FUNERAL DETAILS: 10am Thursday 16 January at Bourke Christian Church.
Steve Ahern remembers May Watkins, who passed away this week.
I first met May Watkins in the 1980s when I moved to Bourke to work at 2WEB.
As the youngest staff member and the newest recruit I was rostered to work on Christmas day.
As I played the music and wondered if anyone was listening, May bustled into the station with a slice of cake and a special breakfast for me so I wouldn’t be alone on Christmas morning.
Variously known as ‘Mother May’ or ‘Aunty May’ to everyone who ever passed through the doors of 2WEB, May was a fixture at the station almost since its inception over 40 years ago, first in its original offices, a former cleaner’s storage cupboard at Bourke High School, then later at the station’s purpose built premises on Oxley Street.
May’s life was not so easy, but she faced every hurdle with courage and faith. She grew up in Lismore and spent her early years in Blackall Queensland, then moved to Byrock in 1963 and shortly after moved to Bourke, where she raised her family of four kids. As her kids grew up she soon found a second family at the radio station.
Like so many people in community radio, she was bitten with the radio bug and just had to be involved. At first she thought she would never be able to go on air, but she still wanted to be involved in something that was at the heart of the community, the local radio station. She swept the floors, cleaned the toilets and staffed the reception desk, doing whatever was asked of her.
She also adopted every single person who came through that door to work or volunteer at the station. She cooked, cleaned and ironed for all the young staff who came and went over the years. May embodied the spirit of community radio, her heart was as big as the station’s massive coverage area from the AM transmitter situated on the Bourke/Brewarrina Road.
Like at most community stations, her big moment came when there was no one else there and she had to get a program to air. With shaking fingers she flicked the switches, spooled the tape and played the records, but at first did not dare to speak. When she became proficient at the mixer desk she would panel the networked John Laws show or record programs for later broadcast by someone else.
Finally May got up the courage to speak on the radio. Her favourite shows were the ones where she could play country music or music from the 50s and 60s, but she would do any shift and play any type of music she was asked to present (although she did manage to slip in some of her own favourite songs to every shift).
May’s on-air profile increased her standing in the community and made her voice instantly recognisable in every shop along the main street of Bourke. Like so many people who volunteer for community radio, the station gave her so much… but she gave it much more. She welcomed every new young staff member and made them feel at home, even though they may have been hundreds of kilometres from their own homes. She taught them local knowledge and the ever tongue-twisting pronunciations of local town names in the listening area. Eventually she joined the station’s board of directors, making a contribution at every level.
Long after most people stopped sending physical Christmas cards, she still posted out her annual Christmas blessing to all of us on her mailing list. I have a card from her sitting on the piano next to my Christmas tree now.
In recent years she presented a regular weekend country music show, with a loyal following of listeners waiting for their cheerio calls every week.
As it says on the 2WEB website: “May is a Bourke icon and an example of what makes Outback Radio such a special place.” So true.
May passed away in Dubbo Hospital after a short illness on New Years Day, 1 January 2020.
Hundred of tributes have been posted on the 2WEB facebook page and expressed on the airwaves.
A funeral service will be held in Bourke at 10am Thursday 16 January at Bourke Christian Church.
RIP May Watkins, a community radio icon.