Three quarters of what I know about radio I learnt from one man.
His name is Vincent Smith.
We came together when I was 21 and he was 45 at a talk station in Adelaide. At the time, and I think we’re talking 1988, Vincent got the job as morning announcer (9-noon) at radio 5AA. I’d been at the station for a couple of years, but I was on the way out. I’d fallen out of favour with management and had been moved from an on air role to a lowly sound production assistants job… and they’d given me two of the mandatory 3 written warnings.
They hired Vincent as part of a massive and somewhat sudden format change. We had been a mish-mash racing/light talk/music station under the ownership of the South Australian TAB. It was a diabolical disaster and the newly appointed Manager, Stan Barrett was salivating at the prospect of securing a narrowcast licence for the racing broadcasts, to free up 5AA as a full talk station.
Vinnie was hired without enough thought, in that they wanted him to launch into a full morning talk show the following week, but there were no support staff.
I was a stop gap. I was given the job of producing Vincent’s program until such time as they could hire some real talent. I was happy to get out of the sound production booth, but I didn’t really know what to expect.
Those days, I didn’t read or watch the news and as such I was a fish out of water when it came to preparing for a flagship news/talk show.
But I had something….obviously, because after the first 3 days of this temporary role, Vinnie went down to management and told them to stop the hiring process because, “I want to keep this boy.” I still don’t really know why.
I loved working with Vinnie. He was old school. He would come in first thing in the morning and sit at his desk with a manual typewriter and clack away loudly at editorials while talking to me about the news of the day. They weren’t one way conversations. Vincent would give me his perception of the front page stories, but then ask for mine and listen patiently as looked at me over his glasses. He’d tackle me robustly on my position, support it, or help me to develop it further depending on what it was of course.
Vincent taught me how to write spoken word. He taught me how to write for radio and so much of what I do at a keyboard now is still shaped by our many early mornings together. He was brave enough to have me write editorials for him before too long and he gave me so much latitude in setting up this program.
We spoke to Prime Ministers, convicted murderers, archbishops and terrorists. I loved every minute of it.
He had some very influential friends who would often visit and I got to meet them all. George Negus, Mike Carlton, Kerry O’Brien among others.
When we went to lunch, me and Vinnie, he wouldn’t actually eat anything. He’d just drink and speak more and more passionately about whatever it was that had grabbed his attention at the time. Then he’d drink some more and get even louder. Before too long he’d be thumping tables and we’d get kicked out of restaurants, (usually to go back to the radio station late afternoon to harass the program director, one Nigel Cocks)
The PD put up with him because we were making great radio.
We increased the morning audience share from 3% to 15%.
That’s absurd. I didn’t realise how absurd it was at the time, but when I now consider that we multiplied our audience by 5, I’m gobsmacked.
And then Vinnie got sick.
It started with a pain in his shoulder and ended up as a cancer diagnosis. The diagnosis wasn’t good.
He was given less than 12 months to live at the tender age of 47.
He refused to admit defeat and fought on defiantly, but it knocked the stuffing out of him. The weight of the disease and the treatment reduced him to a shadow of his former self, but he refused to give up work.
My task in producing the program became much much greater, but I didn’t mind one bit. I can even remember recording some interviews with overseas correspondents early in the morning and then editing out my voice, and providing a script for Vin, so he could ‘conduct the interview’ at a more sensible hour on air.
And then, there is the moment that I will always remember. There’s a statement that Vincent made to me early one afternoon that I can still hear him saying in my head today. It’s a statement that has had a major influence to the way that I’ve lived my life from that moment forward.
We’d just finished on air. Vincent was as sick as a dog. He clearly shouldn’t have been at work. Our office was way over on the other side of the building from the studios and it took him a long long time to walk from the studio to the office. From memory he had to have a rest half way through the journey to make it.
He finally did make it and he slumped down in his chair and looked at me over his glasses. He caught his breath and he spoke.
Mark, people pass me in the corridor and they smile at me and say hello, but I can tell they feel really really sorry for me because they think I’m dying. They shouldn’t feel sorry for me because I’m the luckiest man in the building.
Lucky because I’m the only one here who has any idea what my life is worth. I’m the only one who fully understands what every day is worth and every hour is worth. Nobody here has got a fucking clue.
He was dead within a fortnight. Vincent died on April 20, 1991 at the age of 48.
Vinnie was so right in what he said to me in that radio office.
We march along and live our lives as though they’re going to go on forever. As human beings, sure we’re smart enough to understand that life is finite, but the penny doesn’t drop on that score usually until it’s way to late.
My old mate wasn’t suggesting that you live every day as though it’s your last, because that would get a little crazy, but live every year as though it’s your last because you just never know what’s around the corner. Enjoy the small things and the big things, go your hardest and be good to people. Well, that’s what I got from our little chat that day.
That was a long time ago and I was just a boy, but I still miss old Vinnie.