Australian Dictionary of Biography

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White, Brian Henry (1933–1990)

by Bridget Griffen-Foley

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Brian Henry White (1933-1990), broadcaster, was born on 21 October 1933 in Sydney, eldest of three surviving children of New South Wales-born parents Robert Ernest White, bookmaker’s clerk, and his wife Eileen Annie Remilion, née Richardson. Educated at Bellevue Hill Public and Sydney Boys’ High schools, Brian then completed national service, sold china and cutlery, and worked in a sports store, proving to be, in his own words, ‘an ambitious but hopeless salesman’.

In 1953 White became Australian commercial radio’s first cadet journalist, joining Hugh Elliot at the Macquarie News Service. Viewed by Elliot as ‘a very clever journalist’ though too argumentative, White was appointed assistant news editor of the rapidly expanding Macquarie News Service in 1960 and editor by 1967. He edited reports, organised network broadcasts and, under the tutelage of Eric Baume, was also heard on air. On 26 November 1960 at St Patrick’s Catholic Church, Sydney, he married Margaret Ellen Keon, a secretary; they divorced in 1971. On 27 November that year at the Wayside Chapel, Potts Point, he married with Methodist forms Diane Maree St John, a journalist.

In 1969, soon after the debut of ‘dial-in’ radio programs, White and 2GB’s general manager, D. L. Foster, launched ‘Today’, two and a half hours airtime on weekday afternoons. Featuring White ‘dialling out’ to key figures of the day, it helped to set the news agenda and educate housewives about public affairs. White covered the human tragedy of wars in Vietnam and the Middle East, accompanied E. G. Whitlam to the Territory of Papua and New Guinea in 1971, enticed the radio-shy (Sir) Robert Askin onto his program, and refused to do commercials for fear of compromising his independence.

White had a moustache that really did bristle when he was angry. His grunts and silences were effective in drawing out hostile interviewees. He described himself as a small ‘l’ liberal, but was sometimes accused of having a ‘socialistic attitude’. Newspaper journalists compelled to monitor his program often heard a light-hearted approach to politics, with Whitlam dubbed ‘Gough Baby Bear’ and R. J. Hawke ‘Big Red Riding Hawk’. White also played his own collection of jazz records and ran opera, theatre and film reviews. After resigning in 1975, he helped to set up ethnic community radio across Australia.

His book White on the Media (1975), which contended that the Australian public knew little about politics because of the failures of the media, was one of the earliest accounts of the interaction between the media and politics, including at the State level. Joining 2SM in 1976, White worked with his school friend John Tingle and Steve Leibmann to introduce an opinionated, entertaining news format that helped to broaden the station’s appeal from a teenage base. He also served as features editor of Australian Men Vogue in 1977.

In 1981 White was appointed general manager of 2GB’s stablemate, 3AW in Melbourne, saying: ‘Everybody like me, who has been aggressive and ambitious, wants to run a radio station’. He overhauled 3AW’s administration, syndicated a midnight-to-dawn talkback program around Australia, and improved ratings and morale, although the personality format he adopted was an expensive one. In 1983 he led 3AW’s Ash Wednesday bushfire appeal, which raised $2 million.

White accumulated a vast personal library, enjoyed fine food and wine, drove a Jaguar and lived at Toorak. However, he noted that he was not remunerated like the ‘performing bears’ he handled. Within a few years of his arrival in Melbourne, he was chairman of the Fitzroy Football Club. After protesting against the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal’s attempt to define obscenity, he served as federal president (1983-85) of the Federation of Australian Radio Broadcasters.

In 1986 White was lured by Kerry Packer to head the new Consolidated Broadcasting Corporation, with 2UE and 3AK as linchpins. Keen to prove the viability of networking programs between interstate stations, he poached some talent from Macquarie and implemented a talk format. Poor ratings and a disagreement with Packer pushed him out of CBC by the end of the year. White’s second marriage disintegrated under the strain. In 1988 he was back as a drivetime host on 2UE, which was no longer in Packer’s hands.

On 22 May 1990 White died of an intra-cerebral haemorrhage at Camperdown and was buried in Northern Suburbs cemetery. The two sons and one of the two daughters of his first marriage and the daughter of his second survived him. The Brian White memorial award for journalistic achievement and effort is offered annually by FARB (now Commercial Radio Australia Ltd).

Brian’s brother David Albert (1940-1999) was born on 27 August 1940 at Paddington, Sydney. Educated at Sydney Boys’ High School, David became a cadet journalist with the Sydney Morning Herald in 1958. He was its first resident correspondent in the Territory of Papua and New Guinea in 1965, and later was a leader writer and deputy chief of staff. As the Australian Labor Party’s federal publicity officer and then Whitlam’s media secretary, David focused on relations with radio and television and played a key role in the ALP’s mid-term campaign of 1971 and the 1972 (‘It’s Time’) and 1974 election campaigns. Stocky, like his brother, he was a formidable debater and conversationalist with a passion for food, wine and Latin-American music. He was an advocate for the Australian film industry and the formation of an ‘FM Rock’ station, 2JJ (later 2JJJ). As Triple M’s news director, he shared in a 1987 Walkley award for a documentary about acquired immune deficiency syndrome. In the 1990s he helped to ensure that the Special Broadcasting Service was a producer of quality Australian programs. He had married Denise Mary Fyfe, a film editor, on 27 February 1982 at the registry of births, deaths and marriages, Sydney. Survived by her, David died of a cerebrovascular accident on 25 April 1999 at Manly and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • L. Oakes and D. Solomon, The Making of an Australian Prime Minister (1973) and Grab for Power (1974)
  • New Journalist, no 14, May 1974, supp p 3
  • Quadrant, vol XIX, no 4, July 1975, p 31
  • B. Griffen-Foley, ‘Talkback Radio and Australian Politics since the Summer of 1967’, Media International Australia, no 122, Feb 2007, p 96
  • National Times, 30 Dec 1974-4 Jan 1975, p 13, 10-16 Aug 1980, p 37
  • Age (Melbourne), 30 Apr 1981, ‘Green Guide’, p 1, 15 Mar 1986, p 2
  • Australian, 27 Oct 1982, p 7, 24 May 1999, p 14
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 23 May 1990, p 5, 29 Apr 1999, p 27
  • 200.27/5,8,11,18,25,27 (John Fairfax archives, Sydney)
  • FARB papers (National Film and Sound Archive, Canberra)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Bridget Griffen-Foley, 'White, Brian Henry (1933–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/white-brian-henry-15830/text27029, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 25 June 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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