The Laws Factor

One difference between Sydney’s The Star Casino and the 2SM building across the street is that while The Star has been refurbished a couple of times since it moved in, 2SM remains in it’s original condition, complete with its ‘colourful’ carpeting that covers walls and pillars as well as floors. Insiders joke that it was the carpet the casino rejected allowing 2SM owner, Bill Caralis to buy it for a song.

Laws himself openly and frequently chides Bill on air for the state of the equipment and the “pittance he pays me.” Perhaps that’s why Mr Caralis is spending more of his time in Murwillumbah where his employees are more deferential than the aging king of the broadcast beasts.

When I arrive at the station at 11 am, Laws is in full broadcast mode. Apart from three people working in the confines of the giant circular reception desk, there is no one to be seen. No sales people, no creatives, nobody putting together playlists.  No production people running around or managers wandering around. For a major metro station, the silence is eerie.

rounddesk_280Although nominally the flagship of the Super Network, these days 2SM is not where the action is or where the money is made. Having listened to the whole three hours of Laws, should I ever feel the need to acquire a skipper’s license, I am now abundantly aware of the dangers of drinking while at the helm of a boat. And I certainly know how to lodge a complaint about something I’ve heard on 2SM, which would, no doubt, come in handy should Kyle or Alan ever join the station.

If you want to hear heavy advertising schedules for Harvey Norman or KFC, you would need to head to a surveyed station such as 2HD in Newcastle where Lawsie rates number one and commands a premium for ads in his show. Or, you could go to one of the smaller markets beyond, where from Armidale to Inverell he is the oldest and most trusted friend of farmers and truckies alike. Out there, advertisers don’t need Nielsen to tell them that.

Perhaps one day Ray Hadley or Neil Mitchell may amass a body of work to eclipse that of Laws. But with 57 years in the business, the solid ratings and popularity he has enjoyed in the cities along with the massive penetration in the bush, for now, John Laws remains the Mohamed Ali of the microphone.

Estimates of just how big a pittance Caralis is paying him range from not much to as high as a million pittances a year. As one insider told me, two of the best kept secrets in radio are, just how much money Bill has and how much he’s paying Lawsie.

So, who better to ask than John Laws himself?

“Can I be totally honest with you?” he asks, (like I’m going to say no) “I have no idea how much I get paid. I wanted to come back. I know the people around me are being looked after. I know Jodee (his PA) is being looked after. So I really don’t care. In that respect, I’m very fortunate.”

Fact is, with his millions, Laws could virtually do anything he wants. Yet, he couldn’t wait till his contract with 2UE expired so that at 75 he could come out of retirement and get back behind his golden microphone. Why?

“Because I got bored. And because I missed the people. See, I love the people – I love the John Laws listeners,” he says without a hint of artifice.

“We all have similar problems in life – and I’m not preaching,” he insists, “I mean, we’ve had difficult times with children, we’ve had difficult times with other members of the family, we’ve had difficult times with money in our life time. And everybody has the same kind of thing. Maybe not on the same scale but it’s exactly the same kind of thing so there’s not a lot of difference between me and the people who ring up.

“Maybe I can go to a fancier restaurant, maybe I can drive a flasher car and live in a better house – that kind of thing. But apart from that there’s very little difference.”

lawsstudio_280Nonetheless, amid the somber halls of the once mighty 2SM, Bill has built John a throne room fit for a king – his own studio that no one else is permitted to use. It has a desk upon which one could land a Harrier jump jet, surrounded by enough real estate for a par three golf hole complete with sand trap.

This then is the present home to the famous Fortress of Irreverent Logic. Within its floor to ceiling glass walls (which, given the silence beyond, nobody bothered to soundproof) sit just three occupants to produce the show, Laws, the trusty James Yelland, (left) and Laws’ faithful handmaiden, Jodee Borgo (below, right) – who rolls her eyes at the mention of the H-word.

She’s been with him for 17 years and despite the long hours, and the fact that he can, at times, be difficult, she confides that it is an incredibly exciting job and she has a very generous boss.

radioinfo: How’s Bill treating you?

Laws: I don’t have a problem with Bill. I just tell him to get fucked.

radioinfo: When you and he have a conversation, who does most of the talking?

Laws: Who do you think? He does.

But I don’t converse with him, I send Jodee in. If there’s anything that needs to be discussed, I send Jodee into the fray and she gets beaten up.

radioinfo: (to Jodee) Do you enjoy jousting with Mr Caralis?

Jodee Borgo: No not really. But I like him. Very much. I’m very fond of him because he is just what he is.

Laws: There’s something about him that’s likeable.

joddee_160Jodee Borgo: And he’s very respectful to John and very good to John. But, I do bristle with him, don’t I?

Laws: Yeah.

Jodee Borgo: But I guess I might be pretty tough myself.

Laws: I think he’s frightened of you

Jodee Borgo: (laughs) I don’t think he’s frightened of me. But I can hold my ground.

radioinfo: There’s a perception that over the years, you’ve had contempt for some of the station managers you’ve worked for. Is that true?

Laws: Not really. I used to like to bait them and send them up.

radioinfo: But there was always that perception that you were running the station more than they were.

Laws: Well I was certainly running my program. I was never programmed when I was doing talk and music which I still occasionally do. It’s always my music, I’d never have anyone give me a playlist or any of that stuff. And the same with commercial time. I do what I want to do. If I don’t want to do it, I won’t do it.

2uw1965beanlaws_200radioinfo: Your career mostly alternated between 2GB and 2UE, which were talk stations, but you also had a long stint at 2UW (right with Ray Bean circa 1965)…

Laws: Yes that was 10 years.

radioinfo: … which was predominantly a music station. Did you feel that you were somehow out of place there?

Laws: No we had the highest ratings at the station.

radioinfo: And was that good for the rest of the station? I understand that advertisers wanted to buy the John Laws Show, but not much else.

Laws: Well they should have made it better shouldn’t they?

radioinfo: Conventional radio wisdom suggests that to be a successful talk host you have to declare your political allegiance. But you’ve never let on which way you vote. Do you think that’s hurt you in latter years?

Laws: No, no, no. I think to the contrary.

radioinfo: I listened to you interviewing Julia Gillard this morning. And what struck me was the civility of the conversation. I’ve heard less civil interviews on the ABC let alone on other commercial talk stations with say Alan Jones or Ray Hadley. Do you get any negative feedback suggesting that you are being too soft on her?

Laws: Occasionally but that doesn’t bother me. I mean, she is the Prime Minister. She is a lady. And irrespective of her politics I like her. So, of course I’m going to be courteous to her.

The way they treat her, from what I’ve heard, because I don’t hear either of them… I don’t hear Hadley because I’m here (on 2SM),  and I don’t hear Jones because I don’t want to.

But would they like their – I nearly said wife, but of course in Alan’s position that would be drawing a long bow, wouldn’t it – so, let’s say mother.

Would he like his mother to be treated the way that he treats Julia Gillard? Would Hadley like his wife to be treated the way he treats Julia Gillard? It’s pretty easy to be civil and you can still get the point across as I do with her. I don’t let her off the hook. I’m the one that goes back and says ‘well with respect you still haven’t answered the question’. They don’t do that, they’re too busy reading the next question.

radioinfo: Over your career, going back all the way to Sir Robert Menzies, no less than 12 Prime Ministers have come and gone – which I believe, is even more than The Queen…

Laws: Yes it is.

radioinfo: Which has been, to your mind, the best?

Laws: As a talker? Well, Paul Keating was always a terrific talker because he’s funny and he’ll have a lot of fun with you. I mean you can give him baits. He dropped the famous Banana Republic line on my program. You could always get him to relax.

Sir Robert Menzies was the right man at the right time. When Sir Robert Menzies came anywhere near the radio station you wore a tie and a suit and the whole thing. I could be sitting here in a pair of boxer shorts and interview with Keating.

I think that sadly respect for the leaders of our country has faded a little bit. I mean, I never dreamed that I would be calling the Prime Minister of the country by his first name. Ever. It just changed but I’m not sure it’s for the better. In a way I suppose it makes them more approachable.

radioinfo: Which was the first one that you were able to call by his first name?

Laws: John Gorton. Let me just qualify that. (in General) I choose not to.

I used to call Julia, Julia (before she became PM). And if I thought it was right, I would now, but it depends on the circumstances.

If I see Paul Keating now it’s ‘g’day Paul / g’day John.’ Same with Hawkey. ‘G’day Hawkey/g’day Lawsie.’

But under different circumstances a bit of respect needs to be shown because in a way you’re setting an example and I think it’s important to, where you can, set a good example.

radioinfo: For you, what’s the most intriguing thing happening in the radio industry right now?

Laws: Well I don’t listen to it. I really don’t. I listen to ABC classic FM when I leave here. But they’ve buggered that up now, they’ve started talking at 12 o’clock instead of playing nice music. I like classical music.

radioinfo: As a talk announcer, you have to have a great memory. You have to be so on the ball. At 76 years of age, do you feel any loss of those faculties compared to, say, 20 years ago?

Laws: No, but don’t ask me where I had dinner last night.

radioinfo: So, you get into the studio, and you’re ‘on.’ When you get out of the studio …

Laws: Of course you vary, and you do have memory loss because you have to have if you’re a human being. It happens to everyone.  But once I come in here, it’s ok.

radioinfo: You’ve had a number of internationally famous  people that became your personal friends…

jwsm_137Laws: Roger Miller, Glenn Campbell, Ernie Borgnigne. I met and knew John Wayne. Got drunk with John Wayne (right). He was good. I don’t know, there are so many.

radioinfo: I remember it hit you very hard when Roger Miller died.

Laws: Yeah it did. He was very close friend and I miss him every week. And you know, I’ve had some very strong friendships, I haven’t got many good friends, but I’ve had some very strong friendships. You know, I miss Kerry (Packer). Hardly a week goes by that I don’t think of Kerry and Roger, and I suppose it’s a good thing that they leave their lasting mark.

radioinfo: Which leads me to ask, what did you think of Howzat, the TV show?

Laws: I didn’t watch it.

radioinfo: You didn’t? Why?

Laws: Because I knew him. I knew the real one. I didn’t want to watch the imitation.

radioinfo: Were there similarities between you and him – an affinity because you were men of similar power?

Laws: No he was just a friend. And his wife, Ros is still a very close friend of (my wife) Caroline’s. It’s been a very nice family friendship.

radioinfo: Let’s talk about the voice. You were known as golden tonsils. Up until perhaps the nineties having a rich, deep melodious voice was considered an enormous advantage for a radio announcer – yours was the one that was held up as the benchmark for excellence. But it’s not just the voice is it? Like Frank Sinatra and Orson Welles, it’s about the phrasing…

Laws: And I make a lot of use of the pause. Which is just important as the vocal sound. You’ve got to know when to stop because the pause can add great emphasis.

radioinfo: I recall there was a fellow called Stuart Jay who made quite a good living imitating you.Were you flattered by that or did you resent it?

Laws: It just annoyed me really. The poor fellow. There have been so many people that have imitated me – all they do is waste their time. And their talent. Stuart Jay was a competent enough broadcaster and a few others too that are just dead-set copyists. I suppose in a way it’s flattering. But it was more aggravating. You just want to say ‘for christs sake get on with your own life.’

flint_105.radioinfo: Let’s get to the regulator. I know you had some run ins with the regulator in your time – particularly with Professor David Flint (right). Now that the focus is off you and I believe between Kyle Sandilands and Alan Jones they’re responsible for about 80% of all the complaints to ACMA…

Laws: Much more complaints than I get or ever had.

radioinfo: Do you think that they’re getting a fair shake from the regulator?

Laws: I just don’t know why we even need a regulator. With certain aspects we do. I don’t believe in censorship if people don’t like it they’ll turn off. I don’t believe in censorship at all in books in films, anything, and radio should not be censored and it’s infuriating when you get yourself into trouble, Kyle Sandilands or somebody else.

I have never used the world ‘fuck’ on the air – and don’t intend to. But if I was to do that I’d be before the tribunal or whatever the stupid thing’s called now. But you hear it on television all the time. Lunchtime television you hear it.

And people are going to make up their mind what they want to hear. And I believe if you behave in a decent way you’re going to get by. That’s the secret to life – decency.

radioinfo: Does that not sound a bit anachronistic in this age of social media? Yet, I notice you have a facebook page. Did they drag you kicking and screaming to social media or have you embraced it? Do you twitter?

Laws: I don’t know anything about the facebook page. I wouldn’t even know how to get on it. They all do that, the girls do that. And I don’t know what they put on it – I think they put part of the program and stuff on it.

radioinfo: If I name a few of your contemporaries, can you sum them up in a sentence or so? Let’s start with, say, Neil Mitchell…

Laws: Who?

radioinfo: Neil Mitchell. He does mornings on 3AW.

Laws: Oh he’s the bloke at Melbourne. I don’t know anything about him.

radioinfo: Derryn Hinch

Laws: Derryn’s sort of become a figment of his own imagination. I quite like Derryn in a way, but he thinks I don’t. So that lets me off the hook, doesn’t it?

radioinfo: I guess… You know he’s just been sacked?

Laws: The funny thing about it is he seems to be proud of it. He does. He’s saying, ‘oh well I’ve been sacked for the 15th time,’ I think.

radioinfo: He says, “they hire me for the things I say. And then they sack me for the things I say.”

Laws: Well to a degree he’s right, isn’t he.

radioinfo: Alan Jones…

Laws: Never see him.

radioinfo: But you were quite angry with Alan for a while there.

Laws: Oh no, it wasn’t Alan that I disliked. It was the way Alan did certain things that I didn’t like. Alan’s very heavily into divide and conquer. And if you don’t get on his side in the divide and conquer, you’re going to have a problem. And given that I don’t want to be on anybody’s side except my own, that didn’t sit well with Alan. But Alan is a very, very good broadcaster.

radioinfo: Ray Hadley…

Laws: I’m indifferent about Ray Hadley. You know, I don’t want to lower the tone of our conversation by talking about Ray Hadley, I’ll put it you that way.

radioinfo: Kyle Sandilands…

Laws: Don’t know him. I wave to him every now and again because he seems to park his car down at the wharf. He interviewed me once. (turns to Jodee) He did interview me didn’t he?

Jodee: You’ve been on his show a couple of times when they wanted you on about different things. He’s mad about you.

radioinfo: He drives a Rolls

Jodee: And he’s got a golden microphone too.

Laws: It’s just gold plate.

Jodee: And quite often, because I flick around the dial, I can hear them using the things John does here, exactly the same, like, ‘the hot line’s running’ and ‘nobody’s got that number’. The exact words. Sometimes in the afternoons I hear it – I hear exactly what John said.

And Hadley listens all the time, doesn’t he. He’s got someone, I think, specifically to listen to John’s program.

Laws: He’s got a problem.

radioinfo: Bob Rogers…

Laws: Oh well Bob’s a dear old thing. He and I had a few differences but as I said you can’t compete and not expect differences. He was very good at what he did at the time. He and a bloke called Tony Withers were the first two real disc jockeys.

They brought Rogers down from Brisbane and he did, I think 6o’clock every night on 2UE, 30 minutes of music. And I did 5.30 till 6.00 every night.

So, we sort of developed that disc jockey thing together. But Bob could never handle talk, he could never handle news and stuff. I don’t know why.

radioinfo: Anyone else about whom you have a strong opinion?

Laws: No only my wife.

radioinfo: She’s your third wife?

Wife number three, but girl friend number one. We’ve known each other 62 years. She was the first, and now obviously she’s going to be the last.

And we have a terrific life, I mean we travel a lot and we laugh a lot and that’s such a good thing to be able to do. You laugh together or laugh at each other, we laugh at ourselves. It’s pretty important.

jl4_271radioinfo: Regrets?  Have you had a few? Or then again, too few to mention?

Laws: Yeah I do have a regret. My regret is that I have no regrets.

radioinfo: Would you not have liked to do more television?

Laws: I love doing that. But you ‘ve got to get all dressed up with the makeup and that shit. You’re too reliant on other people where they put a light or where they don’t put a light.

radioinfo: What would ypu consider to be the very highest and the very lowest points of your career?

Laws: I hope the highest point hasn’t come, I hope the lowest one hasn’t either. So I don’t have a high or a low. I’m not all that analytical about myself or my career. It’s just there so I did it.

radioinfo: In another part of your life you’ve been very competitive. Can you get to your position as a broadcaster without being very competitive, without a strong ego?

Laws: I’m still very competitive. I still take no nonsense from anyone. And I think that you need to be prepared for competition. If you’re doing something worthwhile, obviously other people are going to want to do it. It’s axiomatic to have competition.

radioinfo: But you don’t want to be part of that in Sydney…

Laws: Oh I don’t care one way or the other. I don’t care about a lot these days do I?

radioinfo: Is that because you’re learning to let go?

Laws: To a degree. No, I’m not prepared to let go. I’m prepared to loosen the squeeze, shall we say. Not quite let go.

radioinfo: Would you prefer to be a part of the ratings in Sydney?

Laws: No.

radioinfo: You wouldn’t be tempted? I mean, given the success you’re having in Newcastle where you are rated as number one?

Laws: Yeah, by a country mile apparently. But I don’t care about that anymore. I just come and do the program, go home, read a book, have a sleep, get drunk – it’s a good life.

saxoncopy_100   Peter Saxon


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