Ron Onions: Journalist who brought the energy of American radio to the UK with LBC

 

Almost every news programme on British TV and radio bears the stamp of Ron Onions, the mercurial genius who in the 1970s and '80s created the ethos of commercial radio news and current affairs.

Onions was the architect and boss of LBC/IRN, the London-based current affairs station LBC, and its sister, the national commercial service Independent Radio News. In leading what was effectively a revolution against the broadcasting establishment, Onions became the former BBC employee who knocked the BBC off its perch.

He brought in an approach to radio news that swept away the traditional "bulletin of record" style. Alert to the sheer energy of American broadcasting from time spent working in New York, he introduced to the UK the idea of the three-minute "snapshot" bulletin. Relying on pace, brilliant writing, vivid interview snippets and short, punchy eyewitness reports, it helped pave the way in this country for the modern concept of rolling news.

IRN's formative moment came in the Falklands War of 1982 when Onions fought against a reluctant Foreign Office for IRN's reporter to be given a berth in the press ranks and travel to the front line. Onions got his way and LBC/IRN had arrived as a national force.

What truly rattled his rivals was the way in which Onions' squad of dynamic young reporters scooped them. Unsurprisingly the BBC, along with ITN and Channel 4, recruited heavily from his stable of go-getters. The list of people who passed through his tutelage at LBC/IRN reads like a who's who of some of the most distinctive names in broadcast news. His chutzpah made household names of figures like Bob Holness, Dickie Arbiter and Douglas Cameron, launched the careers of distinguished journalists like Jon Snow and Peter Allen, and established Carol Thatcher as a phone-in host.

He drew on the values of his personal life, at the centre of which were his beloved wife Doris, his childhood sweetheart, and their two daughters Sarah (like her father a journalist), and Louise, severely mentally handicapped from birth. He was determined that Louise, who needed institutional care from very early on, should maintain a constant, loving and close relationship with her family. Her death three years ago caused him huge grief.

Onions was born and raised in hard financial circumstances in Enfield, on the outskirts of London, where he won a place at Edmonton County Grammar. After serving as RAF ground crew just after the war, he found his vocation in journalism, on the Enfield Gazette and then as a sports reporter for the Tottenham Herald. The family moved to the south coast, where Ron worked for the Brighton Evening Argus, and he recalled seeing football scores being flown by carrier pigeon back from to the office in time for the late edition.

Before long he was snapped up by the BBC and was fast-tracked through some of their showcase programmes, like Cliff Michelmore's Tonight. He was confronted with the sometimes terrible human cost of news when he covered the Aberfan disaster. For days he was awake virtually round the clock, snatching moments of rest in the 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 property, Onions was sent to America as New York news organiser. His family moved with him – including Louise, after Onions typically fought and vanquished the bureaucrats reluctant to support her care in the US.

It was a golden professional period and Onions relished his instinct for it, orchestrating the BBC's coverage of major events like the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and 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 office whip-round secured an exclusive interview with Muhammad Ali. The overheard gossip of American journalists in the office next door enabled him to scoop everyone on the news of Jackie Kennedy's wedding plans with Onassis.

Eventually he wanted to bring his family back to England, and he fell out with the BBC; his restlessly creative spirit couldn't stand being shunted into a London desk job. But then the new challenge of commercial radio came to the rescue. First (thanks to its chairman Richard Attenborough, with whom he remained friends) Onions became boss of the London music station Capital Radio's fledgling newsroom.

Then, in 1974, he was appointed head of LBC. 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 newlyweds dancing at Ronnie Scott's. 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".

In 1983 he was awarded an OBE for his services to broadcasting. There was one last professional hurrah in 1991, launching a successful bid with Reuters to win the franchise for LBC.

Retirement 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. The heartache of 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 conceived by Sarah, and it rescued Ron from the black-dog melancholy that had sometimes been the dark side of his creative spirit. Ron, Sarah and Doris wrote it together, and it is due for publication soon: a fitting memorial to a kind, humane and remarkable man.

Ronald Edward Derek Onions, journalist: born London 27 August 1929; OBE 1983; married 1951 Doris Moody (one daughter, and one daughter deceased); died Surbiton, Surrey 27 May 2012.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm today
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Bianca Miller and Katie Bulmer-Cooke are scrutinised by Lord Sugar's aide Nick Hewer on The Apprentice final
tvBut Bianca Miller has taken on board his comments over pricing
Life and Style
Approaching sale shopping in a smart way means that you’ll get the most out of your money
life + styleSales shopping tips and tricks from the experts
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
Elton John and David Furnish exchange marriage vows
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
News
in picturesWounded and mangy husky puppy rescued from dump
Sport
David Silva, Andy Carroll, Arsene Wenger and Radamel Falcao
football
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Domestic Gas Service Engineers



£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Domestic Gas Service Engineers ...

Recruitment Genius: Project Director / Operations Director

£50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an incredible opportunity for a ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator

£16000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Administrator is requir...

Recruitment Genius: EWI / IWI Installer

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of design...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'