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Jacko, the Broadcasting Kookaburra

by Jerry Berg

If you tune to the start of one of Radio Australia's foreign language broadcasts (e.g. 0900 UTC, 6020/9710 kHz.), you can still hear the sound of the largest of all kingfishers, the kookaburra. It used to be heard in the English-language services as well, and you may even recall, as I do, announcers occasionally referring to the bird by the name "Jacko." Early Radio Australia schedules specifically mentioned "Jacko" in their program listings. Jacko is occasionally seen on other memorabilia pertinent to Radio Australia as well (Radio Australia stickers and Norfolk Island First Day Cover).

Although today the more familiar symbol of Radio Australia is the kangaroo, it appears that long ago it was more often the kookaburra, which, while not the national bird of Australia, does at least rank as the offical bird of New South Wales. Recently I was surprised to discover that this little creature has a strong and unusually long connection with Australian radio.

In 1933, a children's book entitled "Jacko, the Broadcasting Kookaburra­-His Life and Adventures," was published by Angus and Robertson Ltd. in Sydney, Australia. It is a lightweight, hardback volume of 96 pages which went through at least two "editions" (probably "printings"). The author is Brooke Nicholls, and the book is illustrated by Dorothy Wall, who went on to write and illustrate many of her own children's books.

There is an author's note at the start of the book that reads as follows: "This is the true story of Jacko, the Broadcasting Kookaburra, that so many of his fellow Australians have heard laughing over the air from the wireless stations of Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane; and from the gramophone record that was arranged and produced by Mrs. Harold W. Clapp for the Australian National Travel Association. The story begins with Jacko's capture in the bush. It tells of his many adventures, and ends with his home-coming after a four-thousand mile caravan journey along the eastern seaboard of Australia. The illustrations and chapter headings are from drawings made by Miss Dorothy Wall, whose exquisite pen has captured the humorous spirit of the story."

Part I of the book, "Jacko's Early Days­-Told by himself," is in the first person. In 10 chapters, Jacko tells us about his first home in a gum tree in Victoria, how he went to live with Thelma and "The Big Boss" (apparently Thelma's husband) and how he enjoyed youthful days of shower baths, catching fish, playing games with his canine friends Splinter and Bill, and visiting the garden and his fellow kookaburra, Skippy.

In Chapter 10, Jacko talks about making "a gramophone record." This was arranged by The Doctor, who was a naturalist. The Doctor, Barbara (seemingly The Doctor's wife) and Thelma put Jacko in a box and took him to Melbourne, where, perched on Thelma's wrist, he performed on cue in the Columbia studio.

Jacko relates how The Doctor soon made arrangements for Jacko's laugh to be broadcast "from one of the wireless stations." Then The Doctor decided that Thelma and Jacko should appear "at the theatre." "The night that I appeared at the theatre the house was packed; there were faces right up to the ceiling. We came on half-way through the programme." Jacko said that in addition to many theater appearances, and after being "regularly on the air," he also accompanied The Doctor to exhibitions of moving pictures of Jacko, who proceeded to sing on cue in the theater. After playing the city theaters, "The Doctor made us pack up and go with him all over the country." They went to Ballarat, and lots of towns in the bush.

Part II, "Jacko's Travels and Triumphs­-Told by his Friends," is in the third person, and relates Jacko's trips and performances around the country. Part III, "Home Once More­-Told by Jacko," is a brief account, again in the first person, of Jacko's return home after a long trip.

But for the facts that for many years we have actually heard the call of the kookaburra over Radio Australia, and that the introduction to the book describes it as a true story, the initial temptation is to treat it as an interesting bit of fiction. However, the book's introductory note (above) seems genuine enough, and while the details of Jacko's social habits and travels may well be the product of author's license, one cannot help but wonder whether the underlying story is true, and whether in those days long ago there actually might have been a vaudeville-like act featuring a performing kookaburra named Jacko. The Jacko travels are described in the book as a "caravan." There are references to many letters inviting Jacko to appear inland. "In Toowoomba he was on the air for eight consecutive nights, and had a full house at the Empire Theatre, the largest in the city."

Jacko as a legitimate phenomenon of his day seems all the more plausible when one considers the "gramophone record" referred to in the book's opening note. I was pleased to find one of these records, recorded in 1933 on the Regal Zonophone label (78 rpm) and distributed by Columbia Graphophone (Aust.) Ltd. Entitled "An Authentic and Unique Record of Jacko, the Broadcasting Kookaburra," it was recorded in Columbia Studios, Sydney, on August 29, 1933. The two sides run a total of about 6-1/2 minutes, and contain a narrative about 10 year old Jacko's habits and travels, including details of how he acted when he was brought to the Columbia studio to perform. While the record parallels the story in the book, it is a separate item and does not accompany the book.

The record contains six segments of Jacko performing his calls. One in particular--the first call on the first side--stirred some primal DX interval signal memories. I recalled the days when the kookaburra call was more heard often frequently on Radio Australia, and I compared the one on the record with a modern-day version on one of the interval signal websites. After applying a little informal "diversity reception" (recording the two on tape and playing them back simultaneously on separate players in informal synchronization), I was pleasantly surprised to find that they appear to be identical. Jacko's tenure in broadcasting has been very long indeed!

A variety of questions about Jacko come to mind. Was there actually a bird called Jacko who appeared in various places in Australia? Are Thelma, The Boss, The Doctor and Barbara merely characters in a book, or were they actual people who trained a bird and turned him into a national symbol? Are the book and the record all that remains of the Jacko story, or is other memorabilia still out there waiting to be found­-tickets to Jacko performances perhaps, a Jacko doll, or what have you?

On what stations was Jacko first heard? Probably local medium wave stations. The book says that in Sydney, when The Doctor was on the radio telling of Jacko's travels, he was "relaying through to 2UW to Melbourne." Also suggesting medium wave was the observation in the book that children "who were listening in anywhere between Sydney and Brisbane" were asked to watch out for Jacko as he travelled up the coast. In another place in the book, Jacko says that "for the first time in the history of broadcasting in Queensland, a kookaburra's laugh was heard through a chain of stations with a link-up of over three thousand miles." And in the Foreward, the author observes, "Such a famous entertainer as Jacko, who has been on the air, from various broadcasting stations, and has made a trans-continental tour, should not need much by way of introduction to his fellow Australians."

Shortwave was also a possibility, however. In relating the making of the record, Jacko observes, "That laugh has been heard in America, England, France, Japan and other countries." This suggests that he was heard over shortwave, although medium wave reception of Australia from at least some of those countries, especially in the early 1930s, was certainly possible.

Of the three "Jacko" cities mentioned in the author's introductory note­-Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane­-at least two had shortwave stations at the time. Amalgamated Wireless station VK2ME in Sydney was known as the "Voice of Australia," and by 1931 had distinct services to various parts of the world via 20 kw. transmitters. The station had been in experimental use on shortwave since 1927. Moreover, it is known that the Australian National Travel Association produced many talks about Australian life for broadcast over VK2ME. The book's introductory note cites Mrs. Harold W. Clapp of the Association as the person who arranged and produced the Jacko record for the Association.

Lower powered sister station VK3ME in Melbourne, with 2 kw., began transmitting regular programs in 1932, and was widely heard overseas.

I don't believe shortwave arrived in Brisbane until 1944.

So Jacko was most likely a medium wave phenomenon, at least at first. Just when and how he found his way to shortwave remains to be determined. Perhaps a reader with knowledge of the early days of Australian radio can answer some of the questions about Jacko. Might some further research into Australian newspapers around 1932 actually turn up some references to Jacko travels or performances?

Copies of the Jacko book and the record occasionally show up on eBay. The book can also be located via antiquarian book dealers on the internet. At this writing, a number of copies are available through BookFinder.com for prices in the $20-70 range. My copy of the Jacko record (obtained on eBay) was in good overall condition, but the audio was immeasurably improved by CVC Productions in Windermere, Florida who transferred it to a CD. "LP2CD" specializes in the restoration of audio recordings and their transfer from old recording media to new.