Profiles – Radio host Barry Bissell

This feature article was published in The Swan Hill Guardian’s yearly in-house lifestyle magazine Your Swan Hill.

Bissell on air

He is most well-known for spending 20 years counting down the hits on Fox FM with Take 40, but Barry Bissell kicked off his radio career in Swan Hill. Now living a quiet life in suburban Melbourne, LILLIAN ALTMAN sits down with Barry at a Melbourne cafe to reminisce on his successful career.

PHOTOS: Supplied.

FOR any commercial radio announcer, there is plenty of verbal theatre that goes to air.

It was in front of the red curtain at the Swan Hill Theatre Group that Barry Bissell forged his career behind the microphone.

He has interviewed many celebrities that were known for life in the spotlight.

Barry was encouraged to bring the love of acting and turn them into powerful words and music by the theatre group’s Marjorie McLeod.

In a competitive game, he would become one of Melbourne’s most recognisable radio hosts with his program Take 40.

He said Take 40 originated on Fox FM but was broadcast on 100 stations all over Australia including 3SH, to an estimated audience of around a million people.

Before Barry’s successful radio career around Australia, the Swan Hill-born radio host, who retired in 2004, cut his teeth with local radio in Swan Hill.

Born in Swan Hill in 1947 at Swan Hill District Health, Barry has fond memories of his life growing up on the Murray River border.

“It’s kind of a story book country life in the 1950/60s,” he said.

“I don’t remember much about before the 1950s, but it was fun and free.

“You could ride your bike with a pair of shorts on and thongs and no helmet, and ride to your mate’s place.”

Barry also remembers being right in the midst of the Swan Hill region, swimming along the Murray River in his early teenage years.

“I remember we used to take our shoes, socks and shorts off, and hold everything over our heads,” he said.

“And we made a little campsite with a cubby, in our early teens and often waded along to Pental Island to our secret spot there.”

Barry said he finished reading a book earlier this year by journalist Chris Hammer, called Scrublands, which he believes was set in Ouyen.

“And, it’s very much what Swan Hill was like in the 1960s, but it’s set a bit more recently,” he said.

His father, Hugh Melville Bissell, who passed away 15 years ago, was a World War II veteran who was a navigator on Lancaster Bombers out of Scotland in 1944.

He became an optometrist and met his wife, Dorothy, in Melbourne before moving to Swan Hill.

Hugh opened H Melville Bissell Optometrist and Optician next to the Commercial Hotel on Campbell Street in 1946.

The shop also sold SLR camera equipment and film and the family lived in a house behind the shop.

Barry attended Swan Hill Primary School and Swan Hill High before he jumped into the sound-proof studio, launching a phenomenal radio career.

He said he “squeaked” through year 12 “because I knew I didn’t want to go to university”.

“I knew then that I wanted to be a radio presenter or something to do with music,” Barry said.

Straight out of high school, he begged the then manager of 3SH, Harry Lithgow, to let him come into the studio to see the goings on of the local radio station.

“He just said, ‘Come in on Monday and I’ll find something for you to do’,” Barry recalled.

Just two days into his radio career, working in the mail room, he was live on air.

Barry said those first two days entailed sitting in with the host, watching and learning on the go.

“He let me sit down on day two and take over doing all the panelling while he did all the talking.”

“And on day three, he called in sick so they didn’t have anyone to go on, so I was sort of thrown in the deep end.”

Barry worked at 3SH for three-and-a-half years from 1967 until 1970, with the former radio host only returning to the region once since he left almost 50 years ago.

He said the program director was “very old school”, with the program focussing on market reports, funeral announcements, dedications to those in hospital, but said within six months of being there a hits format was introduced.

“There was a box of 45s (records) in the studio, and an A, B and C list, but I cheated all the time and played my favourites; which everybody did,” he said.

“I learnt very quickly and the hard way, which was doing what you could.”

Barry said his first ever radio interview was with Australian minor pop star Issi Dye, who spent the entire time promoting himself.

“I’d just ask a question and Issi would talk about himself,” Barry said.

His second interview was with Mike, Pete & Danny’s Mike Brady, who ended up sitting on top of the studio’s piano throughout the interview, with two other band members sitting at the microphones.

“Anyone who came through Swan Hill to do a concert or gig, we would ask them in,” Barry said.

“I remember hosting a show at the Swan Hill Town Hall, Battle of the Bands, and they used to do heats in different places. They also played at the memorial hall.”

In 1970, Barry moved to Launceston, Tasmania, where he worked at a radio station for a year and “improving 300 per cent on the first day”.

From there, he worked in Adelaide for five years hosting a music-driven program, and also had a “failed expedition” for Fairfax in Sydney.

“My passion was always the music because that was the reason I got into it,” Barry explains.

“I wanted to be in Carnaby Street in London, and I never got there until the early 1970s.

“Growing up in a small town when this massive movement was occurring on the other side of the world and wishing to be part of it; that was the music that drew me in.”

Barry loved living in Swan Hill and said living in the country was what he believed gave him the opportunity to get his start in radio, later becoming a legendary radio host.

“I wanted to be a city kid, but I also realised if I had been a city kid, I would never have been given a job at a radio station,” he said.

“Even if I’d applied for 3SH, which was what lots of people were doing from Melbourne.

“I probably wouldn’t have got it, so just being there I was in the right place at the right time.”

Before embarking on a radio career, Barry worked doing newspaper runs and helped his father with his shop.

He has fond memories of his time performing with the Swan Hill Theatre Group.

“I did the theatre group as a child before the radio,” he explained.

He said Marjorie should be credited for giving him his “voice”, with everyone suggesting he join the theatre group to learn a thing or two.

“Marjorie was this tiny little women and she used to say project from the diaphragm,” he said.

“I had a little nasally children’s voice when I started, so she is probably responsible for me keeping my job.”

But it was his career with Fox FM in Melbourne, where he hosted Take 40 Australia for 20 years before his retirement in 2004, that Barry is most recognised for. And he definitely has a story or two to tell about the celebrities he interviewed throughout the years.

He recalled the time he interviewed Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks at Hilton Hotel where he, along with journalists, were waiting for hours to take their turn to interview the star.

“When I got in to interview Stevie, she was adorable,” he said.

“I had 20 minutes time allocated and I turned off my tape and said, ‘Thanks Stevie, it’s been wonderful to talk to you’, and off she went.”

Another time, Barry interviewed Elton John at the Fox studio in Melbourne. He vividly remembers the fluoro pink and green tracksuit with stripes and a matching cap Elton was wearing.

“While I was in the studio, I played Crowded House’s song, Mean to Me,” Barry said.

“Elton asked if I knew Neil (Finn) as he was going to his place for dinner.

“He said he could never remember what Neil’s wife’s name was,” he said.

“I said, ‘Sharon’, and he shrieked, ‘Well, I’m not going to forget that because that’s my nickname’.

“He was good fun.”

The most interesting person Barry has interviewed was Michael Jackson.

“I spent a lot of time talking to him backstage in Japan,” he said.

“It broke my heart, he was such a damaged person, but so amazing on stage. How does that tiny little insect next to me quivering, turn into this mammoth on stage? It was just incredible.

“The moment he stepped on stage at the Motown thing and did Billie Jean with the moonwalk was unforgettable.”

Barry was also charmed by John Travolta, who he interviewed on several occasions over the years.

He was astonished when Travolta remembered him at a later interview.

“I thought, what a remarkable memory because they (celebrities) must meet thousands of people,” he said.

And the most memorable interview, for all the wrong reasons was Hugh Grant, during a promotional tour for his 1999 romantic comedy Mickey Blue Eyes.

“He was a complete pain in the ass,” Barry said.

“I said to him at the interview, ‘You’re not really interested in doing this, are you?’, And he said, ‘Not particularly’.

“I asked, ‘Why do you bother’, and he said, ‘Well, I have to’.

“And that was the end of the interview.

“He was exactly like his character in the film.”

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