60 Years of QLD TV

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Sunday, March 3, 2019

Vale: Billy J. Smith

This is indeed one post it feels like I am simply writing too soon. When we all heard the news on Wednesday afternoon, that we lost Billy J. Smith, from complications after a severe fall, at the age of 73, I naturally was shocked, as was many people.

This post is simply a celebration of someone who lived their life to the fullest, along with the ride, he all took us on as the sidecar to the motorcycle of his life, a life in the spotlight.

The Billy J. story in the media in Brisbane, began in the late 1960's, after a sojourn in QLD's outback. A young, vibrant top 40 radio announcer, Billy J. Smith helped shape the evolution of 4IP into a ratings powerhouse as a 4IP Good Guy (alongside, others like Geoff Mullins) in the early 1970's, while dabbling in rugby league commentary, something that would ultimately become a passion.

Brothers V Norths, Lang Park 1973: 4IP radio call, with Billy J. Smith and Ross Lawson. (from bashupark on Youtube)

During that initial 4IP run in the late sixties, Billy J was also given his first TV exposure: a variant on the gameshow "Concentration", entitled "The Numbers Game" on TVQ-0, before making another huge leap in 1974.

The launch of TVQ's news in May of that year, elevated some of the 4IP Good Guys to new roles: with Billy J. Smith being not just the first face of TVQ's sport, but the first ever sports presenter for the station. Another productive radio move happened in the mid-70's, this time to a 4BK that hadn't yet arrived at the Waynie-Poo era, and a new brand for standalone Billy J away from 4IP: one so fondly remembered today, "The Teenage Idol": with a famous promotion: dartboards with Billy's face on them. Meanwhile, the passion for league within Billy continued to rise despite some risks: at one point calling BRL at Lang Park for 4BK, George Lovejoy-style (a reference to a famous incident with the doyen of Brisbane RL radio announcers, George Lovejoy had to call a Bulimba Cup match (the historical rugby league representative competition between Brisbane, Toowoomba and Ipswich that ran from 1925 to 1972) in 1957 from a Ipswich rooftop), made even more dangerous, due to 4IP having Lang Park exclusivity.

BTQ-7 BRL Big League opener, 1980. (from bashupark on Youtube)

Eventually, Billy J's radio commentary, was finally given vision, when recruited by 7 to handle their BRL coverage in the late 1970's, along with calling one game that would indeed reshape rugby league in Queensland.

The full game, of State of Origin's birth, with Billy J Smith and Mick Vievers in the booth, July 8, 1980. (from NRL State of Orign Archive on Youtube.)

The pairing of Billy J Smith and Mick Veivers (who'd later serve as the last National Party member to hold the Gold Coast electorate of Southport (between 1987 and 2001, before the merger of the QLD Liberal and National Parties in 2008.) would serve 7 well, before the BRL jumped across to 0, and brought Billy J. back home.

TVQ-0 BRL League 82 opener (from bashupark on Youtube)

The 0 years for the BRL, witnessed the maturing of great players like Wally Lewis (yet to be crowned King Wally), Gene Miles, Mal Meninga and many others, into a cohesive brand of football that people in NSW only got to see a few times a year: first with the Combined Brisbane (a representive side of the BRL) participation in the NSW midweek competition, as well as the birth of the State of Origin series as a whole, but it was at one huge cost: Queenslanders wanting to make a better living off the game still went south, to NSW and it's pokie-funded clubs at the end of each season: but the Origin concept kept them at close quarters to their home state. At the same time, the Sydney competition began to be seen widely in Queensland, along with the maturing of QLD's rugby league post-Origin was capped off, with the victory in 1984, by the Combined Brisbane side (captained by Wally Lewis) over Sydney's Eastern Suburbs, to claim the Sydney midweek premiership (a game not called by Billy J. but by Sydney's Ray Warren), as well as the original QLD Origin dynasty: the first three series fell in QLD's favour, while turning doubters of the concept in Sydney (where interstate football pre-Origin in that city had been reduced to playing at Leichhardt Oval in front of shrinking crowds), into believers.

Rod Williams, "The Mighty Maroons": (from bashupark on Youtube)

In July 1984, Billy J. Smith had been in LA, calling various sports, for Ten's 1984 Olympics coverage before returning to wrap up the BRL season: what would be his final season calling Brisbane's local league. However, a major opportunity would arise out of the Olympics...

The iconic Rick Turk theme, for the 1985 incarnation of "It's A Knockout" (From oztvheritage on Youtube)

It's A Knockout, paired Billy J. with former Wombat presenter, Fiona McDonald, and made many great memories for viewers: especially, as Billy sold the venue: a sportsfield in north west Sydney (today, in the middle of NW Sydney's sprawling suburbia) as if it was Lang Park. And for over 100 episodes, IAK turned Billy J. Smith from a name Queenslanders knew and loved, into a household word in Australia literally overnight: something most notably seen, by the release of a IAK board game, with Billy J and Fiona's faces right on the front.

It's A Knockout, 1985 semi finals: with Billy J. Smith and Fiona McDonald doing the play by play. (From ukgladiatorsfan on Youtube)

But, the fun times would come to a end in 1987, with the sudden end of IAK (thanks to noise issues from surrounding residents), and a return to Brisbane, to anchor Stereo 10's (what was 4IP) Morning Zoo, alongside Jacki McDonald, before a new opportunity again arising, this time due to a titanic move by the NSWRL, to admit a Queensland-based team (or two, if one counted the Tweed Heads-based Gold Coast/Tweed Giants), in the form of the Brisbane Broncos.

Promotional commercial for the 1988 NSWRL Winfield Cup: which introduced the Brisbane Broncos and Gold Coast-Tweed Giants to the Sydney competition. (from Gary86 on Youtube)

This new opportunity for Billy J. was the return to the sports desk, at the now thriving TVQ newshour, as Rob Readings was moving up to anchor the bulletin in the year of Expo 88 (which would also see Wally Lewis come to TVQ for his first big media gig, along with a trip to Seoul to cover the Olympics, as well as a one off return to IAK, without Fiona McDonald, as part of a charity special in the US), as well as a new partnership, that would last until Ten lost the NSWRL in 1991: David Fordham, to not just review RL games, but call them, with TVQ's Saturday night games with both the Broncos, and the Giants/Seagulls: as well as a Queensland specific call for the 1990 State of Origin series (notable for being the last ever Origin series relayed to every QLD station, six months before aggregation arrived in Dec. 1990), all of which became must watch affairs.

State of Origin, Game 3 1990 on June 13, at Lang Park: with Billy J. Smith and David Fordham in the booth. (from NRL State of Orign Archive on Youtube.)

Gold Coast Seagulls V Western Suburbs Magpies, Seagulls Stadium, March 16, 1991: with Billy J. Smith and David Fordham in the booth. (from Rugby League Footage. on Youtube)

Ten's financial troubles, eventually split Fordo/Billy J. with Fordo remaining at TVQ, before returning to 7, while Billy J. was picked up by the new home of NSWRL: Nine. Billy J's role in the 9 era of RL coverage, at it's start, was the occasional Broncos game, and witnessed the move from Lang Park to QEII at Nathan along with the first two Broncos premierships. In 1994, however: it was about to be expanded, and finally gave Billy J. the chance to fulfill a ten year old dream: hosting a variety show, in the form of the QLD variant of the Footy Show.

Highlights of the first episode of the Brisbane Footy Show, 1994: (from bashupark on Youtube)

A typical Brisbane Footy Show cross to the AFL Footy Show's Sam Newman(from bashupark on Youtube)

Another key highlight of the Brisbane Footy Show, was the fact that it wasn't afraid to talk about the "other code": AFL, and other sports (the first episode of 1995: (days after the first ever QLD Sheffield Shield win) was proof), unlike the Sydney product, as well as the great effort to promote women as part of the program (inc. Donna Lynch and Laurel Edwards). Sam Newman commentaries became the highlight of the Brisbane Footy Show's run, which would eventually see Billy J. phased out of hosting, in favour of Chris Bombalas, before the program was axed, at the height of the Super League war.

The "Teenage Idol" was now approaching his fifties. A strategic move was made, to ease into becoming one of Brisbane's most requested MC's (building off a reputation in his BRL days, where he was the MC for Brisbane league's night of nights and other events), basically, any key event that needed some humor injected into it between the late 1990's, and the final days of his life, Billy J. was quite often on the top of the list: so often, he gained a new nickname: "The Corporate Assassin", due to how his quick wit could liven up a audience in a heartbeat. Retirement from the media came, after a short run doing 4BC's "Sports Today", followed on by some health issues: undergoing a triple bypass, that he sprung right back from. The final MCing gig for Billy J. was at Brisbane culinary icon, Gambaro's Seafood Restaurant, for their annual Mud Crab Cup, just four days before the fall, that eventually took him away from us.

Brisbane will feel a whole lot emptier without a character like Billy J. Smith. His departure from this world, will likely be felt, for a very long time.

Billy J. Smith's funeral will be held at the Holy Spirit Church, at 16 Villiers St, New Farm on Friday March 8.

A note, from Peter Doherty at 7 though, if you are intending to go: It will most likely be standing room only.

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