Howard Sattler: “Radio has become quite irresponsible…”

Staff Writer

Howard Sattler, who dominated Perth radio for so long, has had a controversial career.

His last show was Mornings on 6PR which came to an abrupt end after a headline-grabbing interview with then Prime Minister Julia Gillard. A battle with cancer and Parkinson’s disease hasn’t stopped him.

Still outspoken on many issues he remains a champion for people who need a hand and those left behind.

Jose Auditore spoke to Howard Sattler in Sydney for Radio Today;

You’ve spent a lifetime as a high profile radio personality in WA, I don’t think a lot of people realise you grew up in Sydney.

HS: “Yes, I went to North Sydney Boys High, my family lived in Willoughby in the 1960’s. Four kids in the family, two boys and my two sisters. My father was a commercial traveller for Prestige Hosiery and Lingerie, he went all over the state out as far as Bourke and Nyngan was away from home a lot.”

After high school Howard wanted to pursue journalism and started a cadetship but was interrupted by a war to the north. 

HS: “In those days there were no university courses for journalism, just arts, I started at The Sydney Morning Herald then in 1968 I was called up for National Service during Vietnam, went off to Officer training at Scheyville near Windsor (in Sydney’s North West), graduated from there, was proud of that too it was a pretty hard course. (he’s described it previously as “the hardest six months of my life”) I was sent to Canberra to learn the ropes then surprisingly to be the officer in charge of Defence PR in Perth.”

“After that came a newspaper, The Sunday Independent started by Lang Hancock and Peter Wright to try and attack (former WA Premier) Charlie Court, then the independent Sun, I was the chief of staff of that but it lasted a month – it folded after four weeks so I went to Channel 7 for three years in the newsroom as Chief of Staff.”

He was eventually lured back to print, though it wasn’t a happy time.

HS: “I got offered a job as managing editor of The Sunday Independent and the independent group there was about four newspapers there part of the Wright family. Peter Wright’s son Michael was the Managing Director and we used to lock horns all the time over stories and editorial decisions so I left. In 1981 I was offered a job between 8:30 and 9 on 6PR doing news editorials on the breakfast show which was hosted by Barry Martin and John Watts.”

After the Sunday Independent Howard went to the Sunday Times, then on to State Affair, the forerunner to Today Tonight on Seven. In 1982 his half hour segment on 6PR was expanded to three and a half hours. 

HS: In 1983 6KY offered me a job and we were making good progress, I was on 13.7% in the ratings, but after two years the consultant came in and said, ‘We’ll go to music’. I said sorry, thanks very much and that was it.”.

In 2000 he was offered an opportunity that was too good to pass up. Mornings on Bill Caralis’s flagship station 2SM which also meant a show broadcast on 30+ stations but trouble started not long after he moved to Sydney.

HS: “He wouldn’t promote it, they didn’t promote, no one knew we were on, there was no awareness. Bill used to walk around in his tracksuit, he used to say, ‘I’m not here to promote 2SM, you’re here to help us’. The idea was to syndicate to his stations. I was told, in some places I was rating 46% or more but it was a joke, the station wasn’t properly resourced. That’s the reason for Laws (referring to 2SM’s once unassailable king of morning radio, John Laws) it’s to service his country network, it’s not for Sydney, it’s for the other stations.”

After two years he left Sydney but continued to do the final year of his 2SM program each morning from Perth. He eventually returned to 6PR to co-host Breakfast with Adrian Barich before moving to Drive then back to mornings where he encountered a lot of people, who needed help, who had no voce or been ignored. 

Someone who stands tall in his memory is Deborah Mayberry. 

HS: “Deborah was a  wonderful woman who came to me one day and said I want you to help me, I’m dying from breast cancer” ‘What do you want me to do?’ I asked her. She said “I’m too young, I’m 31 years old, I’ve got three kids. I want the government to be aware of what I’m going through, what’s being done to help others.

“We got a documentary done on her story and we also got $50 million from the Federal government for breast cancer research.”

That documentary They Said Don’t Worry: The Deborah Mayberry Story, won a Walkley Award for Carole Kerr and Channel 9 Perth.

Another close to his heart is Carly. 

HS: “Carly was a 9-year-old girl I met at Princess Margaret Hospital she had a brain tumour, her mum and dad had left her, they couldn’t cope they said, they just buggered off, left her in the hospital and I thought that’s appalling.

“I interviewed her at Camp Quality, fantastic experience that was, she died a few months later, she inspired me, but her story, that really got to me.”

Through adversity, he’s also made lifelong friends. On Christmas Day 1991 Peter Blurton’s car was hit by a juvenile offender in a high-speed chase trying to evade police. Peter’s wife and his young son were both killed. 

HS: “I was doing the show, someone said ‘It’s Peter Blurton, he wants to talk to you live on air’, I said put him through. The acting premier was on, he had the acting premier crying too and that led to change. We’ve been good mates ever since.

“There’s also been the Telethons, every year we do something and Howards Army as well. That started one day a lady rang me up and said ‘Can you help my dad, he’s in the hospital, with a heart attack and we need to move house”. “With Bill Massey who’s an ex-Sergeant Major, we got things together, he said ‘We’ll start Howard’s Army, that’s a good name for it”. “So we helped them move house, get set-up, got a hyperbaric chamber. We made a difference.”

Last Christmas Howard’s Army organised a mountain of bikes for kids and families in need. Howard agrees that that’s the beauty of radio – the ability to make a difference, to help people. “People that have been ignored and forgotten by governments, by big companies like Telstra, insurance companies”, have their voice heard through radio especially talkback radio. Not only himself “but people like Laws, Paul Murray, Neil Mitchell” many times “the last hope for people that had nowhere else to go”.

HS: “Once they got me or a producer on the line or email there was action. It shouldn’t have come down to that but it did. It was very satisfying”.

He briefly wants to discuss the incident that saw him dismissed from 6PR in 2013 and he believes that he has been misquoted by people that didn’t hear the exchange between him and Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

HS: “What I said was, ‘Rumours, snide jokes and innuendo, you’ve been the butt of them many times’ I asked ‘Can I test a few out?’ and I said “Tim’s gay, that’s what they’re saying (the PM responded, ‘Well that’s absurd’), ‘but you hear it, he must be gay, he’s a hairdresser. You’ve heard it, it’s not me saying it, that’s what people say.”

He insists that he was only pointing out what the rumours were, what people were saying but it was frequently reported and repeated as Howard Sattler said Tim Matheson, her partner was gay which he refutes. Howard’s cases for unlawful termination and wrongful dismissal against 6PR owners Fairfax Media were settled in 2015. He says that he was left with no choice but to settle due to mounting legal costs of continuing the action but believes he had a good case.

As a veteran in the industry, what does he see in the future for media in this country?

HS: “Newspapers are history, the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age will not be printed Monday to Friday by the end of this year, they’re gone. Television is going to be battling I think pay TV is really emerging now to lead, TV here and in the US has got a few challenges, their advantage now is the big sporting events, sad but true, reality television shows are popular, don’t know why – I think they’re shocking.

“Radio has become quite irresponsible in my opinion, people like Kyle Sandilands with that rape girl, those two with the prank call, it’s disgraceful, the girl took it very personally (referring to Mel Greig) but to that bloke involved it was ‘shit happens’, he was awarded the best in the whole network, it’s become a race to the bottom.”

After being diagnosed with throat cancer in 2015 he also ended up in the hospital for close to two months with pneumonia, but the cancer really took its toll. Chemo and Radiotherapy did irreparable damage to his throat which was blistered and burnt. All this is additional to his battle with the debilitating Parkinson’s Disease, a progressive neurological condition which attacks the nervous system. Muhammad Ali and Michael J. Fox probably highest profile celebrities affected by the illness. 

He hopes that with ongoing, intensive therapy he can continue with his popular podcast The Sattler Files and he’s still an avid TV news watcher and radio listener.

HS: “Yes, still listen all the time. ABC mostly, 6PR, and on 6IX I like the music.”

What do you like?

HS: “Mike and The Mechanics, that song ‘The Living Years’. Neil Diamond.”

What about TV?

HS: (Howard laughs) “One Foot In The Grave, 7:30 Report every night, Four Corners, Paul Murray on Sky News he’s pretty good.”

What about your sporting loyalties?

HS: “West Coast Eagles of course and in the NRL, Wests Tigers. Used to be a North Sydney Bears supporter until they killed them off.”

The familiar voice is hushed from cancer and faltering from the effects of Parkinson’s, but if you listen carefully, the fire hasn’t diminished. Howard Sattler is the last hope for many people. He still has a part to play.

Jose Auditore is a Sydney-based editor, producer and part of The Radio Green Room industry site on Facebook.

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