"Having a vibrant independent media can also help the democratic process, and bring greater understanding of the issues facing us today."
So says Melanie Withnall, the current Managing Director of Sydney community radio station 2ser, which is why 2ser volunteers are puzzled by a proposed station restructure that would axe the station’s sole paid staffer devoted to news and current affairs programming.
The station, jointly funded by UTS and Macquarie University, was set up in 1979 as Sydney Educational Radio. Throughout its history, its focus on news and specialist current affairs has been a cornerstone feature that has set it apart from both other community stations, and the radio mainstream. The station currently boasts no fewer than 19 discrete specialist talk shows, ranging from award-winning national current affairs show The Wire, to programs that run the gamut of everything from women’s issues (Double X) to social justice and the environment (The Third Degree), the law (Radio Atticus), science, economics and the arts.
Many volunteers have gone on to benefit from their experience and, especially, their training to secure jobs at a multitude of media organisations including the ABC, Fairfax, News Limited, the BBC, Deutsche Welle, and NPR among others.
Now, however, 2ser’s reputation as a fertile journalist training ground, and a hub for innovative, quality talks programming, is under severe threat, in what amounts to perhaps the biggest change in the way the station supports content production since its inception.
Last Monday, management released a "Change Proposal" to staff and volunteers, with the changes therein to be implemented by the end of May if no alternative arrangements can be found.
The proposal made clear that a funding freeze implemented by UTS and Macquarie University, coupled with a failure to reach sponsorship and subscriber targets in recent years, had put the station in a precarious financial position, and that changes needed to be made to secure its long-term viability.
But the suggested route to achieve this stability was not, in the first instance, savings across the board. Instead, it simply proposes the abolition of the Talks Co-ordinator. This position is the sole experienced presence in the newsroom, doing everything from supporting program development to training "green" journalists, imparting news sense, providing leads and contacts, resolving technical issues ("…my story’s broooken!"), and generally ensuring a high standard of broadcast quality is maintained.
Curiously, there has been next to no discussion of how these tasks will be reallocated. It has been suggested — with no consideration of how this might be enacted — that the various aspects of the existing Talks Co-ordinator role will be allocated among existing staff, on top of their existing responsibilities.
Short of a replacement staffer located in the newsroom to oversee 2ser’s diverse talks programming, the nature of talks show production by a group of largely inexperienced volunteers is such that this cannot realistically be achieved to any satisfactory degree. This cannot fail to have an immediate effect on the quality of 2ser’s programming.
Yet the long-term implications are, if anything, even worse. 2ser has a well deserved reputation as an excellent training ground for young journalists, but the value of this must be questioned if it is not overseen by an experienced hand at the till, ever-present in the newsroom.
When the quality of the station’s cornerstone news and talks programming declines, as is inevitable, where will be the value for potential sponsors in aligning themselves with the station?
Or, for that matter, why should Macquarie and UTS continue to fund the station, given their main associations with 2ser are via their media and journalism programs?
Management has been keen to emphasise that the move does not amount to cutting talks programming, merely a "reallocation" of resources. In reality, however, the move cannot be seen as anything other than a deprioritisation of news and talks production, because it is only this aspect of the station which is being targeted for cuts.
In this light, it is especially ironic that management has highlighted the desire to invest greater resources in training new volunteers. While classroom training is certainly important, the most valid real-world experience for trainee journalists remains in delivering stories on-deadline for broadcast.
During my time at 2ser, the Talks Co-ordinator has been by far the most useful single source of on-air feedback, suggesting story ideas, potential sources, innovative production techniques, and general areas for improvement. I arrived at the station with no training or experience whatsoever, and I know many others in the same boat.
The reality is that every newsroom in the world has training and support requirements. The abolition of the Talks Co-ordinator position is simply a short-sighted decision by management which misses the real value of 2ser in Australia’s media landscape, and fails to acknowledge the basic needs that must be met if that value is to be maintained.
Ultimately, this story isn’t about a single newsroom at one radio station — it’s yet another chapter tracing the current struggles of "vibrant independent media" in Australia today.
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