1945 - 2021 | Western Australia | Reporter, Editor & Broadcaster
Sattler introduced the shock-jock style of radio to Perth. During a career of nearly 40 years, mostly at 6PR, Sattler was controversial, opinionated and sailed close to the wrong side of broadcasting law and community standards. But people listened, including governments, and for much of his career he was the top-rating current affairs broadcaster in Perth. In 1991, he led a community campaign for mandatory juvenile detention laws that attracted 30,000 people to a rally and forced the government to legislate.
No other West Australian journalist courted controversy with the enthusiasm and success of Howard Sattler.
When talkback radio was at its zenith, Sattler was its undisputed king in Perth, attacking the powerful, sticking up for the underdog and always pushing the public’s most sensitive buttons.
Controversy made him a star, but in the end it turned out the lights on his radio career when in 2013 he stepped over the invisible line in an interview with Prime Minister Julia Gillard. The management of radio station 6PR, which lived high on the hog off Sattler’s ratings over many years and always forgave his misdemeanours, showed him the door.
Coupled with a debilitating and progressive neurological disease he had been fighting for several years, he was never able to recover his career.
WA adopted Sattler, but he was born a New South Welshman at Cootamundra in February 1945 in the same hospital as Donald Bradman, a third cousin on his mother’s side.
The family of two boys and two girls moved to Willoughby in Sydney where his father was based as a travelling salesman for Prestige Hosiery and Lingerie, which eventually became Holeproof.
Young Howard went to North Sydney Boys High and began his career in journalism as a copyboy on The Sydney Morning Herald, leading to a cadetship. He was drawn to police rounds and, in January 1966, he covered the arrest by armed NSW detectives of the Victorian escapee Ronald Ryan, who became the last man to be legally executed in Australia.
But Sattler’s promising career at Fairfax ended in 1968 when he was called up for National Service and sent to officer training at Scheyville near Windsor in Sydney’s north-west. He graduated after “the hardest six months of my life” and went to Canberra for induction before being dispatched to Perth in 1969 as the officer-in-charge of Defence PR in WA.
When his two-year stint as a Nasho ended, Sattler was hired as a reporter by mining magnates Lang Hancock and Peter Wright for the Sunday Independent newspaper, started ostensibly to wage war against the dominant WA premier, Sir Charles Court.
Hancock and Wright decided to go daily in 1973 with the Independent Sun and Sattler was made chief of staff, but the fledgling paper died after just a month. He was picked up by Channel 7, where he spent three years as a reporter, bulletin director, story editor, documentary host, producer and chief of staff, eventually leaving to become the news director at 6PR in 1977.
He started Perth’s first half-hour commercial radio news bulletin at midday and did the occasional spot during the top-rating Watts and Martin breakfast show, getting a reputation with listeners for his blistering editorials.
But the newspaper bug wasn’t quite done with Sattler, and Peter Wright lured him back to the Independent group in 1979 as managing editor. Sattler eventually got tired of locking horns with Wright’s son Michael over editorial decisions, and in 1981 returned to 6PR with a half-hour commentary program at the end of Watts and Martin, and picked up a weekly column in Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday Times.
The printers’ union objected to his first column and threatened to strike if it was run. The editor ran a blank page in its place and Sattler’s reputation for controversy grew another leg.
In 1982 his half-hour segment was expanded to three-and-a-half hours and the legend of talk radio was well on his way. He was hot enough to be poached in 1983 by 6KY, where he also rated strongly, but was left high and dry just two years later when the station decided to switch to music. So it was back to 6PR mornings.
One of Sattler’s biggest controversies came in April 1990 when he opened his program with a shocking car crash the night before. Prominent Perth businessman Mario Ambrosino was killed when his car was struck by a stolen vehicle containing three Aboriginal juveniles, who also died.
Sattler reacted to the youths’ deaths on air with the phrase “good riddance to bad rubbish”. It was a statement that dogged him for years. “That’s three less car thieves, I think,” he said. “They're dead and I think that’s good.” He didn’t flinch under howls of protest.
I was the editor of The West Australian, Perth’s morning daily newspaper, at that time and his program was essential listening for everyone, especially journalists.
He made a household name of a young Perth father called Peter Blurton who rang in to his program from Royal Perth Hospital minutes after doctors turned off his 12-month-old son’s life support system.
The infant, Shane, was critically injured when a thief driving a stolen car at high speed crashed into their gift-packed VW Beetle on Christmas night in 1991. Peter watched his eight-months’ pregnant wife, Margaret, die before him as they both lay on the road.
Four months earlier, the couple had been among a 30,000-strong crowd of concerned citizens who attended a “Rally for Justice” promoted by Sattler and 6PR at WA’s Parliament House.
Sattler was dominating the justice debate in WA and his personal attacks on Children’s Court president Judge Hal Jackson inflamed the legal fraternity. But when Sattler’s opponents organised a protest rally only 400 people turned up.
It wasn’t all demagoguery. He fought for battlers and raised money for charities. After Sattler left radio a group called Howard’s Army gathered heaps of bikes to give to children in needy families.
At one stage, in 120 straight ratings surveys he was undefeated by his main talk rival, the ABC.
In 2000, Sattler was hauled before the Australian Broadcasting Authority’s cash-for-comments inquiry, but before the findings against 6PR were handed down he left for Sydney’s 2SM and a program syndicated to 37 stations throughout NSW and Queensland.
All was forgiven at 6PR by 2003 and Sattler had stints in breakfast with various hosting partners before moving to the Drive slot where he stayed until the infamous Gillard interview.
Seven months earlier, he told management he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. The condition has since been found to be the aggressive and terminal PSP/Steele Richardson syndrome, which is suffered by just 1300 Australians. His speech was slurring and he was clearly slowing down mentally.
Sattler claims he had written permission from the PM’s office for a candid face-to-face interview on the visit to Perth which would raise her boyfriend, Tim Mathieson. But his attempts to put to Gillard what he said were rumours or myths about Mathieson’s sexuality and the nature of their relationship were clumsy and prompted an outraged public reaction.
The station’s new owners, Fairfax – the same company that had given him his break in journalism – dismissed Sattler for bringing the radio station into disrepute. A longstanding legal action by him was eventually settled. As his dedicated wife, Despene, says: “Howard is so much more than just one interview with Julia Gillard.”
Sattler remains the most awarded host in WA radio. He has five RAWARDS (now known as ACRAs) and was a finalist on six other occasions, also winning two New York Festival prizes.
Paul Murray was editor of The West Australian from 1990 to 2000. When he resigned from that position, he followed Howard Sattler into the morning slot on radio station 6PR. Murray retired from 6PR in 2015.
Howard Sattler at 6KY in the 1980s
Howard Sattler in the 6PR studio
'Howard Sattler: “Radio has become quite irresponsible…”', Radio Today, Jose Auditore, 29 January 2017
The Role of the Media in the Juvenile Justice Debate in Western Australia, Australian Institute of Criminology, National Conference on Juvenile Justice, Charlotte Stockwell, September 1992