To my mind the ABC is a weird combination of a public service bureaucracy, a free university, and the entertainment business.
In truth, there has always been conflict between those managers who want more audience per dollar and those producers who want to make radio art regardless of the ratings. For example, way back in 1976, Andrew McLennan and Jaroslav Kovaricek ran the experimental audio program called 360 Shift on ABC FM. It was broadcast fortnightly and had a duration of six hours; it was filled with experimental music, soundscapes and sound poetry, and only survived one year. Management once asked Andrew McLennan if he could be a little more ‘middle of the road’. His response was to set his microphones up in the middle of King William Road in Adelaide and broadcast that!
So the battle between managers and artists is nothing new, but the difference now is that no-one would be given six hours on air to broadcast experimental audio. There is no Radio Arts department, no Radio Drama department, no poetry program. While there is creative audio story telling on Radio National, the concept of radio as art has been almost completely silenced. Vestiges of radio art survive in the feature work of producers such as Lyn Gallacher or Miyuki Jokiranta, and in freelance contributions from Jane Ulman or Robyn Ravlich, but they seem like the last of the thylacines.
I’m conscious that this kind of memoir can sound the same note: ‘It was better in the old days.’ In some ways it wasn’t. The ABC back then was way too Anglo, and way too blokey. I welcome voices from different cultures, and the vastly greater number of women on air. But it has to be said that despite these advances there is now a relentless emphasis on popularism. How did that happen? How did we move from an era where upper and middle managers such as Andy Lloyd Jones, Sarah Benjamin and Roz Cheney championed radio art, to this current situation? Big budget cuts by the LNP under Howard, Abbott and now Morrison haven’t helped. It’s hard to say exactly when the ABC started seeing itself more as a news-based media company than a cultural organisation. Perhaps there was a gradual slide as the orchestras were divested, TV production outsourced, Radio Arts dismantled. During the period when Mark Scott was Managing Director, under the pressure of massive budget cuts, the ABC’s identity became ever more focussed on journalism.
When Michelle Guthrie was Managing Director and Justin Milne Chairman of the Board, we got a pseudo-commercial ABC, with managers more interested in numbers than nuance, keener on clicks than culture. Milne even talked about not wanting the ABC to do ‘commercial failure broadcasting’ – that is, programs that would not ‘make it’ in the commercial world. This is of course complete nonsense in a publicly-funded broadcaster with a charter to provide diversity, uniqueness and distinctiveness. It ignores the obvious question: Why should the ABC receive any public funding if it just chases ratings like the commercial stations?
Twice since the demise of Poetica I have proposed the creation of ABC poetry podcasts. Twice these ideas have been dismissed. One ex-manager of Radio National told me flatly that she ‘saw no need for poetry.’ Another declined a series on contemporary Australian poets because she said ‘it would be of interest to a select audience.’ In other words, an audience she had selected to disenfranchise. This is all code for the fact that these managers want big audience numbers: a strange proposition when we consider that Radio National has a niche audience anyway (about 3% share of the population). Poetry, done well, will reach and please a relatively large number of people. It won’t out-rate the football, but why should that matter?
As I write, another round of redundancies has happened at the ABC, because of more LNP budget cuts, even though the ABC has proved itself so valuable during the bushfire crisis and then the COVID-19 pandemic. It seems this government’s mantra of saving jobs doesn’t apply to the arts, the humanities departments of universities, or public broadcasting. I wonder why? Mutual distrust, perhaps. Internationally, we still find poets working as radio producers: Pejk Malinovski in the USA, Sean Borrowdale in the UK, and Rikke Houd in Denmark, to name a few. Maybe a new generation of poets in Australia will be given production jobs at the ABC, and make a revolutionary poetry program, but I’m not holding my breath. It’s more likely that audio poetry in this country will have to find other outlets, on the Internet or on community radio stations. I remain grateful that the ABC gave a wandering poet a home nearly forty years ago; I just wish that opportunity existed now for another generation.