I’ve known James Valentine, the Sydney ABC radio 702 broadcaster of the afternoon programme, for more than 15 years and he’s the only friend who has surprisingly admitted he should’ve been a better friend!
When he recently made this admission it surprised me, primarily because I’d never thought he’d underperformed in the friendship stakes. But James is a hard marker — even on himself — and maybe I’ve had too low expectations about friends for far too long.
Like his daily radio programme, he got me thinking and that’s James’ strange appeal. He invites his audience to help him understand his life and his experiences and it means he does segments such as “This is what I live with!”
In helping himself, he simultaneously counsels us to make sense of our crazy lives, our mad mates, our strange families and our weird selves.
He admits that his programme, which is not a hard-hitting news-talk format, is about him trying to understand what he encounters in his life and that’s the magnetic appeal of his show and James himself.
“The main thing I’m aiming for in radio is getting people, not people who have written a book or famous people or people in the news, but usually just listeners/callers to tell me great stories,” he explained. “That’s the base material, and the aim of that is to have a few hours of joy and happiness in the middle of the day.
“Most of the time we should be laughing and most of the time we should be laughing at ourselves, and we should be laughing at the absurd ways in which we behave and interact and that sort of stuff.”
I love James’ ponderings and musings on air but I asked him if he thinks he is valuable doing what he does.
“I think people underestimate the value of what this kind of radio offers in providing company,” he said. “It’s the same for programs such as Tony Delroy’s at nights and Macca on Sundays. This is the ultimate narrow-cast and you really are talking to one person and that one person listening thinks you are talking to them.”
He believes he has formed an intimate relationship and friendship with all his many thousands of individual listeners.
“People come up and talk to me as if they know me and they do! They know me perfectly well. They have been listening to me for 20 years and there is nothing about me they don’t know.”
That’s an admission that not many in the media could honestly make.
James always wanted to be a professional solo musician playing jazz and he played saxophone in the Australian rock band The Models but he’s very objective about his musical potential.
“I knew by say 20 or 21 that I was not one of the great players of our day,” he admits. “I knew I was quite competent but I was realistic about my ability — I got good gigs but I wanted to be a solo jazz performer.”
Interestingly, in recent times, he did form a quartet and did play out front and was happy to have done it for a while but radio James prevailed.
I asked if he thought he was a loner and he agreed. He likes to run by himself, do an ocean swim, ride a bike, write and play music and he thinks it’s what he needs after talking to so many individuals on a daily basis.
However, he’s a family man. Jo his psychologist wife and daughter Ruby and son Roy make up his household and he says he has loved his radio gig as it has meant he could take his kids to school and pick them up in the afternoons.
He concedes that he passed up opportunities in the media and in public speaking because he wanted to be an accessible dad but has no regrets about that, though this contrasts with his initial views on having children.
I asked him what his kids had taught him?
“I didn’t want them much. I did not have much of a paternal instinct, so thankfully they taught me that it was a good idea to have kids,” he admitted. “I loved them the moment they turned up really.”
He says Ruby taught him to be accepting of Justin Beiber, though he says he did play the “dick of a dad” for a couple of weeks, and asked “what is this noise?”
He believes his giving ground on “The Beiber” led to a better relationship with his daughter and helped change him.
And Roy, who James says is musical, has recently observed that stories about James when he was 30 or so didn’t sit comfortably with him.
“I often don’t like the old you,” Roy said to him. “When you describe yourself as a 30-year old you sound like a real dick!” His kids have clearly transformed the snobby jazz and classical guy that once was their dad.
“I hate that guy too,” said James.
So, where might this old, apparent, snobby way come from?
“I am a male, statewide, national version of my mother,” he told me. “My mother was a Ballarat broadcaster and a woman.” In 1948 as a 17-year old she got a job on Ballarat radio because she came from era of speaking competitions and elocution.
“My mother spoke extremely precisely, with a slightly, not English accent, but the kind of accent that pronounces the ‘h’ in w-h-at!”
She worked in local TV, wrote for the Ballarat Courier and James says the media was in his blood from an early age so his progression to radio after music was not all that surprising.
I asked what Nina, pronounced “N-eye –na”, thinks of his style of radio? “Oh I gabble.” Impersonating his mum he channels her with “You speak far too quickly!”
That aside, he admits being proud of his mother and ruefully admits her influence has been profound with age.
As he looks at himself he sometimes has to come clean and accept: “Well, I’ve just become Nina!”
My final question was “how do you want to be remembered?
“I don't think I am doing anything all that special such that I will be remembered” he laughingly replied. He compared his musical achievements with his radio legacy and said they were similar in that they have not reached all that great heights on his assessment.
He underestimates his ability and his contribution he makes to many individuals’ lives.
Maybe that might be a question for his program: “Do we fail to comprehend our importance to others?”
A perfect weekend
Read: I start by reading all of the newspapers, The New Yorker magazine, I will have a couple of novels on the go — one will be on crime while the other would be a literary kind of thing.
Eat: Lamb shanks or fish that I cook myself.
Sport: Once a year someone takes me to a Swans game and I kind of enjoy it but aside from that it would be a long run on the Saturday and a long swim on the Sunday.
Social activity: Lunch with the Switzers.
Getaway: Don’t do it enough but it would be something like “oh isn’t this beautiful, the Blue Mountains, we should do this all of the time.”
Indulgence: Just to get away — leaving on a Friday and coming back on Sunday night.
James Valentine presents the Afternoons program on 702ABC Sydney, and the weekly art show, The Mix on ABC News 24 and ABC TV.