1933 - 1990 | NSW | Radio presenter & producer
Brian White was Australia’s first commercial radio cadet journalist in 1953 and became a dominant figure in radio for more than three decades. In 1969, he pioneered the news/talk format on Sydney station 2GB with an afternoon program of hard news, talkback, interviews and magazine segments. It became the template for a succession of presenters. Newspaper journalists tuned in for story leads. White later managed 3AW to success in Melbourne. The industry’s annual Brian White Memorial Award recognises sustained achievement and effort across news, current affairs, entertainment and sports.
He was Australian commercial radio's first cadet journalist. He worked with and for some of the greats in the business and when he died in 1990 Brian Henry White had become one of Australia's most respected pioneering broadcast journalists. It could reasonably be argued that his name dominated commercial radio journalism for more than three decades.
After working as a china and cutlery salesman, and in a sports store, White, in 1953, joined what was then the expanding Macquarie News Service with its headquarters in Sydney's Radio 2GB. In 1960 he was appointed Assistant News Editor and within three years he was News Editor.
In 1969, two years after talkback radio's introduction, and encouraged by 2GB's then general manager, Des Foster, White launched Today, a weekday news and public affairs program that became essential listening for an ever-expanding audience. The program recognised radio's convenience and its growing mobile audience.
For the next seven years, Monday to Friday, White’s program helped set the news agenda and brought the day's news, and those who were making it, into homes, offices and cars in Sydney and beyond. Prime ministers and premiers recognised the advantage of appearing "live and un-edited" on Today and became regular guests on the show. They knew they would get a fair, but tough time in their exchanges with White.
In 1976, Brian White moved "down the radio dial" to Radio 2SM which at the time was owned by the Catholic Church. Under Rod Muir's leadership, he, John Tingle and I became part of an innovative news and current affairs format which, according to the Sydney Morning Herald was "opinionated and entertaining" and "helped broaden the station's appeal beyond its teenage base."
We introduced the legendary Laurie Oakes to radio and encouraged a young, future prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, to become 2SM's New South Wales parliamentary roundsman.
They were four years of work and fun. Muir, when asked what he wanted us to do, replied: “Don't ask me, you are news experts, work it out amongst yourselves." Or words to that effect. We went off and decided who would do what shift and how we'd do it. I took the breakfast shift, White mornings and John afternoons. Each day we would begin with a blank sheet and, in my case, produced and presented news on the half hour backed-up by a great team of young journalists.
When we'd get a bit bored with life off we'd trot to see Muir or general manager Garvin Rutherford with a proposal to get us out of the newsroom and on the road. Over the years we travelled to America, the UK, Asia and around Australia gathering material for what became award-winning documentaries.
These were the golden days at 2SM. The station became Sydney's number one with ratings that went through the roof due at least in part to the three "oldies" who delivered the news and commentary.
In 1981, I signed a contract with the Nine Network to anchor the Today program and John Tingle became a NSW parliamentarian. Brian White became general manager of 3AW in Melbourne and while based in the Victorian capital served as federal president of the Federation of Australian Radio Broadcasters and chairman of the Fitzroy Football Club.
After five years in Melbourne, White returned to Sydney and, in 1986, became chief executive of Kerry Packer's new CBC Network, the Consolidated Broadcasting Corporation. It was,,for the times, a bold commercial broadcasting experiment. The format was talk and programs were networked between 2UE Sydney and 3AK Melbourne. But it didn’t work. The ratings were poor and Packer’s patience ran out.
Within a year, White was gone and soon after so was Packer who had quickly lost his interest in radio. Ironically, White was soon back on air at 2UE as drive-time anchor doing what he did best: communicating.
We are left to wonder what he would think if he was still with us. What would he say about the difference between now and the broadcast culture of 20 years ago? How would he react to the table-thumping "shock jocks" and their regular, often uninformed callers who move up and down the talk-back dial stroking the egos of those behind the microphone? What would he think of the declining standards in broadcast journalism, the misuse of the English language, and the way the internet and social-media have increasingly become the news source for people attracted by the convenience and speed.
Steve Liebmann is a former television news anchor and radio broadcaster. He was the original co-host of the Nine Network’s national Today from 1981 to1987 and 1990 to 2005. He was director of news and public affairs at 2UE, news presenter and commentator with 2SM with Brian White, and co-anchor with Geraldine Doogue on TEN-10 Sydney’s Eyewitness News.
Brian White in 1986. Courtesy of Fairfax
'Brian Henry White', Bridget Griffen-Foley, Australian Dictionary of Biography, ANU Press
Changing Stations: the story of Australian Commercial Radio, Bridget Griffen-Foley, UNSW Press, 2009