That's the Spirit: Wayne Harrison - Bourke
After some four decades on the airwaves of the west and far west, it’s fair to suggest Wayne Harrison is the voice of the region he’s come to know and love through his “day job” as General Manager with Bourke’s community-based 2WEB Outback Radio. A passionate advocate for regional media, Wayne believes the strength of small communities like Bourke lies in the way people care for one another.
Jen: Tell me about your journey to and from Bourke and back over the years.
Wayne: I came back six years ago. I originally came here in 1981 as a 21-year-old, and went to Cornerstone (a Christian community) which was like a Bible training centre at the time but we were also very involved in the community, running kids’ programs and doing youth work. I was also a volunteer at the radio station and then they put me on full time.
I was here from the end of 1982 to early 1988, when I went to Broken Hill and started the local regional news service there (which was) 2BH. Then I came back here as promotions manager and it was at that time that we (the 2WEB co-op) purchased 4VL (Charleville).
We were the first community radio station to own a commercial station. That whole area had not had a service at all for about 18 months. People were missing their radio so we got that happening again.
After we bought that I had to move to Charleville, where I was for about two and a half years.
When I met and married my wife, Jan, we lived in Toowoomba and managed
a radio station there. Then we went to the Sunshine Coast and I worked for an international broadcasting radio station, where I really just used the same principles that we used here: think locally, act regionally.
Wayne Harrison, Bourke
Being an international broadcast radio station, we had a Chinese team that spoke Mandarin and an Indonesian team who were Bahasa Indonesian speakers, so part of my job was to train them. Many of them were raw radio recruits, and again we taught them to think locally but act internationally.
So with all that, I did a lot of travelling around in Asia and different parts of the world to talk to different broadcast receivers who were interested in taking our broadcasts or who wanted to learn more about radio so they could do a similar thing.
So, yep, the little old early days at 2WEB were what you could call very fertile ground for training and teaching.
Because we're isolated, it meant everybody had to pull together – as we still do, like all good far West folk do! That means you end up with a better product in the end because you have to work harder at it.
Jen: Has that experience forged your commitment to and passion for regional media and providing coverage and a voice for people in regional and remote areas?
Wayne: Absolutely. I think the word passion is a good one, because whenever I explain to people what we do – people who live nowhere near as far out as we do – they initially they don't get it. After you explain it, they actually do understand.
It’s interesting, but I think there are a lot of regional (radio listening) areas that are not being serviced very well with good local content. There are just not the resources and money being put into developing good local content, and many of the stations are being denuded of staff.
Jen: Why is good local knowledge and a commitment to regional media so important to small towns like Bourke?
Wayne: It's important because despite the fact that you have a lot of social media now, people still rely on the radio here. It becomes a friend and a confidante in a sense. People are great radio listeners here – the radio is on all the time. We talk to people who are in remote areas and their appreciation for that is so great.
I remember when I returned six years ago, I had people say they appreciated the local content, not listening to presenters who were talking about dog grooming in the eastern suburbs of Sydney!
The 2WEB Radio Team, Bourke
Jen: That doesn't really go down very well in, say, Goodooga, does it?
Wayne: Not at all. Although they have some very good dogs there! (Laughs). I don't know if they like grooming them, though.
But suffice to say my aim was to make sure we developed our own talk program, and so we did the sums. We were having to pay for the (syndicated) broadcasts and for that air time, so we just decided to cut that umbilical cord.
After that, we did local programming and at first people were a bit suspicious. They said, “We want to hear what's happening on the other side of the levee bank!", and they weren’t sure whether we could deliver that service. Nevertheless, “Outback Mornings” (local morning show) was born and no-one’s complained. Over the years, we've had a couple of people who have operated Outback Mornings, but now probably the bulk of my time is spent doing that show.
Jen: What is it that you love about Bourke?
Wayne: In recent times we've had so much grief and loss in this town, and we have this beautiful community that just pulled together so wonderfully. That’s what I love.
We lost six or seven very prominent, dear folk from our town and our region in a short space of time and people were in shock. So just to see the way the community folk have just rallied and have cared for each other is wonderful. And even when we lost May Watkins (a long-time member of the 2WEB team who died on New Year’s Day 2020), people sent me flowers and cards to say, “We're really sorry for your loss” because people knew she was like a mum.
Jen: So there's an acknowledgement that you don't have to share blood to be family in a community like Bourke.
Wayne: That's exactly right, and I think Bourke's unique that way. Although other remote towns are likely the same – places like Brewarrina, Walgett… I think because we're all more isolated towns, people really just pull together in those areas, and they care for one another. They want what's best for each other.
Jen: Does the remoteness engender a community spirit that’s born of need?
Wayne: I really think that’s the case. People out here have the uncanny knack of just recognising the need a month beforehand. People just seem to be ready to meet that need with kindness. My wife, who is a teacher by trade and now works with people who have a disability, is a very kind, community-minded, pastoral type of person, and she says this town is just incredible in the way it loves and cares for people.
Jen: You and your wife Jan have a deep faith which underscores what you do in and for Bourke – have you found that divisive in any way?
Wayne: Oh, no. I think we’re meant to just follow the commandments by loving God, loving one another, loving your neighbour. You treat people as you want to be treated; people need to be loved and cared for. Jesus said to look after the orphans and the widows and there's plenty of both out here in Bourke. I think people see that it’s not about religion.
That was really reflected in May's funeral. In life, she looked after so many orphans over the years, and for people from the community when they lost their loved ones. My wife and I don’t have children of our own, and my wife is also like another mum to a lot of people in this community.
It was this community that brought us together. We first met here when she came to check out Cornerstone before she moved here because she wanted to see it for herself and just make sure it wasn’t a hippy commune (laughs). That's when we first met, and she thought I was all right back then. Some years later we married on a farm out here.
Jen: Why do you two do what you do for the community? Why is it important to step up and be part of the community?
Wayne: I don't know. I guess you're wired that way to start with. With this job in radio, you’re kind of all things to all people. People ring you up to say, have you got so-and-so’s phone number? Do you know when the medical centre’s open? Do you know when the supermarket shuts?
You become a kind of source of knowledge for people, but they also feel they have a bit of a friend when they hear you on air too.
I think that’s important. It takes us back to just loving people, as Jesus said. We put that into practice in a number of ways in Bourke.
Take, for instance, the food pantry that my wife is involved in with a number of others. It’s a wonderful outlet in Bourke and it's open to everybody. A lot of the indigenous ladies, in particular, come along to the food pantry – many are widows and they're looking after children and grandchildren so they appreciate that little help with their groceries, but they love it for the social aspect too.
It's a little oasis and a place where they can just be loved and it's their little domain where everybody gets together. They do Johnny-cakes sometimes (similar to a scone, but flatter and not sweetened) and curries in the winter. Or they just come for the normal cup of tea and a natter.
Jen: When you are doing the work of your faith, is it denominational?
Wayne: Oh no. I respect the fact that God has different gardens and they all need to be tended. But I'm pretty much a “no barriers” person. The community programs and work we do should be for everyone, I think.
Wayne Harrison with NALAG's Jen Cowley OAM.
Jen: What do you think are some of the misconceptions about your town – the idea that being from “out the back of Bourke” is somehow synonymous with a bucolic backwater?
Wayne: I've discovered that fewer and fewer people have that kind of dismissive attitude now, but it does happen at times. I think some city folk tend to think that about any country town or area, but mostly because they’ve not been there.
Grey Nomads, in particular, come to a place like Bourke and this wonderful region and say, “Oh, it's just like Australia used to be when people were friendly, caring, kind!” They find interesting characters – these places are littered with beautiful characters.
There used to be a real cultural cringe about Australia in general, particularly overseas, and I think people had a similar sort of cringe factor when they thought of Bourke.
But most people (here) can stand on their feet and be comfortable in their skin and where they’ve come from. I think there's a greater confidence that what we have here is quite precious and genuine – we have a real and rich history, full of great people and characters. The list goes on. I could go on could go on and on and on. And I often do!
Jen: Do you have faith in the future of Bourke and why?
Wayne: Oh, yeah, I do. The drought has been a stinker – no-one would argue otherwise – but we've seen the boom days as well, and we take our hats off to everyone who’s got in and had a good go.
I know the cotton farmers have been picked on a bit, as have other people who are involved in irrigation, but you think of the heyday of the fruit and vegetable industry this area was famous for, and I believe that could be done again.
Water security is a problem, but we’d all love to see that industry developed again.
This is a great region for produce – the air is clean, you don’t get as many bugs and viruses and mildew and so forth, because it’s a drier climate.
And there’s a real “can do” attitude in Bourke too, which is helping with a growing recognition that it’s a wonderful place for tourists.
Every town has its history and an historical background and places, but Bourke has it in spades. As Henry Lawson said, “If you know Bourke, you know Australia.”
*This interview was conducted prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and the introduction of social distancing measures.
Editor's Note: Vale May Watkins
Over the years, I’ve had many occasions – personal and professional – to visit and get to know the team at Outback Radio, including the irrepressible May Watkins who was always such an integral part of the fabric of not only the organisation, but of Bourke itself.
So it saddened me greatly to hear of May’s death in early 2020. Our photo of the 2WEB team was taken in the spring of 2019, and features May taking part with her usual gusto.
May came to the Bourke region in the early 1960s and raised her family in the town she would come to know and love, and vice versa. May volunteered at 2WEB for more than 30 years as an announcer, a receptionist and as a director on the board. Perhaps her most cherished role was sharing her deep love of country music with listeners each Saturday through her much-loved show, Country Beat.
Although she is no longer physically with us, May remains forever an important part of the Bourke community. She will live on in spirit so it seems only fitting that, with the permission of her 2WEB family, who describe her as “a Bourke icon”, we include her here and honour her memory and her place in the regional heart. She was such a character, and she is much missed. Vale, May.
May Watkins (centre) and the 2WEB Radio Team, Bourke.