Pilots into the Unknown
809 Jacob Street, by Marty Young
The Art of Effective Dreaming, by Gillian Polack
Bad Blood, by Gary Kemble
Black City, by Christian Read
The Black Crusade, by Richard Harland
The Body Horror Book, by C. J. Fitzpatrick
Clowns at Midnight, by Terry Dowling
Dead Europe, by Christos Tsiolkas
Fragments of a Broken Land: Valarl Undead, by Robert Hood
Full Moon Rising, by Keri Arthur
Gothic Hospital, by Gary Crew
The Grief Hole, by Kaaron Warren
Hollow House, by Greg Chapman
My Sister Rosa, by Justine Larbalestier
Path of Night, by Dirk Flinthart
The Last Days, by Andrew Masterson
Lotus Blue, by Cat Sparks
Love Cries, by Peter Blazey, etc (ed)
Nil-Pray, by Christian Read
The Road, by Catherine Jinks
Perfections, by Kirstyn McDermott
Sabriel, by Garth Nix
Salvage, by Jason Nahrung
Skin Deep, by Gary Kemble
The Tax Inspector, by Peter Carey
The Time of the Ghosts, by Gillian Polack
Vampire Cities, by D'Ettut
While I Live, by John Marsden
OTHER HORROR PAGES
Pilots into the Unknown: A reminiscence
by Rick Kennett
So Glen turned around and said, "All right then, how about a radio show?"
It was 1985 and Glen Matthews, whom I'd met the year before at an SF writers' workshop, had this bee in his bonnet about bringing out a science fiction fanzine. I was unenthusiastic. Never daunted he said, "All right then, how about a radio show?"
Almost before I could say Wot? We were down at the offices of public radio station 3PBS FM, situated at 171 Fitzroy Street in the Melbourne beachside suburb of St. Kilda. We pitched them the idea of doing a spoken word program of science fiction, fantasy and horror. Though a station dedicated mainly to new and under-represented music (the P in PBS stands for "Progressive"), they nevertheless agreed to our odd proposal. We duly paid our studio fees and station subscriptions. (Like most public broadcasters, listener subscriptions, along with some basic sponsorship, were 3PBS's only form of income. In return a subscriber's card gives discounts at the station's sponsors: bookshops, record shops, cafes, cinemas, etc.) Before long we were doing studio training — learning how to cue records on the duel turntables and working out what the various knobs and switches and slides on the control panel were supposed to do. We learnt terms like "promo", "sponsorship cart", "cross fade" and "pop shield." Glen and I had to become studio savvy before we'd be allowed on air. These training sessions were conducted in the station's only working studio, during weekday afternoons while the station was not transmitting. (At that time they were broadcasting from 4.30 p.m. till 2 a.m. weekdays, and all through the weekend. It'd be another two or three years before 3PBS, always the Cinderella of the FM band in Melbourne, went 24/7.)
Eventually we were deemed competent enough to go on-air. So that our goofs and greenness wouldn't damage the reputation of the station too much, we were given a 4 -7 Saturday morning time slot — the traditional graveyard shift. Around 3.30 a.m., with Fitzroy Street all still and dark, Glen and I would arrive at the glass front doors of number 171, a four-storey building constructed in the 30s as a block of flats, converted in the 70s to small business units. We'd press the intercom button, announce ourselves to the shift already in the studio, the front door's electric lock would buzz and in we'd go. Up the stairs to the third floor, through the door marked 3PBS, past the darkened office door on the left, the locked record library to the right, down the end of the passage, then left to the door of the on-air studio adjacent to where the transmitter lived, its heat-exhaust fan rumbling. 3PBS had been in the building only a few months at that time, and there was always a lingering smell of wood glue around the studios with their wooden partitions and panels. It's a smell that even now has power to take me back.
There's an air of unreality about a radio studio in the very early morning: the darkness outside the double-glazed windows, the studio dim but for one ceiling light shining directly over the panel, the (often ambient) music coming out of the monitor speakers, the slightly hyped up nerves as we switch shifts with the previous presenter. Then suddenly there we were — on-air.
For the next three hours Glen and I would take turns at the panel, playing records brought from our own collections or drawn from the studio's "drive box" — the record library was open only during business hours and only the librarian, the station manager and the music category co-ordinators had a key. We were kept busy during those three hours, making sure there was always another record ready on the turntable, filling in the play list (the who, what, when, Australian content yes/no), back-announcing what was played, doing on-air pleadings for subscribers — the Bribe to Subscribe — and generally trying to sound coherent. A hundred and one things can go wrong during a program, all of which reflect badly on the presenter and, ultimately, on the station.
Glen and I were ecstatic the morning we got our first subscriber. There were people listening; and sometimes, so it seemed, what we said could make them reach into their pockets for thirty-five dollars. (We noted this first subscriber in the studio log as if it were a great event — which it was to us.)
Just before 7 a.m., the fellow doing Saturday Morning Jazz — the beginning of the day's real programming — would turn up. Glen and I would stumble out into the daylight and wander off to catch up on missed sleep.
One morning I found myself doing the graveyard shift alone. When I got to the station I found a category co-ordinator working in the record library. Taking this opportunity, I raided what little spoken word 3PBS had, and, for three glorious hours that morning, aired an old-time-radio marathon: Escape, X-Minus One, Quiet Please, Inner Sanctum, etc. It was the shape of sounds to come.
During this period of early morning programming I was making preparations for when we would be producing our own SF/F drama program. Glen had a marvellous reading voice and for the most part his contributions would consist of live readings. I, however, have a reading voice I wouldn't inflict on anyone so I'd be relying on recorded work. To this end I scrounged though various second-hand record shops looking for spoken word recordings and old radio plays in the SF and horror genres, while at the same time joining libraries which had interesting audio material in their catalogues. I'd also book studio time at 3PBS and, over the weeks, dub all their spoken word records onto cassette. Before long I had a wealth of apt material. We even recorded an interview with a practising mage or witch, Bev Lane, for a program we later aired on the subject of magic and those who use it.
Our show needed a name. I was all for Unknown, in honour of the short-lived, much-loved fantasy magazine of the early forties. Glen, with a more artistic bent, wanted to call us Pilots into the Purple Twilight. We compromised and called it Pilots into the Unknown.
At that time radio drama on 3PBS consisted solely of a two-hour program Sunday at 10 p.m. called Wireless Playhouse, featuring talks on the entertainment scene, interviews and movie reviews. Airing of actual radio drama was a rarity. Its presenters were Greg, a big, bluff, bewhiskered fellow who doubled as a technician about the station, and Debby, a young media student and almost stereotypical radical Marxist feminist. As it turned out, Greg and Debby welcomed the idea of alternating with Pilots into the Unknown every other week, thus giving themselves a break. Within this alternation Glen and I would alternate presenting Pilots for that particular fortnight, which usually worked out as one show each per month.
To demonstrate what Pilots into the Unknown would be about, Glen and I put together a fifteen minute montage comprising snippets of radio plays and recordings, brief live readings and short pieces of music. This was played on Wireless Playhouse the week prior to our first show, along with Glen and I doing a promotional spiel. The public couldn't say they hadn't been warned.
In mid 1985, Pilots into the Unknown hit the airwaves, and it fell to me to present the initial broadcast. I remember my extreme feeling of nervousness as the studio clock hit 10 that Sunday night. This was no graveyard shift in the wee hours, but almost prime time, and maybe several hundred listeners rather than just several. With me seated at the panel and Glen at the 'guest mike', with cassettes ready in the cassette decks, records lined up on the turntables either side, and with earphones clamped to our heads, I gave the warning, "Standby! Going on air!" and a second later pushed the mike switches into the 'on' position. I have no clear memory of what readings we did and what recorded material we played, though doubtless the montage was given another airing. Later, playing back a recording of that first show, I was embarrassed at how stilted I sounded, at least in the beginning. Whereas Glen was always so cool, with nary a stumble, I had to learn not to be afraid of the microphone. It took a while.
Studio Three was where we transmitted from in the first two or three years. Studio Two was the long room next door, reserved mainly for bands going live-to-air. Studio One, down the other end was, in those early days, an incomplete copy of Studio Three, but would take over from it as the on-air studio when 3PBS eventually went 24/7.
Over the following three years Glen and I presented our two hours of radio SF, fantasy and horror regularly each fortnight, missing only one week each year for the station's annual drive for subscribers — the SubscriberThon Week. (Drama was considered to have too small a profile to take part.) The ritual of arriving at the station around 9.30 every second Sunday night with our records and books never lost that special event feeling. Nor did walking into the studio at ten ever lose its edge of nerves.
Glen's shows tended to have a thoughtfulness about them: the spiritualism of Stonehenge; a tour of the outer planets of the solar system (complete with a recording of the hiss and crackle of Jupiter's radiation); the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI); dolphins; the possibilities of meeting Ets in space; The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupery; a homage to Theodore Sturgeon which included Sturgeon's LP reading of "The Hurkle is a Happy Beast." Mine were a bit more rumbustious: Off the Rails (trains in spooky fiction); Dennis Wheatley's The Devil Rides Out; The Ghost Stories of MR James; The Poe Show; HP Lovecraft with studio guest Leigh Blackmore, Australia's leading Lovecraft scholar; Twilight Zone: The Radio Show; Star Trek: The Radio Show. An abridged version of The Picture of Dorian Gray, read by Hurd Hatfield, and Anthony Quail's reading of The Canterville Ghost featured in an instalment I called "We're Just Wilde About Oscar." A tribute to Edwardian horror writer William Hope Hodgson went a marathon four hours due to the non-appearance of the next shift, giving us time to do "The Voice in the Night" and two 'Carnacki the Ghost-Finder' stories, "The Whistling Room" and "The Haunted Jarvee." What a night! We were both exhausted by the time we shut down the transmitter and closed the station at 2 a.m.
The Sunday night before Christmas 1985 was my show. So I got on the mike and said, "Most people's idea of a Christmas story doesn't go past Dickens' A Christmas Carol …and tonight we're not going to be any different." Yes, that old chestnut was on that night's menu. Though first we aired what I consider to be Dickens' dry run for A Christmas Carol, the short story "The Goblins Who Stole the Sexton" — "read," I said, "by everyone's favourite Father Christmas … Boris Karloff!"
Music was just as important to our program as was the spoken word.
Mike Oldfield's albums of ambient music — Tubular Bells, Incantations, Five Miles Out, Platinum, etc — were regulars on the turntables. Robert Hardy's reading of The Time Machine was intro-ed at the beginning and at each break by the theme from the 60s TV series The Time Tunnel with its incessant tick-tock tempo. A program on Algernon Blackwood featured "The Willows" (set on the River Danube) accompanied by "The Blue Danube" waltz playing softly under the final scene, the music with its trilling flutes brought up in volume as the story ended, rising to the orchestra's full-blooded crescendo.
A funny thing happened on the night we played Valentine Dyall's reading of The Birds by Daphne du Maurier. Its abrupt ending must've caught some of our listeners by surprise because after its downbeat finish with humanity defeated by the birds, I then put on one of Michael Horden's MR James ghost stories — and the phones lit up. "What happened to the story about the birds?" a caller asked. "You've put on the wrong tape!" another complained. I explained that that was how the story ended and got a baffled, "Oh?" from both callers. After the James story I got on air and explained very patiently that The Birds had indeed finished and there'd been no error in the studio. I then played its last few seconds again with Dyall's solemn "He threw the packet on the fire … and watched it burn."
"That's it, people," I said. "The birds win."
We were noticed by the Real World for the first and only time in late September 1986 when a major Melbourne newspaper wrote a short squib in its entertainment guide on our upcoming broadcast of the closing chapters of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Read by the author, Arthur C. Clarke, it made clear (or less obscure) what exactly happened at the end of the film.
At about this time I was advertising in the Fellowship of Australian Writers newsletter for submissions to the program. As we were working at a public radio station I thought it only right to open it up to the public. Over the weeks a few stories trickled in. The two main sins in the work we received were a lack of imagination and a lack of originality. We did manage to wring a few good stories from Joe and Jane Public, including an early piece by Rob Hood, now a leading Australian writer in the macabre. In the end, however, I had to consider this experiment in audience participation only a partial success.
On 3rd August 1986, Pilots broadcast my Lovecraftian novelette, "Dead Air", set within the confines of fictional radio station 3LTD. (If nothing else, eighteen months at 3PBS had provided grist for the writing mill.) Glen read the story in two long spurts, which took up the entire two hours of the program. The music I selected to go with it was "The Piltdown Man" section of Tubular Bells and "Peter Gunn" by Art of Noise with its repeated dom-dom-dom motif. Afterwards a fellow by the name of Dominick — or Dom as he was known — rang up and subscribed.
Around this period, late '86, early '87, Glen landed himself the position of Category Co-ordinator for Experimental Music. Like Drama, Experimental had two hours a week, following us after midnight on Sundays. Basically it consisted of the presenter free-forming with music samples, noises, voices, audio effects, distortions, playing tapes at varying speeds, playing tapes backwards, running both turntables together, etc. What another category might call an unholy stuff-up, Experimental called Art. Though it had its own presenters, on occasion Glen and I, usually working solo, presented our own Experimental programs.
Pilots into the Unknown continued throughout 1987 and into 1988. We did at least one Bribe to Subscribe on each show and once in a long while we'd get a new subscriber. We weren't doing so many themed shows now, but tended to fill the two hours with unrelated bits and pieces. We were an odd radio show late of a Sunday night, transmitted on a station a lot of people had never heard of.
Quite abruptly, in the middle of 1988, Glen quit Pilots due to upheavals in his domestic life, leaving me to carry on single-handedly. Where I'd been doing a two-hour show every four weeks with some help from Glen's excellent reading voice, suddenly I had twice as many programs to produce per month and no reader at all.
I had enough recorded material to keep me going, but doing the show alone was going to be awkward. With Glen gone there was a certain loss of coherence and balance. No more crazy banter between us, no more discussions about this author or that book. An uncertain future of solo two-hour shows stretched ahead of me. What to do?
After presenting only a handful of programs by myself, Fate saved me any further worry on that score when I was involved in a traffic accident on the morning of the 24th September. I spent twelve days in hospital, followed by four months on crutches while my broken leg knitted. Debby, who was now presenting Wireless Playhouse alone (Greg having 'burnt out' earlier in the year), reverted to the old every-Sunday schedule to fill the gap.
But I wasn't totally out of the loop. A couple of times during those four months I managed to do a partial Pilots by proxy. In October I mailed Debby a couple of tapes, resulting in Wireless Playhouse giving over part of its 30th October broadcast to an ad hoc Halloween program with Vincent Price's rendition of A Horn Book for Witches and Ed Bishop's reading of Stephen King's vampire story "One for the Road." A month later one November night Debby introduced a ghost story tape I'd sent her. "How to describe it?" she said, quoting my accompanying note. "Well, take the title literally." It was MR James' "Lost Hearts."
Sitting at home with my right leg in a cast from heel to knee, I recorded these October and November programs. I labelled the cassette Debby Does Pilots.
On 4th December, 1988 I made a triumphant, if temporary, return to the air waves.
Three weeks prior to this, a friend of mine, Sonja, had left Queensland with a girlfriend Kelly and two men for a motorcycle tour of Victoria. Just before she left I wrote her a letter: "Would you like to do a radio show while you're in Melbourne?"
On the evening of the 4th Sonja and Kelly rumbled up to my door on their big Yamahas. Records, tapes and books were loaded into Sonja's top-box strapped on the back of her bike, and I loaded myself onto Kelly's pillion seat — cast, crutches and all — and off we roared into the night.
We reached the station around 9.15. At 10 we went to air with the main titles music from Forbidden Planet. Since I hadn't handled the panel in nearly three months I tended to be a bit rusty and somehow managed to turn on the wrong microphone for the introductions. Fortunately I noticed the needle on the VU meter wasn't flickering to my voice and was able to rectify the mistake.
As I was doing all this a little red sign which read "Log Tape" started flashing at me from the panel, indicating the tape on the reel-to-reel monitor had run out. (All radio stations are legally required to record everything they broadcast and keep the tapes for at least one month.) I quickly explained what was happening with the show that night, starting with "The Body Snatchers" by Robert Louis Stevenson. I turned on the cassette player, then, with great awkwardness, levered myself out from behind the panel, hooked onto my crutches, and was about to make the long journey to the other end of the corridor to put a new spool onto the monitor when Sonja happened to remark, "Why is the story only coming out of one speaker?"
I looked up at the stereo speakers on the wall, then down at the panel — and went cold. The cassette was playing on 'cue' rather than 'to air' — the recording was going no further than the studio. We were transmitting the dreaded 'dead air.'
Charging back on one leg, I rewound the tape, put the cassette player's panel button into the 'to air' position and started again. Was I glad when I heard the soft Scottish bur of John Shedden's reading coming out of both speakers this time. Still, it had put an embarrassing hole in the program.
Out the door again, down the corridor to where the reel-to-reel monitor lived
Balancing on one leg, I juggled with spools, screwed and unscrewed capstan hubs, put on a new reel, rethread tape through the heads and guides, then pushed buttons I hoped were the right ones to get it recording again.
While I was doing this, Kelly yelled out that there was a phone call for me. Hobbling back, I found it was Ashley, a regular listener to Pilots. I explained my earlier stuff-up, for which he forgave me, adding, "Welcome back," which made me feel better. I did a reading next and then Sonja did a reading, followed by Kelly. After that it was time for a Bribe to Subscribe. As I was detailing the list of goodies a subscriber would receive — a magazine, discount vouchers, etc — Sonja made 'enthusiasm noises' in the background: "Gosh! Wow! Great! Lovely!" And by god, we got a subscriber.
I returned to 3PBS on a more permanent basis in February 1989, complete with a limp and a walking stick. In the intervening time there'd been upheavals at the station. A year previous a licence had finally been obtained for full time transmission. No longer working on a Mickey Mouse output of 200 watts from an aerial atop the Royal Women's Hospital, 3PBS now boomed out from a transmission tower in the mountains. Now in early '89 there was a reshuffle of music categories. Pilots into the Unknown had been drastically reduced to a mere thirty minutes, playing at 7.30 p.m. Sunday evenings, following a re-vamped Wireless Playhouse, reduced to ninety minutes and renamed Flaming Mouths.
Where two hours had felt over-sized and hard to fill on my own, thirty minutes felt like I'd just got into the studio when I was being crowded out by the next shift. Suddenly I had the dubious honour of being the shortest show then airing on Melbourne public radio. This left a fair chunk of material in limbo: too long to fit the new format, too short to properly serialise over two weeks. On the other hand this compression of time taught me to be concise, to chose for brevity and move things along. The old two-hour format had had a certain meandering quality to it. Now I had to keep things tight.
My first thirty-minute Pilots touched on world mysteries like the dancing coffins of Barbados and the ghost ship Mary Celeste. I wrote up a script, came into the station a couple of hours before air-time and put it all onto cassette in the recording studio. Come 7.30 I just banged the tape into the cassette deck and pressed 'play' — a good way to avoid on-air blunders. That is if the cassette deck worked. There were two in the on-air studio, and I didn't trust either of them. Not that there was ever anything wrong with them mechanically. It was the way they were plugged into the panel that always raised my stress levels as air-time approached on shows that depended upon cassette recordings — which was nearly all of them. Which plug went into which socket at the back of which machine? Which panel buttons to use: "Cassette 1" "Cassette 2" or "Cassette 3"? One night, with the studio clock ticking up to the 7.30 mark, I couldn't get a signal through any of the panel's cassette switches, despite the fact I was sure I had it wired up correctly. As desperation grew I hit a button marked "Aux 1" and there was my cassette playing. On another night I couldn't get a signal from either of the machines, no matter how I fiddled with the plugs and hit panel buttons. Fortunately a music category co-ordinator was in the station, and as co-ordinators are superior beings with a key to the record library I managed to save myself with an impromptu airing of a Lights Out episode.
The following week I introduced Pilots into the Unknown as "The show that lives in fear of a cassette deck failure." From then on I always brought in enough vinyl in case of similar emergencies. The turntables were hardwired into the panel and completely reliable. But the cassette decks were always approached with a dash of apprehension.
A new beginning brought in a new cast of readers — three of them coming from the same household. A few weeks after the thirty minute programs began I dragooned a lady friend, Willy, into doing some readings — often live to air, though occasionally taped on a Sunday morning in the recording studio.
The best of these Sunday morning recordings with Willy was Pilots Looks at Australian Ghosts, a thirty minute spooky tour of the country's supernatural history. This included "Fisher's Ghost," a story of murder and spectral revenge (and the only ghost in the world accorded its own annual festival), and "The Princess Theatre Ghost," about a famous Melbourne theatre haunted by an actor who died in the last moments of the opera Faust in 1888 while dressed as Mephistopheles.
Occasionally I recruited Willy's housemate Martin when more than one reader was required or when Willy couldn't make it. Both of them helped me with readings on a Lovecraft program (where I pronounced Necronomicon several different ways, none of them right), and in which the show's long-time listener, Ashley, also took part. On another evening Pilots saluted that surreal TV series from 1968, The Prisoner, about a British secret agent who resigns and is immediately spirited away to The Village, a cross between a holiday resort and a prison camp. We semi-dramatized a couple of pieces of The Prisoner fan fiction with Martin as the narrator, Willy as the Village announcer and as a bottle message (first in Dutch, then in English), while I played the evil Number Two.
Later in the year Becky, another resident of Willy and Martin's rental, asked to join the jolly crew of Pilots into the Unknown, and ended up in front of a 3PBS microphone on at least two occasions.
A group interested in producing radio drama adapted my Lovecraftian story "Dead Air" into a radio play. I heard some of what they'd recorded and was fascinated by the experience of hearing my words being spoken aloud in dramatic form. It's one thing to see words in cold print, quite another to hear them acted out. One night on the show I interviewed the organiser of the group, Jenny Fyfer. We talked about how they had produced "Dead Air" and about radio production in general. Noises were made about "Dead Air" being broadcast before too long on 3PBS, either as part of Pilots or in a special time slot of its own. Then, suddenly ... nothing happened. The project disappeared, despite being all but finished. To this day I have no idea why.
I replayed Robert Hardy's reading of The Time Machine, though now I had to serialise it over four weeks instead of playing it in a single two-hour chunk. Even then, in order to make the last instalment fit, I had to edit out the Time Traveller's journey to the far end of time and the dying Earth. Likewise Orsen Welles' infamous 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast had to be trimmed of Welles' closing explanation and apology.
Then there was Wilvirus, Mistress of the Dank.
In the late eighties Elvira, Mistress of the Dark hit Australian TV. This was a package of B grade horror flicks from the United States hosted in a sassy and irreverent manner by Elvira, a campy vamp with long black hair, heavy eye make-up, a tight dress showing lots of leg, and generally busting out all over. I got to thinking that what worked on TV might work on radio too.
A Weird Circle broadcast of Frankenstein served as the story. I wrote an Elvira-like script complete with wise-cracks which I called Wilvirus, Mistress of the Dank, asked Willy if she had a Sunday morning free, then booked an hour in the 3PBS recording studio, starting at 10 a.m. It took us all of that hour to get those few minutes of the Wilvirus intro and outro down on tape. I found myself becoming a director, asking for emphasis here, a pause there. "Say it sideways!" I heard myself tell Willy at one point; at another, "Be more seductive," which got the response, "Oh, don't start, Rick. I'm too old to learn how to be seductive."
Back home I edited it all into shape, inserting snippets from the Frankenstein record for (I hoped) comic effect:
Wilvirus: "Did you know this was written by Mary Shelley when she was just eighteen? What a godawful adolescence she must've had! Zits would've been the least of her problems. Anyway, Mary wrote this in 1816 while she was staying with her boyfriend Percy Shelley and the poet Byron in Switzerland. Byron suggested they all write a ghost story, so little Mary quite contrary wrote Frankenstein while Percy and Byron went off to collaborate on Abbot & Costello Meet the Wolfman."
Insert: "I'll be so glad, Victor darling, when all this is over."
Wilvirus: "You and me both, sister!"
At the station that night I mixed the show as it went live to air. The sinister Elvira harpsichord theme playing on one cassette deck, the Wilvirus intro on the other, fading them both out as I started Frankenstein on the turntable, pushing up its volume slide from zero. At the end of the story I faded out the record, brought up the music cassette and started the Wilvirus outro tape: "There you have it — Frankenstein, a classic horror story and a classic love story. Girl meets boy, boy makes monster, monster wants to meet monsterette, boy makes monsterette, boy kills monsterette, monster kills girl, boy goes quietly gah-gah."
Seven months later Willy and I produced another episode of Wilvirus, Mistress of the Dank, using another Weird Circle episode, "The Tell-Tale Heart." Updating Poe's story to contemporary times (1940s), Weird Circle made effective use of a man and a woman speaking as if through a telephone, representing the voices in the protagonist's head goading him on to murder. A decided cut above the general horror show hokum of the period.
In 1990 a local science fiction bookshop offered Pilots three book vouchers as a contest prize in exchange for a bit of on-air exposure. I announced the contest over two Sundays. On the third Sunday all the entries went into a hat with barrel girl "Princess Debby" doing the honours. There were seven entries, including long-time listener Ashley.
Round about mid 1990 Debby finished up. She was my last link to the early days when she and Greg and Glen and I had formed the Drama Category, an odd backwater among the Progressive music thrust of the station. Greg had left Wireless Playhouse and Glen had left Pilots. Now Debby was going too. Nothing was the same anymore. There was, as far as I was concerned, too much change going on. Also, I was really feeling constrained in the thirty minute format, and the guy who'd been appointed Drama Supervisor at the time of the big shake-up was no support at all. The writing was on the wall. A few weeks after Debby left, I too quit 3PBS.
In the five years the show was on the air there were some good times, such as when the program gave the feeling of everything falling into place, particularly the ones I produced such as Australian Ghosts and the two Elvira parodies. There were strained times too when my on-going battle with the cassette decks or me losing track of what I was doing caused embarrassing patches of dead air.
And there were occasional odd times.
Three policemen came to the front door one midnight to tell us there'd been a bomb threat against the building, though I noticed they all looked somewhat bemused about it and didn't appear to be taking the threat seriously. (As it was, nothing went either bump or bang in the night.)
Another visitor to our front door was a teenaged boy lost and strung-out. "I'm a subscriber," he cried to us over the intercom. I went down to the door and brought him upstairs where he promptly crashed out on the sofa in the reception area.
A brothel rang during one show to say they were listening. I invited a couple of the ladies over. They arrived about an hour later with their minder, a late middle-aged fellow who looked like he'd seen a lot of life, particularly from the underside. Glen and I showed them round the station and they sat in on part of a broadcast.
A teenaged girl, Isabel, would ring each week during the late night shows and stay on the line talking to me till after midnight. (Isabel and Ashley were Pilots' two stalwart fans throughout the years.)
All I have left of my Radio Daze are memories, a few tapes and a lasting friendship with one of our very first story contributors, Helen Patrice. Except for Helen and Willy, all the others have drifted off over my mental horizon.
In its time Pilots into the Unknown was unique in Melbourne, perhaps in Australia. To the best of my knowledge no one else was presenting genre-related material in both dramatic form and as commentary. There were, and still are, genre review programs; and in the eighties there were a couple of horror and ghost story readings broadcast on a regular basis. But Pilots did it all: readings (live and recorded), productions, old radio shows, poetry, reviews, interviews, music and talk. Our audience would never have been very large, particularly if seven entries to our contest was anything to judge by. Ultimately we were an experiment that failed because nothing like us was ever attempted again. Yet, despite all the stuff-ups and stress and pressure I enjoyed my time on air. It was an experience I'm glad to have had.
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