1905-1985 | Victoria | Broadcaster
Banks was a former used car salesman and onion grower who became a giant of Melbourne radio and a pioneer of football broadcasts and talkback. He worked from morning to night for more than half a century, first at 3KZ and then for many years at 3AW, producing and presenting shows ranging from celebrity interviews to quiz shows, music programs and commentary on domestic and international affairs.
In 1938 he founded Carols by Candlelight, which became an international institution. In the mid-1960s, he was attracting one quarter of Melbourne's morning and early afternoon radio audience. His conservative views were often controversial, particularly his support for apartheid.
Norman Tyrell Banks was born on October 12, 1905, in Sandringham, Victoria, the fifth child of Charles Cecil Banks and wife Alice Mary Banks.
After graduating from high school, he attended St Aidan’s Theological College in Ballarat with the intention of becoming an Anglican priest. He ultimately abandoned the religious life, however, leaving his training unfinished at age 24.
He worked briefly as a used car salesman, then as a field labourer for Colac farmer Joseph Gilmore. In 1930, he married Gilmore’s daughter, Lorna May, with whom he eventually had four children – John, Beverley, Felicity and Rodney. Now with a wife to support, Banks was desperate for a job, and at his mother’s advice he turned to the emerging medium of radio, which appealed to his interest in public speaking and creative arts.
3KZ had recently begun broadcasting from Trades Hall in Melbourne, and Banks set about pestering management until they offered him a job as an announcer. He started work on July 4, 1931, on a wage of four pounds a week; within a month that had doubled to eight pounds a week, so immediate was his success. At a time when artificial BBC accents were the norm on Australian commercial radio, Banks was “the man with the smile in his voice”, and he quickly won listeners over with his natural and intimate conversational style.
Over the next 20 years, Banks was a leading voice in Melbourne radio, as prolific as he was versatile. He initiated a range of popular programs, from interview segments to quizzes, comedies and variety shows. He hosted outside broadcasts of sporting events, called VFL matches, described society weddings, gave commentary on current events, presented beauty pageants and recorded voiceovers.
Bruce Mansfield recalls, “In any one given week here was a man who would call the football, conduct a classical program called the Myer Musicale, and do Voice of the Voyager from the deck of the SS Orsova with Mario Lanza sailing into Princes Pier, Port Melbourne. It was all on wire, before any reel-to-reel tape recording. Then he’d do an interview with the Prime Minister, and finally an editorial piece. He was quite remarkable.” By 1938, Banks was Victoria’s highest-paid broadcaster.
As one of 3KZ’s original VFL callers, Banks was a pioneer of football broadcasts. He called his first match in 1931, perched on a ladder and craning his neck to watch the gameplay through the tiny window of an old dressing room. The VFL had not yet embraced radio, and, fearing that match broadcasts might negatively impact on attendance, they banned commercial announcers from the grounds. Banks was forced to get creative. At Lakeside Oval, he called matches from a tower set up outside the grounds; at Princes Park, he resorted to broadcasting from a plank protruding from the window of the ladies’ toilet, until the VFL relented to the rising tide and welcomed radio in. His broadcasts developed a reputation for both their accuracy and their vivid descriptions, as he sought to bring the game alive for the listeners at home.
Banks maintained a strong interest in charity throughout his radio career. He hosted an annual Christmas Day appeal for the Austin Hospital, and through his Help Thy Neighbour program he helped to place more than two thousand unemployed listeners in paying jobs. In 1938, inspired by the sight of an old woman listening to carols alone by the light of a candle, he organised a live performance of Christmas carols in the Alexandra Gardens, with proceeds from the sale of programmes and candlesticks going to the Austin Hospital. Carols by Candlelight quickly became a Melbourne institution and the tradition has since spread worldwide.
For all his successes, Banks was not without his critics. His habit of engaging in suggestive banter and double entendres drew complaints of vulgarity, and his Husbands and Wives program – a confessional-style show in which callers dished the dirt on their spouses – shocked older listeners with its risqué content. It was, fumed one critic, “a disgrace to Victorian radio in general and 3KZ in particular”. Banks himself later described Husbands and Wives as the “dirtiest” show on the air at the time, and wondered why the station had let it go on for so long.
Banks’ punishing work habits were taking their toll; he was now working 75 to 80 hours a week, straining both his marriage and his health. Although he made efforts to dial back his hours and reconcile with his wife, his radio career continued to encroach on his family life.The result was continuing marital strife, from which he sought to escape by burying himself in his work.
In 1952, Banks moved to 3AW where he continued to score ratings successes with an array of quizzes, comedy shows, musical programs, outside broadcasts and sporting commentaries. He embraced the talkback format, and regularly squared off against Ormsby Wilkins and Claudia Wright on topical issues. In 1956, he was appointed editor-in-chief of 3AW’s world news coverage, granting him authority over the entire news division.
However, Banks was increasingly dividing listeners with his politics. The one-time Labor voter had, over the decades, evolved into a staunch conservative with very definite views about what he considered to be an amoral and overly permissive society, and he had emerged from the war years a firm British Imperial loyalist. Decolonisation disturbed him, and after a tour of South Africa in 1957 he grew increasingly suspicious of African nationalism, which he found reminiscent of communism. By the early 1960s, he had become a vocal defender of White Australia and apartheid, drawing accusations of racism.
To his growing number of critics, Banks was overbearing, sanctimonious, prejudiced and out-of-step with the times. Yet to many still he remained a much-loved figure, a voice of integrity who shared their views on the world, and the listeners continued to tune into him in droves.
When it came to ratings, Banks was untouchable: in 1965, 3AW was drawing a full quarter of Melbourne’s morning and early afternoon radio audience, and as late as 1970 he was drawing more than 300,000 listeners in any one week.
By this time, however, Banks’ health was beginning to fail. Two work accidents during the 1960s had damaged his sight, and as his vision deteriorated he found it increasingly difficult to keep up with the demands of the job. He came to rely on radio rather than print to keep abreast of current events, and found himself fudging football commentaries when he was unable to clearly see the field.
Eventually, in 1978, Banks’ health forced him into retirement. Signing off for the last time in his 47-year career, he gave his thanks to “the humble people, the little people … for your trust, loyalty and support”.
He died on September 15, 1985, just shy of his eightieth birthday, survived by his wife and four children.
Banks was a complicated and at times contradictory man who inspired devotion and admiration in many, and intense dislike in many others. 3AW’s current Promotions and Marketing manager David Mann, who worked for Banks from the age of 17, remembers him reverentially as a man both commanding and deserving of respect, “a man of utmost integrity, trust and compassion [who] was happy to give good advice to those who asked for it”.
Others are quicker to acknowledge his flaws: Bruce Mansfield, while praising Banks as a talented broadcaster and a “delightful man off radio”, also remembers his “pomposity” in arbitrarily changing the names of other 3KZ personalities. 3AW Breakfast presenter Ross Stevenson recalls, “A woman rang up one day and told him, ‘Oh, Mr Banks, things are terrible in my life. My husband’s left me, my dog’s died – I’m gunna kill myself!’ And Norman said, ‘No, madam! No you’re not! You are going to kill yourself.’”
Reflecting on the contradictions of Banks’ personality, R. R. Walker writes, “He [was] a complex man, restless, agile in argument, single-minded and unforgiving; by turn, full of humour, hubris and pet hates, sudden compassionate indulgences, and extraordinary generosities.”
Love him or loathe him, it is impossible to deny Norman Banks’ lasting influence on Melbourne radio. A pioneer of football broadcasting and a master of talkback, he commanded a vast and loyal listenership throughout his 47 years at 3KZ and 3AW.
In 1953, he was made an MBE for his services to broadcasting. After his death, the AFL recognised his contribution to the sport by inducting him into its Hall of Fame in the media category, and into the MCG Rogues Gallery. His contributions to charity live on today in Melbourne’s Carols by Candlelight, which is now entering its 76th year.
Jessica Curtain is a graduate of the University of Melbourne with a Bachelor of Arts in History.
Norman Banks at 3KZ. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
'Norman Tyrell Banks (1905–1985)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, John Lack, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University.
Back to the Studio: The Inside Stories from Australia’s Best-known Sports Commentators, Peter Meares, 2011, Harper Collins Publishers Australia.