Have a Go News ambassador John Burgess looks back…

Have a Go News is thrilled that Australia’s number one baby boomer has joined the newspaper as an ambassador – each month he will be sharing stories about his career. This is the first in the series.

Call it luck, being in the right place at the right time or fate, but a lot of curious things have happened to me during the course of my 59-year-old career in the radio and television industry. 

It all started not long after I first met Sydney radio king John Laws during my professional ten pin bowling career. He had got me interested in radio and not long after that an awful event happened, sadly, he contracted polio and was admitted into the infectious diseases hospital in Sydney.

I used to go visit him there and was excited to meet a lot of his close friends, famous names in Australian entertainment industry like Johnny O’Keefe, Digger Revell, Billy Thorpe, Normie Rowe, Jay Justin and Brian Henderson who read the news on Channel 9 for five decades and hosted Bandstand. It was an unbelievable experience all these talented, and famous people and me, a ten pin bowler!

We were a mischievous lot.

Johnny O’Keefe one day got into Lawsy’s bed and we propped Lawsy up behind the door and rang for the nurse. The nurse came in, pulled the sheet back and there’s O’Keefe smiling back at her, she almost had a heart attack. 

On another occasion, pop singer Jay Justin, had been out and about one night and decided he’d go and visit Lawsy. It was about midnight, certainly out of visiting hours, but he knew which room John was in, so he crept around the back of the building and climbed through a window.

He said to Lawsy ‘I’m here mate!’ and gave him a big kiss.

Jay didn’t know they’d moved Lawsy that day and to his horror it was somebody else in that the room that he’d just kissed – and on top of that of course – it’s the infectious diseases hospital. 

Jay went home and scrubbed his mouth with a wire brush for about a month. It was very funny for us but not so much for him. 

More good fortune for me came from another tragedy. While I was knocking about with Lawsy, I met a guy called Tony McLaren who was on 2UW, a Top 40 radio station in Sydney. 

He lived on a yacht in Neutral Bay, Sydney with his wife and young son. We used to catch up and have a drink with some blokes in a pub on the North Shore in Sydney. In one corner of this hotel were yachties and in the other were trimaran sailors. Yachties and trimaran people didn’t get on at all and Tony was firmly in the yachties camp. 

Tony would point out, in no uncertain terms, that a yacht, if it capsized in rough seas, the huge weight in the keel would make it right itself again. But if a wing on a trimaran broke off, it just flipped over upside down and sank and that was it. 

Those words proved to be somewhat prophetic.

It was actually Tony who talked me into going into 2UW to audition for a relief announcer’s job. When I got the job I was the first disc jockey in a major market with absolutely no experience whatsoever. The first time I actually spoke on the air was in 1966 when I filled in for, you guessed it, Tony McLaren, one afternoon when he was sick. Now I can’t tell you how nervous I was. I broke into a huge sweat. I was running like a tap and it took them about three days to dry out the chair that I was sitting on.

Shortly after that, Tony wanted some time off to go to Melbourne, but wouldn’t tell anybody what he was up to.

I actually drove him to the airport and was intrigued to see him carrying what seemed to be a lot of rolled-up maps.

I waved him goodbye and filled in for his afternoon shift on the radio for a couple of days. 

I can’t begin to tell you the absolute shock when I read in the paper that three men were lost at sea off the coast of Victoria in one of the worst storms ever seen in the area in years. Then the authorities revealed on the news that one of them was Sydney radio announcer Tony McLaren. 

Not only that – he was on a trimaran. After all those years of saying trimarans aren’t safe, for the life of me, I’ll never know why, he ended up going to Victoria and sailing on a trimaran during a huge storm. 

I was even more shocked to hear he and two other people had bought the trimaran and they were sailing it back to Sydney, unbelievable, after all the arguments in the pub about them being unsafe. They were never found, by the way, an absolute tragedy for his lovely family and friends.

But, there’s another twist to this tale. I was given Tony’s afternoon shift from noon to 4pm on 2UW which kick-started this 59-year career in radio and television.

Luck, right place right time or fate? More to come.