EVEN for people who only know very little about football, the name Billy Baxter rings of luminary fame, like the pseudonym or alliterative moniker of a screen star or wanna-be pop star.
For those who don’t know, that name is attached to one of Australia’s most ‘under-the-radar’ and down-to-earth superstars of the entertainment sector, who says he was “shocked”, “humbled” and “grateful” for the recent honour of an Order of Australia Medal.
The award is not just for Baxter’s 42 years of non-stop involvement in the music industry as performer and broadcaster, but also as author and actor, and for his part as a team player in that loveable, long-running, radio footy program The Coodabeen Champions, alongside Jeff Richardson, Ian Cover, Jeff “Torch” McGee, Simon Whelan, Andy Bellairs and Greg Champion, all of who made the Queen’s Birthday OAM list for 2022.
Baxter was initially so surprised about his Order of Australia Medal for services to the performing arts and to radio, he figured it must be “a prank”.
“It was almost like something we could have pranked on the Coodabeens, so I just wasn’t sure at first when I received the letter, then I realised it was genuine and I was quite humbled,” he said.
Of course, the ever-modest Baxter has accepted the compliment with genuine pride, as he does when I tell him the ‘Coodabeens’ have legendary status in my world, and the worlds of hundreds of thousands of listeners who have grown up with them.
At 63 and now living in Mornington, Baxter says it delights him that the Coodabeens have at least three generations of audience, even after moving from their long-time home of the ABC to their new “but basically the same” gig at ACE Radio’s 3MP. Baxter says the move gives the AFL radio show a wider reach in regional Victoria, while still keeping the loyal Coodabeen fans listening and laughing.
“We have little kids who listen because their dad or mum listens, and they listen because their mum or dad listened, so there are generations of families who know the Coodabeens and have welcomed us into their homes,” he said.
“That’s pretty special.”
Baxter’s links to broadcasting spans four decades. As part of The Coodabeen Champions – he has been on air since 1981 when the show kicked off on community station 3RRR before moving to the ABC for the next 27 years. Baxter has also co-presented on 774 ABC, ABC Victoria and Tasmania (1988-1995), co-presented on 3AW (1995-2003), and was a founding presenter of 102.7 3RRR (1981-1988).
In 2003, he was inducted into the MCG Hall of Fame, which cemented his position among Australia’s football ‘royalty’.
But long before he gained fame from a footy show that is like no other, Baxter had earned his performance badge as a musician.
Baxter’s name was best known in the 80s and 90s, which were the halcyon eras of live music and international recognition of Australian rock ‘n roll. He has been lead vocalist of Ghetto Blasters, Big Fans of Jesus, the Hollow Men, and also worked as a solo artist in the early 90s.
If you watch it closely, you might even notice Baxter as the part of the rock group The Cicadas, in the cult comedy Spotswood, in 1991.
Baxter has also penned a few books, including Half a Chicken and Chips (2021), Coodabeen Champions: 40 Footy Seasons (2020), The Coodabeen Champions Take a Good Hard Look at Australia (1992), The Coodabeen Champions Big Book of Things (1992) and The Coodabeen Champions Big Bumper Footy Book (1990)
Despite his personal successes and accolades, Baxter is proudest of the mentorship and encouragement he and his fellow musicians have provided for younger musicians coming up through the ranks, particularly in the latter part of the 80s and 90s when every second teenager had a garage band and many morphed into headline acts.
Although his participation in the music industry today involves listening more than playing, he fulfils that mentoring passion these days by jamming with his 17-year-old son Gulliver.
“Sometime we just sit in the bungalow and play guitar, and it’s great, I love it,” he said.
“At 17 I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, but now I look back and am proud of having been part of the Australian music scene since the 80s, and I love seeing young artists have a go.
“But receiving an OAM for something I love was the furthest thing from my mind.”