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ABC’s Coodabeen Champions clock up 40 years talking, joking and singing about footy on Melbourne radio

Greg Champion’s musical tribute to legendary Collingwood player Peter Daicos

He wrote an original song,

They were supposed to spark laughter, not outrage. But the Coodabeen Champions ABC debut in 1988 didn’t quite follow the script.

After seven years on community radio, Triple R, in Melbourne, building a loyal audience, the Coodabeens secured a coveted slot for their Saturday morning footy show on the national broadcaster.

When their first program went to air, the switchboard lit up.

“We didn’t realise this at the time — Clarke Hansen (ABC executive producer of sport and broadcaster) who got us across protected us from it — but there were 300 complaints,” recalls Coodabeens co-founder Jeff Richardson.

“And there were complaints coming internally as well, one member of the sport team went into Clarke’s office and said, ‘Get these blokes off air’!

“But Clarke, to our eternal gratitude, stuck by his guns — he liked what we did and wanted us on air.”

Black and white photo of ten people standing on steps, wearing 3LO jumpers, outside old ABC building.
The Coodabeens and their regular 1988 season guests. Back row: Greg Champion, Julian Ross, Peter Keenan. Centre Row: George Stone, Simon Whelan, Chris McConville. Front row: Bobby Skilton, Helen Molnar, Tony Leonard, Phil Cleary.(ABC Archives)

But what could possibly have been so offensive about a radio show that consists of a bunch of mates talking, joking and singing about footy?

“I think it was because our show was just so different,” says Richardson.

“Nowadays, it probably doesn’t seem very different because we’ve had decades now of people being “funny” about the football, but back then no-one was.

“What we did was obviously unstructured, obviously unscripted, and totally not in the mould of the way football pre-game coverage usually sounded so, for people who weren’t used to it, it must have sounded quite shocking and amateurish.”

But the Coodabeens had the last laugh, broadcasting on the ABC for seven years, then moving to commercial station 3AW for a decade and returning to the ABC in 2003, where they remain popular.

Give men behind microphones in ABC radio studio.Give men behind microphones in ABC radio studio.
Still talking about footy after four decades. Greg Champion, Simon Whelan, Ian Cover, Jeff Richardson and Billy Baxter.(ABC News: Andy Bellairs)

Over the years, on the ABC, they also hosted a national Sunday night radio show, a travel-based program, The Idlers, and for a decade presented the national broadcast of the New Year’s Eve countdown to midnight from Hobart.

They’ve twice featured in the on-ground entertainment at the AFL grand final (more on that later), are revered in the Melbourne Cricket Club (MCC) Media Hall of Fame and have travelled the country, staging countless outside broadcasts, including a popular OB from the MCG on grand final morning, and sell-out community shows.

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2020 marks a remarkable 40 years on air, during which they’ve become an integral part of Victoria’s football culture.

“I still sort of pinch myself when I go into the Media Hall of Fame at the MCG and we’re up there.

“I look at it and think, ‘That’s not real, is it?’

“Given some of the other names that are up on that board, I just feel very humbled.

“Shows come and go, and the fact that we’ve been able to keep doing it as long as we have — it’s sort of a little miracle, and really pleasing.”

The conversation that launched the Coodabeens

They weren’t chasing a media career — the Coodabeens was born out of their frustration as passionate footy fans.

It was Anzac Day 1981 and 20-something mates Jeff Richardson, a teacher, and Simon Whelan, a lawyer, were driving to the MCG listening to the pre-match programs on the radio and finding it all a bit dull and cliched.

“As we walked into the MCG we were saying, we’re going into the standing room [area] and we’re going to hear people in the crowd with as much, or more, insight into what’s going on as we just heard on the radio — and delivering it with much more wit, entertainment and intelligence — and we thought that there’s got to be some way to capture that and get that on to the airwaves,” says Richardson.

So, they rang up a contact at Triple R and were on air the following Saturday.

There was barely any planning, it was to be (and still is) as spontaneous as possible, and they did the show around their ‘real’ jobs.

Whelan standing in radio studio with Cover at typewriter on desk with phone nestled on shoulder.Whelan standing in radio studio with Cover at typewriter on desk with phone nestled on shoulder.
Simon Whelan and Ian Cover in the early days.(Supplied: Coodabeens)

There was no formal auditioning of new members. Over the course of those first few footy seasons, a casual parade of friends and friends-of-friends simply wandered in and out of the studio.

Among the core group that formed in the early days was Billy Baxter, who came up with their name based on a line from one of his favourite films, On The Waterfront, in which Marlon Brando says: ‘I coulda been something, I could’ve a contender’, and his mate from high school, Ian Cover.

“Some people came and went, and I had no idea who they were,” recalls Cover, who was then a football journalist with the Geelong Advertiser and went on to become a member of the Victorian Parliament.

“It was a bit chaotic in the studio, there were only two microphones and there’d be sometimes six or eight people squashed around the desk.

“There wasn’t much room to move and you had to sort of elbow someone out the way to lean in to get onto the microphone to say something.”

ABC Radio caravan with Coodabeen Champions sign surrounded by large crowd.ABC Radio caravan with Coodabeen Champions sign surrounded by large crowd.
The team enjoys taking the show to the listeners and has staged countless outside broadcasts around the country over the years.(Supplied: Coodabeens)

Forty years, thousands of songs

A couple of years after the Coodabeens started, Adelaide-born musician and songwriter Greg Champion joined the crew, and his talent for writing parodies was a hit with the audience and the rest of the team.

His first musical segment began with ‘The answer my friend is like kicking into the wind’, to the tune of Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ In The Wind and, over almost four decades, Champion estimates he’s performed about 3,500 songs — written by himself and enthusiastic listeners — and released at least a dozen football CDs.

Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume.

Greg Champion’s musical tribute to legendary Collingwood player Peter Daicos

He wrote an original song, That’s The Thing About Football, that became a much-loved footy anthem when Channel 7 used it as the opening theme for its Friday night footy coverage in the mid-90s and continues to inspire a crowd singalong at the end of their grand final shows.

Other hits included the catchy I’m DiPierdomenico (to the old English music hall song I’m Henry the Eighth I Am) about the likeable Hawthorn champion, Robert DiPierdomenico, and an original song about the team’s hard man Dermott Brereton, titled Dermott Brereton is a Hood.

“Dermott’s got a very good sense of humour and he said to me that it doesn’t matter what they’re singing as long as they’re singing about you.”

Black and white photo of Champion holding guitar and standing in front of microphone in studio.Black and white photo of Champion holding guitar and standing in front of microphone in studio.
Greg Champion’s footy songs are one of the most popular elements of the show.(Supplied: Coodabeens)

While both players got a laugh out of it, some of the Hawthorn bosses didn’t find the Dermie song so amusing, particularly when the Coodabeens were scheduled to perform at the 1987 grand final in which Hawthorn was playing.

“I very naively thought I would ring the Hawthorn Footy Club to get Dermie’s permission to play Dermott Brereton is a Hood at half-time,” recalls Champion.

“And Alan Joyce, the football manager, comes on and says, ‘You’re not doing that at the Grand Final’.

“I rang the boss of the league, Ross Oakley — in those days you could ring the boss and get straight through — and he said to leave it with him.

“Two weeks later, I rang him back and he said, ‘You’re not doing it, if Dermie knocks someone out in the first five minutes and you play that at half-time there’ll be a riot,’ and it was hard to argue with that.”

For knockabout blokes who worshipped footy and did a show on community radio in their spare time, performing at the grand final before 100,000 people at the MCG was a massive thrill.

Black and white photo of six men on stage singing into microphones on MCG with crowd in background.Black and white photo of six men on stage singing into microphones on MCG with crowd in background.
From broadcasting on community radio to performing on footy’s biggest stage at the 1987 grand final.(Supplied: Coodabeens)

When league boss Ross Oakley said he couldn’t pay them, they cheekily asked for a limo to get them to the game and expected a couple of taxi dockets.

To their surprise, a limo was dispatched, hovercrafts ferried them onto the ground and they sang three songs — none of which triggered a riot.

“It was a really special thing,” says Cover.

“We’d invented this radio show six years earlier and here we were now out in the middle of the MCG.

Tony’s Talkback and how we fooled Harry Beitzel

In the 1980s, Harry Beitzel was a giant of football commentary on 3AW.

His Saturday afternoon game coverage concluded with a talkback segment called Slather and Whack in which the Coodabeens, who then had another show that followed Beitzel’s, saw plenty of comic potential.

“We heard these people talking to Harry and were thinking you can’t write this stuff, it was really funny,” says Cover.

“There was a Collingwood supporter who came on and said, ‘Look, Harry, I never complain about the umpires but in the third quarter Ricky Barham had the ball and he got penalised and it cost us the game …..’ and someone said why don’t we come on and say exactly what these people are saying, we get a phone and put on a funny voice.

“Tony Leonard said he’d take the calls, so we immediately called it ‘Tony’s Talkback’ [now Footy Talkback with Jeff ‘Torch’ McGee after Leonard, now a respected football commentator, left in 2003].

Black and white photo of Leonard holding clipboard with rest of team sitting in football ground dug out.Black and white photo of Leonard holding clipboard with rest of team sitting in football ground dug out.
The ‘callers’ to the talkback segment hosted by Tony Leonard (far right) often made such hilarious comments he’d struggle to hold it together on air.(Supplied: Coodabeens)

“The show begins, Richo says there’s some calls left over from Slather and Whack, and Tony says ‘Go ahead, you’re talking to Tony’.

“A voice says: ‘Hello, Tony, It’s Digger here’ and Tony says, ‘Who do you barrack for?’

“‘Collingwood,’ says the voice.

“‘How long have you barracked for Collingwood, Digger?’ ‘137 years!’ says the voice.

“‘Have you got a football question?’ Tony asks.

“And ‘Digger’ says: ‘I never complain about the umpires but in the third quarter….’ and it went from there with all these characters getting lives of their own.”

Digger, Pearl from the Peninsula, Stan the Statistician, Ivan from Ivanhoe, Massive from Moorabbin, Peter from Peterborough, Helen from Healesville … the list goes on.

Despite the hilarious and outrageous things the ‘callers’ say, there’ve been plenty of listeners — and the odd broadcaster — over the years who think they’re real people.

“Harry Beitzel said to me one day, ‘I’ve been listening to your show, it’s sounding good.’

“And I knew it was working because we’d fooled Harry,” laughs Cover.

“Another day, I was in the outer at Geelong around the late 80s and a bloke I’d been to school with, who I thought had a modicum of intelligence, said to me, ‘Hey Cove, that talkback segment on your show, I’ve been ringing up and I can’t get on, the same people get on all the time, what’s going on?’

“And I said, ‘They probably all have the talkback number on speed dial and as soon as they hear it’s coming up they hit the speed dial’ and he said, ‘Oh yeah, that bloody speed dial.'”

Cover holding microphone interviewing Schwerdt.Cover holding microphone interviewing Schwerdt.
Cover with loyal listener Mark ‘Swish’ Schwerdt, who has been a song and social media question contributor.(ABC Radio Melbourne)

The fans they haven’t fooled always want to know who plays who, but the Coodabeens like to keep them guessing.

Coincidentally, this year’s return of Simon Whelan after a 16-year absence while serving as a Supreme Court judge seems to have inspired the long-silenced Digger to pick up the phone again.

And while the Coodabeens have been amazed at how listeners have been taken in by the talkback segment, Ian Cover admits the characters have become so familiar that, at times, even he feels like they actually exist.

“It’s a funny thing, you know, we’ve done the talkback for more than 30 years, our characters are still the same and, to me, they are all real,” he says.

“When it’s your turn I feel like I just become that person for two minutes of the phone call and when it’s all over, I imagine that person still being out there somewhere. It’s weird.”

Three generations of fans

Laraine Rodriquez is a huge footy fan and passionate Melbourne supporter who has been listening to the Coodabeens since the late 80s.

Woman wearing Melbourne Football Club clothing standing in crowd while interviewed by Cover holding ABC microphone.Woman wearing Melbourne Football Club clothing standing in crowd while interviewed by Cover holding ABC microphone.
Longstanding fan Laraine Rodriquez interviewed by Ian Cover at the 2019 grand final day outside broadcast.(ABC Radio Melbourne)

“Once I started listening, I was hooked,” recalls Laraine.

“If I couldn’t listen ‘live’ on Saturday morning I would record it on my radio/cassette player and listen later — either at home or on my cassette player in the car.

“I do remember buying The Coodabeens Big Bumper Footy Book (published in 1990) and laughing throughout most of it.

“I still pick it up at times and continue to laugh, even though some of the information is dated.”

Front cover of book featuring photo of Coodabeens super-imposed into old black and white footy team photo.Front cover of book featuring photo of Coodabeens super-imposed into old black and white footy team photo.
Many Coodabeens fans treasure the 1990 Big Bumper Footy Book.(ABC Archives)

Laraine has been a regular at the outside broadcasts at AFL finals and on grand final morning since the mid-90s, and been interviewed on the show several times.

“In 1994, [with Melbourne in the finals], I was wearing all my Demon gear and I copped some good-natured ribbing about having a red and blue crocheted rug, thus fitting their (and others’) stereotypical image of a Melbourne supporter.

“We had quite a conversation and I received a prize for being a good sport,” she says.

Laraine Rodriquez says the “magic” of the Coodabeens is their interest in the “whole” of football — footballers who played a handful of games, not just the big names, as well as those from country, suburban and women’s leagues.

In fact, the show featured female footballers decades before the AFLW was established.

“I think the Coodabeens appeal to all listeners because they are so inclusive, their style of humour never alienates anyone because it is such good, clean, clever fun.

“As a Melbourne supporter (who has never seen snow anywhere in Australia!), I fume when I hear constant references to Melbourne supporters going to the snow instead of the football.

“Yet when the Coodabeens put Demon fans and snow in the same sentence, the way they do it makes me laugh and I am not one bit offended.

“Long may the Coodabeens continue!”

Black and white photo of five men lined up in front of microphones.Black and white photo of five men lined up in front of microphones.
On the road somewhere in 1991.(Supplied: Coodabeens)

That they tapped into something that has resonated with footy fans for so long is both surprising and hugely rewarding for the team.

“Not only do we have first-generation listeners, there are also third-generation listeners,” says Cover.

“A lot of people have said to us along the way, ‘Dad used to make us listen to you in the car, and we had no idea what you were going on about, then we got into it and now I’ve got my kids listening.’

“When you reflect on that, there’s a sense of accomplishment that you’ve created something that as well as having longevity has been enjoyed by so many people.”

“Some people have used the term the ‘Rolling Stones of radio’ [to describe us] and I see the parallels,” quips Champion.

“Not that I’m equating us with the Rolling Stones, but there’s the 40 years thing and the longer it goes the harder it is to consider leaving.

They’ve particularly loved taking the show on the road.

“The Coodabeens have done hundreds and hundreds of regional gigs, in Victoria and across the borders, and it’s been a wonderful, wonderful journey playing in the bush and connecting with the people,” says Champion.

“That’s where people tell you what their ABC and their Coodabeens mean to them, how important the Coodabeens and the ABC are to them, and that drives home what a privileged and special position we’re in.”

Still kicking goals

For their 40th year, they’ve published a book, 40 Footy Seasons, that features tales from the core group and many other contributors who’ve come and gone over the years.

While much has remained the same and nostalgia is a big part of their appeal, they’ve also moved with the times, recruiting producer ‘Young Andy’ Bellairs, one of those ‘kids’ who grew up listening to the show in the car, introducing new segments and embracing social media.

Group of men crowded around a football as if jumping for a mark with MCG in distance.Group of men crowded around a football as if jumping for a mark with MCG in distance.
Young Andy with the Coodabeens veterans he listened to growing up.(ABC Radio Melbourne)

COVID-19 has torpedoed their outside broadcasts, community shows and a proposal to appear in this year’s grand final entertainment, but they’re live-streaming part of their GF show and feel lucky to have been able to remain on air.

“Just because of the amount of correspondence we’ve had from people making the comment that in these difficult, unprecedented times, the fact that we’ve been on has provided a bit of normality amongst all the craziness.

“Greg’s had double the song contributions this year and the social media question has had more responses every week than it’s had in the past.

“Driving up from Barwon Heads [when the first lockdown began] I really felt that I wasn’t just going in to do the show as normal, I felt, without sounding too over the top, a sense of responsibility that we had a job to do to entertain people, to cheer them up, to be there.”

Backs of six men sitting at radio desk in front of microphones looking out at large crowd watching.Backs of six men sitting at radio desk in front of microphones looking out at large crowd watching.
The grand final morning broadcast from the MCG regularly draws a large crowd, and people who don’t even have a ticket for the match turn up to watch the Coodabeens show.(Supplied: Coodabeens)

With all but Young Andy now aged in their 60s and 70s, the question is how much longer will the Coodabeen Champions be there?

To quote one of those footy cliches they love to make fun of, they’re taking it one week at a time.

“I’ll be happy to get to next Saturday, I don’t think any further ahead than that,” laughs Jeff Richardson.

Listen to the Coodabeen Champions grand final day broadcast from 10:00am on October 24 on ABC Radio Melbourne and around Victoria, ABC Listen or wherever you get your podcasts

Source: AFL NEWS ABC