A Poet’s Progress in the ABC: Reflections on a Life in Radio

By | 1 October 2020

I think my restlessness with straight poetry programs grew out of my experience writing and performing lyrics in bands, as well as recording les Griots in Senegal, who recite their poetry while playing instruments or accompanied by drummers. I was also inspired by some of the musician/poets of the seventies and eighties like Gil Scott-Heron, Patti Smith, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Laurie Anderson, Linton Kwesi Johnston and John Cooper Clarke.

I wanted to make a less expository, more sound-rich type of poetry program that used all the elements of radio: interviews, music, readings, environmental sound, location and archival recordings, and electronic processing. I hoped to create a kind of radio poetry out of that mix, where the poem was not held apart from the other elements but was part of the whole.


There was also something in the air at that time, in the eighties. Around the world, creative and experimental radio was flourishing. The Neue Hörspiel, an avant-garde style of ‘new radio play,’ was reinventing radio drama in Germany, and the Atelier de Création Radiophonique (Workshop for Radiophonic Creation) in Paris was creating new forms of radio features and performance. It felt like a time to shake up the forms that radio had taken.

While I was working as a technician at the ABC, I continued to perform poetry afterhours in The Drum Poets. One of our works was ‘The Semaphore Drum Poem: a song for tape hiss, junk, drums and sirens’. Mark Hastings, the producer of Radio National Breakfast, heard about the poem and asked the group into the studio to record it. With Mark Roberts on drums and junk percussion, Steve Houston on bass, Sarah Depasquale on violin and me doing the words, we recorded the nine-minute track and it was played in its entirety on the national breakfast program – something unthinkable now, when breakfast is all about fast-moving news and politics. This represented my first chance to make poetry for ABC radio in the way I wanted to.

Then, in 1985, drama producer Keith Richards arrived in Adelaide and I began working with him on radio plays, book readings and poetry features. He instilled in me his passion for binaural recording and recording on location. We co-produced a feature called ‘Mike Ladd and the Drum Poets’. It was broadcast in 1986 on The Poet’s Tongue, one of the final episodes of that program. Listening to it today, I hear an earnest young man, expounding his theories about live performance poetry, how it depends on the memory of the listener because it disappears, and how it brings out the best and the worst, the haunting and the instantly forgettable. At that time, I also railed against what I called ‘the pulpit school, the Olympian voice of the poet who cannot be interrupted by any other sound.’

Consequently, the 20-minute program blended my words with other voices, slowed-down vocals, electronic effects, quotations from textbooks, toy piano, bass-guitar and percussion to create audio poetry. The commentary used jump-editing and cross faded speech.

‘Tut. Tut. Tut.’ – excerpt from ‘Mike Ladd and the Drum Poets’

I can hear the influence of working in radio on the poetry in that program: the multi-vocals, and the radio grammar of the edit: the fade, the cut, and the mix. Listening back now, more than three decades later, I find one of the most interesting pieces in the program was a poem called ‘Tut. Tut. Tut.’ It tells the story of a family watching the TV news when they see a live cross to their own house on fire. The father comes outside to talk to a reporter while the house burns down. It was a satirical piece about media desensitisation and it was prompted by a cartoon I saw that had three frames: a machine gunner blasting his victims, a reporter typing up the story, and a man sitting at home reading the story in the paper. The captions for the three frames were ‘Tat! Tat! Tat!’ ‘Tap, Tap, Tap,’ and ‘Tut. Tut. Tut.’ Using a toy machine gun, a typewriter, and a voice, I employed these ‘half-rhyming sounds’ as the background track to the poem.

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