Early days as a trainee – Colin McPherson


At the end of 1957 I applied for a position of Technician in Training as advertised in the Sydney Morning Herald. The application was acknowledged but it was not until mid February 1958 that I received a telegram to come for an interview on the next Friday. The interview was held and next I knew I was starting at the North Sydney Technical College the following Monday 17th February 1958.

After 6 weeks of formal lessons on basic electricity and electronics the time arrived to start the practical stage of training; working in the TV Studios. This was the time when one was thrown in the deep end to learn basic survival skills. The training was basically a rotational series of 6 weeks formal and 6 weeks practical. The latter in the various operational areas of the ABC namely studios, master control, telecine, telerecorder, telerecord processing, Outside Broadcasts (OB’s), Links, Installation, Maintenance, Stores and Workshop.

Initially I started on boom with a spattering of cable dragging in productions. Studio 21 was the only major studio on line with Studio 22 still needing a technical fit-out. Within the six week periods we also had to assist in the studio installations and the inevitable modifications that followed.

Dress was always collar and tie; it seemed anomalous when one was getting dirty installing cables and equipment. Dust coats however were provided.

My 6 week practical sessions quickly evolved to Vision Mixing, first in Studio 21 and then Studio 22 and this continued for some time. Work placements were formally advised.

I thoroughly enjoyed this phase of training. I remember Kevin Shine; TV Producer encouraging me to switch on music beats rather than his cues. It was a time when we were all training each other and comments were readily taken on board as a means of improving our team results. One production had a studio background comprising a city building outline silhouetted against the lit cyclorama. I commented to John Hicks, TP (Technical Producer) that the city would look more alive if a few cutouts were made in the silhouetted background to simulate lit windows. Next time such a background was used sure enough lit windows appeared improving the presentation.

In between productions conversation inevitably went to discussing the technical aspects of the medium we were using. The benchmarks for promotion were the Broadcast Operators Certificate of Proficiency (BOCP) for Technician and the Television Operators Certificate of Proficiency (TVOCP) for Senior Technician. Self learning was the order of the day and everybody pitched in to extend the knowledge base. Twice a year exams were held with the official results from the Australian Broadcasting Control Board being published in the ABC Radio Active magazine.

It was opening day in Studio 22. Margaret Delves was producing Woman’s World with Les Weldon as TP. I was vision mixing ready to go when Presentation called and said you’re "on air". It was’nt the usual countdown to coming on air (perhaps there was a technical problem and they were cutting to the presentation announcer; Michael Charlton early to fill in). I looked at the monitor, Michael was ready so I faded up and pressed the talkback simultaneously to say "cue" him hoping the floor manager was listening. It was then a quick fade to black as a beautifully dressed young woman came and sat on his knee. At that instance Margaret walked in and quickly took control with Michael then appearing saying "I hope you were’nt watching then!"

As a colleague of mine once put it "Working in Studios was like working in Theatre". There were good days and not so good days but each day was a closed chapter and the next day a new start. What a great time!

I commented some time later that I was not being rotated through the operational areas like my colleagues; I always seemed to be vision mixing.

Next I knew I was in Telerecord processing. Working in a darkroom under red lights developing film of the telerecordings was a complete change (I felt like I was sent to Siberia). However I learnt a lot. Vic Le Pla and Vic Zeleeny were keen photographic experts. While black and white film was the order of the day, colour film for consumer use was only just emerging. Vic le Pla was experimenting with home processing of colour film sharing ideas with people like Carl Wilhelm and others.

The Houston Fearless Processors used to develop the telerecordings utilised a continuous feed system where the 400 foot reels were joined by stapling them together while the film was fed through the processor at a constant speed. One had to hold the tail of the reel being processed, quickly staple the next reel to it, hold ones breath and let go. Meanwhile the machine would take up slack in a weighted roller system so that the film being processed always kept constant speed. If one took too long in stapling then there would be a developing problem. Conversely, on the output, the film had to be cut to remove the staples, pushed into the centre of the film spooling core, wound on a couple of turns then released. Again weighted rollers took up the ever emerging processed film while this action took place. Any fumbles resulted in the film piling up on the floor and yes it happened to me once as part of my learning process.

I next ended up in Outside Broadcasts, Links Master Control and Telecine followed by stints back in the studio on sound and camera. Greg South as Sound Engineer was great letting us as trainees mix audio on major musical productions. Here was I alone in the control room while Greg was on the studio floor adjusting the mics when an audio reel of tape was thrust in my hand and I was asked to lace up the recorder quickly as it was needed urgently. I had never set up a recorder before and here I was trying to see how it worked. Somehow I succeeded and when Greg returned we were ready to go. On reflection I believe the tape came from radio as the sound track for the television production.

Radio staff were regarded as the experts in audio recording and often took precedence over television in providing audio sound tracks. It took some time to realise that the mediums were different and that the recordings of television programmes often sounded unbalanced as the audio level was adjusted to follow the vision. If one was taking a close up of an instrument in an orchestra a viewer would expect the sound to be emphasised during this time and being restored to normal level on the wide shot. Eventually television sound became accepted in it own right.

At the conclusion of our training we were given the options of chosing the areas where we would start as Technicians. Operationally I liked Sound Control but technically Master Control appealed as it also had programme switching as well a being the technical hub of operations. I enjoyed Master Control.

My training career left me with a motto; "There are no problems; only solutions". It served me well in my career with the ABC.

Colin McPherson was in the first group of Trainees in 1958. In 1967 he moved to Engineering Training then to Federal Office (Engineering) before taking up the position of Head Broadcast Technical Department (Radio) in 1986. He was the Broadcasting Installation Manager on the Ultimo Radio Project. In 1992 he was seconded by the ABC to the private sector as Production Manager for the manufacturing of the ABC's D-CART Systems. He retired from the ABC in 1998.


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