I finally got back to Sydney, twenty years after heading into country radio, to join 2GB as News chief.
I'd been hired by GM Ron Hurst who was rebuilding the station after an early unhappy trial of a music/news mixed format. Sadly, as I walked in the front door, Ron virtually walked out the back, replaced by Fairfax heavy Max Suich. It was a bit of a blow for me as I had a sort of understanding with Ron that he'd take a close look at a news/information peak-hour format. But I have to say that even though GB had a close relationship with the owner, Fairfax, it had none of the shared information I'd found at 3DB in Melbourne. Still, there was a great history there and I was moderately hopeful.
I remember Carol Miller, I think was PD, Roger Summerill was Assistant Manager and Bob Milne was the Chief Engineer. In the newsroom we had Tony Townshend, Mike Baker, Russell Powell, Shane Sody, Patrick Weaver, Terry Mabb, Jason Wayne, Barry Freedman and others, including our wonderful secretary Gaynor Mitchell. The bad news immediately was that Tony had already contracted to return to London radio, a development which hit us hard. I immediately went on the attack, trying to end the staid old-style Macquarie presentation. One of my pet hates was the dreaded voicer
Basically, back in the 70s - and probably even today - the voicer
was the basic extra input in most news bulletins. Let's say something happened in the far north of West Australia. A Sydney station would immediately ring its affiliate in Perth and ask the duty journo to voice the agency copy. Now the journo would often have no additional information on the story - he wouldn't even be within a thousand kilometers of the event - but he'd read the agency copy word for word and his report would be carried across the nation as if it were gospel. Cross your fingers that the agency copy was right because if it got it wrong then the reader also got it wrong. This process was repeated right across the radio universe. If something happened in New Orleans then the station's reporter in New York or Los Angeles did a voicer
. Again he/she probably knew no more than the journo in Sydney. They were both almost certainly working from the same agency copy.
I hated the voicer
. The reader was virtually pretending that he was there, that he had some special knowledge about the event. It was, and is, pathetic and unethical.
So we cut our voicer
input at 2GB and lifted our real actuality
level dramatically. Suddenly the voice was gone, replaced by an eyewitness, a reporter actually on the scene, or somebody who had some special interest/knowledge in the event.
This had an immediate impact on our sound, lifting our energy level and de-boring the old GB presentation. However, I'd forgotten one little thing. Our affiliates on the network were also forced to change. Instead of receiving 10 voicers
in their morning feed they were getting 2 voicers
and 8 pieces of genuine actuality. Oh God, they hated it.
Whereas in the past, they could stick a cadet in the booth and he'd be able to write a dozen voicer
"10 people have died in a tornado in Alabama. Bill Smith reports..."
"There's been a light plane crash in northern Queensland. Allan Roberts..." And so on and so on.
It was zombie radio. Now, all of a sudden, the journo at the other end had to actually WRITE A STORY and marry in our actuality.
When Australia's David Graham won the 1979 US PGA title - one of the golfing majors - they didn't get an intro and a voicer
. They got 6 pieces of great actuality from David who spoke to us when Terry Mabb tracked him down to the locker room.
But our affiliates were beside themselves. We had a network finance meeting one day and I thought the News Director from a very large city south of Sydney was going to have a heart attack. Mike Baker was with me and he couldn't believe the anger and jealousy. I think he immediately decided he'd never contemplate becoming a News Director. In fact it might have even driven poor Mike out of the industry.
But despite the hassles from beyond, back at ol' 2GB the product wasn't half bad. We tended to crack a lot of stories and I have to say the staff were extremely loyal and hard working in pursuing the Avis principle of "chase the actuality".
Two things about the place: There was a bad feeling right across the station and I think I need to address that phenomenon. We were now being run virtually by newspaper execs and I have to do a bit of background on the immense difference between the two types of media. Newspapers - from my experience - seem to be run on fear and hatred. The paper is divided into several areas, represented often by different unions. These areas hate each other. They don't trust the others. And nearly everybody hates the owners and the administrators. Often the administrations also hate each other. So these are usually large, bureaucratic-style operations with massive divisions between the various departments. Somehow they come together at the end of the day, or night, and put out a great product. I don't know how this happens. In the words of Geoffrey Rush in Shakespeare in Love
, "It's a miracle." You can't run a radio station like that. The whole basis of a radio operation is unity. Everyone has to be going in the same direction and have the same general inspiration. It's a bit like war. You can't win if you have to fight the allies as well as the enemy. I remember saying to Max once that you could feel the fear running down the 2GB corridors and he responded, "Good, a little fear might be just what we need." You can't blame him for that. He was educated in that sort of journalistic environment, an operation where you often had to fight the person alongside you to get a result. But it just doesn't work in radio.
The other issue being fought out was our programme philosophy for 1980. Where was 2GB heading? After one disastrous decision the management couldn't afford another. I was trying to get some interest in a news-information-talk concept which would see us trial my news-info policy from 6-9 AM, Noon to 2 PM and 4 to 6 PM. I'd titled it "THIS IS..." (Based on our intro):
Eg, "THIS IS (slight pause) MONDAY DECEMBER THE 12th..."
"THIS IS... WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 22..."
I'd tested the audio impact of a snare-drum as our basic news thematic. I'm sure you've seen and heard the drum, usually carried on the side of the drummer as he leads his battalion into battle. It has a special, hollow, attention-grabbing sound. You can't escape it.
Anyway the plan was to hit the drum FX, go to a high, and then do the announcement:
"2GB SYDNEY" (drum up) "THIS IS Monday January 23rd..."
There were about a dozen drum variations available through the news hour. This was the sound we would have used to reinforce the audience's connection to 2GB NEWS-INFORMATION. But it never happened and to be fair it was a difficult concept to sell, especially to someone not versed in the idiosyncrasies of radio. In the end it became obvious the powers that be intended to go for a tried and tested personality format with Mike Gibson and Mike Carlton taking the prime Breakfast-Morning time slots. I guess, from that moment, my passion dropped away.
I continued to have good support from within the newsroom as well as from such diverse people as Johnny Tapp, the racing supremo, and Ron Camplin who was picking up the 2GB service on his network.
Then there was the really good news that Tony Townshend's London gig didn't turn out to be all that was promised, which meant he was coming back to rejoin us in the new year. I would certainly have held on until then in normal circumstances but two ridiculous incidents finally cost me big time.
It's strange how it's often the stupid little things that bring us undone.
One of our journos accidentally ran over time while sending out our midday news feed, cutting into the intro of the racing preview which was carried across Australia. All hell broke loose and they were firing cannon up and down the 2GB aisles, mainly in my direction. Anyway we thought we'd solved the problem when some four weeks later another member of staff repeated the dose, sending the news feed out to the network at the same time as the racing experts were trying to pick a few winners for the punters. The following afternoon I was dismissed. And really I couldn't blame Management. In this business you only get one warning and the newsroom had already had one. Something dramatic had to be seen to be done and it turned out to be my head. As the President said, "The buck stops here."
I had a quick conference with Roger Summerill and I was cut free.
By a strange coincidence I'd been following the progress of the FM'ers who were preparing to go to air later on in 1980, one being Rod Muir's 2MMM-FM. I rang a mutual friend Brian Newington, who was helping get the Triples to air, and he kindly mentioned my name to Rod Muir, who I'd worked with so many years earlier at 7HO, Hobart.
We had a meeting and shortly afterwards I was on staff - unpaid during the work up period - preparing the newsroom for a launch in a few months. It was really nice of Brian to act as mediator. I'd worked with him at 3XY where he produced the Graham Kennedy radio show from Frankston. Earlier, of course, he'd been a legend at 3UZ when I think it must have been Don Lunn who christened him "Moondoggy". I still owe him one. He helped keep me in employment in the toughest radio market in the country.
2MMM was an amazing adventure - not all of it good - and I'll tell you about that particular part of my career when we next meet at this site.
I promise my next episode will come a lot faster than this one.
As Johnny Young would say, "Be there, or be square."
Have a great Xmas and a really good 2009.