Yet more cuts to the guts: on the recent ABC funding cuts

Dear ABC Advisory Council,

When people talk about the ABC, sooner or later the phrase ‘death by a thousand cuts’ is bound to come up. But the metaphor doesn’t quite fit, does it? A ‘death by a thousand cuts’ is a bleeding-out from an aggregation of flesh wounds that, taken on their own, would each be relatively harmless. These latest cuts (to PocketDocs, Soundproof and Earshot) like those before them (vale Poetica, Airplay, Soundstage and The Listening Room) are much deeper than that. And surely the slow death of the national broadcaster isn’t its current administrators’ end game (is it?).  This new chapter reads more like an organ harvest than a blood-letting; healthy parts removed from a healthy body chucked willy-nilly in the yellow biohazard bin of ignominy to make room for new, more politically expedient organs to fill the pluck of what’s shaping up to be an angry golem of a creature – a bloated commentariat.

Declaration of bias: I have appeared as a guest on ABC RN’s (mercifully unscathed) Books and Arts in my capacity as an Australian Prime Ministers Centre Scholar, and have worked as a freelancer for (the mercilessly scathed) PocketDocs. I met ABC RN producer Natalie Kestecher at Varuna, The Writers’ House, former home of Eleanor Dark turned writers’ retreat and literary hub in the Blue Mountains in early 2016. A young writer doomed to ride last waves, I was up there for a week working on a manuscript as the grateful recipient of the last-ever round of now-defunct Australia Council Artstart Grants. Natalie read my work and offered to workshop a manuscript for possible broadcast on PocketDocs, an offer that began a treasured and rare mentorship.

Under the aegis of Natalie Kestecher and Claudia Taranto, I wrote, voiced and co-produced four short monologues for PocketDocs, three of which might never see the light of day now that this brilliant, diverse, challenging, moving show has been poleaxed. As a freelancer writing for PocketDocs I received a level of support and creative freedom unrivalled by any Australian publication I have had the privilege of writing for. I received comprehensive audio production training at ABC studios, was afforded creative input into the final mix, and was talked personally down from a ledge when I had a crisis of confidence re: the nasal timbre of my radio voice.

As a young Australian artist I was provided opportunity, encouragement and self-confidence by the shovel-full. More importantly, I was provided the opportunity to present my art to an audience. In the shadow of the Brandis/Fifield dark age of the arts, this is more important than ever.

Had I written the same stories for a podcast, I guarantee I wouldn’t have had the benefit of the same kind of exposure. A podcast is something you go looking for – a wholly individual pursuit. It’s a medium prone to solipsism and the reinforcement of existing ideas. As human beings we lack the imagination to know what it is that we don’t know; broadening one’s horizon is a process that by definition can only happen through external factors. RN’s linear programming is a stream of happy accidents waiting to happen, and I take heart in knowing that my short stories will be heard not only by those who seek them (probably no-one), but by a whole new audience of accidental listeners that might seek them out in the future. The point of linear programming is that the hooks are always there, and some of those who least expect it might find themselves challenged, moved, or presented with an opportunity to learn and grow.

Exemplar gratis: If I never happened accidentally upon an episode of Poetica years ago that touched on the subject of the Ern Malley hoax, I might never have written ‘Ern Malley Looming’, the first poem I published in an Australian literary journal. And had I not been encouraged by that first publication, I might never have published again. The influence of RN programming on young artists comes full circle, and it is one of the few wide-reaching forums in Australian culture where that process can happen. On behalf of young listeners everywhere, please don’t seal our listening fates in individual echo chambers of repetitive art. I promise you this is the future’s great trap, and I know you mean us no harm.

And talkback, by the way, is not the great bastion of democracy it is claimed to be. Neither is it the answer to the problem of political disengagement that faces our nation. Like any open channel, the talkback line is subject to organised interference by vested interests, and to the spreading of ill-formed opinion by way of mimesis. Engaging art is the only antidote to alienation. Talk-to rather than talk-back radio is not the tyrannical beast conservative commentators would have you believe – it is the antidote to the tyranny of a majority who are already well advanced on the path to full-blown nihilism, trapped in the mediated bubbles, feedback loops and rage-wars of internet culture.

You’ve heard it all before, but ABC Radio National is a vital incubator for new talent in Australian writing, and PocketDocs in particular has demonstrated in my case a willingness to foster that talent with personal attention and investment far beyond the capacity of any other public institution. You’ve heard it all before, and while original arts programming continues to be targeted as part of this continuing desire to play doctor with Aunty, you’ll keep hearing it: Original arts programming on RN is the culture that keeps all the other organs healthy. Kill the culture, kill the host.

Yours faithfully,
Mitchell Welch

Mitchell Welch

Mitchell Welch is a writer and editor from Brisbane. He currently lives in Melbourne where he works as the communications manager for a cemetery trust.

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  1. I agree with just about everything you say in this article. I currently work in Hobart selling coffee from the back of my van. I have loudspeakers connected to the radio fitted in the tailgate so I can listen to, well, originally I intended it to be my (classical) CDs, for the listening pleasure of my customers. But I find increasingly I am rusted on to RN, I simply cannot de-tune. I particularly like your comment about happenstance in discovering a program, not by seeking it out online. For example, I became an ‘accidental’ listener to ‘The Minefield’ broadcast every Thursday. I would never have sought this out, and now it is one of the highlights of my week, and I have introduced it to many others who now also enjoy its thought-provoking expositions and opinions. I dread the day RN becomes ‘just another radio station’. The world is dumb enough as it is, RN represents the very best in human nature, that is the ability to communicate to others novel and sometimes complex ideas that broaden the mind. I cannot believe this is happening, let’s hope it is not the thin end of the wedge.
    Mike Smith (Hobart)

  2. Thank You, please, forward this the the individual abc board members, it has just come out in the media that the board members are slightly disturbed at what is going on, and asking michelle guthrie to explain herself and the changes to abc r/n, it appears the board hve been deliberately left in the dark about the changes, they need to hear and get emails etc from everyone regarding the impact all this will have.

  3. Andrew – I have forwarded this letter to the chair of board, the board itself, and everybody else at the ABC who might be in a position to agitate for an intervention in Guthrie’s ominous murdochinations.

    Mike – next time I’m in Hobart I hope to buy a coffee from the back of your van and in so doing hear the dulcet tones of original arts and music programming issuing forth from RN on AM.

  4. The culling of programs is one thing.

    But more attention should be paid to the personnel being laid off, ie incisive critics of the current government policy.

    John Cleary
    Jonathon Green
    Ellen Fanning

    Adding in the installation of right-wing gatekeepers on the ABC website comment boards, and the insidious ideological influence is increasingly disturbing …

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