One of the first tributes to Ron Onions on hearing of his death came from Jon Snow, among several familiar names in broadcast news who cut their professional teeth under him. He simply said: ‘He was one of the very best”.
It sums up the recognition there is among his peers for the considerable contribution to broadcasting Onions made in his lifetime.
Like Jon Snow’s Channel 4 home, almost every news programme on British television and radio bears the stamp, in some degree, of the mercurial genius who in the 1970s and 80s created the whole ethos of commercial radio news and current affairs.
Ronald Edward Derek Onions, OBE, who has died suddenly in his sleep at the age of 82, was the architect and boss of LBC/IRN, the London-based current affairs station and its sister, the national commercial radio news service Independent Radio News.
In leading what was effectively a revolution against the broadcasting establishment, Onions became the former BBC employee who famously knocked the BBC off its perch.
He brought in an approach to radio news that swept away the more traditional ‘bulletin of record’style. Alert to the sheer energy of American broadcasting from his previous time as the BBC’s New York News Organiser, he introduced the UK to the idea of the three-minute ‘snapshot’bulletin, in which news was always moving forward, rather than just a summary of recent history.
Relying on pace, brilliant writing, vivid interview snippets and short, punchy eyewitness reports – immediate, upfront, sometimes brash, and always with an ‘angle”- it helped pave the way in this country for the modern concept of ‘rolling news”.
‘Good news bad, bad news good’
IRN’s formative moment came in the Falklands War of 1982. Onions fought like a tiger against an initially reluctant Foreign Office, for IRN’s own reporter to be given a berth in the accredited press ranks, and travel to the front line. As with many battles waged by this formidable figure throughout his lifetime, Onions got his way. LBC/IRN had truly arrived as a national force.
Throughout his reign, what truly rattled his BBC rivals was the way in which Onions’ squad of dynamic young reporters constantly scooped them on stories – and delivered them with a brio they just couldn’t match.
Unsurprisingly the BBC, along with ITN and Channel 4, quickly adopted an ‘if you can’t beat ’em, employ ’em’approach, and heavily recruited from Onions’ stable of go-getters. The list of people who passed through Ron Onions’ tutelage at LBC/IRN now reads like a who’s who of some of the most distinctive names in broadcast news.
It was Onions’ characteristic combination of vision and chutzpah that made figures like Bob Holness, Dickie Arbiter and Douglas Cameron into household names, launched the careers of distinguished journalists like Jon Snow and Peter Allen – and secured the services of Margaret Thatcher’s daughter Carol Thatcher as a phone-in host.
Many will remember not only Onions’ brisk and exacting standards, but the happy alliance of these to his handsome charm and an unexpectedly quirky good humour: forever, for instance, prone to coin an instant journalistic mantra. ‘Good news bad, bad news good’was one.
Ron Onions never forgot the human side of what he was doing, either in the workplace or in terms of the output he editorially oversaw. Instinctively kind and considerate beneath the demands of his professional nature, he won many friends among his employees.
He drew deeply on the values of his personal life: at the centre of which were his beloved wife Doris, and their two daughters Sarah (like her father a journalist), and Louise, severely mentally disabled from birth. He was determined that Louise, who needed institutional care from very early on, should nevertheless be looked after in such a way that a constant, loving and close relationship with her family could be maintained. Louise’s death two years ago caused Ron huge grief.
Starting out in journalism
Ron Onions was born and raised in hard financial circumstances in Enfield, on the north-eastern outskirts of London. A bright boy, he won a place at Norman Tebbit’s old school, Edmonton County Grammar. His wife Doris was his childhood sweetheart – and he remained as romantic about her all through his life.
After serving as RAF ground crew towards the latter end of the War, Ron soon found his vocation in journalism, on the Enfield Gazette and as a sports reporter for the Tottenham Herald.
It was after Ron and Doris moved to the south coast, however, that his career really took off. First came the Brighton Evening Argus, where he remembered seeing the football scores being flown by carrier pigeon back from the ground to the office, in time for the late edition.
Before long, however, he was snapped up by the BBC. One of the first people he worked with was a thrusting young film editor by the name of John Boorman. Soon Ron Onions was being fast-tracked through some of the Beeb’s showcase programmes, like Cliff Michelmore’s Tonight.
It was in this phase of his life that he was first confronted by the sometimes terrible human cost of news, when he was sent to cover the Aberfan disaster. For days Onions was awake virtually round the clock, only snatching moments of rest in the grim slurry-slimed miners’ huts, as he ensured news of the catastrophe’s awful scope was properly understood and told.
In a remarkable and humane piece of broadcasting as the funerals took place of all the children who had died, Onions positioned five cameras along the valley and at its head, and let the pictures and sound speak for themselves, running a report entirely without commentary.
By now hot BBC property, Onions was sent to America to fill the Corporation’s prestigious new post of New York News Organiser, with an office at the heart of Manhattan in the Rockefeller Centre. His family moved with him – including Louise, after Onions once again typically fought and vanquished the bureaucrats reluctant to support her care in the US.
Back to Blighty
It was a golden professional period. Far from being daunted by history in the making, Onions relished his instinct for it, orchestrating the BBC’s coverage of major international events like the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F Kennedy, and of course the Apollo moon shot, taking Doris and Sarah down to Florida to watch the launch of Apollo 11.
He had an instinct for improvising too. A quick whip-round among the office wallets secured an exclusive interview with Muhammad Ali. The gossip of American journalists overheard from an adjoining office, enabled him to scoop everyone on the news of Jackie Kennedy’s wedding plans with Onassis.
But eventually he wanted to bring his family back to England, and this was where he fell out with Aunty BBC. Onions’ restlessly creative spirit couldn’t stand being shunted into a London desk job as Foreign News Editor.
Just then, however, the wholly new challenge of commercial radio came to the rescue. First (thanks to its chairman Richard Attenborough, with whom he remained friends for the rest of his life) Onions became boss of the London music station Capital Radio’s fledgling newsroom.
Then in 1974 he was appointed head of LBC, to rescue the new talk station from its stuttering start. The story goes that before his appointment, Onions rang up to complain about its news coverage so often, the infuriated news editor threw the phone across the room.
Both modest and a realist, Onions knew the revolutionary impact of LBC/IRN, but would always downplay his role, preferring to credit the talent of the teams he employed. Nevertheless in 1983 he was awarded an OBE for his services to broadcasting.
A kind, humane and very remarkable man
Unsurprisingly, his career never quite attained the same peak, though subsequent highlights included being Jazz FM’s first programme controller – combining his love of broadcasting with the love of jazz he and his wife Doris had passionately shared since they were young newlyweds, dancing at Ronnie Scott’s. Ella Fitzgerald and Van Morrison came to the station’s opening.
Onions had also formed a lifelong friendship with the famous bandleader and raconteur Humphrey Lyttleton, who dedicated a song in the couple’s honour, ‘the Onions.”
There was one last professional hurrah, launching a successful bid with Reuters to win the franchise for LBC in 1991.
Retirement, however, brought a new happiness, as he devoted his life to his family: Doris, Sarah and Louise, and the two grandchildren he adored, Lucy and Joseph. Their memories are of someone who fitted exactly what a Grandad should be: funny, generous and a bit adventurous.
He might get lost, the blow-up rowing boat might capsize, but you were always loved and looked after. His visible joy at seeing his grandchildren arrive on the doorstep never diminished.
The heartache of his daughter Louise’s death helped produce his last achievement. ‘Don’t Bring Lulu”, is her life story, told through the interwoven viewpoints of her father, mother and sister. The book was an idea conceived by Ron’s elder daughter Sarah, and it rescued him from the black dog melancholy that had sometimes been the dark side of his creative spirit.
Ron, Sarah and Doris wrote it together, drawing on the family’s own archives, and it is due for publication soon: a fitting final memorial to a kind, humane and very remarkable man.
Ron Onions OBE, born 27th August 1929, died 27th May 2012, married to Doris, children Sarah and Louise. He is survived by his wife Doris, his elder daughter Sarah, and his grandchildren Lucy and Joseph.