The media

Dissecting the vivisection of the ABC

When Michelle Guthrie was appointed as the new managing director of the ABC in December 2015, there was understandable fear in certain sections of the mediascape that the move presaged a wholesale attack on the ABC’s independence.

Many wondered (some hopefully, others less so) if Guthrie would try and drag the ABC’s editorial biases to the right. So far, with the exception of the replacement of Jonathan Green on RN Sunday mornings with conservative Tom Switzer, that hasn’t appeared to be the case.

But a year into Guthrie’s reign, what’s emerging is not so much an ideological bent, but rather a reforming management style. Guthrie is a lawyer and former executive for various News Corporation broadcasters, and then at Google.

She has moved to consolidate the hierarchy of executives at the top level of the ABC, reporting to her. These bosses are then embarking on restructuring projects down the Corporation’s chain of command.

This seems like the best explanation for the appointment of Guthrie’s new toe cutter, former Sky and Nine executive Jim Rudder. Rudder’s qualifications sound uniquely suited to the modern bogey figure of the management consultant – the suit from central casting, with a mandate to slash and burn. But he also has a lot of experience in digital. Easy criticisms are not always accurate in the heat of the moment.

It’s not as simple as saying Guthrie is sweeping in with a new broom. For instance, the ABC radio boss driving the Radio National restructure is Michael Mason, a Mark Scott appointment. Mason appears to be frantically shuffling the deck chairs, perhaps because the radio budget has hit an iceberg.
But Guthrie has clearly implemented a new management ethos, one that seems geared towards internal structural change. The Corporation’s 17 divisions will be ‘flattened’, and efficiencies targeted.

‘The executive team and the programming team are looking at every program,’ she said in a recent interview with the Australian Financial Review, ‘and asking, “Is there duplication within what we do at the ABC? Can we work together more effectively, and second, is this unique and distinctive?”’

The Corporation now looks set for some fairly serious internal reform.

On the face of things, this needn’t be fatal to the ABC’s mission as a public sphere broadcaster. The ABC is infamous for its internecine warfare, and its website is a bewildering maze. The national broadcaster can and should do better on certain basic aspects of accessibility and audience engagement.

But it is also true that, in terms of its place and importance in the Australian public sphere, the ABC is in rude health.

The decline of the for-profit media has slashed newsrooms and exposed the news industry to wrenching industrial change. The national broadcaster has remained relatively immune from the death of newspapers. There has been austerity under the Coalition; while painful, it hasn’t yet been crippling.

The ABC’s health is in fact why its opponents are so fixated on it. They know they have yet to truly seize the ABC, or even badly damage it.

The ABC maintains an enviable reputation as a bastion of impartiality; in some ways, it is one of the nation’s most trusted institutions. Meanwhile, the rapid commoditisation of the online news industry into ‘fake news’ fictoids makes the need for a strong public sphere media institution greater.

The current pain at Radio National thus seems important mainly for what it portends. It seems that Guthrie and her management consultants will not just demolish some of the ABC’s internal divisions: shows will be cancelled and content will be depleted too.

One way of thinking about what is proposed at Radio National is to take a word from environmental journalist Michael McCarthy, who writes movingly of the ‘great thinning’ of the natural world in the contemporary era. Without pushing the ecological analogy too far, it does seem that Radio National will lose some of the richness and diversity that has made it so special.

Take the mooted cuts to Radio National’s specialist longform programming, such as Earshot and Pocketdocs (Encounter, Hindsight, 360 and Poetica were already cut a couple of years back). These are some of the hidden jewels of the ABC’s programming cabinet. They present free-to-air programming of a complex, long-form and highly sophisticated nature. Yes, they attract small audiences. But that’s entirely what we would expect of such niche programming. To lose such programs will detract from RN’s diversity, especially if we compare them to three hours of Tom Switzer on a Sunday morning.

Indeed, it could be argued that much of what the ABC does best is what it does in a more specialist vein. Populist programming can sometimes suffer in comparison. The many hours of repackaged clips and talking heads broadcast daily by ABC24 are, all too often, neither enlightening, nor original.

At such moments, the standard move is to go back to the ABC Charter, enshrined in law, and quibble about whether this or that restructure meets the goals that it sets out. These are not discretionary goals for Michelle Guthrie and Jim Spigelman, to be restructured away in this year’s latest management fad. They are there in the black letter of the ABC’s law.

In this context, it is worth pointing out that ideas of quality, diversity, education and culture are central to the ABC’s mission. ‘The functions of the Corporation are … to provide within Australia innovative and comprehensive broadcasting services of a high standard,’ the Charter states, and it goes on to dictate that the ABC must ‘reflect the cultural diversity of the Australian community’, produce ‘programs of an educational nature’ and ‘encourage and promote the musical, dramatic and other performing arts in Australia.’

In contrast, the ABC is not specifically enjoined to be popular, although the Charter does suggest that the Corporation ‘provide a balance between broadcasting programs of wide appeal and specialised broadcasting programs’.

At a time when the ABC remains one of the dominant forces in Australian broadcasting, it’s hard to argue that the Corporation needs to re-balance from specialist to populist. Axing smaller, more specialist programming probably won’t make Radio National any more popular; it might make it less popular. It also wipes out some of the ABC’s best candidates for viral podcasting hits.

Just the same could be said for the proposed liquidation of Radio National’s music programs, some of which remain exceptionally diverse and well curated.

The Inside Sleeve is really quite a good program: a comprehensive and useful survey of new contemporary music. The Daily Planet axing is even stranger. There is nothing like it on Double J, or anywhere else, for that matter. The encyclopaedic knowledge of twentieth century music that Lucky Oceans possesses is the sort of curatorial ability that a machine cannot replace. Could these programs be moved to Double J? If they are, should we care?

Perhaps the larger question here is whether Radio National should move to become a talks station, which is the clearly indicated aim of the ABC statement. That does seem to be what the word ‘ideas’ implies.

There may be some merit in completely separating the ABC’s specialist music and specialist talks divisions. But severing music from the spoken word is hardly likely to improve Radio National’s arts coverage, or the ABC’s in general. Culture is not simply divisible between the domain of language and the musical arts, and the ABC began life in the 1930s as a surprisingly music-focused broadcaster.

Digital is another matter. The ABC can and must innovate in the digital sphere; standing still is not an option. And yet the ABC has been doing rather well in its digital offerings for a long time now, pioneering technologies like iView and moving towards a (more or less complete) streaming platform. The real challenge for the ABC is to better distribute that content in a world where streaming apps are rapidly gaining market share.

The ABC’s website is a labyrinth that no-one seems really to have escaped from. Perhaps, in fact, no single website can truly encompass the ABC’s sprawling and disparate activities. But it’s hard to see how fewer gardeners and sterner pruning can nurture the garden of content.

More innovation and experimentation is surely the answer, not further cuts and consolidation. The ABC has historically been very good at digital innovation. Perhaps Guthrie needs to trust the online talent inside the Corporation better.

In the meantime, content is thinning. The ABC’s richness and diversity remain two of Australia’s best cultural assets, and the ABC possesses an exceptional reservoir of curatorial and broadcasting talent. If this were to be thinned out, that would indeed be a melancholy development.

No-one wants quality ABC content to languish in the digital wilderness. But nor should the ABC be dominated by crude measures like ratings. As Geraldine Doogue argued yesterday, I think rightly: ‘Decisions around RN are significant beyond merely the affected employees, because they illustrate the challenge of producing quality cultural material in contemporary Australia.’

Oh, and Jim Spigelman’s term is up at the end of March. No-one believes the government will re-appoint him.


Image: ‘Erik Bye og Otto Nilsen i radiostudio 13. mars 1958’ / flickr

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Ben Eltham is National Affairs Correspondent for New Matilda, a lecturer at Deakin University and an arts journalist. His most recent book, When the Goal Posts Move, is about the arts funding crisis.

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  1. Thanks for this piece Ben. I wonder though, what is it that makes Rudder qualified in digital?

    According to that Guardian piece, many of the businesses he was called into advise on as a specialist have since failed in those areas (case in point: Foxtel and Presto).

    More generally, where is the oversight and scrutiny when it comes to these kinds of appointments? Consultants get paid extraordinary amounts of money to argue for neoliberal models, and while it’s often claimed they’re highly qualified industry consultants, the NBN and the census failures, two of the just recent examples, suggest these people are not being appointed based on ability.

  2. Ben – great piece, but just a point of clarification: those RN progams you mentioned (Encounter, Hindsight, 360 and Poetica) have already gone, they were decommissioned around this time two years ago. In their place, Earshot was set up – a half-hour feature doco broadcasting four days a week, and meant to house the specialist content of the programs that were being axed (religion, history, documentary and literature respectively). The old programs weren’t “disappearing”, producers were told; they were just being bundled up and moved sideways onto a new program. All fine, if you discount the minor issue of eight staff redundancies and the loss of experienced & highly respected senior producers.

    Now, two years on, Earshot is being cut from four days a week down to two. With three more producers being shown the door. Management has said, with a completely straight face, that this is being done to ensure the future long term health of features on RN.

  3. Thanks for making that point, Sian. Not only is Earshot being cut from four days to two but PocketDocs, a programme that features short documentaries, monologues, fiction etc by both audio producers and writers is being completely axed.

  4. It’s such a shame that Soundproof is going too.

    That’s really avant garde sound art that the so called “alternative” (read: American popular music) radio stations in Australia won’t even touch.

    Instead we will have to suffer through that bland, bourgeois show beloved by hipsters: This American Life.

    A travesty.

  5. Ben, you asked: “Could these programs be moved to Double J? If they are, should we care?” The answer is obvisouly technically yes, but don’t! Not yet, not for another ten years until digital radio becomes mainstream, uptake in cars is is greater than 30%, and reach within country areas is greater then zero!

    The unique content the Lucky puts out includes just the kind of music many rural folk love and enjoy, and buy, and travel to folk festivals for. If people are interested in more facts as to why any move to JJ is premature see the campaign website for Save Radio National Music (http://savernmusic.com)

  6. Thanks for this article. For a significant number of listeners in Regional Australia the ‘content thinning’ has been and will be even more extreme than for city listeners. ABC RN and Classic FM (poor signal) are the only stations we can receive. The digital channels that city listeners have access to are simply not accessible. Many of us don’t have mobile coverage or any form of effective internet or even TV. To access enough bandwidth that would allow streaming I would need to drive for 2 hours. In my local town library I have access to 5 KB/sec (not MB). This times out after 2 hours but I can rarely maintain the connection for more than 20 mins. The sky muster satellite is not yet accessible and those people I know who have access it have found it congested, unreliable and prone to dropping out. It seems like a poor and misconceived strategy to ‘thin’ content on RN before alternative channels are available. Music and audio art programs (Soundproof) have been a source of delight for me and I certainly miss hearing Mal Stanley’s curated jazz. Perhaps this is an opportunity to either re-format Classic FM with a much wider selection of music i.e. start by bringing back Jazztrack and include the types of programs that have been axed? Or perhaps start up a new station dedicated to music and sound art? Either way it’s a tragedy to silence such skilled presenters. Regional listeners should be treated with more respect.

  7. …to me..Real Big Character has gone in loss to ABC RN in Lucky Oceans & Geoff Wood.. Thankyou Both…

  8. Expect the sell-off of the ABC and SBS (and Medicare) to be rammed through pretty quick now.

    The electorate has shown they don’t give a shit about the survival of the species, so they sure as hell aren’t going to care about the survival of public broadcasting and public health.

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