The late Stewart Lamb’s contribution to radio industry

Lamb family patriarch Stewart Lamb died this month, but has left a significant legacy to Australian Broadcasting. Characteristically, the family continues to shun publicity, and not much has been mentioned about his death.

radioinfo felt we should mark the passing of this significant media figure. More contributions have been added to this story.

Radio historian Wayne Mac, whose long awaited book on the life and times of Australian commercial radio is planned for release later this year, told radioinfo about Lamb’s acquisition of 2UE in the 1950s:

”Stewart Lamb’s reputation and contribution looms large in the history of Australian radio mainly through the purchase of Sydney’s 2UE in late 1956.

The Lamb family, then of Newcastle, owned 2KO at the time and word has it that their acquisition of 2UE was at a bargain price. Television had just started that year and many industry pundits were worried about radio’s future viability.

I’m told by those who worked with him that Stewart had a reputation for being a bit of risk taker. What he did with 2UE was certainly considered at the time as make or break stuff.

During an overseas business trip in early ’57 Stewart noticed a particular music format that was sweeping the United States. Along with 2UE’s newly appointed general manager Alan Faulkner, who also hailed from Newcastle, they instigated what was then quite a radical approach to Australian radio. It was called the Top 40.

In the next 12 months 2UE moved more and more into music programming finally launching the Top 40 format, accompanied by the issuing of a weekly chart on 3 March 1958. Among the line up that day: John Laws, Bob Rogers, Gary O’Callaghan and Russ Walkington. It was one of key periods of Australian radio of the past 50 years.”

The family went on to make investments in television stations and vineyards. Amongst other investments they owned Nine Adelaide, 2UE, 2KO and 4BC. After selling 2UE to Kerry Packer in the 1980s, who sold it to Alan Bond, the family bought it back as the Bond empire was crumbling.

Stewart Lamb’s son in law John Conde was managing director of 2UE during the ABA’s cash for comment enquiry in 2000. The family sold out of the station soon after that, accepting $90 million in March 2001 from Southern Cross for 2UE, 4BC and Skyradio.

Michael Hibbard has contributed this piece on Stewart Lamb:

I first had the pleasure of working for Stewart Lamb when he worked out of 2UE in North Sydney. I was a junior, and he a very successful media owner and businessman. I found him to be very generous in spirit and happy to impart his valuable knowledge. I have fond memories of a very kind, gentle and good-humoured man who was a truly inspirational leader.

I understand Mr Lamb’s lifelong preference for anonymity, but at this time I think we must be allowed to give him the credit he is due as a true broadcasting genius and arguably the “father” of Australian Radio as we know it today.

It was clearly a brave decision to drop the serials and introduce an untested Top 40 format at a time the industry was fighting for its life. In 1998 in an interview he gave us for the inside sleeve of a compilation CD celebrating 40 years of the Top 40 he told us “It gave the rest a hurry up!” Something he continued to do throughout his career.

Of course Mr Lamb is responsible for much more than just the Top 40 and music based programming. Let’s not forget talk radio and the fact he also gave us, as testament to his genius, the most successful radio station in Australia’s history. As Des Foster correctly states, he insisted that good programming must come first and much of what he introduced on 2UE is now standard on most radio stations. He gave us many of our top radio personalities of all-time, which includes a few who would be in the world’s Top 5. He insisted on comprehensive and credible news coverage, wide ranging sport coverage and a constant search for innovation. And as Gary O’Callaghan has already stated, he also made sure that his station helped the community.

I remember a sign which was proudly displayed in many areas of the 2UE building which said it all about Stewart Lamb: “Our Standard Is Excellence’. I’m sure all of those who worked for Mr Lamb will always remember him as a truly great man, who gave us the opportunity to be great and provide a great service to the community. Our industry owes much to Stewart Lamb and his standard of excellence.

Long time 2UE breakfast announcer Gary O’Callaghan sent these comments to radioinfo about Lamb:

“It feels to talk about Stewart Lamb is almost a betrayal of the man who spent his life wishing to stay out of the public spotlight.

For the almost a half century of knowing him one thing stood out, his desire for privacy and his commitment to his family.

This was the same man, who with the help of perhaps the other man who sought the same, Allan Faulkner, changed the face of Radio in Australia in the fifties.

I think that had these men not been in the business then Radio would have been in the doldrums for a long time with the arrival of TV.

Stewart felt that radio had a lot left to give the people.

Top Forty came to 2UE and most industry members thought that 2UE had lost the plot. Later many were joining in the face change to Radio.

Stewart looked upon radio not just as a way to make money but a way to play a part in making his country and its people better off. His work off the scene for charity and the way he used his radio stations for charity were legendary.

Radio lost a man last week who loved the industry, a very private man who perhaps would not like me talking of him even now.

His family will miss him greatly as will those who worked with him for so many years at 2UE.

While he would not like the recognition he deserves, he should be recognised for the part he played in Australian Radio.”

Des Foster contributed this tribute:

Stewart Lamb’s outstanding contribution to commercial radio was to blaze the trail which led the industry out of the gloom which was descending on it when television came to Australia.

The Lamb family had long operated one of the most successful radio stations in the country – 2KO Newcastle – but the purchase of 2UE in Sydney just as metropolitan television was being introduced was a bold and courageous move. No-one at the time had the magic bullet which would enable radio to prosper in a television environment.

Yet within months 2UE created the whole new genre of Top 40 and across-the-board programming which became the model for stations in every other major market.

Stewart Lamb would have been the first to acknowledge that the credit for 2UE’s success was not his alone, but to the remarkable rapport which he shared with his legendary General Manager, Allan Faulkner. Different characters in every way, the two formed an invincible team. Their philosophy was simple – to be uncompromising in maintaining program quality and integrity. They insisted that if the programming was right, all else, including sales, would follow. They introduced quality control of a standard which was unheard of in a fairly comfortable industry where occasional gaffes were largely tolerated.

Stewart Lamb had the courage of his convictions. In the process of introducing Top 40 across the board and with a minimum of delay he wrote off a huge sum of stockpiled transcriptions – serials, dramas, etc. And he and Allan Faulkner resisted the pressures of some advertisers who had long come to believe sponsors could dictate what went to air.

Although he shunned the limelight, Stewart Lamb was an extremely human and sociable man – almost Puckish – who seemed eternally in good humor, and was responsible for many acts of generosity and kindness. He was a true entrepreneur in that he was prepared to take risks. He was one of that old school of honorable men whose word was their bond.