In the weeks since John Laws announced his imminent retirement, his callers have begun a kind of quiet competition all their own. It’s no longer enough to start a call with the usual throwaways ‘Long time listener, first time caller,’ or ‘I listen to the show every day, John.’ Instead, they’re all telling Laws how much they’ll miss him. How the show, the radio, the media, the whole country won’t be the same. And it seems mandatory to use the word ‘institution.’
They are only echoing the themes and phrases that emerged in the immediate reaction to the news. The first callers to the show among them politicians, presenters and famous faces put into play the frames through which the event was supposed to be viewed. The spin on the ball, so to speak.
John Laws’ retirement was a media event, with all the intrigue and column inches that one should generate. The story even leaked on Channel Nine’s Today Show, to Laws’ chagrin, an hour before he himself would make the announcement. He left the studio after his show to a throng of press and television cameras.
Thanks to Lukas
The scramble to comment was instigated by one of Laws’ most frequent politician guests, Tony Abbott. Like all subsequent callers, he referred to Laws as a ‘mighty contributor to an important part of democracy,’ and a part of the life and landscape of Australia. This is, of course, very much how talk-radio sees its role and function, both as a builder of community and a way of putting the people in touch with the media and the powers that be. To reinforce this, when talking to Laws, Abbott slipped into a kind of nostalgic, bushman vernacular, full of ‘Good onya,’ cricket analogies (‘a good innings’) and ‘mate.’
Indeed, when John Howard joined the line a little later, Laws informed him that he knew it was time to retire when the Prime Minister had called him ‘mate’ during an interview. Howard also congratulated Laws for ‘informing public debate.’
Kevin Rudd also called the program, from a press function in Brisbane. New-style Labor, after all, is very much about engaging with the media, and trying to woo the kinds of people who identify with Laws’ brand of ‘Australian-ness.’ Rudd couldn’t resist making reference to a charity fundraiser he was going to attend that night. Laws couldn’t resist asking Rudd how ‘that sweet wife’ of his was faring.
Each of these political figures was jostling to ally themselves with Laws’ Australia: tough, stoic and generous, with a touch of the larrikin, and a pervasive hint of maleness. Mark Vaile referred to Laws’ ‘love of the country’; Fred Nile to his courage on important issues.
This version of Australia was personified in Laws’ other high-profile callers on the morning of his retirement: his rugged football friend Russell Crowe, and the man he calls ‘my little brother’, John Williamson. The ockerisms flew almost as thick and fast as the offers for long, boozy lunches. Like most talkback hosts, Laws deliberately portrays himself as an everyman. Who just happens to have a harbourside apartment.
Other media figures wanted a slice of Laws’ publicity pie too. The most audacious of these was Kerri-Anne Kennerley, who rang Laws during her commercial break and then catapulted him into a live interview on her show. Laws handled the mildly surreal moment well even managing to drop the names of a few sponsors to the combined audience of his and her broadcast shows.
This was the other side of Laws, and the other side of his program, where commercial interests sit side-by-side with commentary, publicity with politics. And it’s the side of Laws that 2UE will probably miss the most.
The depth of Laws’ salesmanship is still evident in the calls he takes from listeners. While fewer of them are breaking down in tears as the weeks pass, they continue to swap anecdotes, on air, that would make any sponsor or supporter proud. Take caller ‘Lloyd’, who told Laws about the time he helped him with a problem, and then ‘sent me a bottle of Wild Turkey.’ Or the truckies, who thank him for his CD compilations. Or the tradie he converted to Toyota.
So perhaps John Laws is an institution. He manages to not only balance, but embody, the ethos of talk radio. He’s a commentator and political figure, as well as a media man and salesman, and the centre of a community. He maintains his persona as a common man, despite the size of this income and ego.
But it’s not true that talkback radio will never be the same again. There are already plenty of Laws look-alikes riding the airwaves in other timeslots and frequencies. His listeners will not have to miss him for long.
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