And good night from the ABC

I remember driving along Victoria Road in Sydney one day years ago, and stopping the car so I could hear the rest of the marvellous Book Reading on the Australian Broadcasting Commission Radio National station I had accidentally turned to on the car radio. I am sure you all have similar stories. I discovered that the reading was from Patrick White’s “Voss”. I had read the book decades ago, but this audio version was a wonderful surprise: word by careful word it was thrilling and amazing. But this will never happen again. You will never again hear on ABC radio a radio drama, or a Book Reading, or a thoughtful, extended biography of a writer’s life (two evenings on Nobel Prize winner Hermann Hesse from the 1970s come to mind) or a whole evening facing up to a new philosophy (Existentalism, perhaps, with interviews with Sartre, who rejected his Nobel, and de Beauvoir, from the same era) if you live in Australia. Britain yes: there, local radio drama and features production is thriving, according to a producer from Birmingham I spoke to in Perth in 2011. In Australia, no.

Herman Hesse

I remember thinking when Malcolm Fraser took control of Government in this country, back in the early seventies (I was in the middle of recording a stereo radio play for the Australian Broadcasting Commission in Brisbane when that happened), that the Liberals would destroy the ABC. They didn’t have to: the ABC managers did it themselves. Let enough time pass, and society changes, and the bureaucrats and the cultural bimbos* gain control, and — using silly economic arguments — destroy what made the ABC great. This is what happens when you let the Managers in: (from The Australian)

THE ABC will axe its radio plays, an 80-year tradition, as old as Aunty herself, in a major overhaul of Radio National which will see 11 staff and seven programs disappear to save $1 million.

Radio National manager Michael Mason told staff of the sweeping changes today, which include the cancellation of the radio drama program – called Airplay – as well as other programs MovieTime, The Book Reading and Sunday Story.

MovieTime’s veteran film specialist Julie Rigg is retiring and her co-host Jason Di Rosso will work as a movie reporter across the network, management sources told The Australian. Rigg was told today her program won’t survive beyond her retirement.

Eleven staff including presenters, producers and back office staff have been made redundant by the de-commissioning of Creative Instinct, Lingua Franca and The Night Air.

From soap operas to science fiction and children’s stories, radio plays have been performed on the ABC since the 1930s. Between 1936 and 1938 all 36 of Shakespeare’s plays were produced and broadcast.

Before the advent of television they were the main source of entertainment and the plays have given employment to generations of playwrights and actors.

“Radio National will no longer include radio plays or book readings on its schedule in 2013,” Mr Mason said in an email to staff this afternoon.

“We understand that this is a break with a very long-standing tradition, and will directly affect a number of staff.

Radio National received seed funding from the global ABC coffers last year to launch a new schedule but it was left to find savings in order to work within a budget.

“In the context of the broader RN offer, maintaining an innovative and creative output for our audience, and considering financial constraints, we believe that the time has come to move away from this output.

“Radio plays and book readings have, for many years, faced declining audience numbers, while remaining an expensive activity for the network.

“We continue to believe very strongly that ratings are not the only measure for RN, but the decline in listenership does indicate a lack of engagement in radio plays amongst our audience.

Mr Mason argued he took “tough decision” in order to free up funds to engage in other types of creative radio, including working with “young writers and artists looking for different ways of working with sound and story”.

With a mission to “nurture the intellectual and cultural life of this country”, Radio National has been shifting its direction in recent years, moving from highly-produced specialist programming towards “flow” programming found on ABC local radio stations like Sydney’s 702 and Melbourne’s 774.

To the established broadcasting team of Fran Kelly, Geraldine Doogue, Robyn Williams, Norman Swan, Julian Morrow and Phillip Adams, Radio National has recently added non-broadcast personalities Waleed Aly and Andrew West to the line-up.

[Presumably, since there will never be any radio plays broadcast on the ABC ever again, nor any Book Readings, the copyright on those hundreds of thousands of hours of recorded programs — costing a fortune to make, and now worthless — will lapse? No?]

But is the ABC in breach of its Charter? Ethically, it would seem so. Here’s Crikey:

Lobby group Friends of the ABC is in no doubt. “It would be a fiction for the ABC to claim that it is meeting its charter responsibility in the arts if it proceeds with any more cuts to its regular arts programming,” a spokeswoman for the group said. “And it would be dishonest to slash the already meagre number of arts staff and still call it an arts unit.

“The arts would readily be diminished in the ABC without a strong unit of experienced people to create and advocate for arts programming. Also lost would be our local history, which is recorded in the making of arts programs. This rich and valuable resource will be lost to the community and to future program-makers.”

There is no doubt some truth in that view, but the fact of the matter is that the charter makes no stipulations about how much arts content the ABC should broadcast. It also makes no mention of its archiving function.

Technically, that means the ABC is not in breach of its charter. But if we were to ask if the ABC is in breach of the spirit of that charter we might get a different answer entirely.