Canberra Citizen of the Year
Peter Leonard (1942-2008)
Peter Leonard addresses a crowd of radio station 2CA listeners, circa 1960s.
SOURCE: 2CA Collection HMSS 0367 Box 6, Folder 2, ACT Heritage Library. Photograph Ern McQuillans Photographic Illustrators
Peter was born on 21 February 1942, the son of Frank Leonard (died 1959) and Evelyn nee Parker. Many years earlier Frank had emigrated from Akrata, Greece and set up the Liberty Café, one of the most popular milk bars in Yass. He married Evelyn in 1941.
Peter attended primary school in Yass and then boarded at Canberra Grammar from 1956 where John Tyrell taught him not just English but a love of the language. The details vary with the telling, but it was at Grammar that Peter was first put in front of a microphone. Apparently he came to the notice of Peter Carrodus, manager of radio station 2CA, and was given work experience reading advertisements.
After leaving school Peter worked for 18 months in the Treasury Department but hankered after radio. In 1962 he waylaid Peter Carrodus at the Blue Moon Café in Civic and was taken on as a cadet reporter and copywriter. Chief copywriter Ron Hughes recognised his potential and started him as an announcer in a two-hour late afternoon spot, during which he coined the phrase “the temperature under the tea tree is …”. There really was both a tea tree and a thermometer.
2CA was in its heyday and Peter expanded into promotions and publicity stunts, took on What’s in Store?, a 15 minute live broadcast from Queanbeyan, did the breakfast show and generally filled in wherever needed. When CTC7, Canberra’s first television station, opened he used to drive up Black Mountain each afternoon to do the commercials, usually live to air. In a bid for more versatility he studied accountancy and in addition to the breakfast show he ran 2CA’s traffic area, scheduling shows and advertisements, sending out accounts and chasing bad debts.
Peter married Gwenyth Ruth Fishwick in 1964, and they had three children. Gwen was then secretary to the manager of 2CA; according to Peter marrying her was the smartest thing he ever did, not least because of her media knowledge and common sense.
Providing adequately for a family required more money than he was earning so in 1970 he applied to the National Capital Development Commission (NCDC) and worked there in finance, capital works and media relations for 18 years. He recalled it as a dynamic place that introduced many management practices that were later widely accepted in the public sector. In 1979 he was seconded to set up the Parliament House Construction Authority, then in 1980 returned as an Assistant Secretary in the NCDC until it was abolished in 1988.
But the call of radio was strong, and within a year of leaving 2CA Peter was reading the news for the ABC, whose studios were conveniently situated across Northbourne Avenue from the NCDC. He read the morning and evening news before and after work and dashed across the road at lunchtime to do the midday slot. The last few minutes of his breakfast show were pre-recorded so he could be at his NCDC desk on time.
After the NCDC he joined the ABC full time, where he worked in both radio and television primarily as newsreader and announcer but also filling in for whomever happened to be absent, which was how he came to do the weather. Peter always claimed that it was the hardest job on television, requiring a couple of hours’ detailed preparation for about two minutes on air – more or less, depending on whether the news reader went over or under time. The ability to ad lib was vital. In the very early days of television news he had to manipulate big glass slides with maps on them, drawing the isobars as he spoke. The technology changed over the years but the complexity did not. Shortly before leaving the ABC in 1991 he made his 500th presentation of the weather.
Peter was always careful to dress and act the part, but beneath the conservative public exterior was a man with a wicked sense of humour who thoroughly enjoyed publicity pranks such as a slow trip down Northbourne Avenue in a horse-drawn dray, or confusing early morning listeners on April Fools’ Day with brilliantly executed “news items”.
Awarded the Canberra Citizen of the Year in 1991, in some ways he contributed even more thereafter. Thirty years after first applying to the Nine Network Peter landed a job as newsreader and weatherman. It was worth the wait, and for 15 years Peter enjoyed being the face of WIN News Canberra, a very welcome separation of Canberra from the Sydney-centric news broadcasts. He appeared nightly from 1991 until his retirement on 20 July 2007. By then he was working about 2-3 hours a day for WIN and the rest of the time for himself. His private contract work included teaching effective writing to public servants, and he was involved in the ANU's Centre for Continuing Education. From 1993 to 2003 he was head of national communications for the Pharmacy Guild of Australia.
In a farewell broadcast with Philip Williams, Peter revealed that when he started in radio he had a lisp and went through weeks of speech exercises to correct it. No-one who heard his clear, mellifluous voice in the succeeding fifty years would have guessed.
Peter’s very public face and voice deflected attention from his quiet but effective work on the boards of community organisations such as the ACT Multiple Sclerosis Society and the ACT Cancer Society. He was also an inaugural Neighbourhood Watch Co-ordinator. His professional media expertise was put to use in preparing programs for Print Handicapped Radio 1RPH, reading newspaper and magazine copy. In later years he thoroughly enjoyed compering special events such as Amnesty International quiz nights, and offered his services as a guest speaker for community organisations.
In December 2007 Peter was the first individual to win the Chief Minister-Public Relations Institute of Australia (ACT Division) Award for Community Media; the previous four winners were media organisations. The award acknowledged a lifetime in media and public relations, “particularly for presenting community and district news in an accessible, friendly and yet authoritative way”. Peter called it “the icing on the cake”.
Peter’s hopes for a happy retirement were dashed when in January 2008 he was diagnosed with mesothelioma. “The Voice of Canberra” died on 23 September 2008. Peter was cremated after a funeral service at All Saints Anglican church, Ainslie. He was awarded the civic honour of flags flown at half-mast from ACT government buildings, most appropriate for a man who had told the Canberra story for almost fifty years.
At his funeral it was announced that the ACT Government and WIN Television would jointly fund a scholarship for journalism students at the University of Canberra. Winners would receive a sum of money and a short internship at WIN Television, and at least two runners-up a similar but smaller prize.
1991 Canberra Citizen of the Year for his sustained contribution to the community through his Board membership of the MS Society, and Cancer Society
2007Chief Minister-Public Relations Institute of Australia (ACT Division) Award for Community Media
2008 Peter Leonard Scholarship for students of journalism
1991 'PETER LEONARD CHALKS UP 500.', The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 - 1995), 14 January, p. 19, viewed 7 February, 2016, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article122337187
1991 'The many talents of an ABC weatherman.', The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 - 1995), 24 March, p. 22, viewed 20 December, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article122351308
1991 'PETER LEONARD GOES COMMERCIAL.', The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 - 1995), 9 December, p. 23, viewed 7 February, 2016, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article122396184
1993 'Versatility key to success.', The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 - 1995), 27 October, p. 22, viewed 20 December, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article127514018
2008 Diverse trio made their mark on the bush capital's life and times, Canberra Times, 4 October, viewed 7 February 2016, https://global-factiva-com.rp.nla.gov.au/ha/default.aspx#./!?&_suid=1454825216955001829761772423366
2008 Voice of Canberra resonated far and wide, Canberra Times, 25 September, viewed 7 February 2016, https://global-factiva-com.rp.nla.gov.au/ha/default.aspx#./!?&_suid=1454825216955001829761772423366