The Age, Australia
July 31 2014
Radio fixated on white male presenters, says George Donikian
Meet George Donikan, Irishman.
When Greek-Armenian broadcaster George Donikian was establishing
himself in radio four decades ago, his ethnic origins presented a
problem. So he agreed to fake them.
“I wanted to be me but they wouldn’t let me,” Donikian recalls.
Ironically, his surname had been considered fine in regional radio in
Queensland. But once he hit the big time in Sydney, he was told he had
to make himself fit in to a world of broadcasting that didn’t have
room for presenters who broke the white Anglo mould.
“You’ve got a job tomorrow,” a prospective boss told him. “But I can’t
do Donikian. You can be George White, George Green, any colour George
“So I said, ‘OK, what you’re saying is, I’m too ethnic. How about I
take one letter off my name and make it Donikan?’. And he said, ‘Yeah,
good. You’ve got the job’.”
Weeks later, Donikian was invited to be host of a St Patrick’s Day event.
“The minute I walked in they said, ‘You’re not Irish’. I said, ‘To be
sure, to be sure’. I became an honorary Irishman for the next eight
Four decades on, Donikian wonders how much has changed. In a recent
column, Radio Waves noted the glaring gender imbalance among on-air
presenters; just as glaring, as Donikian points out, is the industry’s
reluctance to accept broadcasters who don’t fit the ancient and
preferred profile of white Anglo male.
“The most conservative things on the planet are television programmers
and radio programmers,” he says.
In the 1970s, Donikian was an up-and-comer in the radio industry.
“It was ‘the jocks’ – and it was too hard to put the jocks on
jockettes. It was out of America, it was the programming of the west
coast. Somehow you couldn’t have a woman’s voice coming out and saying
it with the same resonance.”
That was, and largely remains, an unbroken tradition. “We’ve never even tried.”
Radio listeners have been long conditioned to expect and accept names
and accents – and genders – that don’t challenge the status quo. When
the ABC launched its youth broadcaster Double J in the 1970s, one of
its standard bearers was one Bill Drake – whose real name, Holger
Brockman, was considered too “ethnic”. In Melbourne, the famous voice
of music radio, Lee Simons, had similarly abbreviated a name that
didn’t fit the accepted mix.
“What I didn’t realise until I got into the business is that there
were a whole lot of multicultural boys and girls – well, no girls –
just boys,” Donikian says. “All they did, as I had to do, we had to
change our names. It’s like a bit of Hollywood. They didn’t want it to
be too ethnic. And Australian radio has remained white Anglo-Saxon
Protestant for a lifetime. And male.”
Remarkably, little has changed, he says. Regarding women on air, he
notes: “Have a look at SBS radio and that will tell you something. We
don’t have a fairer mix. The diversity component on radio is
extraordinary. It’s still way too narrow.”
Donikian was a pioneer in changing our perceptions and expectations.
After years as the innocuous ‘Donikan’ on Sydney radio, he was then
tapped to front the launch of SBS television in 1980. The station went
out on the UHF band – “ultra hard to find. They gave us the bottom of
the ABC tower instead of the top of the tower. They weren’t into
sharing, it was about telling us what our place was.”
Broadcasting largely remains an outpost of an old Australia, Donikian
says, with our cultural and gender diversity at best an after-thought
in programming decisions. It’s instructive that among the high points
of his public fame were when he was satirised via Steve Vizard’s
comedic impressions on the sketch show Fast Forward.
“I hated it,” Donikian says. “Vizard did it too well. The attempted
over-pronunciation was too raw for me. People didn’t realise the
struggle and the energy that we spent to get that presentation down
pat. We had to come out of English, pronounce the name in the correct
manner, and then come back into English. And although they said, ‘You
did it seamlessly’, it was a departure – and a very different style of
presentation to anything that had been seen in Australia. I can
remember getting a lot of flack – people would think, ‘George is
making those affectations on purpose’. It was never anything on
purpose, we were trying to be as international as possible.”
Today, three years after ending his last mainstream commercial venture
as a newsreader for Channel Ten, Donikian has branched out as a
speechmaker, media trainer, mentor and public voice for the diverse
community for which he has been a standard bearer. He looks at the
modern media and wonders that so little progress has been made. “I
hate this blokeyness – everything’s Russy, Kenny, Billy, Johnny – I
despair. It’s like everything we tried to do is anathema.”
Back in the 1970s, he had to ask his father what do about not having a
profile that met the industry’s expectations. “I said to my father,
‘What do I do?’ He said, ‘Change your name. You can always change it