"A modest refreshment of the schedule" is how, according to one insider, Network Manager Jane Connors described the recently announced changes to the Radio National program line-up for 2009. This particular turn of phrase arose as Executive Producers were briefed about the changes, days before the program areas — and program makers — to be directly affected were contacted.
The changes proposed by Dr Connors and her management team are indeed relatively modest — far more extensive changes were made in 2006 — and the rationale for reducing the number of programs on-air is credible. Radio National is under pressure to develop a stronger online presence both by improving the delivery of radio material and creating original content for a growing online audience. With no additional funding forthcoming, RN management were left with little choice but to divert existing effort and resources away from radio production into online production.
The criticisms of RN management are a product of the clumsy way they handled the announcement and their perplexing choices of what to axe.
Presenter Antony Funnell and producer Andrew Davies of the highly regarded Media Report learnt their program was up for the chop via a brusque email from RN management shortly after the program came off air two weeks ago. The production teams of the Sports Factor and the Religion Report were similarly informed of the fate of their programs with little or no prior indication their programs were in line for "termination".
Religion Report presenter Stephen Crittenden’s on air "flaming" of ABC Management and his questioning of the rationale for the proposed schedule changes at the head of his regular 8:30am broadcast on 15 October put paid to any hopes Dr Connor may have held that her "modest refreshment" would slip under the radar. Crittenden’s spray led to his suspension pending the results of "an investigation", apparently driven more by ABC Managing Director Mark Scott’s fury at the inability of the radio division’s inability to keep a lid on dissent than any egregious breach of staff rules.
Conversations with a number of RN staff suggest that while many of his colleagues might consider Crittenden’s use of his own show as a bully pulpit unprofessional and open to the charge of self-interest, they also share his concerns about moves to take specialist programs off air. Like Crittenden, they question the decision to make the 8:30am line-up more "consumer oriented" thereby freeing resources to pursue a "younger" audience online. By all accounts, fellow program makers at a well attended meeting of RN staff in Sydney yesterday spoke out strongly in support of Crittenden’s on-air critique.
The reaction to the news outside the ABC was dramatic. While the outrage of committed listeners was to be expected, a passionate defence of specialisation on Radio National and the Religion Report in particular in a 16 October editorial in The Australian was something of a surprise; the editorial pages of The Australian have long expressed trenchant criticism of the culture and content of Radio National.
Equally, public expressions of support for the Religion Report from senior religious leaders were also somewhat unexpected: Crittenden has ruffled many feathers because he has never shied from asking tough questions of religious personnel more used to the respect of their flocks.
The response of ABC management — to suggest an online "religion portal" — indicates a failure to understand or appreciate the value of "broadcast". Specialist programs like the Religion Report are valued by listeners precisely because their producers and presenters are able to make specialist knowledge accessible to a broad, general audience. The fact that this knowledge is relayed through the spoken word — rather than by wading through printed documents online — is also a key part of their attraction. The encounter with ideas via radio is more than a matter of media platform: listening is a qualitatively different experience to, say, reading the transcript of an interview — as well as being a more portable one.
In an email to staff on 21 October obtained by newmatilda.com, Dr Connors makes the point that that "ideas about specialisms (how they are constituted, how they are resourced, whether they require freestanding programs or might be legitimately diffused through the briefs of other programs) have not been set in stone but have legitimately varied over time."
She is of course right in making this point but so far she has failed to convince staff or listeners — or the editorial writer at The Australian — that the time is right to dispense with the only regular program in the nation which takes religion as a subject for richly informed and fearless current affairs style treatment.
A similar defence can be mounted for the Media Report: although the media is a topic tackled by other outlets, it is with a focus on the local industry as opposed to ideas.
While presenter Mick O’Regan does a terrific job in teasing out a unique take on the world of sport, the case for maintaining the Sports Factor as a stand alone "specialism" is less straightforward. The RN Breakfast program already features the sharp and entertaining daily sports roundup from Warwick Hatfield, and "sport" itself is covered from more or less every angle by all major media outlets.
The noise occasioned when the three weekday morning programs were cut has pushed into the background a number of other important shifts.
The decision to axe the two weekend documentary programs Street Stories and Radio Eye and to create a new documentary features program in the old Radio Eye slot at 2:00pm on Saturdays has generated a spate of impassioned emails to RN management and a degree of heat among the staff responsible for making the programs.
In effect, Street Stories has been cancelled, and the program’s production team told they will be combined with the Radio Eye team — to make a program that sounds not dissimilar to the existing Radio Eye format. It’s a move that has not been greeted with enthusiasm by the Street Stories producers and attempts by RN managers to smooth over the amalgamation have been met with considerable anger.
In addition, this expanded documentary production group will be expected to develop a new kind of program: yes, "online features". Asked to define "online features", RN management have apparently indicated they’re looking for work like that of the US-based Media Storm outfit, set up a couple of years ago by veteran photojournalist Brian Storm.
ABC staff and managers were impressed by Storm’s evangelism for the potential of online storytelling at a presentation earlier this year, and many see the Media Storm approach as the future for quality electronic journalism in the post-broadcast media environment. While a number of producers from both Radio Eye and Street Stories have apparently expressed enthusiasm for pursuing this kind of "image plus sound" documentary making, there is considerable concern about the resources required to produce quality multimedia work — not to mention the need for extensive training and reskilling.
Meanwhile, Radio Eye producers have been arguing strongly that the name — and the "brand recognition" that goes with it — be retained, recognising that in its broadcast form at least, the "new" documentary program will continue to broadcast much the same range of eclectic and highly produced documentaries as they have for the past decade.
Even less noticed than the apparent demise of Radio Eye is the decision to expand the radio drama program Airplay from its current 30 minute format to an hour. While this is good news for writers and actors — and for Radio National listeners who enjoy radio drama — the increased output requirements must be met without additional resources.
And here again is the crux of the problem: not only has ABC management alienated staff and listeners with this latest raft of changes, the "modest refreshment" of the program schedule for 2009 contains a considerable number of challenges for program makers — and no further funding with which to meet them.
Donate To New Matilda
New Matilda is a small, independent media outlet. We survive through reader contributions, and never losing a lawsuit. If you got something from this article, giving something back helps us to continue speaking truth to power. Every little bit counts.