? Do you want this?’ It doesn’t mean anything to anyone else.”

So what do you keep and what do you cull? You’ve heard the expression: “What you haven’t used for 18 months, you don’t need.” Well here’s a new one for you, one of the dads at Jack’s school offered me the following advice for not cluttering the house: “When we moved, we only brought half the things back into the house.” Wow! Half?! There’s a challenge! So I’ve taken this on as my new philosophy. But how do you know what to keep? I asked on Twitter – what do you treasure most from your childhood?

Stuffed toys featured prominently in the replies. I still have Pussy, a well-loved cat given to me by my Great Aunty Minnie the day I was born. I used to “smoke” Pussy, which involved breathing through her ears. Did I just reveal that publicly?! Yes I think I did… For @KimmerLions, it’s her plush purple poodle which she’s had for about 50 years; @Polikat2 still has Big Ted; @Monkylicious treasures “a teddy bear and blankie I’ve had since I was one”; and @TheJenHansen holds on to Puppy: “He was my stuffed dog I slept with. He’s a bit bald. When I was two, I pulled his fur off while sleeping.”

Meanwhile @BrizzieBlog still has the first story she wrote when she was just five, @Kin_ has her dance costumes – “my children get such joy from them” – and @Simonwf is holding onto a one-piece baby jumpsuit that he wore, his son wore, “and I’m saving for his child if it lasts that long!”

Of course, we don’t all have the luxury of deciding what to keep. For some, it’s already too late or the decision’s been made for us. For example, @Dellvink says she “was devastated my mum threw out a stuffed sock with eyes called Oogly. I still wish I had him.” And therein lies a lesson for anyone thinking of clearing out their children’s things – check with them first! But @Dellvink may yet be reunited with her Oogly; @Psephy regretted discarding a toy guitar but in a remarkable twist “recovered it some 30 years later at an antique sale!”

Have we learned anything from all this talk of long-loved toys and teddy bears? I think I have. Among all the replies to my Twitter question about what we still treasure from childhood was this one from the – how shall I describe him? – shiny-topped @Debritz: “Sadly not my hair!”

And as I read those four words, I know why this envelope-full of 1970s Howson locks has found its way back to me. One day soon, I may need them again on my head! I am definitely not throwing them away!

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Bmag August 7th 2012 - Holiday in our street

One of the little luxuries Nikki and I (and our 12-year-old son Jack) enjoy is treating ourselves to a weekend in the city, being a tourist in our own town. We do this about three times a year, always in a different hotel and always eating at different cafés and restaurants. If pressed for my favourite location, I’d have to say I am partial to a view of the city from South Bank but, wherever we stay, I just love the extravagance and slight ludicrousness of being half-an-hour from home yet mentally a million miles away!

Well, now the Howsons have taken the ‘tourist in our own town’ concept to a new extreme! We’re currently spending two weeks staying in our own street in Indooroopilly – literally 200 metres from home – and paying $950 a week for the privilege! Let me explain. Every day for the past three years, I’ve driven past this gated community of serviced apartments with a sign on the gate spruiking “weekly relocation accommodation”. Being a curious chap, I’ve often wondered who would stay here in the ’burbs, rather than in town. I imagined folk who had just moved to Brisbane, but beyond that I was stuck.

And so, when we came to having some renovations done at home, and with the builder suggesting he could work faster without us being there, I knew exactly where I wanted to bring the family for a couple of weeks! It would be close to home in case the builder had questions for me, but mainly I would get to find out who has a holiday in Indooroopilly! Yes, the managers told me on day one, folk moving to Brisbane rent here until they’re familiar with the city. Often they book in for three months to give themselves time to have a good look around. So who else?

Well, the families of several overseas students have arrived while we’ve been staying. I guess that makes sense when you consider the university is just a stone’s throw away. But what’s completely surprised me is the number of other families here from Indooroopilly and neighbouring Chapel Hill, all doing exactly the same as us – yes, they too are reno refugees! Looks like the people who built this complex knew exactly what they were doing. There certainly is a market for accommodation in the ’burbs!

And you know what? Whilst we don’t have a view of the CBD and we’ve still had to go to school or work each day, it truly has felt like we’ve been on holiday. Luxurious long deep baths (knowing you’ve already paid for the water), no chores other than cooking and washing, beds and towels are changed every few days and unlimited, free use of the pool and gym – it almost makes me want to come back here sometime!

Only one thing has caused us distress, a moral dilemma on the first night. Our internet devices all picked up unsecured wi-fi, presumably from a nearby house. Knowing we were going to be here for a couple of weeks, it was tempting to leech away. But was it safe and was it right? I turned to my Twitter followers for advice and here are some of the responses...

@mjcj1971 said: “Just do it”. @Karawr agreed: “If there’s no password, go for it!” @Fionawb went further, egging me on: “Do it. Do it. Do it. (Consider me a little devil on your shoulder)”. @Australianne responded with: “Wrong. You could take someone over their data allowance and it’s very expensive after that. It’s stealing.” @Amy_Remeikis suggested it was probably unlocked deliberately: “If you haven’t locked your wi-fi in 2012, you are okay with people using it”. @Ricky_Elias has an open-door policy at his place: “I have an unlocked wi-fi with ‘guest’ in the name and don’t mind our neighbours using it”. What would you have done?

In the end, this comment from @EvanontheGC decided it: “It’s always fun to see what files I can find on other computers on an unsecured network”. Click [disconnect wi-fi]. With that moral burden lifted and with only a few days left in our suburban holiday home, I shall channel the Golgafrincham Ark-B Captain from The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and declare: “Just time for another bath!”

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Bmag July 24th 2012 - Marriage feedback

Last issue, I suggested a possible compromise and way forward on the stalemate that is same-sex marriage, namely having two different types of marriage – a church marriage and civil marriage. The latter would allow for same-sex couples to be married and to use the word “married”, which I argue is not owned by the church. I’m enjoying reading all your emails and tweets on the subject, which continue to fill my inbox. I’ve decided to devote this issue’s column to a cross-section of responses.

Pose Tafa writes: “I agree we need two types of marriage. The church does not have sole rights to marriage.” Florence Day says: “What a sane, practical and non-confrontational concept. The only downside is – when have we ever managed to convince our government to do anything sane or practical?” And from Kerry Read: “At last! Someone else shares my view on the marriage debate. The dual marriage idea sounds like a good compromise although I would call it a faith marriage to encompass all faiths and denominations. Let each religion determine their requirements for a faith marriage.” Chris Hassall agrees: “Up there for thinking, you! All couples should be able to say ‘we’re getting married’”. Harriett Russ says it’s “a great and fair idea”, Kathryn Britt, Laurence Barber and Natalie Bochenski all use the word “sensible”, Dale Napier says “this is the best outcome”, Carmen Anderson “would vote for this option” and Sal Piracha applauds “someone looking for a solution, not just hating the problem”. Kathy Schirmer says “I congratulate you for your suggestion to have church marriage and civil marriage. Seems so logical and I hope the community supports this too.” Matthew Orbit likes it but fears “further dividing Christian homosexuals from the church when there is a support/family there” and says “the zealots on both sides won’t go for it”.

That’s the trouble with compromise. No-one gets everything they want. Everyone has to give a little. But there are bmag readers not willing to budge, like Nathan Thomas who argues that “the church fights all kinds of social change – the right to vote for women, for example. They just need to adapt and learn to accept gay people as equal citizens”. Also not willing to compromise is Rob Roy: “If you accept same-sex unions as ‘marriage’, I assume you accept the manifesto that marriage can be defined as polygamy, polyandry and even bestiality as long as the animal is not harmed. The proposed brave new world interfering with the basis of our society is far from brave. Indeed it is very foolish and shortsighted.” Bill McCormack goes further, cautioning: “Unbelievers have their worldly opinion and that is OK but one day you will have to take account. Once you have been warned you have no excuse. At the day of judgement you won’t be able to call on theory, logic, mates’ views, etc. You are on your own.” Allan Templeton tells me his “ideal solution” bears similarities to my own and that “many of my Christian friends disagree with me, thinking I am a bit too liberal”. The only trouble is, Bill then goes on to argue that while he supports same-sex “civil unions”, only church marriages can truly be “marriages” because “the oldest recorded mention of ‘marriage’ is in the book of Genesis where it reports that marriage was instituted by God”. And there you have the church’s claim on the word “marriage” yet again. Echoing my words in the last issue of bmag, Maria Frangos writes: “The church should not force its beliefs on people who are not members.” That said, many will agree with Heath Goddard when he says: “I do not like the aggression that I observe in the stridency of the gay community in foisting their preferences on the majority.”

Mel Kettle points out that “in France, only the civil marriage ceremony is legal. Any religious ceremony must be after the civil and is not legally recognised”. So there is a precedent. I’ll leave the final word to Paul Rigby, who writes: “I suspect that in 50 years, people will look back at this debate and wonder what the fuss was all about.” Wouldn’t we all love to travel into the future to find out?!

Friday, July 13, 2012

Bmag July 10th 2012 - Definition of marriage

What I don’t understand about the gay marriage debate is the claim the church has on the concept of marriage.

When Nikki and I were planning our 1996 wedding, there appeared to be two clear choices – a religion-free declaration of love and commitment before a celebrant, or a wedding under God in a place of worship. We opted for the former and were married at Mt Coot-tha Lookout, witnessed by friends and family and, to add to the atmosphere and our memories, a dozen or so happy-snapping tourists!

I’ve never considered that our marriage has anything to do with God. It’s a contract between Nikki, me and the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages. Yet, those in the church who are arguing against same-sex marriage insist that marriage is and must remain between a man and a woman because the Bible says so. In other words, whether you choose a church wedding or not, you are still agreeing to religious terms and conditions.

This fundamental point has been going round and round in my head for months, driving me to come up with a new way forward on the issue of same-sex marriage. My first idea was to get rid of marriage completely. We would just have civil partnerships or registered relationships, whatever you want to call them. No religion, no arguments. Man and woman, man and man, woman and woman, everyone could enter a legal partnership with whomever they loved. We would no longer have to agree or disagree with the church-argued concept of ‘the devaluing of marriage’ because there would be no more ‘marriage’.

However, I can see how it wouldn’t exactly be a compromise. If the church feels such a strong connection to marriage, it’s not something that can be just taken away from it. So here’s what I’ve come up with. We need two different types of marriage, to be known as a Church Marriage and a Civil Marriage. A Church Marriage would remain between a man and a woman – unless religious leaders one day decided otherwise. A Civil Marriage would include same-sex couples.

If we’d had the option back in 1996, Nikki and I would have chosen a Civil Marriage. Simple as that. The wedding would still have taken place atop Mt Coot-tha, the tourists would still have snapped photographs of our happy day, and we would still have been happily married for 16 years and counting. Admittedly, there is a non-religious option available to couples, both gay and straight. And I hear that scores of heterosexual couples have indeed entered these civil partnerships (recently renamed registered relationships) since their introduction this year. But I think most couples would still rather be ‘married’ and I don’t see how the church can continue to claim exclusive ownership of that seven-letter word.

Of course, this would still leave out gay couples hoping for a church-sanctioned marriage. But you have to concede that membership of a club – and that’s what church is – means adhering to the rules of that club. And, for now at least, church leaders seem quite happy with the ‘marriage is between a man and a woman’ rule. What do you think of my idea of having Church Marriage and Civil Marriage? What other way forward can you see? I’ll include some of your suggestions in my next column in a fortnight.

As a nation, we have to find the answer because the question isn’t going away. The ABC’s Head of Religion and Ethics, Scott Stephens, recently told my 612 ABC Brisbane Breakfast audience: “Increasingly you’re hearing political leaders being addressed quite forthrightly with ‘Where do you stand on gay marriage?’. For many people this is a political and even moral litmus test.” Even businesses are being forced to take sides, as we saw with the boycott of Gloria Jeans over its links to the Hillsong Church and the Australian Christian Lobby.

Says Scott Stephens: “Because of the feverishness of the debate, because there’s so much moral and political investment in it, it does mean there’s going to be collateral damage and anybody who’s associated with whichever is regarded as being the wrong side of the debate can get so easily caught up within it.” Email me your comments about the marriage debate at the address below.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Bmag June 19th 2012 - Shortest day

It’s not going to make you any warmer knowing this, but we are about to head back towards summer! The Winter Solstice – where the midday sun appears directly above the Tropic of Cancer – occurs at 9.09am AEST on Thursday 21 June, making that our shortest day. After 21 June, you can start looking forward to your beach holiday at Noosa, Christmas prawns, backyard cricket and what you’re doing for New Year’s Eve! Okay, enough with the summery daydreaming. Let’s get back to mid-winter.

Allow me to point out some fascinating curiosities surrounding the solstice. For instance, you would expect sunset to be getting later from this week. In fact, our earliest sunset, 5pm, has already come and gone (from 6 to12 June). At the other end of the day, sunrise continues to get later until it reaches 6.39am between 27 June and 6 July. A commonly asked question at this time of year is “why don’t our latest sunrise and earliest sunset coincide with our shortest day?”

Rebecca Jenkins, a writer with the ABC’s Health and Wellbeing website, explains: “This phenomenon is created by a combination of the Earth’s oval-shaped orbit and its tilt of 23.5 degrees. The Earth orbits the sun in an elliptical pattern, running faster when it is closest to the sun [during the winter and summer solstices]. This quirk means that the length of a solar day — the time between two solar noons (when the sun is at the highest point in the sky) — is not always the 24 hours we measure on a clock.

“At the same time, the Earth’s axial tilt means we are getting a few seconds less daylight every day in the lead up to solstice, but this has a small effect on the sunset and sunrise times compared with the much larger difference between solar time and clock time. It is this effect that leads to the staggering of the latest sunrise, the solstice and the earliest sunset.”

Another question that always arises at this time of year is “why is 1 June considered the beginning of winter when Britons, for example, have always used the winter solstice?” Well, it seems Australia has led the way here, with the UK’s Met Office moving to align its seasons with calendar months. So now the UK winter officially starts on 1 December, spring on 1 March and so on. You can imagine the uproar! Labour MP for Middlesborough Stuart Bell told BBC News at the time: “Spring starts on 20/21 March and if the Met Office is not aware of this simple fact, it reflects a casual approach to facts, which is all too inherent today!”

As for our Bureau of Meteorology, I have only two relatively minor gripes. And no, I’m not talking about its actual forecasts, which I find impressively accurate.

Firstly, it’s time the Bureau launched itself on social media so that forecasts and warnings can be delivered to you. I’m encouraged by an online survey by the Bureau, in which respondents are repeatedly asked (in subtly different ways) whether they would like to receive their weather information via social media. Here in Brisbane, a couple of individual forecasters, namely Rick Threlfall (@ RickThrelfall) and Tony Auden (@TonyAuden) have started the ball rolling via their personal Twitter accounts. It can’t be too long before we see an official Bureau presence.

My only other quibble is how the Bureau determines whether the current temperature is above or below average. I would have thought it logical to compare the temperature with the long-term average for that time of day and for that date. Instead, the Bureau uses the average for that time of day over the entire month. This means 16 degrees at 9am on 31 May is described as “2 below average” (the 9am average for May being 18 degrees), whilst the same temperature at the same time the very next day is “1 above average” (the 9am average for June being 15 degrees). Obviously the 9am temperature is lower at the end of May than at the beginning, and continues to slide during June. Therefore, at the beginning and end of each month, statements like “we’re experiencing above/below average temperatures” can be useless and misleading.

Again, minor quibbles, and none of this is going to keep you warm tonight. For that, I suggest wearing slippers around the house and taking a hot water bottle to bed!

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Bmag June 5th 2012 - Swap-It!

Until recently, I hadn’t seen a doctor in about 15 years. I know you’re meant to develop a ‘relationship’ with your GP so that you’re comfortable baring all when health issues do inevitably arise, but (as is typical for blokes) it just hasn’t happened. The other things I’ve never concentrated too hard on are eating healthily and exercising. Heck, one of my first jobs was mystery-shopping and taste-testing for McDonalds. What hope was there for me? My addiction to fast food started there and then!

But, not so long ago, three influential women in my life (independently of each other) hit me over the head with the same message. My wife Nikki started making comments about my “unsexy” belly (ouch!). My radio producer Anne Debert said: “One day you will realise you need to start exercising.” And, finally, my mum gave me the clear and simple instruction: “Now that you’re 40, go to the doctor for a check-up!”

All of this coincided with 612 ABC Brisbane and Diabetes Queensland putting me, my fellow ABC radio presenters and 60 listeners on a 12-week Swap It, Don’t Stop It program. The timing couldn’t have been better.

So I went to the doctor. Relationship established – tick! But Nikki was right – I do need to lose some weight. The doctor wants me to get from 95kg to 85kg over two years. And so began Swap-It, Don’t Stop It.

Olympic gold medallist Duncan Armstrong is our chief motivator. Duncan recalls getting out of the pool at 25 and putting on 2kg a week for eight months: “My race-weight was about 82kg and I hit 123kg within eight months! People would look at me and say `I think that guy ate Duncan Armstrong and he hasn’t finished!’ I was that weight for about four or five years and it took me another two or three years to get it off.

“[The trouble is] our food is too good. Our lifestyle is too good. And so we partake in both. We need to change and tweak and swap one little thing at a time that will lead to big changes down the track.”

612 ABC Brisbane afternoon presenter Kelly Higgins-Devine says she’s been trying to reduce her waistline since 1983. From experience, she’s learned: “One step at a time. You’re not going to lose 30kg in a day, so don’t even think about it. It’ll be day by day by day and some days you’ll lie in bed and think `I’m not doing it today. I’m having a croissant.’ Have that croissant. But then get up the next day and go back, because we all fall over at some point.”

We’re now six weeks into the 12-week challenge and guess what? It’s working! My waist is down from 107cm to 99cm and I’ve lost 5kg. Doc, that 85kg is looking good! Here are some ideas to get you started on your own Swap It program.

Diabetes Queensland has a staff policy that if you can walk to your meeting within half an hour, you don’t get a cab voucher. Says CEO Michelle Trute: “All my staff have their sandshoes under their desks!” And Michelle has this advice for dog owners: “If you’re staring at your puppy and he’s looking a bit chunky, it might be better than a mirror! I know that when my labrador is looking heavy, so am I! Swap feed for lead. If your dog wants to be fed, get it on the lead and make it walk first!”

Here are some more swaps for you to consider: • Hang washing on the line ins tead of using the drier • Have rice-crackers instead of potato chips • Have soda water instead of s oft drink • Choose brown rice instead of white • Use a w ooden spoon, rather than an electric beater • Pace, don’t sit, whilst making a phone c all • Instead of emailing someone in the nex t office, go and see them.

Will I keep it up once the 12-week program is over? Perhaps I won’t be so obsessive (inevitable when you’re doing something so publicly and the pressure is on to show results), but there’s no doubt I’ve made changes that will stick. After six weeks, I don’t crave fast food. I’m barely eating chocolate. I’m walking much more. I’m eating much less. And I am seeing results. You should try it!

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Bmag May 8th 2012 - Why so nasty?

When did we all become so nasty? I’ve repeatedly expressed my enthusiasm for social media, especially Twitter. But in the last couple of weeks, it’s really bugged me. I know how to handle criticism. I wouldn’t have survived two decades on radio without learning how to listen to those who I respect and ignore those who are just baiting for a reaction. But last week, someone made it through the armour. Why? Because Ben Limmer (real name? Who knows? Who can tell on Twitter?) wasn’t attacking me. He was cutting down the hopes and dreams of an 11-year-old girl. Here’s what happened.

Saturday night at 9.52pm, I tweeted: “Lemonade stall, you’ve been replaced! Eleven-year-old girl has dropped home-made pizza menu in our letterbox! Have ordered for next weekend! :)”And Ben’s reaction (I’ve fixed his spelling):“Hope she has a BCC (Brisbane City Council) food licence”.I replied: “Hope you have tongue in cheek”.He continued: “No, if you are paying money for her food it would be illegal.”I told him that I had no doubt how the court of public opinion would find this girl’s business get-up-and-go, to which he responded: “If your whole street got food poisoning where would public opinion be then?”

At this point, other Twitter users or tweeps added their two cents worth. There was Lyndon, who showed support by asking: “Does she offer a blue cheese and pear pizza?” (For the record, she’s kicking off with Supreme, Hawaiian and Vegetarian). Nathan, who co-owns a café, suggested there was a higher risk at “most Saturday barbecues”.Zsa Zsa described the girl’s pizza business as “wonderful” and Elizabeth simply tweeted“Awww…”Glenny chimed in from Melbourne with: “It’s just a young girl making a little pocket money. Good luck to her. People just read too much into a girl getting off her butt to make a few bob”.

So yes, there were those who jumped to defend my neighbour, but it was Ben Limmer who scored a victory by getting to me. On the Monday, I asked my radio listeners why we’re so quick to judge nowadays. Stan said: “The girl was just getting off her posterior and doing something for herself. She deserves praise not negative comment. But I am afraid I fall into that category from time to time. I blame it on the pressures of living.”From Deb: “I don’t know why but crankiness seems to kick in a lot earlier. It used to be the domain of the older people but the young’uns seem to get really cranky these days. Maybe it’s impatience?”Christina offered: “It’s stress, trying to keep a husband and five kids happy, juggle the little money we have and all for very little thanks. Some days it’s not too easy to pull out a smile, a laugh or even a smirk.”Paul’s response was simple: “There are too many people!”Linda took aim squarely at Twitter: “It’s a platform for uninformed and uneducated morons to vent about anything and everything without thinking about the impact their sometimes poisonous words have on innocent individuals”.

And finally, Patty suggested it’s because we can, now that social media has given everyone a voice. There’s something in all of the above but I think Patty’s nailed it. Social media sites don’t have a gatekeeper. Where newspapers have always been able to select which letters they publish, and radio producers have enjoyed similar control over which talkback callers get to air, Twitter, Facebook and the internet in general have given everyone the ability to publish whatever they like.

This whole experience has really affected me and I’m going to do what I can to change the tone. I’m as guilty as the next person when it comes to watching TV and live-tweeting comments about what a newsreader or reality contestant is saying or wearing. It’s keyboard road rage. And it has to stop. Here and now, I’m taking a vow of social media positivity.

And for those who are wondering, no we didn’t all die of food poisoning. The pizzas were delivered piping hot and perfectly on time, packed high with toppings, exceeding all our expectations! And they earned our young neighbour both a handsome tip and another order for this weekend! Who’s joining us?

Bmag May 22nd 2012 - Righting radio wrongs

Want to inject some honesty and accuracy into the world? Read on. I’ll show you how!

We all have our fields of expertise. Something we know inside and out. It could be a TV show or a period in history. For most of us, it’s as simple as what we do for a living. You might not feel comfortable calling yourself an expert. In fact, in a moment of self-questioning, you’ve probably wondered how long it will be before you’re “found out!” We’ve all done that.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers: The Story of Success, says it takes 10,000 hours’ practise to become expert in something. I say you achieve it when you can watch a TV show or movie and spot mistakes.

I’m not talking about continuity errors –my favourite of which is the car chase in Diamonds Are Forever, where James Bond (Sean Connery) drives into a narrow lane on just the two right-hand tyres. As the car leaves the laneway, it’s flipped onto the left! I mean mistakes you could have fixed if only the studio had hired you as a consultant!

Brad Pickersgill, who runs a fire prevention consultancy, says he regularly has to reassure clients that sprinklers do not all go off at once like in the movies. Brad continues: “Don’t even get me started on Towering Inferno, with its gas mains inside fire escapes, elevators that don’t shut off during a fire alarm and a water tank on top of the building which would weigh enough to collapse any structure.”

Forensic scientist Jen Dainer says TV shows like CSI and Law and Order present real problems for police and the courts because of “how much forensic evidence they always seem to have lying around and how rapidly they can get results from the evidence”. She says jurors now expect forensic evidence all the time.

Former drover David Morgan says he lost count of the number of mistakes in the movie Australia: “When the cattle jumped and rushed (or to use the American term, stampeded) the manner in which the mob was wheeled and brought to a stop had tears (of laughter) running down my face.”

Brisbane Philharmonic Orchestra concert master Robyn Gray says: “In the opening scene of August Rush, Keri Russell holds a cello back to front!”IT support worker David de Groot points to the movie Hackers with its “blatant ineptitude about computer hardware, such as referring to the specs of a PC-style laptop then showing a Mac instead”.

“Mad keen golfer” and film critic Matthew Toomey says the climax of Tin Cup sees Kevin Costner’s character hit his ball onto the green with a three wood. It appears to sit a metre from the hole then somehow spins back off the green and into the water, destroying his chances.“Firstly, you can’t spin a ball with a three wood and secondly, there’s no way they’d put a pin placement on a slope where the ball runs so easily into the water.”

You get the idea! It makes you wonder how these mistakes slip through. Of course, by the time you see the show or film, it’s too late. All you can do is shout at the screen! However, and this is my point, if ever you hear a radio interviewer failing to understand something about which you are an expert, there is more you can do than just scream.

This is my 20th year presenting live daily radio. Every day, I conduct interviews on seven or eight different topics. That’s a lot of interviews over the years. Try as you might to stay on top of everything, there are times when you say goodbye to a guest wondering whether the conversation was accurate and useful for someone who really knows the subject (not to mention someone who doesn’t). This is especially important when you’re interviewing someone who may be trying to avoid telling “the whole truth”.

I’m sure I speak for my colleagues at the ABC and other stations when I say we truly appreciate you phoning, texting or tweeting a critical snippet of information that can be woven into a live interview. No, you can’t change a mistake in a movie, but you can play a part in ensuring the accuracy of live radio in this city.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Bmag April 10th 2012 - Logies, Fuglies and Molkies

Why does this feel like a confession? I know you’re going to laugh at me. But I’m just going to spit it out and you can judge me accordingly! I enjoy watching the Logies. There, I’ve said it! I almost-certainly never know half the winners, but it takes me back to my teenage years when I watched a lot more television and lived for “TV’s night of nights”! Remember when Kylie Minogue won the Gold in 1988? I was 16, she was only three years older than me and suddenly up there with the likes of Graham Kennedy? At that moment, I was convinced it was the end of the world!

Now in my 40s, I will watch the Logies on Sunday night, hoping the teenagers of today are just as excited as I was. Just as I hold on to the tradition that is the Logies, I also enjoy the anti-Logies that have popped up in recent years.

There were the Fuglies, created in 2002 by social media marketer Anthony Dever, who would fly from Brisbane to Melbourne with a square of red carpet, stand outside the Logies venue and announce the online-voted winners to people walking past! The Fuglies ran for seven years and included awards such as Spunkiest Male on Australian Television and Most Spankable Female.

Last year, Brisbane-based TV blogger Steve Molk launched the Molkies, similar to the Fuglies but culminating in a sponsored gala awards night. The second annual Molkies were held on 31 March with categories such as Worst Product Placement (won by Coles for Masterchef), World Program or Series (Kyle and Jackie O’s Night With the Stars) and the Brown Molkie for the Person You Always Change Channels to Avoid (Kyle Sandilands). Accepting his 2012 Gold Molkie for the Person You Always Change Channels to Watch, Adam Hills described the Molkies as “the true gauge of quality in the Australian TV industry”!

But back to the Logies. I’m probably just pining for that teenage Logie Award excitement, but it’s 28 years since we had separate Logies for each of the states. And I miss those awards. In a moment, I’m going to ask you who would win Most Popular Male and Female on Queensland TV and Most Popular Queensland show in 2012. But first here’s a little Logies history, and why state-based awards won’t be brought back in a hurry.

The first Logie Awards, in 1959, were part of Channel Nine’s In Melbourne Tonight. No prizes for guessing which show won Best Program. In their second outing, the Logies had a Best Presenter for each network! That lasted just the one year. By 1961, the format and categories started to settle down and statebased Most Popular Male and Female Logies were introduced. Brian Tait and Nancy Knudsen were Queensland’s inaugural winners, along with Channel Seven’s The Late Show for Most Popular Queensland Show.

Other Most Popular Queensland Male and Female winners over the years included Jill and Dick McCann, Paul and Rhonda Sharratt, George Wallace jnr, Ron Caddee, Dina Heslop and for nine consecutive years, Jacki MacDonald. Theatre Royal, I’ve Got a Secret, Studio Nine and the Dick McCann Show were among the winners of Most Popular Queensland Show. Inevitably, the downscaling of local television production meant the Queensland Logies were taking on a newsy hue.

From 1980 until the last year of state-based Logies in 1984, Most Popular Queensland Show was won by a 6.30pm current affairs show, either Today Tonight (then on Nine) or State Affair (on Seven). When it came to Most Popular Male, the variety show performers of the ’60s and ’70s were pushed aside for the interviewers and newsreaders, including Paul Griffin, Glenn Taylor and Andrew Carroll. Jacki MacDonald just kept on winning Most Popular Female – from 1978 to 1984 – but then Jacki always was the exception. Who else could present Channel 0 News in Brisbane then fly to Melbourne to co-host Hey Hey It’s Saturday on Nine?! In 2012, there are news, lifestyle and children’s programs made here in Brisbane.

So, if state-based Logies were to be reinstated, who would win Most Popular Male and Most Popular Female? And what would be Most Popular Queensland Show? Email your votes to the email address below and I’ll report back in a couple of weeks. And no, you can’t vote for Jacki MacDonald!

Bmag April 24th 2012 - 1000 ideas for Brisbane

Amid all the recent concern about crime in South East Queensland, it’s comforting and refreshing to see someone talking about positive ideas for the future of our city. And no, I’m not talking about any of the candidates for this Saturday’s local government elections. See what you think of these suggestions, then I’ll tell you who’s behind this month-long citywide brainstorming session:

• Moving libraries – trollies of books in King George Square and the Queen Street Mall where people can pick up pre-ordered books and return others as part of their commute;

• Free entry for locals to art exhibitions, if they bring a guest from interstate or overseas (proven by licence and postcodes);

• Have one day a year where people all wear a name tag and go out of their way to say hello to each other;

• Pop-up performances by members of our professional opera, theatre and ballet groups;

• Create a Brisbane war-cry to be chanted before all major sporting and cultural events.

These are just some of the ideas collected so far as part of an Australian Property Council campaign called Make Brisbane Work. The goal is no fewer than 1000 ideas! The Council’s Queensland division executive director Kathy MacDermott says: “The focus is creating a Brilliant Brisbane. Through collecting 1000 ideas, we aim to promote positive thinking and talking about how our cities need to change and grow.

“As you can see, there are some great concepts. We are looking for all sorts of ideas, big or small, practical or implausible. We want to hear them all!”

As the ideas are collected they will be published at brisbane and you’ll be able to vote for your favourite. There’s no guarantee that any of the 1000 suggestions, even the winning one, will become a reality straight away. But they could provide the kernel for someone, something, sometime in the future.

Here are some more of the ideas already submitted to the Make Brisbane Work website:

• A city flower farm in King George Square, cared for by groups of volunteers;

• A “self-expression corner” featuring large canvasses which, when completed, would be placed around building sites;

• Make Brisbane “The World’s Summer Suitless City”;

• A light beam from the top of City Hall that can be seen from Noosa to Coolangatta;

• A maze in the CBD;

• Make all tunnel tolls a standard $2;

• Free public transport in the CBD.

Local Logies

In the last issue of bmag, I lamented the loss (admittedly 28 years ago!) of local Logie Awards and asked you who would win Most Popular Male and Female personalities on Queensland TV if state-by-state Logies were still handed out.

Among those who responded was Dorothy Carroll, who emailed: “Spencer, I really enjoyed your column because I learnt about Queensland’s television heritage. The only name I knew and recognised was Jacki MacDonald and that was only because of Hey Hey It’s Saturday. I watch Bill McDonald and Georgie Lewis on Ten at 5pm followed by The Project and then turn over to the ABC for its 7pm News. On Sundays, I tend to watch Seven as the Flashback becomes a talking point amongst the family.”

Based on all your emails and Twitter comments, I can announce that the 2012 winners would have been (drum roll please!) – Bill McDonald (Ten News) and Jessica Van Vonderen (7.30 Queensland and ABC News weekends).

Try swapping

For the next 12 weeks, ABC radio presenters and listeners are teaming up with Diabetes Queensland to Swap It, Don’t Stop It. The idea is to make a series of small swaps in your life, both dietary and lifestyle, to hopefully decrease your waist measurement. Irrespective of height, if your waist is more than 80cm (women) or 94cm (men) you have an increased risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes and should do something about it.

Tune in to 612 ABC Brisbane between now and July for tips. Here’s one to get you started – hop off the bus one stop earlier. It won’t kill you to walk the extra few hundred metres. In fact, it might just save your life.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Bmag March 6th 2012 - Not-drinking is cool

I recently invited a bunch of ABC radio listeners and regular contributors to the pub for lunch and a few drinks. It was a simple thank you for their ongoing support. I have never bought so many glasses of colas, orange juice and lemon, lime and bitters in my life! At least a third of the 60-odd people there were not drinking alcohol.

I became genuinely interested in why so many people are choosing to stay away from booze. Asking on the day seemed somewhat accusatory so I took the question to Twitter, Facebook and Google Plus. The responses have had me thinking about every glass of wine I’ve poured since.

First, there’s the taste. “Trimega”says he didn’t have his first drink until he was 20 “and then found I didn’t really like it”. Scott McGill “never liked the taste and never saw the point of investing the time acquiring a taste simply to fit in with society. So I never did”. Bruce Rawson says he drinks “very little and only very occasionally” because “I just don’t enjoy the taste”.

Then, there are those who don’t like the effect. Fiona Davy describes alcohol as “an expensive waste of money that just makes me queasy”; Catherine Yarham says “my brain prefers a sugar high to drunk high”; Brett Carey “got sick of feeling crook the next day!” and Iain Fogerty sums it up in one word: “Hangovers”.

As you would expect, some have a far more serious reason, usually based on experience, for saying no. James Simms worked as a Queensland Rail Transit Officer. “One memory that will always stay with me is having to help a young girl of around 15 out of a garden bed at a train station. My partner and I were there to get her cleaned up and slightly conscious and we arranged an ambulance. I couldn’t bring myself to ever get that out of control so I quit alcohol completely.”

Sally Piracha spent several years working for an alcohol distributor. “There were lots of team dinners and conferences and the company always paid for the alcohol. One of my colleagues ended up in a wheelchair after wrapping his car around a tree after a night out with the work social club.” Sally says she and her husband Rob are now very occasional drinkers. “Our unwritten rules are that we don’t drink alone and we don’t drink at home. And we’re both okay with that.”

So, how do non-drinkers feel about being invited to a social event at a pub? Paramedic Bob Hartley, who doesn’t drink because “my job is largely about treating drunk people and I don’t want to be one of them”, says he doesn’t mind going to pubs “provided they aren’t full of very drunk people. I do object to the extortionate cost of soft drinks there but I accept it”.

Sally Piracha says she avoids pubs. “Wellmeaning friends will try to encourage you to have ‘just one’ and the diet colas you’ve been enjoying all night will suddenly pack a punch – and you weren’t even consulted.” Rachel C doesn’t think much of the “drinking culture” there and prefers “alcoholfree good times”. She describes pubs as “interesting…but ‘bad’ interesting”.

All things considered, I still think the pub was the best place to get 60 people together and I would do it again. Vegetarians don’t stay away from restaurants that serve meat. Non-coffee-drinkers don’t boycott cafés. (That said, those places are safe and respect difference. No one gets abusive after eating one too many hamburgers and no one sneaks a shot of espresso into your hot chocolate when you’re not looking).

The key thing here – and this can be broadened to life in general – is to respect everyone’s individual choices and not impose yours on anyone else. And if you don’t want to drink alcohol, you should feel comfortable not drinking alcohol. The more relaxed we all become about some people choosing not to drink, the less alcohol-reliant we all will be as a society. And that has to be a good thing.

Finally, in response to my last column, Fran Wiltshire emails: “Spencer, I really enjoyed your article about numbers but don’t you think you need to go out and get a life?!” Thankfully, she adds: “Don’t stop though because I enjoy reading your articles!” Thanks for that Fran.

Bmag March 20th - Election night

Finally, election day has arrived. Will selfproclaimed underdog Anna Bligh defy the polls and lead Labor to a sixth consecutive victory? Will the LNP’s Campbell Newman make history by winning the premiership from outside parliament? Or will Queensland elect an LNP government without Campbell Newman?

If nothing else excites you about election night, that question of whether or not Campbell Newman wins Ashgrove should give you something to cheer for, whichever side of politics you support. A ReachTEL phone poll conducted on 5 March gave the key seat to the ALP’s Kate Jones, 50.7 per cent to 49.3 per cent, two-party-preferred. It doesn’t get much closer than that.

For me, election night is a psephological football final. My wife Nikki is working on Channel Nine’s coverage, so she won’t be home until late. Our 11-year-old son Jack will happily spend the night reading or playing computer games, perhaps sticking his head in for the concession and victory speeches. That leaves me to set up my very own tally room! I’ll have a couple of TVs on the go, one with a split-screen showing two channels at once. Hats off to 31 Digital, which is mounting election night coverage for the first time. Next to me on the couch will be a radio with pre-set station buttons for easy flicking between ABC, 4BC and Switch 1197 (the youth community station is broadcasting live from the tally room for a fourth consecutive election).

Then there’s Twitter on my lap and a bottle of wine on the floor to my right! I know I’m not alone with my election night obsession.

Librarian Fiona Winston- Brown also sets herself up for the night: “I swoon over the ABC’s election analyst Antony Green whilst hurling abuse at the TV if the wrong mob gets in! Hubby floats around in the background and joins me for the call of our electorate but otherwise it’s a solo event accompanied by cheese and biscuits washed down with a bottle from my collection.”

High school drama teacher Matthew Kopelke says “I always try to mix social media with ABC coverage. Nothing but Kerry O’Brien and Antony Green for me!” Director of the Anywhere Theatre Festival, Paul Osuch, says “we always do a reading of ‘Don’s Party’. How far we get depends on many factors…”

Human Resources manager Simon Francis says he’s starting a tradition “inviting over like-minded political nerds and having drinks and nibbles while yelling at the TV”. I suspect “like-minded” is the key to a successful election night party!

Nicholas and Natalie Perkins spent the last state election night watching events unfold in the tally room at the Convention Centre. Nicholas says it was “great to watch as the pollies come in and get interviewed and so forth”. Theatre reviewer Doug Kennedy says the tally room experience is over-rated: “Went once. Theatre of the absurd. All I saw were journos. It’s better on TV!” Amanda Dell is one of those journalists. For Amanda, the tally room is the only place to be on election night, for “the whiff of victory and the stink of defeat”.

Of course, not everyone will be glued to the minute-by-minute results. Content to find out later is film critic Matthew Toomey who says “it’s my tradition to see a movie on election night.” Then he adds “that’s my tradition every night actually!”

QPAC has no fewer than four options for you on election night – The Australian Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet, British comedian Ross Noble, Christen O’Leary in Bombshells and Harry Potter star Miriam Margoyles in Dickens’ Women! And US husband-and-wife country music stars Tim McGraw and Faith Hill are playing at the Entertainment Centre.

Margaret Bell will be in charge of Front of House at Centenary Theatre Company’s closing night performance of Wrong Turn at Lungfish (by Laverne & Shirley writers Garry Marshall and Lowell Ganz). Margaret concedes: “I may check results on social media between sips of champagne!”

For Aussie Rules fans like Paul Smeaton, Saturday 24 March means the opening match of the AFL season between the Sydney Swans and debutantes Greater Western Sydney. That said, Paul still plans to flick between the footy and ABC TV. He says “the question is – will the GWS rookies out-perform the CanDo rookie?!” All I can say is this – may your team win!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Bmag Feb 21st 2012 - Patterns in dates

How special is the date on the cover of this issue of bmag? Can you see it? 21 February 2012? Anyone see a pattern there? Anyone? Bueller?! I don’t know when it started or why I persist – maybe I need some professional help – but I can’t help seeing and thoroughly enjoying patterns in dates.

For example, 21 February 2012, when written out in numbers, is perfectly symmetrical: 21022012! Probably the reason for my fascination is that, being on radio at breakfast time, I’m one of the first people in Brisbane to see the day’s date written down. And then, like an overenthusiastic “pincher and puncher” on the first day of the month, I get to shout it from the rooftops (or, in my case, radio speakers!)

Sometimes, you have to be creative, arguably contradicting your own rules. For example, 21 March can be symmetrical too, as long as you don’t have the zero before the three and you reduce the year to 12 (21312). Not as impressive as 21022012, I know! In fact, if you remove that zero, the 21st of every month, bar October and December, is symmetrical (or palindromic, to use a word most of us probably learned from Monty Python’s Pet Shop Sketch!)

Then there are the fun sequences, like 10 November 2012, which can be written 10 11 12. To really impress, consider the time at 15 seconds past 14 minutes past one in the afternoon and you have the date/time combination of 10 11 12 13 14 15. Have I hooked you in yet?! It bugs me when I miss one. For example, 1 February this year attracted the nickname Roadies’ Day, in recognition of the traditional sound-check “12 12”! It wasn’t until late afternoon on 1 February that I noticed the pattern, too late for me to use on radio! The next day I more than made up for it, declaring that 2 February (2 2) was both Ballerina Day (tutu) and Richie Benaud Day (a cricket fan will enjoy explaining that one to you).

So as not to miss any more, I’ve started looking ahead. Here’s what I’ve spotted so far. I’d love you to email me more that you can see coming up at

4 May is Star Wars Day – “May the fourth be with you” (a play on the line from the movie’s “May the force be with you”).

22 July is Pi Day – Pi (the relationship between the radius and circumference of a circle) is often approximated to 22/7. In the United States, where the month is written before the date, Pi Day can instead be marked on March 14 – 3.14 (plus a bazillion more digits, but who’s counting?) being a very rough approximation of 22/7 (which in itself is an approximation of Pi). Have I just crossed an invisible geek line? No? That’s good. Oh, a most visible geek line? I see.

The most exciting and obvious date this year is 12 December, or 12 12 12. It’s the twelfth year in a row we’ve enjoyed a triple date like that, starting with 1 January 2001. We won’t get another triple until 2101! If you’ve been following along, you’ll already be thinking about what happens at 12 seconds past 12 minutes past 12 that day! That’s right – 12 12 12 12 12 12! If you miss all the 12s, there’s some consolation in 20 December being 20 12 2012. Be still my mathematical heart!

Radio for children

My column on the lack of children’s radio drew a huge response, including from Deborah Lever, who says “The lack of kids radio has frustrated me for some time. Though these days finding good funky music with no ‘toilet words’ is a bit of challenge.”

Marion Mora remembers listening to The Argonauts’ Club in the 1940s: “As a child on a farm, I enjoyed every second of every program. The Argonauts gave me a window into so many worlds and had a huge impact on my life.”

Linda Tait says “age appropriate” radio for children “would definitely be something I would encourage my kids to participate in.”

And Allain Edwards shared the good news that children’s music and stories are broadcast on fully-automated narrowcast radio stations in a small number of regional towns and cities, the closest to Brisbane being Toowoomba’s 99.1 FM. Thanks Allain – let’s hope there’s more good news on the children’s radio front.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Bmag February 7th 2012 - Radio for children

A random late-night tweet by ABC current affairs presenter Mark Colvin has had me revisiting the reason I first wanted to get into radio – talkback for children! Mark wrote: “It was one of the sadder moments with ABC when Radio National fired Peter Combe. Since then, no children’s programs on radio in Australia”.

Peter Combe’s show was called Tickle Pot. It ran for 10 minutes every afternoon from 1988-1991 and in many ways was Play School on radio. I used to record Tickle Pot and make mix-tapes for my younger brother. Peter Combe himself has said “why the ABC stopped producing it is one of life’s great mysteries!” You can now purchase old episodes of Tickle Pot on CD but it’s not the same as sharing the joy of radio with your children or grandchildren.

I was recently sent an ABC Radio program guide from 1967. Every afternoon at 5pm was the one-hour Argonauts’ Club. From 7 November 1967: “There’s a song and a riddle with Mac, Jimmy, Penny and Sue. The Appelles read letters and we continue our serials.” So why isn’t there children’s radio in 2012? When they get home from school, children turn to TV, the internet or pop music radio stations (with content that’s not always familyfriendly). There is a Tuesday afternoon “by students, for students” show on 4ZZZ called Paper Aeroplanes, but its target audience is upper high school and university, rather than young children.

Children’s radio is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. I walked into community station 4RPH 22 years ago offering to present a children’s talkback show. I was studying journalism at the time. My idea was to give school students the chance to talk about everything from homework to bullying. They would feel safe and anonymous discussing whatever was on their mind. As it turned out, 4RPH didn’t have talkback facilities so the idea was filed away. I ended up presenting a number of programs for 4RPH – from the arts to politics – but one of my favourites was The Jungle, where my now wife Nikki (we met at 4RPH) and I would read children’s stories and play songs. See, I wasn’t going to let the children’s radio idea slip away completely!

 The ABC has just ramped up its Grandstand channel on digital radio – as of last Friday, 3 February, Francis Leach is hosting a live sports breakfast show four mornings a week – so I can’t think of a better time to suggest an ABC digital radio channel for children! Just look at how much music has been released on the ABC for Kids label, from the Wiggles and Play School to The Fairies and Giggle and Hoot. There would be no shortage of contemporary Australian content. At night, for older children, you could have book readings and plays (for example, the Dr Who episodes created especially for the audiobook market). Later still, and into the early morning, soothing voices could discuss topics of interest to nursing mums interspersed with those brilliant Sean O’Boyle lullaby CDs (with titles that include Counting Sheep and Songs for Quiet Time). And maybe, just maybe, somewhere in the schedule, there could be a live talkback show for children around Australia to get things off their chest!

On the subject of radio, there have been a couple of key developments. Firstly, Toyota has announced it will install DAB+ digital radios as standard from this year. This is a game-changer in Australia. Other manufacturers are expected to follow suit.

Secondly, the proliferation of smart phones combined with more affordable data plans, means more people are listening to radio via the internet on their phones. Most of my away-from-home radio listening is via a phone app and I’ve become aware of many more ABC listeners tuning in this way. Many radio stations have their own apps but if you like to flick around the stations (I’ll be honest – I do) you could try one like TuneIn Radio which is free for the basic version and available on iOS and Android devices.

Of course, you are paying for data when you listen to radio this way but you might find it’s cheaper than you think. I pay $20 for 2GB a month and that gives me several hours’ radio listening a day.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Bmag Jan 24th 2012 - Advertising restaurant surcharges

Here’s something to keep in mind this Australia Day. Did you know, as of last year, restaurants and cafés are no longer allowed to say “plus 15 per cent surcharge on weekends and public holidays”? Instead they must show the full price, which means having two sets of menus with two sets of prices. But don’t get too used to it. This relatively new law is already set to be overturned. Confused?

Here’s the current situation as explained by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission: “A business must not promote, advertise or state a price that is only part of the cost that a customer has to pay, unless the total single price is also prominently advertised, promoted or stated. “This law affects businesses that apply surcharges (cafés/restaurants); incur additional levies and taxes (tourism/travel); and some service industries. “Any breach is directly enforceable as a contravention of the Australian Consumer Law.”

Amelia Taylor creates marketing solutions for small businesses in the food and wine industry. She says “it’s a ridiculous law”. Admitting her anger is “possibly due to the 15 sets of menus I had to redesign and print at New Year”, Amelia says “the government makes it almost impossible these days to run a business”.

As another industry insider puts it: “I understand the principle but if patrons can’t work out 10 per cent they should probably not dine out!” That’s fine if it is 10 per cent but what about 15 per cent or 17.5 per cent? Hands up anyone who’s willing to be tested publicly on their ability to divide a bill, then multiply the per-person cost by 17.5 per cent, all at the end of a particularly jovial night? And does everyone always know which days are the public holidays? For example, not everyone would have realised this year’s New Year’s Day holiday was on 2 January.

Amelia Taylor makes a good point when she says “now restaurants can put whatever they want [on weekends and public holidays] because no one actually knows what the [normal price] is”.

The latest twist is that in September the Federal Government accepted a Productivity Commission recommendation to have restaurant and café menu surcharges placed outside the scope of the component pricing provisions of the Australian Consumer Law. Straight away, the industry’s peak body, Restaurant and Catering Australia, welcomed the Federal Government’s new (old) approach, saying “a percentage surcharge was far easier for consumers and the businesses involved”. That was 13 September last year. The reason it is still illegal to state “plus 15 per cent surcharge” on menus is, according to Restaurant and Catering Australia, “the state governments now need to accept the change, given the new federal approach to the Consumer Law”.

Which would you prefer? Email and let me know. At the moment, it’s nothing short of confusing. Many restaurants and cafés don’t know or don’t care and continue to advertise that an additional surcharge applies. Most café and restaurant-goers are simply unaware this debate has been going on.

On a similar note, why did tradies apparently not get the memo about including GST in the total amount on their quotes and invoices? Having travelled in the US, where taxes differ from state to state and price tags rarely show the full amount, I love how we show the total, GST included. In the last two years, whilst slowly dabbling at renovating, I’ve noticed many – not all – tradies will quote you a figure then write “plus GST”. How is that legal?

Solar eclipse update

In the last issue, I enthused about the total solar eclipse visible from Far North Queensland later this year. Cairns-based travel agent Pete Pritchard emailed to add the following advice: “The road between Cairns and Port Douglas is mainly narrow, windy and single-lane and with a marathon starting in Port Douglas [at the very end of the eclipse] the road will be horrendous. Additionally, the roads up to Mareeba and to the north of Mareeba are all single lane as well and are likely to be very busy from 3am onwards as a lot of accommodation is already booked out up there. I would definitely suggest people do research with this in mind.” Thanks Pete!

Monday, January 9, 2012

Bmag Jan 10th 2011 - Total solar eclipse in Queensland

We live in an era of short-term goals, from politicians always eyeing off the next poll to our general inability to plan ahead (“Where will I meet you?” “Text me when you get there”). This year, Queensland will host an event billions of years in the making. I’ve known about it – and been looking forward to it – since 2002, but astronomers have had 14 November 2012 circled on their calendars for generations. I’m talking about a total eclipse of the sun.

Total solar eclipses occur somewhere on earth every 18 months or so, but they’re not always easily accessible – I had to fly in a 747 to see one over Antarctica in 2003 – and getting to view one from Queensland is rare. The next one is in 2037.

Brisbane Planetarium curator Mark Rigby has seen seven, from Australia, PNG, the Libyan desert, Siberia, the mountains of China and remote Easter Island. “It is unlike any other experience in life. Time goes by in a flash as one senses, as does wildlife, that something unstoppable is in progress, a ballet set in motion billions of years ago,” he says. A total solar eclipse occurs when the moon blocks out the sun. Day turns to night and for the period known as “totality”, it is safe to look at the sun with the naked eye. Our nearest star appears as a golden ring (its outer atmosphere) with a deep black centre (the moon). The length of totality depends on the eclipse and your location.

This November, totality will last around two minutes. Seen from Cairns, first contact (where the moon first kisses the edge of the sun) is at 5.44am, totality from 6.38am to 6.40am, and second contact (where the moon leaves the sun) at 7.40am. At my first total eclipse in Ceduna, South Australia in 2002, I enjoyed a mere 32 seconds of totality but that was enough to light my eclipse evangelism! I haven’t stopped talking about them since!

Mark Rigby explains his addiction: “No two are the same. I find that I am only ever absorbing part of what is going on. You are left with a thirst for more. And it’s a good excuse to see places one might not otherwise visit! The appearance of the diamond ring effect (the last vestige of sunlight piercing through a valley on the limb or edge of the moon) is amazing and then follows totality looking like a circular hole of the blackest black surrounded by the pearly corona (outer atmosphere) of the sun. Then another diamond ring and totality is over. I feel on both a high and low simultaneously – it’s over. And then people talk of the next one!”

Some people say the total solar eclipse experience is like looking into the eye of God. It certainly gives you a deep connection with the universe. After all, as Rigby explains, they won’t occur forever. “The moon is drifting from the earth at 3.8cm per year. Around 600 million years from now, the moon will be too distant to block out the disc of the sun – no more total solar eclipses. We are lucky!”

Rigby says most people will view the eclipse from areas around Cairns, from Innisfail to Port Douglas. He says the sun will be low in the eastern sky so you’ll need a fairly flat, unobstructed eastern horizon. Find somewhere that also has a view of the west-northwest and you’ll see the moon’s dark shadow racing towards you. But, if you can’t get there yourself, Mark Rigby and I will broadcast the spectacle live during my breakfast show on 612 ABC Brisbane.

If you are planning a trip, consider booking a vehicle so you can get away from bad weather. That said, Mark Rigby cautions: “It is sometimes the case that people have moved and would have been better off staying put. In the end, it is probably a case of que sera sera – whatever will be, will be!” Finally, you will need special eclipse glasses or #14 welding goggles before and after totality – you are looking at the sun, after all. Just make sure you remove them as soon as totality begins, something I didn’t realise for valuable seconds in Ceduna (and which Mark Rigby has never let me forget!) See you in Cairns!