18 Oct 2012

Radio National Won't Cut Quality

By Michael Mason
Fears that ‘cheap storytelling’ will drown out the diverse voices and styles for which Radio National is known are unfounded. Radio National manager Michael Mason replies to Siobhan McHugh

In a recent piece published on New Matilda, Siobhan McHugh suggests the proposed schedule and staffing changes to Radio National will see a downgrading of the overall arts output and a loss of excellence across our distinctive feature programs.

Overall, she went on to say, RN's signature "'built' programs [were] set to be effaced by panels peddling vacuous chat and opinion under the new Radio Lite".

McHugh makes claims which are bound to cause concern to anyone who cares about Radio National, and about the continuing vitality of Australian culture.

But much of what she has to say was either a misreading of the facts, or, in some cases, flat-out wrong. In most instances, McHugh seems to be channelling a set of claims being circulated by the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU), the union which represents some RN staff.

McHugh writes about Radio National's Creative Audio Unit (CAU) as if its sole purpose is to present storytelling. She makes the point that it's cheap programming, designed to attract a younger demographic than RN's traditional audience. She then tells us that this should complement, rather than "replace or downgrade" our current offer of drama and features.

Well, yes. Because in fact, the "new storytelling" will be only one element in the CAU's rich and diverse offering; I fully expect the programs produced by the new CAU team will over the course of any one year include major performance works written by well known Australian writers, performed by Australian actors, with music by Australian composers.

But the CAU will also feature short fiction by new and emerging writers, documentaries that include elements of performance and fiction, and a whole lot more. In the coming months we hope to announce a number of major commissions, but already the Melbourne-based literary journal style Paper Radio has been confirmed as part of the proposed CAU 2013 line-up.

We have made this point very clearly, but McHugh, like the CPSU, insists on clinging to the phrase "cheap storytelling". Perhaps it's a good line, but it's not the truth.

McHugh also highlights her own work for the Features Unit: her work on the Snowy Mountains Scheme, Australian women in Vietnam and her current project on Bahasa-language. She claims that this work is now under threat.

It's not. No one has suggested we won't make this sort of work anymore. Critically, RN's investment in the "creative economy" is unchanged, and we have committed the same funds in 2013 as 2012 toward employing actors, writers, artists and independent producers, such as McHugh.

Similarly, an increased commissioning budget in 2013 will support the CAU's capacity to generate quality audio performance programs.

McHugh makes the extraordinary claim that in the future, there won't be money for translation for projects like her Bahasa language program. That's the first we've heard of it. We are maintaining our freelance and external expenses budgets at current levels.

The tone of McHugh's article suggests the proposed reduction in staff working on our features programs will decimate the area, leaving "the survivors" with an impossible task to meet the output requirements of the three features programs.

And while the proposal is to make the proposed staff cut by reducing the overall numbers of our most senior staff ("Band 8 producers" in the ABC structure) among whom are numbered some of our most awarded producers, we are maintaining a significant cohort of these senior staff, any combination of whom can be described as "award-winning", and to whom we will continue to look for leadership and excellence across the whole area.

In reality, across the Features Unit, there will be 21 producers, 40 per cent of them senior, producing five and a half hours of work for the network a week.

McHugh decries the new work quotas we've put in place for Features producers from 360documentaries, Into the Music and Hindsight. What we've done here is recommend a decrease in the production cycle for a 55 minute feature from eight weeks to six and a half. This recommendation is based on some careful and solid benchmarking across the network, and a close look at studio and operator time used by the Features unit.

Yes, next year, individual producers will be expected to work to tighter production cycles than has been the case. For some producers (who may have previously only produced two or three documentaries a year) this will mean a very significant increase in production, while for others the increased tempo of production will have a less dramatic impact.

We felt the time had come to really examine the workload of the unit compared to the rest of the network. In doing this, we of course looked at the core of what Features producers do, and recognised that creating the type of work they do is different to the production of other sorts of work on the network.

But that eight week cycle is unsustainable in the long run if we are to keep up with the changing needs of our audience in the current and future media environment. It's unsustainable if we are going to keep within our budgetary footprint.

In any event, while these changes might mean some documentaries will, of necessity, be less complex in their production, there is no reason why there should be a decline in the quality of ideas or a lessening of creativity. And it will still be possible for producers to develop ambitious, long term projects.

Is McHugh really suggesting that a week and a half's reduction in the production cycle of a 55 minute feature results "in a more superficial treatment of ideas"? That an extra week and a half is the difference between "immersion or observational documentary" and "Radio Lite"?

This is not, as McHugh suggests, the end of RN's strong commitment to Radio Features and Audio Performance. But it's time to get the facts right about what's being proposed at Radio National: protecting the future of a much loved institution and a vital part of contemporary culture for the benefit of all Australians.

I am confident that in the coming years, overseas producers like the justly acclaimed Jay Allison (quoted in Siobhan's article) will still listen to features, documentaries and creative audio with a mixture of "admiration, delight and envy".

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Posted Thursday, October 18, 2012 - 15:23

When I read such typical managerial 'weasel-words' as:
" McHugh seems to be channelling a set of claims being circulated by the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU), the union which represents some RN staff" with the clear implication that anyone criticising HR decisions is a stooge of a union that only represents some small ill-defined number of trouble-makers, I know I am likely to be in for a fine dose of obscurantist codswallop.

In the end Mr Mason is admitting that senior staff will be cut and admitting that production schedules for a 55 minute feature will be reduced from 8 weeks to 6.5 weeks, but he contends that there will be no loss of quality.
Obviously management must feel that the current lot of producers are a bunch of idle layabouts who need a good kick up the a**** to produce the same output with less staff and less time.

Clearly Mr Mason has no real idea of how much work is involved in producing a 55 minute radio feature; if RN has been getting the quality of program they achieve in 8 weeks they have been doing very well.
But of course they no doubt brought in some well paid external consultants to do their 'careful and solid benchmarking'; I am sure many of us have experienced similar 'benchmarking' and I am sure we have all been faced with similar outcomes - we want less workers to produce more output in shorter time for the same pay.

Posted Thursday, October 18, 2012 - 16:04

RN is suffering from the same belt tightening as all the other government funded bodies, in order to ensure we reach a surplus in our GDP.
Standards everywhere, not just in public radio, are being compromised, mostly due to financial pressures (the GFC) but also because of more emphasis on what's new and hot and less concern for and sometimes even a complete disregard and lack of respect for what's old and simple.
Like playing good music, presenting in-depth journalism, talking to experts and lay Australians, sometimes all in the same show!

This user is a New Matilda supporter. outrider
Posted Thursday, October 18, 2012 - 21:19

It is impossible for the outsider to know whether:
• the managment is cracking down on some slack fat cats
• RN, which fills a unique need, is being slashed to devote resources to compete with the commercials in the shared patch of news.
Given that CEO Mark Scott has set out to 'set the agenda' with The Drum, News 24, both of which must have required substantial funding from a fixed budget. I suspect the latter. Mr Scott has set out to impose ABC group think on the populace and ABC innovations are designed to peddle group think opinions, with less news content.

Dr Dog
Posted Friday, October 19, 2012 - 09:11

If Radio national becomes more innovative and cutting edge due to staff and budget cuts there is the outside chance that I will somehow be drawn into the first world concerned, upper middle class, whiney-whitey listenership. This cannot happen.

I demand a return to well off irrelevance for this important national broadcaster.

Posted Friday, October 19, 2012 - 12:54

I demand the current charter of the national broadcaster to be maintained in order to give equal voice to extreme minority views in our society. News limited and shock jock distortions alone just aren't enough to create this vital "balance". The ABC ably assists in keeping the population in a constant state of befuddlement. A reduction in staff shouldn't effect current copy and paste procedures. Well done aunty, keep it up!

Peter Hand
Posted Friday, October 19, 2012 - 19:49

Wiesel words? NO, Mason words. Everyone at the ABC is familiar with those! How does he get away with it?

Posted Saturday, October 20, 2012 - 08:27

I wrote a post but it seems to have been censored.