The Ghost Benefit
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The Ghost Benefit

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According to the average media and technology and futurist, broadcasting is in its death throes. With its reliance on unilateral communication, broadcasting – especially radio – is out of sync with the modern interactive media age.

According to the average media and technology and futurist, broadcasting is in its death throes. With its reliance on unilateral communication, broadcasting – especially radio – is out of sync with the modern interactive media age. Paradoxically, it’s radio’s inherent intimacy that Triple R broadcaster Stephen Walker – aka The Ghost to his dedicated legion of listeners and followers – that believes underpins radio’s unique quality. “When I’m in the studio, I’m totally 100% present, and I’m not thinking about anything else,” Walker explains. “In my mind I’m talking to one person – it’s that intimacy that radio has that I try and embrace.”

For the past 30 years Walker has been a fixture at Triple R, initially as announcer, then subsequently as program manager, a position he held for 14 (occasionally tumultuous) years before returning to his original announcer role. Through his on-air persona The Ghost – a pseudonym Walker adopted to diminish the currency of his own personality in his broadcasts – he has introduced a generation or two to a raft of local, national and international music, leaving an indelible impression on the local music scene.

Walker claims he joined the Triple R community originally “by accident”. At the time he was living in the Dandenongs, a virtual galaxy away from the inner-city region that provided the basis for the Triple R community. “I was at a party and I heard a voice behind me, and it was Jeff King, who was a hero of mine at Triple R,” Walker recalls. “I got to talking to him, and he realised that I was a bit of a music fanatic. He said the station was desperate for summer fill-ins, so that’s how I got started.”

After graduating from summer fill-in – the first song he played was Cabaret Voltaire’s Voice Of America – Walker began hosting his own show, and built up a reputation for interviewing the biggest, weirdest and most influential artists in Australia, and overseas. Walker’s first interviewee was the enigmatic punk femme fatale Nico. “That was very intimidating – she really didn’t suffer fools,” he grins. “I locked eyes with her, and I was totally exhausted by the end of the interview,” he laughs. Despite his admiration for the singer, Walker had failed to make a copy of the interview – until his friend Henry Rollins turned up with a surprise gift. “Henry came through town and he gave me this German Nico CD,” he remembers. “I was grateful, although I already had a few Nico CDs. Henry told me to scroll through to the last track, a hidden track. And it was my interview with Nico,” Walker recalls happily.

Walker’s other interview subjects have included The Cramps (“I worshipped The Cramps – the first time they came through I didn’t interview them because I was worried they might turn out to be arseholes. But the second time they came through I interviewed them, and they were everything I wanted them to be and more”), Johnny Thunders (“He was fantastic – I’d been warned of his habits, but he was great, so pleasant and very forthcoming”) and TISM (“Once they came in with a lawn mower, they also tied me up, and another time they came and did the interview, then took their balaclavas off and it was the members of Harem Scarem”).

The key to Walker’s interviewing style, he says, lies in radio’s intimacy and audience empathy. “I like to be in the position of hearing what I’d like to hear,” Walker says. “The great thing about radio is its intimacy and empathy. I don’t use notes – I just try and lock eyes on whoever it is that I’m speaking to them. I want the audience to feel part of it,” he says.

Walker’s tenure as program manager coincided with a period of upheaval at the station as the community radio organisation was forced – kicking and screaming in some respects – to restructure its programming and institutional arrangements to ensure its financial and administrative survival. As program manager, Walker was compelled to make a series of tough decisions, giving notice to a number of long-standing announcers. It wasn’t nice, Walker says, but it had to be done. “I used to say ‘where in my contract does it say that I have to be popular?’” he says. “I had to say some pretty tough things to people, and I found that very difficult.”

Despite those moments of animosity, Walker says what he remembers most about that time at Triple R is laughing. But being involved in public broadcasting has been akin to a crusade. “It was a real crusade,” he says. “It was a wonderful period of time. It was us against them. Triple R used to be treated as the retarded red-haired cousin in those days, but we countered that,” Walker says.

For much of the last decade Walker has lived under the cloud of illness, having been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Walker’s movement has been severely curtailed, though his involvement with Triple R has remained. “Being diagnosed with MS has changed everything,” Walker admits. “As a chronic illness you don’t get a day off – it’s like rust never sleeps. And it’s a pretty boring disease, it’s not a sexy disease like cancer.”

Last year Walker was talking with a group of friends at his birthday and the topic of stem cell research, and its application to MS, came up. A clinic in Cologne in Germany specialises in stem cell operations. Walker says “a group of angels” came together to organise a fund-raiser to help Walker pay for a trip to Cologne to undergo the operation. “The basic procedure is that they remove stem cells from the spine, and then re-insert cells. It has a 60% success rate,” Walker explains.

The benefit gig, to be held at The Forum this Monday January 31, will see various artists – including the Dirty Three, Sand Pebbles, Ron Peno and a Triple R All Stars band (including Adalita, Andrew Coates from Black Cab and Dan Bridie) – pay tribute to Walker. “It’s quite overwhelming,” Walker says. “I haven’t been that public about my disease over the years, so I feel a bit exposed. But it’s incredible to be the recipient of other people’s generosity.”

THE GHOST BENEFIT takes place at The Forum this Monday January 31 – featuring Dirty Three, The Skull Cave All Stars (David Bridie, Peter Lawler, Gary Young and Phil Wales), Gareth & Dan (The Drones), Ron S Peno, Dave Graney & The Lurid Yellow Mist, Sandpebbles and Max Crawdaddy and RRR DJs. Keep The Ghost talking and get him walking again by getting down to The Forum this Monday and help celebrate 30 years RRRadio. Tickets from ticketmaster.com.au and 136 100.