April 2023

The Nation Reviewed

Plains speaking

By Sophie Black
Illusatrtion by Jeff Fisher
How lockdowns and personal struggles led Jess McGuire to her new gig as a host of ABC Western Plains radio

Jess McGuire always takes the back roads. “No matter what the maps want to do, I never go on the freeways. The Hume will kill you from boredom. The Pacific Highway will kill you from other drivers. We have such a vast, changing landscape, and this way, I can see the shape of the country. You can see the bones of it.”

She’s just made a 16-hour round trip, fanging it to her mum, Ros, on the north coast of New South Wales for a dip in the sea together. Now she’s rolling back into Dubbo late Sunday in time to fall into bed ahead of her new job hosting breakfast radio for ABC Western Plains. She’s been on air for the public broadcaster for six weeks.

Regular listeners so far include John from Elong, Sooty from Coonamble and two Peters from Dubbo. McGuire has featured an expert on Murray Valley encephalitis, covered the mobile black-spot issue, interviewed the head of Yarn, Support, Connect (also known as the Coonabarabran Suicide Prevention Network), grilled the deputy premier of NSW and chatted to the local member for Dubbo, Dugald Saunders (who also happens to be a former host of her show). This week she’s interviewing the chief executive of the Dubbo Local Aboriginal Land Council about a forum it’s holding to encourage Indigenous electoral enrolment ahead of the voice referendum. Oh, and the mayor has invited her mountain biking.

McGuire moved from Brunswick, in inner Melbourne, in January. When she told some friends about her plan she was met with a mix of admiration and barely disguised horror. “There’s a lot of people back home that talk to me like, ‘Oh Jess, do they give you a little cup of Nescafé?’” She tells them she actually met an array of baristas from all around the world at Dubbo’s local Coffee Tasting Club, one of a list of community groups she’s joined, such as the Dragon Boat Club and the Ultimate Frisbee Club, for a fortnightly segment that riffs on being the new kid in town. She’s also kicked off a regular visit to the famed Taronga Western Plains Zoo for a segment featuring a new animal each fortnight. “Funnily enough, the zookeeper took me on the boat to see the primates, and she’s like, ‘I remember you from ultimate frisbee.’”

A year ago, McGuire was working as a furniture removalist. She was nine years out from having left a broadcast role as a hallowed “Breakfaster” at the Melbourne institution that is community radio station 3RRR. Since then, she’d mixed wedding DJing, writing stints, pub trivia hosting, and regular guest spots on ABC Melbourne, and worked through the pandemic as an essential services worker for a moving company. “A job like that is… uncomplicated. You’re just the person lifting the fridge. Just go work up a sweat, go carry something heavy.”

McGuire was acutely aware of how casual that work was, and that she was one injury away from being broke. “I was a 41-year-old woman working as a lady removalist – and don’t get me wrong, that’s amazing – but everything felt precarious. Career-wise, I felt so stagnant and so sad about it. I didn’t know how to get out of it. And then, of course, the universe did what the universe does – it said, I’ll give you something to really cry about.”

The moment she saw Ros waiting for her at the airport last May, she knew something was deeply wrong. For starters, her mum was yellow. She drove her straight to the hospital. “I don’t know how, but I knew in my bones that it was pancreatic cancer.”

A weekend visit turned into five months. Ros eventually qualified for an operation called the Whipple procedure, which classifies as complex surgery. McGuire saw people on her mum’s ward struggling with recovery from the operation who were in their mid twenties. Ros is 74.

As McGuire drove away from the hospital after her mum went into surgery – saying a proper goodbye just in case – a truck ran a red light and missed her car by two inches. “I laughed. Imagine if I had died just after dropping mum off – it was so ridiculous. None of us know when we’re going, babe. Live life hard. Live it now. Don’t put it off.

McGuire had returned home with her mum healing miraculously well from the surgery, when a LinkedIn alert pinged in her inbox. It was an ad for a regional ABC radio host job. “I just thought, you’ve got to try again. I felt like there was nothing left for me, like literally nothing to lose… The week before, my dog had died.” Her voice cracks, as she pauses to compose herself. “I’m sorry, I’m okay, it’s just that I can’t say the fucking words.”

Rufus was her constant companion for 15 years. He was beside her the first time she drove the roads of the Western Plains back in 2020. As another lockdown in Melbourne loomed, she decided to hire a van to visit her mum, and had hit Sydney when she learnt the borders had shut. She figured it was a good opportunity to finally stay overnight in the place that she’d driven past years earlier – the Warrumbungles. The stars shine in this official dark-sky area like a projected background to the massive volcanic stone cliff faces that rise from the surrounding desert plains. McGuire had always dreamt of going back. “I’ve never experienced a place like that before – there was this physical pull.” She and Rufus stayed an entire week. “I was never lonely. We were just so happy.”

Everyone in Melbourne told McGuire not to come home, this lockdown was set to last. She’d never really been inland. So, with a van and a dog and nothing but time, she decided to hit the highways. “I went everywhere and inadvertently in that process explored my entire future broadcaster patch.”

The broadcast area of ABC Western Plains is roughly the size of Belgium. In 2020, McGuire and Rufus covered most of it. From the Warrumbungles, they drove through Bourke, stayed on a farm out past Louth, then to Milparinka, headed back through Broken Hill, Wilcannia and Cobar, drove up via Dubbo to Lightning Ridge. She arrived there late at night and jumped straight into the bore bath in her underwear. “I didn’t know that western NSW had so many of these beautiful natural hot springs due to the Great Artesian Basin. What’s the Great Artesian Basin, if you’re from the city? Oh yeah, that’s how all the farms get water! And it’s this miracle that I hadn’t ever appreciated in my own country before.”

They visited Gulargambone and Gilgandra, Warren, Nyngan. She held her breath along the stretch of highway through the Pilliga that runs from Narrabri to Coonabarabran, only to find out later about the theory it’s haunted. She made it to Brewarrina to see the ancient fish traps, “this absolute marvel of engineering”. She clocked the placename Come By Chance on a map and drove four hours “just to see what a town called Come By Chance would look like”.

Now in love with the region, and her new job, McGuire feels like she’s at the frontline for many of the issues that the country will face in the coming years. “The world of agriculture and the natural world out here is really going to be the litmus test when it comes to stuff like climate change. And it’s kind of the origin story of a lot of stuff that affects the entire nation.

“Last year was a very difficult year of loss and a fear of loss. But I took something hopeful from it – there’s no time to wait to live. And that’s informed every decision I’ve made since then. And now – I didn’t think there was a job like this for me, and I love it. I’m so thrilled and I’m so shocked that things can turn around so quickly.”

Sophie Black

Sophie Black is a journalist, writer and editor. She previously worked as head of publishing at The Wheeler Centre, editor-in-chief at Private Media and editor of Crikey.

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