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An Audience with Chairman Stan

“You tell me what a shock jock is, ‘cosI don’t know”. Oh God. My interview with Stan Zemanek is only two questions old, and suddenly I’m being held hostage by a pair of green eyes, dragging me out of the safety of my question sheet and into some free-fall conversation.

“Well, any announcer who consistently referred to feminists as women who need to change the batteries in their vibrators would be a shock jock,” I say, boldly meeting his gaze. There you go Stan, concise, punchy. Cop that. Admittedly it’s also a cowardly rewriting of my actual sentence (which went something like, “er … I guess ‘shock jock’ is a bit of a buzzword,”) but a writer, much like a talkback radio host, has control of the last word.

“If you have a puritan writing stories in a newspaper who wants to have straight up and down radio,” Zemanek says, “then I’m not your man. I’m an entertainer. I get out there and I entertain people, and I’ve been very successful for over 30 years.”

Zemanek has indeed been successful. His career began in the late 1960s as a researcher on a Vancouver radio station called C-FUN-141. When he returned to Australia, he worked as a writer, researcher and producer for John Laws. In the 1980, he returned to North America and began his own news bureau, and also purchased the rights to UPI radio and Associated Press radio, which he syndicated through Australia and New Zealand.

By the mid-1980s, Zemanek was working again as a producer in his home town of Sydney. By the mid-1990s, he was selling Stan the Man coffee mugs and bathrobes in the thousands. What happened in the interim was that Zemanek became the late-night king of talkback radio. He took over from Arch Tambakis at 2UE in 1989, and after two years of swinging right-wing roundhouses with both tonsils, Zemanek could boast that advertising revenue had increased in his slot by a whopping 1500 per cent. Forget what the Bible says about graven images: if you’re pumping out those numbers, God’s not going to worry about 55,000 coffee mugs.

“I was the 14th beast,” Zemanek says offhandedly, in what is a clear contender for sentence of the day. He is referring to the Network Ten program Beauty and the Beast, which was in that perfect early afternoon timeslot to allow its host to harangue as many unemployed people as possible.

As with the radio, the audience tuned in – to see Stan fight with the “beauties”, to see the beauties fight with Stan, to see how far from moderate a moderator can be, and to watch the guests cry.

Now, Zemanek is back on radio except, for the first time, he’s in Melbourne in Steve Price’s old spot. “Let’s face it,” Zemanek said on one of his early shows on 3AW, “Steve copied my style and, if it wasn’t for me, he wouldn’t be in the place that he’s in today.”

YOU’RE a lazy wuss,” Zemanek is saying to a 65-year-old man, who says that he lost his job because of stress. “I’ll say it again There’s no such thing as stress!” Dr Stan has spoken. The whole stress concept has been fanned by doctors who don’t understand their patients, by lawyers who want to make a quick buck and by stressed people who don’t want to work.

“You’re a f—ing idiot,” the caller says to Zemanek, failing in his attempts to explain the stress he believes he is feeling.

“Language please,” the host replies. Eventually, it’s suggested that the caller consider giving himself an uppercut and it’s over.

“Gee, he was upset,” I comment to Zemanek off-air from the corner of the studio.

“Probably,” he replies. “But he’ll ring back again.”

In many ways, it’s the key ingredient in Zemanek’s success.

“We did research about my audience, and basically the result was that 50 per cent of the audience love me and 50 per cent hate me. When they told me that, I thought: ‘Oh Jesus, 50 per cent of the audience hate me.’ But then we found that those 50 per cent still listened to the radio program. It makes for vibrant debate, vibrant discussion. That’s entertainment.”

The stress debate resumes after the ad break and Zemanek is hitting the thesaurus hard. “That’s not stress, it’s anxiety,” he explains to one listener. “That’s not stress, it’s being in a rush,” he says to another. Then, the producers put through a woman whose three-year-old daughter has just died from a brain tumour. She is not happy.

Zemanek instantly tranforms from the 14th beast to a sympathetic shoulder. But he manages the change without ceding ground.

“What you’re experiencing, darling, is heartbreak. It’s real life. It’s heartbreaking but it’s not stress.”

They continue to talk about the woman’s loss and Zemanek asks that she call him back soon to tell him how she is getting on. The woman says she will, and whispers a goodbye. She is even allowed a few last sniffled but defiant words: “There is stress.”

I sit in the corner, marvelling that someone could have so many opinions that he has got around to becoming a stress denier.

Does he believe the things he says or is it an exercise in manufacturing a personality that will divide opinions and attract ratings?

“It’s absolutely not manufactured,” he replies. “It is just me. In radio, you can’t fake it because you’re instant, you are live, you are talking to people.”

I’m not sure whether I don’t believe him or whether I don’t want to believe him, because I like off-air Stan better than on-air Stan. In the interview he is engaging, self-deprecating and willing to laugh both at himself and at jokes from me that I don’t even know I’m telling.

“Given your show feeds off people criticising you, do you regard a negative article as a sort of a favour?” I venture.

“Look if they want to ridicule me, that’s fine, water off a duck’s back. The only thing I ask is that they spell my name right.”

“What is the tricky vowel that most people get wrong?” I reply.

Zemanek laughs uproariously.

Later he gives me a signed copy of The Thoughts of Chairman Stan, which introduces me to the sentence “The Aboriginal industry want reconciliation, but they want it on their terms and as far as I’m concerned that’s not on and they can go and get stuffed.”

Zemanek dismisses accusations that he is racist. “Derryn Hinch once called me ‘a rancid, red-necked, racist, rooster’. Recently I had a reason to have him on my program and asked him why he’d called me (that) and asked him to tell me where I’ve ever made a racist comment. At the end of the line there was just dead air. He couldn’t think of one point where I was racist.”

IT’S editorial time and Zemanek tells his listeners that 61 per cent of all immigrants move to Sydney or Melbourne. “Given the pressures on resources, should we be able to tell these immigrants to settle elsewhere? Should they be diverted to regional areas?” he asks.

One caller favours the idea, stating that “they don’t come to this country with any rights”.

Zemanek is quick to interrupt. “They do come with rights,” he says. Then the question is restated. Should we be able to tell immigrants to live elsewhere?

Melbourne is extremely different to Sydney. For a start, it’s colder down here, and whereas Sydneysiders can live off mango trees and the like, we’ve had to become more intelligent in order to survive. I think I’m getting closer to my definition of a shock jock.

Whether there is a different type of listening public in Melbourne, and whether Zemanek will succeed in Steve Price’s old drive slot, is the radio question of the moment.

Zemanek is determined not to change his style.

“When I last checked, Melbourne is still inside Australia and Melbourne people are still interested and keen with what happens in politics … and issues in Australia. I haven’t changed at all. In the real world, people out there listening couldn’t give a continental if I came from Mars.”

Graham Mott, who has lived and worked most of his life in Sydney but is now general manager of 3AW, identifies some cultural differences. “Sydney is a bit more glitzy, Melbourne is a bit more classy … Take for example the Wayne Carey story. In Sydney, people would have been upset and it would have been a big story, but he would have still been playing football.”

Despite this assessment, Mott has not ordered Zemanek to sanitise his show.

“Stan just needs to be himself and get to understand the city and some of the history of Melbourne. His style hasn’t really changed from when he was last on radio. Yes, we are getting complaints but we used to get complaints about Steve Price. You worry more sometimes when you’re not getting complaints.”

The most serious complaint so far came from a woman who called the program to complain that a tree-remover had exposed himself to her and her young daughter. Zemanek was later asked to apologise on air for his response of “was it a twig or a branch?”

“It was an outside broadcast at the grand prix track,” Zemanek explains, “and I couldn’t concentrate with the sound of some of Stan’s fans outside the van shouting, ‘Legend, legend, legend’.”

Mott is more forthright. “These guys are always making judgment calls. Sometimes they’ll make the wrong call. This time Stan got it wrong big time.”

More than a month on, Zemanek has worked his way back into the Southern Cross Broadcasting good books. On April 9, his first Melbourne ratings survey had him on 12.4 points – 0.6 points higher than figure the inherited from Price.

On those figures, it appears Zemanek is being embraced by his new city, a classy city whose purchasing taste you’d expect to veer more towards the Stan the Man coffee mugs than the bathrobes.

“Well I’m delighted,” Zemanek said last week. “Since we’ve seen the upswing in the ratings a lot of people seem to be suddenly silenced. All the knockers who have been having a field day with me have had the good grace to shut their mouths.”

Chairman Stan had spoken and it was time for me to shut my mouth.

Tony Wilson is a member of the Breakfasters on 3RRR.

Stan Zemanek is on 3AW between 3pm and 6pm weekdays.

TALKBACK

Random thoughts from Stan’s mailbag.

G’day Stan, welcome to Melbourne. If the last two days are an indication of the quality of your show, I think we Melburnians are in for a real treat�… Congratulations.

Ian, February 19

I had never listened to talkback radio until I knew you were going to go on it. I am enjoying your show and keep up the good work.

Amanda, March 9

Bludger! Mr 20-hour-a-week man you’re the epitome of a bludger. Get a real job. Eight hours a day like the rest of us!

Harry, March 13

It is great the way you handle the lunatics that try to bait you especially that tree hugger that tied himself to the bullbar of a log truck in Geelong. Great show, Stan.

Robert, March 14

You are sexist, rude, ignorant and shallow. Why don’t you crawl back to the cesspool that you came from and do us all a favour.

Ralph, March 14

You’re getting a tad cocky after hearing the new ratings. They can fall as quickly as they can climb. Also, calling people “you imbecile” is a pathetic attempt at winning an argument.

Cecelia, March 23

How dare you pick on people with mental problems and people with stress …There are people in this society that don’t have the strength … to cope with stress… You criticise people too much