It’s my ABC

My first months of living in Australia in the mid 1990s felt like inhabiting some kind of parallel universe. Everything was familiar but not quite the same. Post boxes were red but post was delivered on motorbikes, and to a mailbox at the gate rather than through the letterbox in my door. Newspapers were hurled into the front garden…sorry, front yard from a passing car. I found refuge in television, not least because the ABC (the Australian Broadcasting Corporation) showed some familiar British programmes.

Sydney Harbour from Nielsen Park

Sydney Harbour from Nielsen Park

It was there that I came across a gardening programme that I could barely believe. The presenter was a man with an incredible Manchester accent who sounded as though his teeth didn’t quite fit. What a far cry from the polished, perky presenters of the BBC. And yet Peter Cundall was a real treasure, absolutely passionate about plants and the benefits of organic gardening (look him up on YouTube). It was an early hint for me that Australia wasn’t as caught up in the superficialities as Britain was, and that what was being said was more important than how it was said. (Well okay, maybe commercial TV was different.)

On the radio, the ABC’s Classic FM sat somewhere between Britain’s Classic FM and BBC Radio Three, with a great blend of familiar work and stuff I hadn’t heard before (and I loved Margaret Throsby’s morning interviews). Nestling alongside it on the airwaves was Radio National, not dissimilar to the UK’s Radio Four. On a Saturday morning I would listen to another little gem, a programme called The Comfort Zone, which was all about architecture and design and food. Hosted by Alan Saunders, it was a mine of information, and demonstrated that visual subjects could be presented on the radio. Over the years it morphed into By Design, which had more of a focus on the design of our surroundings. And it was this programme that I came to know very well.

Dream Home

One of By Design’s producers, Mark Wakely, had written a book called Dream Home. The moment I clapped eyes on it I knew it was the sort of book for me, and reading it felt like having a very informed conversation with a kindred spirit about the importance of home. And so, when I wrote a short piece about how I had wanted to be an architect as a child but had been put-off by needing to be good at maths (Building Jerusalem), my partner suggested I send it off ‘to that producer who wrote that book you keep talking about.’ I was pleased when Mark got back to me to tell me that he’d enjoyed the piece, delighted that he thought it was good enough for the programme and frankly astonished that he wanted me to read it for the recording.

Well, dear reader, I did it. And not only that, I was invited to submit further pieces. And so began my affiliation with the By Design programme. When the format was further updated, I came up with the idea of a Design Minute, which evolved into the Design Files, a short burst of information about the history of familiar objects, from the pepper mill to the paperclip. (You’ll find all of these on the Podcasts page.) And along the way I helped produce other features for the programme, including one when I visited Chicago’s architectural wonderland. (Janne Ryan, who became the overall producer of By Design, was a great help.)

And so it was with sadness that I heard at the end of 2014 that the programme had fallen under the axe, thanks to funding cuts imposed by the government. (Unlike Britain’s BBC which has a generous budget thanks to a licence fee, the ABC is directly funded by the government.) For two years my little Design Files had been augmented by longer written pieces for the Radio National website, a great education for me as they demanded that the 300 words of my radio segment were turned into a short essay of over 600 words without losing any of the original shape of the piece. (You’ll find the results in the Design Files page of Other Writing.)

I have loved every minute of my involvement with By Design. Apart from forming some nourishing friendships, it has extended my abilities as a writer and definitely as a radio performer. I also found it rather wonderful that a national broadcaster had the ability to nurture an unheard voice. I had been daunted when I first walked into the ABC headquarters in Sydney but that vanished the moment that I realised it reminded me of being back at university. There were books everywhere. To be somewhere where knowledge and education were cherished was nourishment in itself. I felt proud to be part of it.

So I want to mark the passing of a great little programme, and to say thanks to Mark Wakely and Janne Ryan for having faith in me. And to let other unheard writers know that these things do happen. I may think of myself as a novelist first and foremost now but really, the evidence shows that I’m a design writer.

Thanks, ABC.

Categories: Australia, Design, WritingTags: , , , , , , , , ,


  1. Colin – what a lovely post. The honour is in getting to know you, and working with you on wonderful collaborations! xx Janne

  2. Oh no! I had no idea that By Design was one of the segments that was cut…. so, so, so very disappointed! I for one will miss listening to the podcasts and sharing them far and wide on Twitter, FB and Linked in. You are a wonderful writer and I look forward to reading more of your work… and to keeping in touch!

  3. ‘Oh no’ from me too. RIP, I guess. They certainly kept the program’s axing very quiet. Will certainly miss it Colin, but am glad that we can still keep in touch via our blogs. Hope that as this door shuts, a new (beautifully designed one of course) opens!

  4. How gracious of you Colin. But, as Janne says, the pleasure was all ours and hopefully your insightful and entertaining commentary will continue to grace the air waves of Radio National in 2015.

  5. It was such a lovely series of 2 minute design gems you created, Colin. I don’t know how you came up with so many ideas – but then design is your passion! I particularly loved the fish knives one. Will look out for new ones on your gorgeous blog …

    • Thank you, Francesca! I must say that I was always rather surprised at what I came up with too. But sometimes I needed someone to say something like, “You know what I hate – revolving doors” to fire up the imagination. Now fish knives is a funny one, isn’t it, and just so English. I take your comment as a challenge and will see what evolves!

  6. What revolves, you mean…Sorry, couldn’t stop myself.

  7. Colin, Loved your post. I love the ABC too, miss my ABC Classic FM and I grew up listening to Triple J, podcast downloads simply don’t do it. What a wonderful story, I hope the ABC will survive as it is a fundamental part of life for so many Australians, it’s a sacrilege to hear of all the cuts!

    • Thankfully the ABC will survive but it is such an island of sanity among the bland commercial crap. Perhaps it will benefit from a shake-up and come out stronger! The other day I was chatting about shopping trolleys on your old local station (I think?) ABC Perth. Dare I ask what Sicilian radio is like….? As you know, we get the RAI news on SBS and the sultry, rumpled newsreader looks like she’s just stepped from bed (although not, perhaps, her own). Somehow so Italian!

  8. And good to see (or hear, rather) you are now a regular fixture on ABC RN’s Blueprint for Living!
    As much as I really do appreciate the ABC, I miss so, so much the regular fix of Aunty (esp R4), and very grateful to catch it online.

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