How Radio Found the Voice – after it almost didn’t

Comment from Peter Saxon

After watching John Farnham: Finding the Voice on 7HD the other night, the first review I found on the web was from the Guardian’s Luke Buckmaster who called it a “gushy account of Australian music history.”

While the Guardian could only eke out three measly stars for Finding the Voice, IMDb gave it 8.5/10, Rotten Tomatoes 91% and 94% of the public on Google said they liked it.

Methinks Buckmaster misread the room.

He continued, “This eulogistic documentary has Farnham’s blessing, but we learn very little about the man himself as everyone else reflects on his career.”

Given that the 74 year-old Farnham is recovering from major surgery for cancer of the cakehole, not an ingrown toenail, one can’t expect him to be match-fit for a lengthy chat. Besides, a person is best known by what others say about them.

As for the doco being “eulogistic,” well, he might have died from the disease and as with all celebrities of his stature, they had to have something ready, just in case. After all, the show must go on. The producers could, of course, have sat on the film till the inevitable occurred, as the BBC did with Queen Elizabeth II. Knowing Farnham, the king of comebacks, he’d likely have hung around like Her Majesty did for another 25 years just for the fun of it.

But if it was a tad premature to telecast a eulogy for John Farnham, the show was a fitting tribute to his partner in crime, the late Glenn Wheatley who passed away in February 2022 due to complications from COVID. And no story about Farnham could be properly told without Wheatley taking a major role – and vice versa.

Above all, theirs was a story of friendship – more than that, a deep enduring “take a bullet for ya” mateship that, like kangaroos and koalas, is native to Australia.

After his early career as a pop idol had tanked, and the record companies all declined to sign Farnham to a new contract, Wheatley took the extraordinary risk of funding the making of an album independently by mortgaging his own home. After nine months in the studio, the result was Whispering Jack, a monumental milestone album which, back in 1986, was the first digitally mastered CD released by an Australian artist.

Later, when Wheatley was jailed for tax evasion, Farnham repaid his loyalty and trust in his talent by being one of the few people who stood by him and then bailed him out financially.

Releasing the album would amount to nothing without radio airplay. And although some regional stations had added You’re the Voice to their playlists, metro stations such as Triple M refused to even consider it given the baggage that came with the old Johnny Farnham of Sadie the Cleaning Lady fame. They didn’t see him as the “credible” artist he longed to be.

Legendary programmer, Cherie Romaro, then at 2DayFM, and who features heavily in the documentary, also had her misgivings about adding the Sadie songster and was aware that it had already been rejected by others but, nonetheless, slid the CD into the player and, by her own testimony, became so enthralled by what she was hearing, she ripped it out again and marched it into the studio to demanded that the on-air jock put the song on next and on high rotation thereafter.

You’re the Voice became an instant hit, forcing other content and music directors to rummage back through their reject bins to play it. Meanwhile Whispering Jack shot to number one on the album charts, toppling another milestone album, no less than Paul Simon’s Graceland. It stayed there for 25 weeks and remains the highest selling album ever in Australia by a local artist.

Few artists, few people, for that matter, ever rise to the level of National Treasure but Finding the Voice makes a compelling case for John Farnham.

It also makes a solid case for Cherie Romaro to be inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame for having both the ears and the guts to know a hit when she hears one.

Main Pic: a still from John Farnham: Finding the Voice.

Peter Saxon

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