WITHIN minutes of meeting Tanya Wilks for the first time, she was telling me to get on my bike.
It was May 1990. Wilks was the gorgeous, sparkly young radio chick from 2HD and I was the gangly, bespectacled young Topics nerd from the Newcastle Herald.
Together we had been roped into a publicity stunt for World No Tobacco Day – radio announcers, TV talking heads and newspaper reporters up on a stage in the centre court of Charlestown Square pedalling exercise bikes to raise awareness about health and fitness or something.
Now before you rush to judge grocery shoppers so hard-up for amusement in Newcastle in 1990 that they would gather around to watch media tarts riding exercise bikes, remember there was no Twitter in the olden days, no Facebook and certainly no Candy Crush on your iPhone. Photos in the newspaper were still printed in black and white, people!
Anyway, it quickly became clear exactly who among us pedalling and puffing media wannabes was the most effortlessly at ease in the spotlight – charming the pensioners, mingling with the toddler-wrangling mums, and wise-cracking as her heart rate and lung capacity became performance art for the National Heart Foundation.
And so it has been for Tanya Wilks for more than two decades as one half of Newcastle radio’s most successful breakfast show, and the longest-running on-air duo in the history of Australian radio.
David and Tanya – as Wilks and co-host David Collins are known to their loyal listeners – have been a broadcast couple and breakfast staple in the Hunter for more than 22 years.
But next Friday, a week after notching their 50th ratings survey at No. 1 in the wake-up timeslot, the duo will officially retire their Punch and Judy routine.
Collins and Wilks have been here before, of course. Back in 1999, not long after Bill Caralis took control of 2HD and NEW-FM, they pulled the plug on their ratings-winning AM breakfast show, farewelled listeners and vowed to pursue new ventures. They returned to the airwaves six months later on rival station KO-FM.
This time, they insist they’re splitting to help KO refresh and grow. While Collins is stepping away from breakfast to focus on expanding KO’s sports coverage, Wilks will return to the early shift in early 2014 with a new partner.
She admits to nerves about bedding in an on-air rapport with someone new.
“I don’t know who I’m going to be working with yet and I don’t know whether that chemistry’s going to be instantly there or whether we’re going to have to build it,” Wilks said this week. “But exploring that new relationship will be exciting and who knows what will come out of that.”
Collins, for his part, likes the thought of having more time to skipper KO’s sports content after more than six years working behind-the-scenes on the station’s footy coverage in addition to his breakfast role.
“We’re going to be increasing our sports commitment at the station big-time but I love sport, I watch enough of it, and talking about it is something I’ve always loved doing,” he said.
“It’s going to be really weird doing it with someone other than Tanya. I’m just so used to having her there with me on my journey.”
Wilks: “The thing I’m going to miss most about us is that it’s just so easy and familiar. He’s like my right slipper and I’m going to miss my right slipper and it’s going to feel odd and cold without it.”
COLLINS and Wilks started together on air as an untried double act at 2HD in May 1991.
English-born Collins had been recruited from Sydney that year to replace the legendary Pat Barton in breakfast. Wilks was already working at 2HD then, having joined the station straight out of high school in the mid-1980s.
At first Collins flew solo in the wake-up shift. Conscious that he wasn’t a local, he soon roped in the Raymond Terrace-born-and-raised Wilks.
They made No. 1 in breakfast in their first ratings survey together.
“We’ve been blessed from the very beginning with chemistry,” Collins reflected this week. “Not many people are afforded that luxury especially when you’re working. But we got lucky. We understood each other pretty quickly even though we were very different people. But being different made it an interesting combination on air.”
Adds Wilks: “The differences actually drove us crazy in the early stages. We didn’t immediately fall in love with each other, if you know what I mean.”
Collins: “But we knew which buttons to push with each other.”
The suggestion there may have been a romantic attraction in those formative days at 2HD brings howls of protest and a burst of the sort of verbal sparring that has long been their trademark.
Wilks: “Come on, David, you know you desired me in the early days.”
Collins: “As you did with me.”
Wilks: “Oh, please. James, do not quote him saying that! I can safely say I did not.”
Collins: “Of course, if I was going to make a move it would have to be between marriages. Like an athlete, you have to time your run!”
To survive as an on-air team for 22 years is a remarkable achievement in the ego-crushing blood sport that is commercial radio, let alone atop the ratings in the medium’s most fiercely contested timeslot.
There’s that punishing start time, the pressure to always sound cheerful and witty and smart and those fickle ratings surveys publicly charting your success and failure and, ultimately, your station’s profit margins.
After eight years unbeaten at 2HD, 14 hard-fought years at KO and a total of 77 ratings surveys contested as a duo, Collins and Wilks attribute their professional survival and success to an unusually close off-air friendship.
For a Herald article 10 years ago Wilks explained her relationship with the defiantly single Collins like this: ‘‘To me, he’s like a brother. David doesn’t have any family here. I don’t have any brothers or sisters. Close friends can be like family.’’
Collins, a groomsman at Wilks’s first wedding and godfather to her son Lorcan, said this week that their loyal listeners won’t be the only ones adjusting to a new morning routine in 2014.
“When you have basically woken up and gone to work every day with the same person for 22 years it’s going to be really strange for both of us,” he said.
Wilks: “Usually it starts with me walking in going, ‘Hello ugly’.”
Collins: “And I say ‘Hello sausage’.”
Wilks: “And then it begins. And that’s how it’s been since, well, forever.”
Both expect Friday morning’s farewell show at Wests New Lambton to be sad.
“I think the emotion might get the better of us,” Wilks said. “I didn’t think so, at first. But then I looked across the panel the other day and I saw this little Arsenal shirt and what was in it and I got a little teary.”
❏ Disclosure: Now news director of The Canberra Times, former Herald deputy editor James Joyce was a long-time contributor to the David and Tanya shows on 2HD and KO-FM.
Tanya Wilks confirmed on the record this week that when she first met the then cadet reporter in 1990 she thought he was “a bit cute”.