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Features & profiles

 

The Byron Echo - bastion of media independence

27 May 1988


Published in The Age


Mullumbimby, in the far north of NSW, once had a single claim to fame: a local beauty contest, called the Miss Chincogan Quest. The Quest was named for Mount Chincogan, the ancient peak overlooking the town. Then, one day, an old Aboriginal smilingly informed the organisers that the native word 'Chincogan' translated as 'erect penis'. The Miss Chincogan Quest was hastily abandoned.


These days, the locals derive their weekly entertainment from what is surely Australia's most eccentric and best-loved local newspaper. The Mullumbimby-based Brunswick Byron Echo is read, and affectionately regarded, the length and breadth of Byron Shire - by businessperson, hippie, surfer and farmer alike.


The Echo was established two years ago by ex-Poms Nick Shand and David Lovejoy. It thuds weekly onto 8,000 driveways, like the anonymous local rag at your place and mine. But the denizens of Byron Shire get something altogether different with their council notes and bowls results.


Their eyes regularly pop to read articles mauling born-again Christians. (These naturally produce Thundering Rejoinders.) Exposes of monkey business by local developers often stop a stroke short of libel. And there are rude cartoons of airships festooned with the logo of something called 'The Brute Corporation'.


The Echo even doctors its TV guide. One serial has been renamed Here's What's Left of Lucy. This section is compiled by waspish ex-Tasmanian Michael McDonald, who recently described the poor old Bugs Bunny Show thus:


The Roadrunner outsmarts the Coyote, Tweety Pie outsmarts Sylvester, and Yosemite Sam outsmarts himself by blowing off his boots with six-shooters. Brought to you by a nation which has outsmarted itself on several occasions. Guaranteed free of Australian content.


The Echo's off-beat, liberal flavour seems anomalous in the heart of National Party country. The paper has criticised crop-dusters, run articles on the finer points of witchcraft, and printed front page photos of marijuana growing in Council gardens. (Mullum's New Grass Beds Doing Well.) But the locals love it. Its circulation is soaring, and advertisers are steadily deserting the other regional weeklies. (These are the rather staid Advocate, owned by the Northern Star conglomerate - and the ever-shrinking Byron News.)


Perhaps The Echo's most risque feature was a retail guide, Shopping in the Nude With Geoff. This was accompanied by a full-length photo of the columnist, Geoff Dawson, entering a shop in Byron Bay naked - as local shoppers quailed.


On April 1 last year the front page screamed, The Echo sells out! A photo displayed Shand and Lovejoy examining a large Bill of Sale. (And behind them, a discreetly marked calendar). The story read:


In a dramatic day of rapid negotiations Mr David Gonski, the new power behind 'Northern Star', bought out 'The Echo' partnership... A joint statement...said, "All parties agree that single ownership of media on the north coast is what people need. Eradication of wasteful competition, and abolishing the publication of different points of view, can only be of service to the people of this area."


The Echo doesn't take threats to freedom of information lying down. A recent Christian campaign to have 'certain reading matter' expunged from school syllabuses provoked a diaristic article (purportedly written by a book-burning zealot) which Lovejoy entitled Fundamental Fables:


Glorie to God, it was a heart and hand warming scene when we layed torch to to the pile of filth and corruption. 'Catcher in the Rye' was one spawn of the Evil One which was consum'd in the cleansing fyre. All the works of the apostate D.H. Lawrence were similarlie sent back in flames to their most loathsome inspirer...


 ...Both the cleare evidence of our senses and the Unalterable Word of God tell us that the Earth is but dry land amid the seas, created 5991 years ago...at about eleven o'clock in the forenoon, just before tea.


Does the Echo relish taking sides? Editor Nick Shand doesn't see it that way:


'What we wrote in our very first issue remains true today: "We are free and will remain free of all vested interests, and are unaligned with any specific grouping in the community."'


Lovejoy adds, 'What we are interested in is making people think. These days people take their thinking pre-packaged from the monopolist media, like convenience foods. We try to be a marketplace for original, eccentric, non-chemical and healthy ideas.'


The last word is Nick Shand's - and will surely hearten those despairing at present trends in the nation's media:


'In Australia at least, thanks to the inaction or even collusion of the present Government, the potential for news manipulation is such that it makes George Orwell sound like an optimist. But what we've proved with the Echo is that if you give people a local, human-scale, independent alternative, they will desert the monopolies.'


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