A senior Minister in the NSW government of John Fahey once told me that there was a vacant metaphorical chair at Cabinet meetings. It may have been unoccupied but everyone understood that it was assigned to Alan Jones of Radio 2GBH, Sydney. Talkback radio was ever present during deliberations. Now, John Brennan, the man who pioneered talkback radio in Australia, imported from the US, has told the tale. Brenno: The Life and Times of a Media Godfather, is far more than the autobiography of one seminal player. It is a lively biography of Australian entertainment for the last half century.
A disclaimer is necessary here, for the Loosley family has holidayed with the Brennans over recent decades at Shoal Bay in NSW, with great dinner conversations.
Brenno’s best tale was of a time when the management at one radio station found that their star broadcaster was living over the weekend with a schoolgirl from an exclusive boarding school in the station’s basement. Brenno was asked to quietly resolve the issue, which diplomatically he did. It’s a pity that this never made it into the book.
But there is much in this book that is revealing about Australian entertainment culture and the significance of radio in entertainment, sport and politics.
On a visit to a school, the charismatic rock ‘n’ roller, Johnny O’Keefe, the ‘Wild One’ himself, was asked how to be successful in the music business. ‘Well’, replied JOK, ‘there is a fellow at 2SM named John Brennan. If you give him your record and he plays it and likes it, then you’ll have a hit. That’s the key to success’.
John Brennan was that influential in Australian radio. And his credibility and authority endured for over half a century. Not that you’d know it by talking with Brenno.
Mike Carlton says in the book that courtesy comes to mind whenever he thinks of John Brennan. Humility also is associated with Brenno in a great deal of what he does. A radio announcer with a stutter, whose stutter disappeared when the microphone was turned on, Brennan rose through radio to become a first class producer and then programmer. Over sixty years, his contribution to the popular media has been remarkable, as has his support for a diverse range of people in their careers, from Mike Walsh and Alan Jones through to Mike Gibson or Stan Zemanek to Prue MacSween. All have benefitted from Brenno’s advice and encouragement.
How many other radio executives would set their alarm for midnight so as to listen to the midnight to dawn shift, as did Brenno, on whatever radio station he was programming? That’s dedication and extraordinary loyalty to his craft and his colleagues.
Along with family and radio, Brenno’s great passion as it emerges in his book is Rugby League, especially his beloved Balmain Tigers. Brenno is utterly in his element when he tours with outstanding Kangaroo sides. And Alan Jones becomes part of his life through Jones’s commentaries as coach of the 1984 Wallabies, who were unbeaten. The storied Amco Cup sees Brenno as a successful television caller. Then Kerry Packer buys 2UE. Brenno’s meeting with Packer is a modern classic of feudalism in entertainment media: ‘Sit their son,’ he said,… I launched into a positive response but he interrupted, ‘And I never want to hear you on air ever again.’ ‘Do you mind me asking why? I said. He came booming back, ‘Because I don’t f—— like you on air!’
As to talkback radio, the author himself puts it eloquently and well: ‘Talk usually stems from rage, frustration, pain, pride exhilaration, and amusement – in fact, anything emotive or entertaining.’ At home, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones tour Australia. However, Brenno regularly toured the US, adapting American radio trends from Top 40 to talk for Australian audiences. Success attended many of his programming innovations.
But Brenno: The Life and Times of a Media Godfather does not avoid the low points either. Whether it be his personal health or disappointments, it’s there in plain view. But perhaps the greatest difficulty Brenno records is his appearance before an Australian Broadcasting Authority enquiry into ‘cash for comment’. Brenno never received a dollar but he took the fall for others who should have known better or who should have intervened. Brenno thought it was the end of his career. The Counsel assisting Julian Burnside QC put things properly in perspective: ‘Mr Brennan had had an unblemished and distinguished career in Australian radio, and I hope this would not blemish it either.’
Most of the characters from Australian entertainment in the book are larger than life and superlatives are common. A few are lower than life, but Brenno remains unfailingly generous. There are some marvellous moments such as Brenno’s inadvertent contribution to Al Martino’s divorce. That’s worth the price of the book alone.
Brenno writes at an impressive pace: recalling the years at a speed resembling a Wurlitzer Juke Box dispensing 45rpms in a roadside truck stop outside Wagga Wagga, where the author cut his teeth in both radio and Rugby League and met wife, Jenny.
Star characters abound. My favourite, in mock Confederate army uniform with accompanying sword and eccentricities, was Ward ‘Pally’ Austin.
Abundant, too, are star egos. They range from the modest and manageable to the mutating and monstrous.
Brenno’s job was to comfort and console battered egos, bruised by critics and ratings. Then he had to convince his personalities ‘of their greatness’ and put them back on air. Fragile emotionally are many of those who divert us on the airwaves every day through to the small hours of the morning.
Brenno claims that talkback radio has won elections: ‘Politicians such as John Howard, recognised the massive role that talkback radio played in shaping the results of elections in recent years – more so than any other part of the media.’ There is no doubt that talkback radio has impact. Whether or not it shifts enough votes to change elections, however, is a moot point. Generally, it is a case of the committed talking to the converted. Nonetheless, talk radio is a political reality and the best of the political class – on both sides – know they have to master its intricacies and absurdities. Remember: Paul Keating, John Laws and the Reserve Bank briefings.
What is not moot is that as a judge of whatever entertained Australians, John Brennan is arguably without peer.
The empty chair in the Cabinet room proves that.