Radio National Won't Cut Quality


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".

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.