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.

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