Caution: cereal entertainers

GIVEN the lead-up gift they deliver to Neil Mitchell every morning - year after year of sterling breakfast-radio ratings for 3AW - Ross Stevenson and John Burns can probably be forgiven the odd on-air heist from their station stablemate.

It works like this: the day begins with two reformed lawyers possessed of withering wit devouring the airwaves for 180 minutes. Then comes Mitchell's marquee morning current-affairs show, which prides itself on breaking news and having the best guests talking about the biggest stories.

But, as Stevenson tells Green Guide with typical dry delivery, station fraternity only goes so far - if he and Burns get the chance, they're happy to swipe a star interviewee before they've properly arrived in Mitchell's town square.

''There may or may not have been instances,'' he says, ''where interview subjects have rung up, and they have rung a program which isn't Neil Mitchell's program, and said, 'I'm here to be interviewed by Neil,' and they've been told, 'Just hold on the line, you'll be interviewed in a moment.'''

Thus, a Mitchell exclusive finds its way to air a little earlier than planned. That irreverence has been the trademark of Stevenson across 23 years at 3AW, and of Burns, who came aboard as permanent breakfast co-host 13 years ago on the retirement of Dean Banks. (Burns had been the breakfast show's gluttonous and garrulous Sir Lunchalot since Stevenson's Lawyers, Guns and Money days on 3RRR.)

It's a serious business being breakfast-friendly funny men, at least for station management, which has rarely had to worry about a bad start to the ratings day for the past quarter of a century.

The Ross and John show is an institution, one of the clubs in which Melbourne conducts its business, with a nod, a wink and many laughs as each weekday grinds into gear. It's the home of The Rumour File, where big new stories often take their first rehearsal before bowing as headline news later in the day. In this comedy-driven courtroom, the lawyers-turned-hosts are happy to lead a witness or go easy on the hearsay rule - they're humorists, not historians.

And the station has let them have their heads, and continues to do so, giving the lie to thoughts that the sacking of Derryn Hinch last year was a harbinger of cultural change.

''There's never been a change of culture since I had anything to do with the station,'' says Stevenson, who suggests it's a little bit rich for him or others on the roster to parade their ratings success without a nod to the golden history of the station. ''[Ratings success is] obviously lovely to happen but you work at a radio station that has existed since 1932 and has been successful for virtually the entire time, so you never lose sight of the fact that the radio station is a juggernaut.''

He adds, by way of explaining that snaffling of the occasional guest from Mitchell: ''One thing I would say about this radio station is that it's more competitive internally than externally. That's the culture of 3AW.''

Burns says that after all these years, he's not tired of the routine.

''Never,'' he replies when asked if he's ever faced another year on air and thought of pulling the pin.

Stevenson confirms, ''It's the same for me, too. The time goes so quickly. And I never get sick of talking to this man. We don't see each other off-air a great deal. We go our separate ways pretty much straight after the program. It's not as if we're married.''

They have real-life spouses at home. For Burns, there are a couple of ways to judge whether he's done a good show that day. There's his gut - ''normally I come off-air thinking it's been a good laugh and that means it's been a good program'' - and his wife. ''If I ever forgot that my wife is listening, I would be reminded very rapidly,'' he says.

Stevenson says: ''I always think of two people who are listening - my mother and my children, they're at either end of the wicket for me.''

They say, the basic structure and regular segments aside, little detailed planning goes into the daily broadcast.

''It's organic,'' Stevenson says. ''Virtually no planning.''

Burns: ''The magic, I think, is that because of our relationship everything is … spontaneous.''

On-air from 5.30am, Stevenson says they don't have a proper meeting until the big news bulletin of the day kicks in. ''We have our first meeting for the day at 6 o'clock,'' he says. ''It would be too boring otherwise.''

How long can they carry on? A good while yet, it seems - even if the fun faded, there'd be other reasons to turn up every morning.

''I've got an 18-month[-old] child,'' Stevenson says.

Burns: ''And I haven't got enough super.''

Stevenson: ''We'll do it - who knows what the horizon is in media land? You don't take anything for granted but, yep, we'll keep going for a while.''

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