New honour for pioneer KG Cunningham and his ‘miracle’ career
No-one has left a greater mark and legacy on the South Australian sporting landscape from a media seat than Kenneth George Cunningham. Michelangelo Rucci talks to “KG” about how he transformed sports radio in Australia, and the latest addition to his spectacular and unlikely CV.
Ken "KG" Cunningham will be inducted into the South Australian Sport Hall of Fame in March. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily
KG – “I like being called ‘KG,’ not Ken Cunningham,” he says – recast South Australian sport in a way no one had done before he took to a radio microphone in Tynte Street, North Adelaide, in September 1977.
For five decades as a self-effacing, self-described emotional babbler – more so than his career as a Sheffield Shield-winning batsman for South Australia or an SANFL league umpire who redefined the staid image of whistleblowers – KG changed how South Australian sport fans reacted to events on and off the playing fields of Adelaide.
By the early 1980s, sporting leaders and stars knew they had to sit with Cunningham in the 5DN studio or be live on the phone to tell their story – unedited, and hopefully without interruption – while thousands tuned in from 4 to 6pm each weekday.
His remarkable career has now attracted a new accolade – elevation to the South Australian Sport Hall of Fame as this year’s winner of the “Spirit of South Australia” award. It’s the highest honour in the Hall of Fame, which recognises a lifetime of achievement. He’s one of a series of new inductees to be formally recognised at a gala event at Adelaide Oval on March 1.
A self-confessed traditionalist, KG completely transformed the conservative South Australian ways of showcasing sport.
Even “The Greatest” – world boxing champion Muhammad Ali – after 18 months of prompting took the call from KG and spoke for 15 minutes with the man who did not think he would survive one ratings period. Now, 47 years later, the 84-year-old is still on the airwaves and in the headlines as an advocate for any moment that enhances South Australia’s sporting status.
Not everyone believed KG’s motivation was for anything more than those critical ratings points that make and break radio careers quicker than a series of ducks can end a first-class cricket career.
“Before I worked with him, I thought the passion, the emotion, the publicly professed love for South Australia, his old cricket mates and West Adelaide (football) was a touch contrived and manufactured for public attention,” says Graham Cornes, KG’s longest-serving on-air partner with a 17-year run in drive at FIVEaa.
Cornes was not alone. Cunningham successfully sued The Advertiser in the early 1980s after he was the subject of a front-page story reporting SANFL clubs, led by South Adelaide, had taken issue at the league table with KG’s presentation of the game, accusing him of putting ratings before the facts.
“After working with him, I soon realised it was genuine,” adds Cornes, who joined KG behind the microphone after being sacked as Crows coach at the end of the 1994 AFL season.
“It drives me crazy,” says Cornes who once threatened on-air to deck KG with a heavy and large ornament, “but that is the depth of his passion.
“He can barely go an hour on air without ringing (his children) Sally or Scott or his granddaughters. It’s the one thing he does – he puts love (for his family) above all else.”
KG Cunningham in front of the scoreboard at Adelaide Oval where he forged careers as a first-class cricketer, SANFL umpire and broadcaster. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily
Cunningham regards his survival – let alone his unprecedented achievements in sports media where he has spawned many imitators – as a “miracle”.
“I destroy the English language,” he notes. “I talk too fast. I stutter and sputter. I am an emotional idiot at the drop of a hat. So how do I last for all this time in radio? It’s a miracle,” he says.
The boy who grew up in a cottage on Market Street, off Gouger Street in the city, left Goodwood Tech school at 12 as he struggled with a stammer that left him embarrassed to read aloud his mum’s shopping list at the local corner store.
He changed jobs as often as he took guard as a left-handed batsman, but is now a treasured (and contentious) part of South Australian sporting history, folklore and traditions.
“How unlikely… you would not have thought (KG would achieve such),” Cunningham says of his rise to pantheons such as the SA Football Hall of Fame, his honour with his name on a media centre at his beloved Adelaide Oval and, now, the SA Sport Hall of Fame.
There is no question where KG has left his greatest mark on South Australia – let alone South Australian sport – after starting his cricket career as a 14-year-old leg spinner being smashed onto the tennis courts during his second and third overs at Glenelg Oval while starting his district cricket story at the Adelaide Cricket Club.
“I decided to put more time in my batting (after that inauspicious debut as a bowler),” Cunningham recalls of his wise shift in focus as a cricketer.
It paid off with a call to the South Australian Sheffield Shield team for the home clash of the 1960/61 season with Victoria – most appropriate considering how Cunningham lived, inflamed and nurtured the sporting rivalry between the two states. He represented South Australia for 14 seasons, won three Shields (1963/64, 1968/69 and 1970/71) and represented Australia A in a 1966-67 tour.
At the same time, Cunningham also was a leading SANFL field umpire from 1961 to 1967, after starting as a boundary umpire in the 1950s when his football ambitions at West Adelaide were wrecked by a knee injury. He had a run of four memorable grand final appearances that ended with a much-regretted “dummy spit” after being denied a fifth.
KG’s unfulfilled return to Shield cricket – as South Australia captain in 1977 while Ian Chappell and Co made their rebel defections to World Series Cricket – underlines how he changed the way South Australian sport was presented to the fans.
SA Cricket Association leader Phil Ridings had chosen Cunningham, four years after he had retired from first-class cricket, to fill the void left by state captain Ian Chappell’s move to Kerry Packer’s so-called circus in 1977.
“We will call (journalist) Gordon Schwartz and make the announcement in The Advertiser on Monday,” Ridings told Cunningham. It was the way things were done then.
Within five years, with KG achieving record-breaking ratings in drive radio, sporting announcements became exclusives for Cunningham and 5DN and later FIVEaa. KG created a place where sporting stars felt comfortable to tell their stories. The man on the other side of the studio was the ultimate fan himself: he would always side with the athlete in his presence.
“He pioneered the genre of sports talk”
The phone call that changed South Australian sport and Australian radio came from Marty Smith on a Friday in September 1977, while Cunningham was lunching with Brownlow Medallist Noel Teasdale at the Newmarket Hotel. He was being summoned to 5DN at 3.30 that afternoon to meet the station’s general manager Paul Linkson.
After a six-week tour of the US, Linkson returned to Adelaide wanting KG, who was a pioneer for television sports programming on Channel Nine, to be his front man for the new format of sports talkback from 4-6pm from Monday to Friday.
“Play three songs across the two hours, do some interviews, take some calls,” said Linkson.
“I laughed at him,” Cunningham recalls.
Cunningham could not be a cricketer and radio star at the same time. He had to choose between following his boyhood dream to play cricket, or being a pioneer in media where he already had built a profile at Channel Nine from 1968 with entertaining football shows.
That weekend, fearing failure on radio and another stint of unemployment, Cunningham opted to be South Australia’s cricket captain again. His wife Sandra (née Wright), the “Audrey Hepburn” who took his heart on first sight during a blind date, changed that plan.
“Why don’t you for the first time in your life show some balls and take the radio job,” Sandra said over breakfast.
Cunningham immediately created an audience for his ground-breaking radio show. At the end of the second ratings survey eight weeks after he began, Cunningham was called to Linkson’s office and climbed the stairs “physically shaking” out of fear he would be sacked – a theme that has continued for KG with every ratings announcement.
Linkson shook his hand in congratulations. Cunningham had taken 5DN to No.1 in drive for the first time, ending 5AD’s dominance.
The theme continued at FIVEaa from 1991, after 5DN with new owners dumped talkback in favour of music. His new sports show became a partnership with the late cricketer David Hookes, and then Cornes.
“Without doubt, his greatest legacy is in the industry of sports broadcasting,” says Cornes, who still shares a microphone with KG on Saturday mornings. “He pioneered the genre of sports talk.
“He may not be the most-polished presenter,” Cornes told InDaily, “but he is the most passionate.”
“In that era before today’s social media which commands instant gratification, his drive program was a must-listen to hear the latest breaking news and to hear interviews with your favourite sports stars.”
Linkson had been inspired by the US, where sportscaster Howard Cosell had become America’s most-loved and most-hated media identity at the same time. KG was the equivalent in the parallel universe in Adelaide, as highlighted in 1990 when he saw the other side of being a top-rating sports presenter setting the daily agenda.
For his stoic protests against the Port Adelaide Football Club, Cunningham was physically and verbally tormented by the rebellious SANFL club’s fans at Alberton Oval during the stormy winter that temporarily thwarted Port Adelaide’s AFL ambitions and led to the Crows entry to the national football league.
KG had South Australians listening to him in record numbers. He had people tell him they would never listen to him – and then quote verbatim what he had said on his show the previous night. His detractors knew his show better than his loyal fans.
Cunningham is a paradox. Too often, his critics judge him by the theatre of his show – with the “Strike me pink!” trademark – but have never understood nor recognised his passion and care for South Australian sport is genuine rather than an act.
Even Cornes misjudged Cunningham when they first met on a football field in 1967, when Cornes arrived from Whyalla to make his SANFL league debut for Glenelg against Sturt at Unley Oval.
“I have many endearing memories of Ken, but the most enduring happened on that second-last game of the season (in 1967),” Cornes said. “Coming down from Whyalla, I had only trained twice with Glenelg. Nobody knew my name, but at the first ruck contest with Tony Clarkson, KG was calling us both by our names, encouraging us to go for the ball. I was stunned. How could the umpire know my name. But he did.”
Cunningham made many South Australian sportspeople household names with his radio show where everyone is a “champion”, a “star”, a “great” even if they have only just started to chase fame and fortune.
KG asked for net pay of $200 a week when he started at 5DN in 1977 and ultimately became one of the highest-paid announcers – if not the highest-paid – on South Australian radio.
The end of Cunningham’s long stint on FIVEaa drive in 2008 “marked one of the saddest days of my life” but not the end of KG’s influence on South Australian sporting destiny as noted recently with his protest at the timing and profile of the Adelaide Oval Test match on this season’s schedule.
Even today there is a long list of would-be KGs trying to fill the shoes of a sports broadcaster, who has left footprints that not only defined Kenneth George Cunningham – but South Australian sport.
“Call me ‘KG’,” he says. “How blessed have I been?”
As contentious as the love-hate relationship is with the KG personality, no-one can deny Cunningham’s long and lasting influence on South Australian sport.
The latest inductees to the South Australian Sport Hall of Fame will be announced at Adelaide Oval on March 1. For details and tickets, go here.
Read InDaily throughout February as we reveal this year’s inductees.