Remembering John Brennan: The radio legend who ‘harnessed dial-in democracy’

John Brennan

Radio greats line up to pay tribute to kingmaker at 2SM, 2UE and 2GB

Media people around Australia are mourning the death of John Brennan. He has passed away at the age of 89 in his Sydney retirement home.

Brennan was inducted into the Commercial Radio Australia Hall of Fame in 2002. The regional and then cap city announcer and sports commentator became a programmer in the early 60s at 2SM, later joining 2UE and turning it into a talk radio powerhouse with the likes of John Laws, Alan Jones and Ray Hadley at the microphones. Brennan later also joined Jones and Hadley at 2GB.

Broadcaster Chris Smith was on air this morning at 2GB when he broke the news of Brennan’s passing to his audience. “This is terribly upsetting for all of us in here,” said Smith who spoke about hiring Brennan as a part-time consultant when Smith was working as 2GB program director. “Others might claim they invented talkback radio, but Brennan did.” Joining Smith on air was 2GB breakfast host Ben Fordham who had arrived at the station. “A force of nature, a lion tamer. A pioneer of people power. He harnessed the idea of dial-in democracy.”

Later in the afternoon during the Continuous Call program, Ray Hadley called to pay his tribute to Brennan. “I owe John Brennan absolutely everything,” said Hadley.

When entering the Hall of Fame, CRA noted:

John Brennan began his career at 2WG Wagga Wagga in 1949 as an announcer and sports commentator. He worked at 2GZ Orange before joining 2SM Sydney in 1956 as a disc jockey and assistant football caller to the legendary Frank Hyde.

In 1962, he was appointed Programme Director/Music Director/Executive Producer where he formulated the highly successful “Good Guy Format”. After 26 years with 2SM he joined 2UE in the mid-80s.

As Programme Director, John introduced a talk format that made 2UE the premier Talk Station in Australia during the late 80s and through the 90s. In 1989, John was awarded an OAM and an Advance Australia Award in 1990 for services to radio and a FARB Lifetime Achievement Award in 2001. John was inducted into the Commercial Radio Hall of Fame in 2002.

Commenting on his passing today, former 2GB announcer, now with Seven News Sydney, Jason Morrison said:

Brenno was the force behind some of the industry’s biggest names. He took three stations to the top of the Sydney ratings. Many owe their success to his support and guidance.

Condolences to his lovely wife Jenny, his sons Peter (who followed Dad into broadcasting) and Rick Brennan. His daughter Jan-Mary passed away 6 years ago.

John Brennan was truly one of radio’s great people. A real gentleman.

1170 SEN breakfast host Andrew Voss said:

So sad to learn of the passing of John Brennan; pioneer of schoolboy rugby league calling. It’s been an honour to follow in his footsteps. When I was just 15 writing to radio stations for a job, he was the only one who got back to me with encouragement. Forever thankful.

Chris Bowen, former 2GB producer and now publishing Bowen’s Garage, commented:

John Brennan was a very rare commodity in radio land. A true gentleman, one that proved that irrespective of the era you could maintain integrity and respect without behaving like a demigod.

EFTM publisher, Today show tech guru and former 2GB producer said:

Brenno was a pioneer. A true great. I’m grateful for our friendship, his mentorship and for the chats – I’ll cherish our last catch up, and the things he taught me over many years listening, observing, and working as his Assistant Program Director during the re-birth of the 2GB we all know today.

He said to me in response to a note of respect for his 60th anniversary of his time in radio (in 2009) this:

“My God the time has flown but what a joyous ride it’s been mate.

“Five years at 2WG, Wagga Wagga (best years of my life) – fifteen months at 2GZ, Orange (Lawsy replaced me as I moved to Sydney to take up the 2SM offer).

I stayed 26 years with 2SM (where I introduced the Good Guys format with top 40 music) – I did 20 years with 2UE and 8 years at 2GB incorporating the News-Talk formula. It’s been a fabulous journey (with a few bumps) but always rewarding and memorable.

“I’m so privileged to have helped shape Personality driven Top Forty Radio and then Personality Talk Radio in this country (and launched a few careers on the way too). I feel very fulfilled and contented at this time in my life.”


The managing director of Nine Radio, Tom Malone, released this statement to staff this morning.

Brenno was a legend who through a long career transformed our industry and in particular talk radio, leaving an indelible mark on both 2UE and later 2GB. He understood the power of talk radio and its ability to give ordinary Australians their say, and holding law makers and institutions to account.

Beginning his radio career not long after World War II, as a sports reporter and announcer, he would go on to be Australia’s best radio programmer. In the 1960s he took a struggling 2SM to the top of the ratings with the “Good Guys”, in the 1980s he installed the talent at 2UE who took it to its zenith, and then in the 2000s he would make the move over to 2GB as it too became number one under his guidance.

Brenno had a simple philosophy when it came to what made great talk radio and he was known to say there two basics: to inform and entertain but that hosts should “entertain informingly, inform entertainingly” and he was right. He loved the interaction with callers, and was passionate about news and current affairs keeping copious notes on issues important to everyday Australians. Better than anyone he understood the companionship talk radio provided – on weekends, overnights, during holiday periods, and big news stories.

In 2014, Brenno launched his autobiography in which he rightly described himself as a “media godfather”. He had a unique and unrivaled ear for great talent.  He coaxed former Wallabies coach and Prime Ministerial speech writer Alan Jones to get behind the microphone, and gave Ray Hadley – a former taxi driver and sports broadcaster – his start on talk back filling in for John Laws. He transformed 2UE in the 80s, and then 2GB in the 2000s.

His ability to recognise and develop radio talent is unlikely to ever be surpassed. The list of talent he nurtured, grew or gave their first starts includes John Stanley, Ben Fordham, Mike Walsh, Ron Casey, Mike Gibson, Stan Zemanek, Peter Frilingos, Jason Morrison, Prue MacSween, and many many others, including straight from school a young Peter Overton.

Personally, I remember putting down tapes at 2UE in the 90s, and leaving them at Brenno’s door seeking his approval for “on air” duties in the newsroom – one of thousands across news and programming who would have done the same thing. In his unique style he would give feedback. “Tommy my boy, I think another week or so, and you’ll just about have it.”

He was a kind and generous man, with time for everyone, just as comfortable speaking with Prime Ministers as he was with ordinary Australians. He was compassionate, and particularly interested in helping people – from the aged, to the infirmed, and the under privileged.

Brenno’s love of radio was immense. While he would technically ‘retire’ in 2007 he remained passionately involved in talk radio, he would still consult for years to come, and he was still known to call hosts to let them know he was listening or to give them feedback on segments.

Today we will see many tributes rightly flow for a man who has left an incredible legacy in Australian Radio. A father of three, he is survived by his wife Jenny, his son Peter Brennan, who would follow his father and also spend time as program director of 2UE, and son Richard.

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