When I wake up in the morning, love / And the sunlight hurts my eyes
And something without warning, love / Bears heavy on my mind
Then I look at you / And the world's alright with me
Just one look at you / And I know it's gonna be
A lovely day
- Lovely Day, Bill Withers
DAVID Collins is sitting outside the Calvary Mater’s Mercy Hospice squinting in the sunlight.
It’s June 22 and he’s been at the hospice for less than a day and I’m grateful he’s let me visit for a precious few hours, even though the painful reality of walking out the front door of his home for what he fears might be the last time is still raw in his eyes and in his voice.
Speaking softly, the man Newcastle knows as the funny, smart, brashly opinionated broadcaster of a thousand Tony Greig and Ray Dinneen impressions, explains that, after months of chemo for pancreatic cancer, he is “not fighting, just waiting”.
Through tears, he talks of the sadness of letting go, and of his fears for the days, maybe weeks, ahead. He marvels at the strength and courage of his dearest friends, and how they have given him strength and courage since his diagnosis in late 2017 - particularly Peter Sterling and Tanya Wilks, who have attended every oncologist appointment with him.
As hospice staff move in and out of his room to perform medical procedures, bring food and a chair for him to sit in when he’s up to it, he speaks with pride of his achievements over 40 years in radio, especially the early days mixing with music’s biggest stars for Sydney’s 2WS and the glory days with Tanya as the king and queen of Newcastle’s airwaves.
Or “the Jerry and Elaine” of breakfast radio, as they were often described in the Newcastle Herald over those years. When I mention this, the Jerry Seinfeld fan nods approvingly. He smiles when I say one of my daughters has finally, in adulthood, “discovered” Seinfeld: “It will never get old, that show”.
There’s laughter as we swap memories of the many headlines he’s generated as a provocateur since that first morning I sat in the not-so-salubrious Sandgate studios of 2HD in August 1992 to observe up-close for the Herald the intriguing and engaging duo dynamic of David and Tanya.
Like that time in 1995 when Prime TV withdrew its ads from 2HD because he had a dig at some of its ratings-challenged shows. It was not fair, Prime’s boss at the time complained, that David Collins was telling Newcastle’s biggest radio audience that “Tanya’s got more blokes looking through her bedroom window than [then Prime newsreader] Murray Finlay has got viewers”. More than two decades on, David chuckles at his stinging quip: “Yes, that ruffled a few feathers. But it wasn’t as if I was exaggerating.”
Or the day in 1997 when he got then talk-back king John Laws to phone the Herald from his Sydney office to admonish my “parochial” attitude for daring to question in that morning’s paper the decision by 2HD and its program director (one Mr D. Collins) to axe the local “Openline” talk-back for Lawsie’s nationally syndicated show. “You had that coming,” David smirks.
Will you write “something nice” about me when I’m gone?, he asks. We both get teary. I will, I say, and I’ll try to get your age right. (He never let me forget the early story in which I said he was born in 1953 instead of 1957.) “Yes, please,” he says. “I’m 60. Exactly 60. Dead on 60.” Always a keen study of comic timing and killer quotes, he looks pleased to let his play on words hang in the silence.
Standing up from his bed, he wants to go outside - for what might euphemistically be termed a breath of fresh air. After I wheel him from his room out into the daylight, I ask if he wants to be parked in the sun or in the shade.
Looking up into the blue sky, the sunshine on his face, he pulls out a cigarette and, without missing a beat, he deadpans: “Just here is fine, mate. I don’t want to get a melanoma”.
A life’s journey
FOR the record, David Collins was born in London on August 23, 1957. He was 16 when he got his first radio job. His father had told him to strike out on his own or work in the family’s menswear store in the East End. A sign in a Mayfair office window (“Office Boy Wanted. Apply Within”) led to a lowly job at Radio Luxembourg making the tea and fetching the secretary’s dry-cleaning. “Of course, being England, they call you ‘boy’ not ‘David’,” he once recalled. “But you got to do some really groovy things. For instance, when David Cassidy and the Osmonds were in London and they were at Radio Luxembourg I was there on the inside.”
The radio bug had bitten. In 1979, he ventured to Australia. After 12 years at Sydney’s 2WS, 2HD asked him to replace Pat Barton. Arriving at the Sandgate station in 1991 as breakfast host and program director, and conscious that he wasn’t a local, he roped in Tanya Wilks as his on-air sparring partner. Like David, Tanya was only 16 when she got her first radio job. She’d joined 2HD fresh out of Raymond Terrace high school.
As Tanya told mourners at David’s funeral service this week, her new boss was a “Sydney blow-in” with a gold necklace and a flash sports car and he rubbed her the wrong way from the outset. He talked her out of quitting “because he thought fireworks between us would make for good radio”.
That was May 1991. The rest is Newcastle media history. In their first ratings survey, they took 2HD from third to top spot. They stayed an on-air couple and breakfast staple for more than 22 years: eight unbeaten at 2HD, followed by 14 hard-fought years at KO-FM. As David could recite, they won 30 consecutive ratings surveys on 2HD – sometimes claiming more than 30 per cent of the audience, a market share not repeated since – and a total of 50 of the 77 they contested together.
After my first visit to their studio in 1992, David explained their playful Punch and Judy routine as the sort of “niggly aggro” swapped over every breakfast table. “We’re just two real people on the radio,” he said. They were real people off-air too and a close friendship sustained their professional success. ‘‘To me, he’s like a brother,” Tanya once said of the defiantly single Collins. “David doesn’t have any family here. I don’t have any brothers or sisters. Close friends can be like family.’’
David’s US-based sister Amanda concurred this week: “He built a life filled with the most incredible friends who became his family. And that is a testament to who he is”.
AT the Mercy Hospice last month, as we say our farewells, I tell David that Lovely Day has been shuffling with unusual frequency through my Spotify playlist lately. The soulful rise-and-shine anthem by American R&B singer Bill Withers was the “theme song” played at the start of every David and Tanya show for more than two decades. Every time I hear it, I think about those good times, I tell him.
“You’re welcome,” he says.