In a week of watershed moments, with a new government elected, and a new leadership team for the opposition, another great turning point has occurred. The nation’s most iconic broadcaster, John Laws, has switched off his golden microphone. This is not just the end of a career, or the end of an era in the media, but the end of an era in the lives of millions of ordinary Australians who have listened to Laws over his 55 years on air.
In a way that no other broadcaster has been able to match, John Laws has been embraced as a part of people’s existence. There are those who love him, those who loathe him, those who are envious, and those who have done their best to belittle him. But it has been impossible to ignore him. Such words as “icon” and legend” are frequently thrown about with sufficient casual disregard as to devalue their meaning. But John Laws has earned those accolades.
At every point in his career, John Laws has led the pack. It was John Laws who pioneered top 40 radio in the fifties. It was Laws who pioneered talk radio in the sixties. It was Laws who pioneered networked programming in the eighties and nineties. That’s not to say that he invented those formats or concepts, but he was the one who showed Australia how they could be done successfully. Even in the nineties, other attempts at networked programs failed because of a failure to understand the needs of audiences. And John Laws has always been the master of knowing who is his audience and giving them what they want.
Of course there was the controversy of his commercial arrangements, but speaking as one from inside the commercial radio industry I have to say that the whole thing was twisted out of proper perspective. From the day I began in radio at the age of 18, management has drummed into me and my colleagues the importance of looking after the sponsors. It is commercial radio, and the revenue comes from advertising. Only a fool doesn’t give his customers the best possible service. As radio announcers we have always been encouraged to go the extra mile to keep the advertisers happy. It protects and promotes the business base of the station, boosting the income of the management and the sales representatives.
For many announcers however there is no additional bonus other than the occasional free CD or concert ticket. John Laws’ only “crime” in that respect was to be astute enough to cut a deal where he too shared a “slice of the action”. I repeat, it is commercial radio, and where John Laws prospered from his sponsorships, so did the stations that broadcast his program. Others may see it differently, but John Laws never pretended to be anything other than a commercial presenter, although in truth he also delivered so much more in entertainment value, with a quick wit, a talent for incisive observation, and the ability to cut down anyone foolish enough to try to give him a tonguelashing.
Without exaggeration, it is the end of an era. And by inference it must also be the beginning of a new era… although just what that era will bring remains to be seen. But that’s a discussion for another day. Today belongs to John Laws, who I am sure would like us to remember his time on air by adhering to his daily advice to “be kind to each other”.
It’s the least we can do.