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Rider of the airwaves

A voluntary role can be priceless – just ask radio DJ Stephen Kucharik.

It kicks off with Midnight Oil scorching across the airwaves with 1987 protest song Beds Are Burning and Stephen Kucharik’s warm tones welcoming listeners to his Saturday radio show.  

Presenting the two hours of Retro Tunes is a highlight of Stephen’s week, and his voice buzzes with energy. He has the disc jockey (DJ) schtick down pat; the only clue to his individuality is that his speech is slightly slower and more controlled than the slick gabble of many commercial DJs. 

What listeners to Western Sydney community radio station SWR 99.9 can’t see is that Stephen has nerve damage from spina bifida, which affects approximately one in 500 babies born in Australia. 

“Some listeners have met me and know, and some might realise because of my speech, but I don’t want to be known as the presenter with spina bifida,” says Stephen. “I don’t want to use it as an excuse.” 

Stephen certainly doesn’t need any excuses. He is described by colleagues as organised and diligent, and he is on the board that runs the community radio station. 

This keeps him busy in a range of areas. “We deal with funding, members, keeping on top of issues and the general day-to-day running of the station,” says Stephen. “It gets pretty busy, but it’s teaching me new skills and giving me experience as well.”

Stephen looked to local radio after moving to Sydney from the Blue Mountains. “It was hard getting to know people to start with, and I wanted to get more involved in the community. 

I wanted to find an organisation that would use my skills and give me a chance, give me a go.”

He’s always had an interest in radio — “I liked listening to different presenters and always wondered what it would be like” — but was knocked back by a couple of stations before approaching SWR 99.9. 

“I went to the SWR interview dressed in a shirt and tie because I wanted it that much,” he says with a chuckle. 

Announcers at SWR 99.9 are volunteers. “I do it to get out in the community and help out where I can,” says Stephen. “I don’t like being at home and feeling sorry for myself. Plus, it’s a great station, although I’m probably biased. 

“The people are all really helpful and friendly and supportive; some of my best friends are there. I went through a rough stage about six years ago and they were really supportive – I can’t speak highly enough of them.” 

Stephen admits going on air for the first time, about 10 years ago, was “really scary”.  “It’s hard not knowing what to say and being able to speak for the required amount of time. I still have problems with ums and errs and filler words. It’s a skill and it gets better with practice.”

To improve his confidence, he joined public speaking and leadership group Toastmasters, and is president of his local club. He also loves sport — mostly rugby league — and going to watch his beloved Penrith Panthers. 

Supporting Stephen’s independence are the Australian Unity care workers who visit him twice a day to help with showering, dressing, meal prep and cleaning. “Once a fortnight they take me out, if I want, for shopping or appointments or to the radio station. Otherwise I get there by bus, which takes longer.” 

Over the years, he’s filled in on other radio shows, but laughs at the mixed outcomes: “I made the mistake of saying my uncle by marriage was Italian, so I was asked to fill in on an Italian show … it was just too hard. I also co-hosted a heavy metal show and I’m not into heavy metal at all, so that didn’t really work out.” 

The retro show fits Stephen’s own pop and rock taste well and he’s able to fill it with a lot of his favourites, such as Jimmy Barnes, Noiseworks, Australian Crawl and James Reyne. 

What you’ll never hear him talk about is spina bifida. “I know I can’t do certain things but I don’t want it to be an issue as much as it can be. I don’t want it to define me.” 

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