The current trials and tribulations of Sydney’s Radio 2ser are on the surface little different to those being played out in various tertiary institutions and media organisations across the country. In just the past month, we have seen protests against cuts at both the ANU and Fairfax.
But given its status as one of the country’s largest and most prominent community stations, the future of the station’s news and current affairs programming should be of concern to anyone who values a quality, diverse, independent media. With budgets under pressure in newsrooms across the board, it is even more important to try to keep hold of the slivers of independence and community orientation that remain intact.
It’s in this light that the 2ser Change Proposal I canvassed in New Matilda last week should be considered. Unfortunately, the distinctly non-consultative approach adopted by 2ser’s management on what amounts to a drastic shakeup for the station has been both frustrating and disappointing. It has remained so despite more than 60 letters asking the station to reconsider, from current and former volunteers, academics, and even other media outlets. Those who have spoken out include the likes of ABC foreign correspondents Stephen McDonell and Brendan Trembath — both station alumni who honed their skills at 2ser on their way up the ranks.
A key provision in the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 requires community broadcasters to "encourage community access and participation in all aspects of station operations, from programming to management". A similar requirement exists in the Community Radio Broadcasting Codes of Practice. Code 2.2 states that "policies and procedures will include mechanisms to enable active participation by our community in station management, programming and general operations".
Yet while 2ser management has just concluded a two-week "consultation process" on the Change Proposal, one must question the degree to which this was conducted in good faith. There are a variety of reasons to believe this to be the case, not least the confirmation of managing director Melanie Withnall in an email to volunteers on Wednesday, May 23, that it is only "once the feedback process has concluded, and a change plan been devised" that volunteers’ questions will be answered. If consultation was indeed the aim, this can only be considered a derisory and totally unsatisfactory approach.
A small group of volunteers, including myself, wrote to Withnall on Friday 18 May requesting, as an initial step and show of good faith, an increase in consultation time to work through the wide-ranging implications of the proposal more thoroughly. This request was initially ignored and then later formally turned down without any reason given.
Lack of explanation has, in fact, been a hallmark of the feedback process. Despite repeated requests for clarification from management, there has been no serious attempt to explicate how the Talks Coordinator’s various roles are to be reallocated beyond vague verbal assurances that it will essentially all come right on the night.
Nor have there been any attempts to meet with program-makers or other volunteers about the implications of this proposal — a simple matter of courtesy, if nothing else. This remains true even though the plan is scheduled to be finalised this week, and enacted by the end of next week.
As part of researching the viability of a change of this magnitude, it is surely not unreasonable to expect a certain degree of reaching out to the volunteers who put together virtually all of 2ser’s news and talks programming. The fact there has been no attempt to do so casts doubt on the sincerity of management’s claims to consult with stakeholders.
It is not merely volunteers who will be impacted by this decision, either. The UTS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences is, by some margin, the most significant contributor of prospective journalism volunteers to the station’s newsroom, and has garnered great benefits from it over the years. A large proportion of the faculty’s media and journalism students gain practical experience at 2ser, with an experienced Talks Coordinator and one-to-one feedback forming a crucial part of that training.
But the Change Proposal effectively dismisses the importance of this long-standing practice, suggesting there will be "no direct impact" on UTS journalism faculty staff, and that relevant staff are to be "advised of changes once implemented". In fact, some 17 staff members are so concerned this proposal will have a direct and negative impact on their educational regime they have written to UTS Deputy Vice-Chancellor and 2ser board member, Professor William Purcell, to inform him of their concerns.
The decline in newsroom training, feedback and quality control procedures in the absence of a Talks Coordinator will be severe, but station management has deflected the opportunity to clarify any prospective plan designed to address these facets. (In the meantime, a petition signed by more than 230 UTS students requesting an additional month of consultation time remains unheeded.)
Despite being dubbed a "proposal", the document circulated to 2ser staff and volunteers is really more of a "plan-in-waiting". Management is keen to emphasise that the decision is not final — an idea that relies on the existence of feasible alternatives. If so, a selection of cost-saving alternatives would have been put forward in the proposal, with accompanying cost-benefit analyses and timelines for feedback, discussion and dialogue. But the proposal consists of the sole designated option: to axe the Talks Coordinator. Management cannot have it both ways on this issue.
Managing director Withnall told New Matilda: "The consultation process has ended, we are in the process of considering the feedback we have received from a diverse group of stakeholders. Once a plan is formulated, these stakeholders will be the first to know the outcome. Change is necessary for the ongoing sustainability of the organisation. 2ser is following the proper processes and this change process must be allowed to take its course."
Of course, as long-time community radio observers will tell you, stoushes between management and volunteers at 2ser are nothing new. Back in 2004, the station faced a similar issue over budgetary shortfalls when the management at the time unveiled plans to cut staff numbers and skew the station’s listenership towards an older demographic.
On that occasion, the plan was watered down considerably after pressure from the station’s volunteers. This time the stakes are arguably higher. It is more than a pity that management is prepared to do so little to safeguard one of the last bastions of independent news and current affairs programming in the Sydney mediascape.
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