Susie Boswell chats over lunch with Port’s most popular newsman, Nick O’Callaghan.
So now I can put a face to the name. It’s a name, and a distinctive voice, almost everyone around here recognises – of a man most have never met.
Sitting across the table from me is Sammy Sparrow’s son. Actually, he’s radio legend Gary O’Callaghan’s third son, but I can’t help thinking of his dad as Sammy Sparrow. Sammy was an imaginary bird, a chirpy cheeky on-air invention voiced in high pitch by O’Callaghan senior, that “flew” in to his studio every morning as he hosted his long-running Sydney Radio 2UE breakfast show. Sammy, and Gary, were Sydney institutions for some half million listeners daily.
Nick O’Callaghan’s inherited his father’s distinctive voice, so that the two sound identical. He also inherited his old man’s love of radio and his career’s followed in dad’s footsteps. Today, he’s News Director of Radio 2MC in Port Macquarie, Radio 2CS in Coffs and of Star FM in both centres, after starting out here as a youngster in 1980. He brings the radio news from dawn to dusk daily to a potential audience of up to 180,000 listeners across the region.
As a Port fixture all his adult life, he actually led his dad, mum Dorothy and the rest of the family of eight, bar the oldest child, to settle here too. Of three boys, middle son John is also in radio here with 531, and all three sisters live here too; two, Anne and Lucy, are also in the news game. Marita escaped, to nursing. Of the boys, only oldest son Kiaran evaded the lure and he’s a Qantas pilot (curiously, Sammy Sparrow was a pilot, flying by helicopter to the 2UE studios).
Childhood was idyllic, in northern suburban Turramurra, then “a rural subdivision without kerbs and gutters, and as kids we played in the streets,” Nick recalls. He dropped by 2UE after school, learning to operate a radio panel, turntables and so on, and was taken on at 18 by bush radio 2NZ Inverell. No doubt they couldn’t believe their luck in nabbing an O’Callaghan, but they didn’t hold him long: the tyro radio star soon left behind frigid north-western NSW winters to return to the coast, enticed to Port in 1980.
Since then it’s been the story of a radio all-rounder: serving up a lively start to the day for thousands of households as breakfast program presenter – including with dad doing a guest gig for a couple of years, working in radio sales, for a time serving on the station’s board, and moving to his perfect niche of specialising in news. He made an exit to run his own business – Sparrow Group Advertising! – with his brother-in-law, and to work in marketing and entertainment, but the break only saw him ultimately return to 2MC, clearly the place he was meant to be.
“The station was known as 2KM, for Kempsey, when I started, but it changed to 2MC soon after,” he remembers. Port had been just a fishing village, Kempsey and Wauchope the urban centres. “It’s only in the past 25 years there’s been such dramatic population growth here. I read that since 1983 the population’s gone from around 30,000 to around 70,000. When I first came here I looked at taking a unit at Lighthouse Beach: I turned it down, it was just so far out of town!”
His longevity as a resident, as well as several decades immersed in local news and events, means Nick knows everyone and pretty much everything that goes on around here. I get totally distracted from exploring his personal background and press him to take me on a fascinating odyssey around Port: its quirky characters, movers and shakers, historical events that influence the scene today, its scandals. I could listen to him for days.
He’s an acute observer and not short of an opinion, privately, at least. (In news, impartiality rules). But then that’s the charm of a blueblood radio man: telling stories, absorbing facts and statistics filed in a mental library for instant recall. He has perfected the art and his life revolves around it. He is passionate about the relaxed way of life in our region, lives near the beaches and, aside from his role as the single dad of two teenage girls, counts reading newspapers and national and international reports as one of his leisure time passions.
He rises at 3am Monday to Friday to be at the Short Street studios at 4am and prepare the first bulletin for 5am. The days are long but afternoons and weekends are free – when the newsman takes a busman’s holiday, heading for the beach to enjoy his newspapers. Can’t get enough of that news!
Apparently not of his colleagues, either. Throughout lunch I’m distracted by the presence at the next table of a 2MC mob, Strawny, June, and mates. Have they come to rally round him as he goes under the Out To Lunch microscope? No, it’s mere coincidence: June’s had a windfall and they’re just kicking back together.
He lives in a cosy world, secure with family and friends. Except: his oldest, 17-year-old Jess, doing the HSC now ahead of her 15-year-old sister Bec, is off on a gap year next year, to Ireland. “She’s beating me to it!” bleats Dad. There’s a strong Irish heritage in the O’Callaghan family, no doubt all celebrating Fathers Day this month at his parents’ Sancrox HQ – “it’s a few hectares, enough that a ride-on mower’s acceptable but not to run anything except a handful of chickens,” sums up Nick.
His other love is cooking for his daughters and friends, whipping up “Asian food, pad Thais, stirfrys, Charmaine Solomon-inspired stuff, pizzas and so on”. He grows coriander, chillies and lemongrass for his dishes. “It’s easy and cheap: get a half dozen king prawns from the co-op, stir fry, and you eat like a king!” says my wiry subject, folding his lunch napkin, apparently itching to get to the stove for dinner. Family meals will change next year when Jess goes overseas, so best make the most of them now.
Oh yes, Jess … when she returns home she’ll go to uni, for a media degree, aiming to become a journalist and foreign correspondent. Seems the media and news continues to run strong in the O’Callaghan bloodline.
> Out to Lunch is hosted by Lou Perri at The Stunned Mullet on Town Beach.