Alan Kohler: As far as this ABC broadcaster is concerned, there’s no place like home

Beaming his TV spots out of the family attic almost has Alan Kohler missing the COVID-19 lockdowns.

Beaming his TV spots out of the family attic almost has Alan Kohler missing the COVID-19 lockdowns.

I can’t remember whose idea it was for me to do the finance reports from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, but I was all for it.

Just going upstairs to my recently set up home office, instead of schlepping into Southbank every day, sounded like a good idea to me, so a cameraman was assigned to supply me with the equipment and help set it up.

My home office has a chimney through the middle of it, from a fireplace downstairs, so it was decided that the studio should be placed on the door side of the chimney, green screen against the wall, two lights pointing towards the white ceiling and the camera over near the coffee machine which, as it happens, was on a bench that used to be a make-up station.

“Where’s the camera?” I said, suddenly alarmed that he’d forgotten it.

“Right there,” he said, pointing to my phone.

Huh? He took my phone and downloaded an app called LU-Smart, and that was to be my daily companion, lifeline to the world, for the next three months. The app would connect me directly to the ABC studios in Southbank, where they could record it.

The phone/camera was to be perched on a tripod behind a metal platform on another tripod that would hold my laptop for the autocue (no, I can’t remember the 90 seconds or so of words I recite on the news each night).

It was both rickety and cosy in the tight space between the chimney and the door.

It took a while to get it right, but eventually the operation was a smooth machine, and we were ready to do it for real. And it wasn’t live so if I stuffed up – no problem – just do it again. And again.

My wife, the production assistant

And it looked fine, in fact the audience couldn’t tell the difference.

But I did. I hated the way it looked – a bit blurry and a bit amateurish, and it was really awkward setting up the camera and then running back to perform in front of the green screen.

So after a few weeks of this I asked if I could do it sitting at my desk (on the other side of the chimney). Sure, said the boss, let’s see what it looks like.

I had an old trestle table as a desk, but it was white, and I draped a doona over a tripod to help deaden the sound. The camera and the metal platform holding the laptop rested against the chimney and my wife, Deb, gave me a Chinese money plant to put on the desk.

Everyone at the ABC agreed it looked fine, so it was agreed – from now on I would do it at the desk.

Lights … camera … books … ready for action.

And Deb did two other things that changed my life for a while: She offered to start the autocue each day, so I didn’t have to run back around the desk, and she suggested I put some books on the desk as another prop, so it didn’t look like a big empty space.

And so began Alan Kohler’s Book Club, which was the name of a new Twitter account that was started by a very nice woman living in Gippsland, a yoga teacher as it happened, who enjoyed tweeting about my books.

I started changing the books on the little stack in front me every night, and then tried to do themes.

On International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, I went down to Readings and bought a couple of books to go with that theme, although I already had, and loved, Jess Hill’s See What You Made Me Do.

Sometimes I sent subversive messages using the book titles. On Leonard Cohen’s birthday, it was his books. On another day, a few of my PG Wodehouse first-edition collection. And on another, it was kids’ books that I’d been reading my grandchildren – probably that day.

Tome, sweet tome

It was a lot of fun, I must say, and I spent happy hours searching through our bookshelves for tonight’s stack, and coming up with something funny, or meaningful, or just silly.

The problem was, of course, that the viewers were so busy peering into the TV set to see what the books were that no one was listening to my pearls of wisdom.

I mean, everybody seemed to be having a lot of fun, and there was plenty of excellent chat on Twitter about it, but the day’s finance goings-on were being pretty much ignored.

So when that first big Victorian lockdown ended in late 2020, and the ABC powers-that-be said they wanted me back in the studio, I readily agreed.

There was some talk about bringing the books into the studio, and Sydney said perhaps we could set me up on a desk with books in the Melbourne studio, but I don’t think there was a lot of enthusiasm for that in Melbourne.

And anyway, I could imagine getting into an awful mess lugging books into Southbank every day, and forgetting them.

So we just returned to the old setup – in the studio with that weird background of a stylised stock exchange, Mel, Tamara and Christine alternating on autocue, Eliza and Peter operating the cameras and lights and me driving into Southbank, trying to find a park, and then standing and delivering.

But I do miss those days of doing the finance at home with Deb as my all-in-one make-up lady, studio director and autocue operator, helping to pick the books to have in front of me, and then just heading downstairs for a glass of red and dinner.

But I also really enjoy going into Southbank every day and chatting to Sue and Harriet in make-up and joining the team in the newsroom.

Maybe in 10 to 15 years, when Deb and the kids confiscate my driver’s licence, I’ll get the lights out of the cupboard and set them up on the other side of the chimney again, and creak upstairs to do the finance reports in my dotage – if they’ll still have me.

This essay was first published in Pandemia, from Monash University Press.

Alan Kohler is founder of Eureka Report and finance presenter on ABC news. He writes twice a week for The New Daily

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