For three decades, audiences have loved Jon Faine’s interrogations as much as high-profile guests have hated them.
«Holding power to account» is a phrase you’re likely to hear if you tune in to Jon Faine’s radio show. With other catchcries like «astonishing», «extraordinary» and «fascinating», the former lawyer has always had a flair for the theatrical.
Every weekday, the performance begins when the clock hits 8:35am.
Instead of sitting and talking into the microphone, the headset-wearing Faine stands and delivers his opening monologue, gesturing and pacing around his part of the studio.
But the interviews with leaders — politicians, union bosses and police commissioners — provide the best drama. No-one is spared a grilling. The combative, courtroom-style interrogations have endeared Faine to listeners of ABC Radio Melbourne’s Mornings program for 24 years, and occasionally caused a great deal of stress for his managers.
It is all set to come to an end next Friday, when Faine presents his final show and retires from the ABC.
Sometimes, hours of meticulous research goes into crafting a series of questions that are impossible for interviewees to wriggle out of. On other occasions, Faine’s simple queries can be just as devastating.
«How come you say so many stupid things?» Faine once asked former prime minister Tony Abbott. His opening question to Julia Gillard, three days after she ousted Kevin Rudd to become Australia’s first female prime minister, was also typically audacious: «Do you have blood on your hands?»
Gillard, interviewed by Faine more than a dozen times between 2010 and 2013, says she never got a free ride. «Certainly if he senses weakness he will definitely keep digging, but that’s what good journalism is,» Ms Gillard says.
Another regular on the program is the current Federal Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, who says Faine tries to «strongarm» those he interviews, but «he really does want to get to the nub of the issue».
Faine says it is harder to extract honest answers out of political leaders than in years gone past. «You’re getting someone that has been rehearsed. They’ve gamed the interview,» he says.
«There’s more people working in spin doctoring than journalism. We are now outnumbered.»
‘Radio is a great bullshit detector’
If interview subjects obfuscate or become flustered, Faine says he will push harder. At times, the approach has landed him in hot water, and he is quick to clarify: «You don’t do that to vulnerable people.»
«Radio is a great bullshit detector,» Faine says, arguing the medium serves as an «instant authenticity test» for presenters, guests, politicians or business figures.
Former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett’s irritable interview with Faine in 1999 — when he said he would «sit here and drink my tea» instead of answer questions — was regarded by some political commentators as the moment that cost him the state election.
Then there was Mr Abbott’s infamous wink, captured by television cameras, which came after a 67-year-old talkback caller to Faine’s show told the then-prime minister she worked on a phone sex line in order to afford rent.
Some commentators and critics have accused Faine of being biased. During political interviews, it is common for listeners to send in text messages complaining he skews too much to the left or the right. One of his staunchest critics, News Corp commentator Andrew Bolt, has previously written that Faine is «one of the most biased» against the Liberals. But that’s not how Mr Frydenberg sees it. «I think he has been pretty tough on Liberal, Labor and independent alike,» the Treasurer says. «I don’t find him partisan, nor do I find him playing favourites.»
Former Victorian premier Steve Bracks and Ms Gillard agree. «Challenging but fair,» is how Mr Bracks describes Faine’s style.
Faine says he has friends on all sides of politics and tries not to let any personal views «infect» his coverage. The 63-year-old says he has never been a member of a political party, but did once attend an inner-Melbourne Labor branch meeting before joining the ABC. Some at the meeting wanted to shut down the local police station, Faine recalls, so he decided to speak against the proposal. «I went away thinking these people are completely crazy,» he says.
Bittersweet departure for broadcast veteran
In January, Faine decided to call time on his career at the ABC and from October 14 he will be replaced by another experienced broadcaster, Virginia Trioli. Faine seems excited to finish; on his desk he keeps a handwritten tally of remaining shows that he cheerfully crosses out every few days. That joy is also tinged with sadness. «I’m going to miss it terribly,» Faine says. «I’ve had a blast and I know it can’t go forever. I’d rather be in charge of the timing of my departure rather than have someone else decide it for me.»
Faine has been a daily companion in the car, at home or at work for thousands of listeners around Melbourne. His program covers all issues — politics, urban affairs, sport, the arts, and everything in between — and many feel a deep personal connection to him.
For 97-year-old Ita Hastings from the regional Victorian town of Rochester, Faine has provided a window to a world she can no longer clearly see or hear. Each morning, Ms Hastings and her family summon Faine using voice commands on the Google Home device in her bedroom. «He’s the only one I can hear properly,» she says. «He doesn’t let them get away with anything and he puts them right quite often.»
From courtroom to the studio
A career in radio was never part of the plan for Faine. Born in New Zealand, Faine grew up in Sydney and the Melbourne suburb of Armadale, where he enjoyed being in the Scouts, playing with model airplanes and was «bad at sport but quite enjoyed trying». He attended Melbourne High School and went on to study law at Monash University.
Lawyer Peter Gordon, the president of the Western Bulldogs AFL club, remembers Faine as an «avant-garde leader of the student legal movement». Mr Gordon says they met around 1979, when Faine «had a big afro and sometimes sported earrings with canaries on them».
Early in his career, Faine split his time between commercial litigation and volunteer legal work at night. The «lightbulb moment» came when the young lawyer was presented with a tea chest full of documents and was tasked with helping an insurance company reduce its costs for fixing a leaky aircraft hangar. He decided to quit and landed a role at the Fitzroy Legal Service, which involved regular media interviews.
In 1989, Faine joined the ABC as the producer/presenter of the Law Report on Radio National in an attempt to make himself «a more marketable lawyer». He went further down the media rabbit hole with television hosting gigs on The Investigators and Wise Up and moved across to ABC Radio Melbourne, then known as 3LO. Stints on various shows were followed by what he describes as a «sacking», when his contract was not renewed in 1994. On his final day, Faine took a deep breath on-air and delivered a message to ABC management after a long pause … «Merry Christmas». Within a year, he returned to the station and has been there ever since.
Faine has toyed with returning to the legal scene to work as a barrister over the years, but eventually shelved the idea after being talked out of it by friends. It’s a move he says he has no regrets about, even if he could have pocketed much more than his annual $300,000 ABC salary (Faine has been open for years about how much he is paid). Mr Gordon believes Faine would have been «essentially dissatisfied» by a career in the courtroom. «I’m not sure that it would have provided him with a breadth of opportunities that his current gig does,» Mr Gordon says.
‘I’ve had people walk up to me and start weeping’
For all the highlights, Faine’s job has also delivered moments of personal heartache.
He was on air, steering the emergency coverage on Black Saturday, when Victoria’s hottest day in living memory produced fires so ferocious that 173 lives were lost. Later that night, he had to pull over to the side of the road and began weeping in his car, aghast at the sight of oblivious Melburnians partying in Federation Square. To this day, he still can’t bring himself to listen back to the Black Saturday coverage and believes those memories will haunt him forever.
The death of colleague Jill Meagher also continues to upset Faine. In 2012, radio staff gathered in the office on a Friday to celebrate Faine’s birthday. He went home and others stayed out, making their way to Brunswick, just north of the CBD. The next day, Faine received a text message saying the office manager was missing. Ms Meagher’s disappearance, and the subsequent arrest of a man for her murder and rape became the biggest local story of the year. Faine choked back tears during a tribute to Ms Meagher, telling listeners there was «a very empty space in our office».
Personal relationships have made for enjoyable radio, too. Red Symons, the former Breakfast show host, regards Faine as a close friend. The two first met in a supermarket and later became on-air sparring partners for 15 minutes each day, when Faine would come on Symons’s show to promote Mornings. The unscripted battle of wit and ego was a daily treat. «Any thinking person listening to the two of us talking would think, ‘Jon’s wrong and Red’s right’,» quips Symons, who left the ABC in 2017.
The last two years have been difficult for Symons — his son died after a long battle with cancer, his marriage ended, he lost his job and he spent weeks in hospital with severe concussion — but he is immensely thankful for his friend’s support. «In the way that any truly close person does, they don’t ask anything of you. They don’t lift up the rock to see what’s crawling underneath. They’re just your friend,» Symons says. «If they can make your cup of tea and spend time with you, then they do. And Jon did.»
This kind of pastoral care extends beyond friends, often to vulnerable strangers who share their stories on Faine’s program — be it abuse survivors, whistleblowers, bushfire victims or people with disabilities. It is common for him to call them up after shows to check if they are ok.
«I’m not a teacher, I’m not a priest, I’m not a psychologist. I’m just some bloke on the end of a radio studio microphone. But if you trust me, then I have to honour that,» Faine says.
«I’ve had people walk up to me in the street and start weeping on my shoulder. It’s not necessarily what you want when you’re wandering around the shops on the weekend, but at the same time, you have to realise why that happens.»
Turning the microscope on the ABC
It’s no surprise that after spending nearly half his life at the ABC, Faine is a staunch defender of his turf. He has spoken out against those he perceives as diminishing the cultural institution, including his own colleagues and ABC bosses.
Before she was sacked midway through her four-year term, former managing director Michelle Guthrie was publicly criticised by Faine for not properly advocating for the ABC. On the morning her dismissal was announced, Faine delivered a crushing send-off. «Guthrie,» he fumed, «showed no interest in content, showed no interest in journalism, showed no interest in the actual nuts and bolts of this organisation».
Faine has questioned whether the ABC, dealing with $84 million in budget cuts, should continue to fund its lifestyle website ABC Life. He is also annoyed by the softer stories that sometimes appear on the nightly flagship current affairs television program, 7.30.
In July, ABC managing director David Anderson said funding for the ABC Life website had come from previous cost savings and that its long-term future was under review. Mr Anderson also rejected Faine’s suggestions that 7.30 was turning into a «magazine program». «It has a mix of hard-hitting journalism but it also seeks to be accessible to the Australian public,» Mr Anderson said.
Faine says there is nothing personal behind his desire to question and criticise his workplace on occasion. «It’s about the direction of a program or it’s about a particular approach to holding people to account. We have to be capable of being just as tough on our own as we are on everybody else,» Faine says.
An ‘argumentative’ and ‘offensive’ streak
In the thousands of interviews Faine has conducted over the years (he estimates up to 40,000), there have been occasions when the host has overstepped the mark.
The ABC’s Audience and Consumer Affairs department found Faine breached editorial policies in 2012, ruling his «argumentative» interviews with a former newspaper editor and radio host fell short of impartiality standards.
Last year, the ABC twice apologised for Faine’s on-air comments after complaints from listeners.
Faine’s behaviour during an interview with disability advocate Carly Findlay was widely panned, with critics accusing the host of being insensitive while discussing Ms Findlay’s skin condition.
Months later, another complaint was upheld about «offensive comments» Faine made about the ethnic background of NBN workers.
Faine admits there have been guests he has been rude to and treated unfairly over the years and it is something he dreads thinking about.
«There’s probably a few people I’ve left angry, bitter and hurting and I’m really sorry. That’s not what I get up in the morning to do,» he says.
Where to now for Faine?
When he looks at the overall picture, Faine is incredibly proud of his show’s achievements and heaps praise on the producers behind it. «It’s a relationship of absolute trust … you put your life in their hands every day,» he says. Together, they have won numerous Quill awards for Victorian journalism excellence and this year, Faine was made a Member of the Order of Australia for «significant service to the broadcast media as a radio presenter, to the law, and to the community».
Aside from the major political, social and urban affairs stories that have been broken, Faine still pinches himself when he thinks of some of the celebrity guests he’s interviewed — Mel Brooks, Peter Fonda, Lou Reed, James Taylor and Jackson Browne, to name a few.
It’s likely Melbourne hasn’t seen the last of Jon Faine, he just won’t be there for three-and-a-half hours each weekday. He hasn’t decided what his next career move is, but a tilt at politics is out of the question. «I want to be useful, stimulated and at least occasionally paid,» Faine says.
Former Victorian premier Steve Bracks describes Faine as «an institution» of Melbourne’s media, who leaves behind an «uncompromising, hard-hitting» legacy, while Julia Gillard says he has «become better and better every year». Adds Josh Frydenberg: «We might not always like what he has to say, but that’s not his job to be liked. It’s to be respected.» Peter Gordon says Faine’s impact on Melbourne’s media scene will probably only be realised when he is no longer on air. «I think there are certain people that a town doesn’t really appreciate until they go,» Mr Gordon says.
If the hundreds of comments on the ABC Melbourne Facebook page are anything to go by, some are genuinely mourning his departure. About 4,500 people have entered a ballot to attend his farewell show at the Melbourne Town Hall and unfortunately two-thirds will miss out on tickets.
Familiar voice returns to steer the ship
Having spent the last two decades as one of Melbourne’s most well-known voices, Faine credits his wife Jan for keeping him grounded.
«It doesn’t matter if I’ve interviewed the prime minister or broken the biggest story. I’ll come home and she’ll say ‘pick up the dog shit and put the rubbish out’. And that is so important. I can never, ever repay her,» he says.
After Faine hangs up the microphone, he plans to spend more time with family, including his parents who are in their 90s, son and stepson. He wants to hit the road and travel around regional Australia and hopes to build a vintage Citroen B2 car in his garage — sometime before 2026.
And for his replacement, Virginia Trioli, there are big boots to fill. «They all point out Jon Faine’s show as the one to emulate,» Trioli says. The pair have known each other for decades and crossed paths regularly when Trioli hosted the station’s Drive program in the early 2000s. One piece of advice she received from Faine continues to stick in her mind. «After my first day on air he said to me, ‘Right, one down, 15,222 to go. Now it’s a matter of showing up and you have to be consistently on the money’,» Trioli says.
Naturally, Trioli will look to put her own spin on the Mornings show when it becomes her own. But something that won’t change, she says, is a «fearless and forensic» approach to covering issues that matter to Melburnians.
Faine is confident the Mornings show and its audience are in safe hands.
«Virginia’s formidable and she knows exactly what she needs to do,» Faine says.
- Story: Kristian Silva
- Pictures: Brendan McCarthy, Kristian Silva
- Faine through the ages video: Tiffanie Liew