As the media landscape changes, the mantra of media organisations under pressure has been about the importance of innovation. This is especially true at the ABC which invoked the innovation principle to justify the cuts it has just made to a bunch of specialist shows on Radio National.
But do cuts like these help or hinder innovation at the ABC?
One of the axed shows is Radio Eye, a program which has presented some of the most innovative and entertaining radio ever heard in this country. Radio Eye was constantly doing new things in new ways — it was at the cutting edge of research into what radio could be, and took its large and committed audience with it.
The interesting thing about this audience is that it contained a large proportion of exactly the kind of young people who ABC management think they are going to connect with better by axing the show completely. One of the things audiences young and old are starting to realise (again) is that radio isn’t just a medium for presenting the arts, it frequently is an art form in itself. In Australia, Radio Eye was a genuine example of excellence in this form, and so far there is nothing to replace it.
In his article "The Price Of Creative Independence At The ABC", published here on newmatilda.com, Quentin Dempster investigated the ABC’s rhetoric that the cuts are part of a new trajectory for the organisation, embracing new digital broadcasting and on-demand content delivery mechanisms. Dempster rightly pointed out that "this is where the ABC management needs to recognise that platform innovation and content quality are both crucial to its success".
It is apparent that Radio National listeners are now seen by management as split between those over 50 who listen to its content via broadcast radio and those under 50 who listen to podcasts and other online content — a brutal and imprecise way of looking at your audience. Yet surely the word "content" is the key here, and regardless of the technology involved the focus must still be on the production of high quality content which responds to and fulfills the demand of Australian audiences, whatever method they use to tune in to the ABC.
Currently over half of the ABC monthly average of 3.37 million podcasts comes from Radio National, providing clear proof of the value of special program production units which are able to provide expert coverage of specific areas. Here again, Radio Eye has been one of the most innovative and successful.
Radio Eye represents exactly the type of programming suitable for podcasts, and should be recognised as a valuable source of content in the ABC’s quest to embrace digital broadcasting and online content delivery.
Perhaps part of the reason management has failed to recognise the value of Radio Eye comes from a misunderstanding of how the changes to media technology can only add to the appeal of shows like Radio Eye, and build their audiences. Too often radio is seen as the medium for those in transit, including those listening to the news while rushing around the kitchen in the morning or those with the music up loud as they try to forget their work on the trip home — but the shift to on-demand content emphasises radio’s other lives.
Television may have, to at least some degree, replaced the image of a family crowded around the wireless but there is little that can compete with the intimacy of listening to a well produced radio feature as it beautifully entwines the aural tradition of storytelling via the human voice with the endless possibilities of sound for creating distant, perhaps nonexistent and yet intimate places for the imagination to explore.
Some commentators (and perhaps programmers too) seem to lazily accept the stereotyped image of the boffin radio-arts listener, imagining that programs such as The Listening Room, The Night Air and Radio Eye are only followed by an exclusive group of metropolitan "radiophonics chin strokers" and bear no relevance to the broader Australian community. But this is a mistaken and increasingly out-of-date perception. I could tell you countless stories, collected from ABC staff, the ABC’s online comment streams and the wider community demonstrating that these shows attract a diverse, curious and committed listenership everywhere from the heart of the suburbs to the furthest reaches of the Australian outback.
Radio Eye itself has broadcast countless programs that investigate what it is to be part of the Australian landscape, and frequently does it in a surprising, innovative and moving way. One of my favourite Radio Eye programs was Listening To The Bridge, broadcast in March 2007 to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The show was produced by Harvey Broadbent with the assistance of bridge listener extraordinaire Jodi Rose. It was a show that made it possible to literally listen to the "coathanger", as the real, intimate sounds this structure makes were broadcast around Australia.
Radio National’s radio arts department has a long history of producing high quality features, documentaries and experimental radio pieces that are recognised internationally perhaps even more than they are here in Australia. In the last seven years no less than six programs produced in the radio arts department of ABC Radio National have received awards at the prestigious Third Coast International Audio Festival in Chicago, including an Honourable Mention in the Best Documentary category for "The Search for Edna Lavilla" produced by Sharon Davis and Eurydice Aroney for Radio Eye and a Director’s Choice award in the same category for Before The War It Was The War produced by Anna Burns for Street Stories last year.
The Listening Room won the coveted Prix Italia award in the Radio Music — Composed Work category for Colin Black’s "The Ears Outside My Listening Room" the same year that the show was axed.
The Radio National radio arts department, and in particular programs such as Radio Eye, serve as an important breeding ground for media professionals in Australia. If anything we should be pressuring the ABC to create more positions in the radio arts to keep the outstanding talent Australia produces in this area in this country, not accepting the axe falling on such programs. Already producers of the highest calibre have been lost to this country with Jodi Rose herself now based in Berlin, others such as Sophea Lerner also overseas and countless others like Jon Rose still based in Australia but rarely producing radio programs.
People tend to wrap their own narratives around changes like the recent program cuts at Radio National, but it is important that the fate of Radio Eye, in particular, is viewed as part of a history of cuts to radio arts shows on ABC Radio National, including The Listening Room and the Deep End, as much as it is a part of a concerning trend in the Australian media or as a step in Radio National’s shift toward the digital.
Essentially, as I have mentioned, the only long form radio arts show that remains as part of the Radio National schedule is the The Night Air and it is important to understand it is a remix show rather than focused on the production and broadcast of new documentary and feature works. Although I admire that show’s many virtues, it is nowhere near adequate if it is expected to serve as the only broadcast outlet for Radio National’s radio arts department. So that there’s no confusion about this, let’s be perfectly clear: however management try to spin it, the loss of Radio Eye signals the abandonment of feature length radio arts production and broadcasting on the ABC.
Truly, these cuts are astonishing, coming at a time when the rhetoric from the ABC is about shifting the focus towards more channels and on-demand content. At the very moment that so many new possibilities are emerging, the engine of innovation is being cut.
We need to acknowledge the demise of Radio Eye because it signals the death of radio arts on ABC Radio National and with it the loss of an integral part of our national broadcaster. If you have never listened to a program on Radio Eye or any of the other radio arts programs on Radio National then I urge you to do so while you still have the chance. You don’t know what you’re missing.
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