When radio broadcaster and television host Stan Zemanek died on 12 July 2007, the Sydney media went into gushing overdrive, exalting his career and lionising his status in the industry.
His death became the main news item on commercial radio and television, pushing aside the national news of the day, as well as world events. It was given front-page treatment in Sydney newspapers and most regional papers followed suit. Then came almost daily tributes leading up to his funeral which again was given top billing in the city’s electronic and print media.
By the end of this grisly process, the 60-year-old shock jock had been raised into some mythical media pantheon as one of the profession’s ‘legends’.
In truth, Zemanek’s passing was a Page 3 or Page 5 story, and perhaps could have found a place after the first ad break in TV news bulletins.
The explanation for the extraordinary Zemanek coverage goes to the heart of many of the chronic problems of Sydney’s media: the depletion of values, the concentration on the superficial, the celebration of celebrities (major, minor or miniscule), and the dumbing down of content. Only a media industry that has lost its way could find anything redeeming in the professional career of Zemanek who, by any realistic assessment, was little more than a loudmouth yob.
Zemanek began his commercial radio career in the 1970s, learning the trade from the King of Talkback, ‘Golden Tonsils’ himself, John Laws. He was Laws’s producer at 2UW and later at 2UE. Working alongside Zemanek at both stations was Marcella, also a radio producer, who became his wife. Both knew the game inside out when Zemanek decided it was time to go in front of the microphone and become ‘the next John Laws’.
Using a combo of insults, verbal bullying, red-neckery and racist abuse, Zemanek ignited an audience of believers and disbelievers (people who tuned in just so they could say, ‘Did you hear what Stan Zemanek said on the radio today?’) and turned his $1.50 bank balance into millions of dollars during the 1990s.
His 2UE evening show, broadcast on 33 radio stations, peaked with a national audience of 1.5 million. He marketed himself with the shamelessness of his mentor Laws. There were Zemanek baseball caps, mugs, towels, bathrobes as well as a CD and a book, The Thoughts of Chairman Stan. ‘Radio is my number one love’, he said at the peak of his ranting. ‘There’s nothing like talkback.’
Here’s a sample of what Zemanek was broadcasting over the airwaves to the applause of advertisers, most politicians with the exception of Paul Keating who called him a redneck and a racist, and his media cronies:
To a young female caller : ‘A bachelor of arts degree is a bachelor degree for doing absolutely nothing. A bachelor of arts degree, darling, is made for wankers and you’re one.’
To a male caller : ‘I’m not going to have any turd like you tell me what to do or say … If you belong to the Labor Party, then you’re a socialist criminal.’
To a male caller : ‘You’re from Japan tonight? Last week you were from Brazil. Why don’t you try a New Zealand accent? … Hey, Neville, get stuffed.’
On juvenile delinquents : ‘Some of these punks need a kick up the backside.’
On Yoko Ono : ‘God, I find her the most boring tart.’
He rode the early John Howard years attacking political correctness and multi-culturalism. He followed Channel Nine’s A Current Affair in reviling ‘scumbag dole-bludgers’ and ripped into women’s groups, gays (‘bloody poofters’), ethnic communities, Greens (‘forest fools’), ‘aca-bloody-demics’, Aborigines and welfare recipients. One of his constant policy platforms was a total ban on immigration while any Australian remained unemployed.
Graffiti artists were ‘grubby little people’ and his simple answer for teenage gang members was a dose of electric shock therapy.
And in the midst of these tirades he received calls from Prime Minister John Howard, on one occasion from Bourke in western NSW, to discuss mobile reception in the bush.
His attitude to Labor voters never varied: they were ‘morons’. Labor Party members were ‘socialistic criminals’ and anyone who disagreed with him was told to ‘get stuffed’.
An unnamed programmer gave radio writer Sue Javes an analysis of the Zemanek radio technique in a 1999 interview: ‘Once you strip away the lines like ‘You’re an idiot’, he relies heavily on ‘that’s fantastic’. (Daily Telegraph, November 23, 1999)
He also became the 13th host of the long-running and much-loved TV show, Beauty and the Beast, succeeding such consummate professionals as Stuart Wagstaff, Noel Ferrier, Don Lane, Bob Rogers and Clive Robertson. He only marginally varied his ignorant patter to meet the requirements of the Broadcasting Act. He delivered this homily to an audience member named Donna, the victim of domestic violence:
Darling, I understand your situation. It’s one of those situations that a lot of people find themselves in. It is terrifying to be in it because, really, you’re at home, you’re trapped, but then again, on the other hand, some women do provoke men into belting them. There are some women out there who just can’t help themselves, who nag, nag, nag, scream, scream, scream. (The Sun-Herald, December 19, 1999)
Despite his appalling remarks, women members of the panel remained extraordinarily loyal to their host, including Ita Buttrose who should know better.
Zemanek’s canonisation celebrations were disrupted by one member of the Sydney commercial radio fraternity, Mike Carlton, of 2UE. He told a caller that he ‘loathed’ and ‘hated’ his network colleague and that he only attended his funeral ‘to check he was actually dead’.
The ensuing media furore was a wonder to behold. ‘DESPICABLE’ screamed the front-page headline of the Daily Telegraph, followed by an article all over Page 3, plus an editorial branding Carlton ‘a heartless halfwit’ and ‘a cellar dweller’. The subtext of this attack is Carlton’s uncompromising opposition to the war in Iraq, the Howard Government and some of its senior ministers like Alexander Downer (Lord Downer of Baghdad) and Attorney-General Phillip Ruddock, which has managed to infuriate the Telegraph‘s conga-line of war/Howard apologists led by Piers Akerman.
Using Carlton’s exceptionally tasteless but hilarious remarks about the dearly departed Zemanek, the Telegraph virtually called for Carlton’s sacking by 2UE management. It should be noted that the Telegraph had never used its front page nor any other page for that matter to condemn Zemanek’s bigotry and vilification of minorities, nor had it ever shown any reluctance to invade the private grief of families of celebrities who had died. On this occasion, however, there was a natural united front between the Telegraph and Zemanek, the spokesman for urban idiocy, against Carlton, the pre-eminent custodian of thoughtful, entertaining radio and civilised newspaper commentary (in The Sydney Morning Herald).
Ever controversial as a broadcaster, Zemanek brought further controversy when he died. His passing illuminated the great gulf in the Sydney media between the gutter press and the pavement press.
Much of the problem is that journalists themselves don’t seem able to grasp the difference between the two.
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