Australian Father of the Year in exalted company, alongside PM Menzies, Premier Cahill, Chief Justice Les Herron, Taronga’s Ed Hallstrom, Governor Roden Cutler, Darwin reconstruction’s General Alan Stretton and cricket’s Mark Taylor. Susie chats with our own distinguished achiever.
Gary O’Callaghan and I are lunching in The Mullet’s sunny forecourt, reminiscing about our times at radio station 2UE in its heyday of runaway ratings popularity. Alan Jones and John Laws (and an emerging Ray Hadley as sports director) were radio kings in a market more cutthroat and professional than any but elite public broadcasting. Then, in the late ‘80s, O’Callaghan was gradually winding down at the tail of a peerless, record-making career as the pre-eminent broadcaster of his era. Few others – Jack Davey, Eric Baume, Reg Grundy – ranked beside him in the days when presenters alone were responsible for creating audience entertainment and information, before listener talkback and big production teams made up much of the content. Radio, relentlessly uncompromising, consumes material voraciously; O’Callaghan pioneered several popular elements adopted by the industry as program standards. Among them: a novelty children’s character voicing tongue-in-cheek news commentary (like Pixar movies: slapstick for kids/satire for adults), and real-time police and emergency services newsbreaks.
After schooling at St Aloysius Kirribilli O’Callaghan covered off his National Service in anti-aircraft defence. There was no war to fight. “Apart from the Sergeant Major, I never saw anyone even angry,” O’Callaghan quips, in a typical laconic aside. From a line of showbiz/entertainment folk, he wanted to be in radio; with a listenable, classic timbre he’d manned the PA for school cadet parades. His Jesuit educators got him into an office boy’s job, 60 years ago this past June, at Catholic station 2SM. Wednesdays, the executives went to play golf or bowls. One day, only the station engineer and office boy were on deck when the announcer collapsed on air and O’Callaghan was thrust into the seat. “Get it right, we’ll find a job for you,” the program manager ordered, from his club. “I was scared for a while – that they were going to revive the announcer!” my wag companion recalls.
The tyro took instantly to the craft, fast learning the trade. Greek and Turkish Cypriots featured in news bulletins: he was taught if he couldn’t pronounce a difficult name to flick off the mike while mangling the word, suggesting a short technical glitch. “I’ve used [that trick] since, too!” he admits cheerfully. He soon became a consummate radio all-rounder and reporter, his passion for news taking him on the road with police and emergency services at motor accidents, cliff rescues at The Gap and so on. His police rounds beat, drumming up news content, had him at the forefront of covering the top stories of the times, often involved in manning the primitive Jabob’s ladder and bosun’s chair equipment of the day. The young announcer/reporter aimed to impress 2SM’s switch girl – his wife-to-be, Dorothy – taking her to the Easter Show. He left an impression all right. In the biggest story of intensely anti-Communist times, O’Callaghan got a tip the KGB was deporting spy-wife Evdokia Petrov to the USSR that night. He rushed to the airport with his wind-up recorder, abandoning Dorothy but promising to return. He never did. But the international scoop he got, single-handedly, saw him installed at 2UE. His career as morning presenter and runaway ratings personality took off. Over 30 years there he ranked number one (once with an audience share of near 50%) for an astounding 138 surveys.
So he’s a challenging, while willing, interlocutor, because so many anecdotes tumble forth, so much vivacity in his tales, oodles of recollections by a born raconteur: chatting on air with Qantas captains descending over Sydney, covering the Queen’s visits, Opera House opening, mixing with entertainers like Bob Hope, nearly falling from the top of Sydney Tower as he broadcast from a gantry, overseas assignments to Hong Kong and the US, the Charles Manson case, mobbed by rugby fans in Fiji with Nick Shehadie, buying muu muus for their wives (Nick’s married to Governor Marie Bashir) at Honolulu en route home via the new 747.
His liaison and comradeship with emergency services to get the news on air fast saw him negotiate installation of landline connections between radio stations and operational centres and establishment of dedicated police media officers, so reporters got the facts instantly, facilities accepted today as the norm. Deficiencies in emergency equipment – “no Jaws of Life! A tyre lever as good as it got” – that saw victims’ lives forfeited sparked his service on the NSW Ambulance Board for 17 years and as an office-bearer for Sydney City’s Central District. Today, he’s patron of our Retired Police Association and Police Trauma Group. He’s remembered with affection for Sammy Sparrow, the high-pitched voiced “bird” that flew in daily to chat with him just as kids headed off to school. Media mogul Kerry Packer disapproved of Sammy’s current affairs subtext but retiring Governor Cutler, Sammy’s “neighbour” on Bennelong Point, sent the bird a farewell note.
These days O’Callaghan MBE, 78 next month, has been coaxed out on the national stage as an Australia Day Ambassador but generally conducts a relaxed family lifestyle with Dorothy at their Sancrox home. Still fascinated by news, he has a TV antenna that picks up Japan (and possibly still listens to police radio, for all I know!) He makes “real” coffee: “with the capsules,” he winks, “but I take the credit for it!” The kids are Kiaran, John, Nick, Anne, Lucy and Marita – John and Nick in radio here, Lucy in media at Port News. They’ve five grandsons, four granddaughters and a great granddaughter. But the former Father of the Year has no tips to offer for raising kids: “because you never know what the clowns are going to do!”
His own “clowns” are at him to record the family history. “They keep saying I have to write the book.” Appropriately, they bought him a speech-recognition device to transcribe the spoken word to computer. I’ve only scratched the surface of this remarkable character and his chronology.
But one day we’ll be able to read the book.
Out to lunch is hosted by Lou Perri, at The Stunned Mullet.