Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 6, No. 1, 1992
Radio - Sound
Edited by Niall Lucy

Radio National: radio active

Jonathan Dawson

"We cling to the flotsam and jetsam of ABC programming for fear of drowning in a sea of junk" (Max Harris, The Australian 6 May 1990: Weekend 2)

" ... a middle class ripoff" (Nurick 1987: 176)

Late in 1971, a group of younger radio staffers set up a group called the Radio Action Movement (RAM), wisely dumping an earlier title of the Production Improvement Group (PIG). The group, significantly for career and power buffs, included Gillian Appleton (later a film producer and executive of Film Australia), Marius Webb (later Controller of Human Resources after a stint as a coordinator and founder of JJJ) and Max Bourke (later general manager of the Australia Council). For those who too easily detect sinister influence, the figure of Allan Ashbolt was the eminence grise behind all this dangerous motion.

It is easy to find proof that the very existence of Ashbolt had passed into ABC lore (and thus, also, conspiracy theory). Leaving aside the many Tory broadsides mounted in theatres as far removed as Quadrant and Senate sub committees, even Geoffrey Whitehead in his autobiography of his brief reign as managing director of the ABC (1983-1986), accepted the view that Ashbolt had somehow formed a clique or, at least, influenced anybody under the age of fifty who came in contact with him. Thus, the throwaway remark that "the Talks and documentary area ... had been the powerhouse for Allan Ashbolt's 'kindergarten' ... Ashbolt, a well known figure on the Left had recruited many producers sympathetic to his views" (Whitehead,1988: 120). Like so many others before him, not excluding the Quadrant's Watchman, Whitehead had bought the party line: Ashbolt was the fifth man, the public Anthony Blunt of the subversive Left Push.

In spite of (Quadrant Watchman) Anthony McAdam's repeated assertions that here, within the new National Radio system, was proof indeed of a Marxist cell under Ashbolt's sway (McAdam 1983: 58-60) the group was in fact, from a number of departments (many members of whom would have met Ashbolt not at all, or briefly, over institutional sandwiches) and not marked by any apparent desire to indulge in wholesale demolition or Trotskyite entryism. The aim was to open up the ABC by dissolving barriers between production and technical staff, and in general encourage lateral planning, consultation between departments, as well as vertically through the management system and program development. Some of these views were replicated in the Dix report, though the manner of their implementation is another story.

Inglis (1983: 321) notes the similarity between the RAM project and its optimism and the great interdisciplinary project at (some) universities in Australia and Britain in the mid 1970s. In the new ABC, such dreams have long since faded as has the university project, swamped by management systems and efficiency measures that inevitably pull all power back to the centre.

But the climate was laden with oxygen, for this was also the time of the 'scriptgirl' (they bravely led the way), television producer and technical operator strikes of 1973. But a monolith is least susceptible to change in its handling of the frontline, the creative personnel. As Marius Webb observed later, "messages get communicated from one to another, to another, to another, it's like the classic music hall joke. The message simply gets slightly altered as it passes through each filter".

That this is still true is borne out by a survey of the metropolitan stations outside the well funded centre, Sydney (2BL). It is important to realise the difference between what has always been considered the flagship (the BBC 3) of the ABC and the metropolitan stations, which service state city (capital city) areas, and the darling of the Corporation, the national service, which, briefly dignified by the title Radio One before it became Radio National, was always the cultural centre of the ABC.

The metropolitan stations, in constrast, have always suffered from low funding and low Institutional status: for after all are they not competing with the despised commercials?

For instance, Brisbane's 4QR has, over 1989-1991, suffered major format changes initiated by local middle management with producers and presenters "having no say whatsoever in what amounts to a reshuffle of the deckchairs (on the Titanic), since all the changes are costly enough in staff terms - plenty of redundancies - but are really only cosmetic" (anonymous interview with author, August 1991). This situation is replicated around the country. Nothing - as far as the metropolitan stations are concerned - has been learnt from history it seems, least of all from the example of the now forgotten RAM.

In as much as the RAM initiative was to have effects much later in the setting up of Radio National after Dix, and the clear evidence that today Radio National is what the ABC does uniquely and best, in its work, publications (the shortlived Steam Power ) and aims, lie the premises for the best arguments for the continuation of this fraction of the ABC, at least. By late 1972, many outside the ABC saw RAM as an alternative union, and since Webb had been elected president of the New South Wales branch of the Staff Association, and other RAM enthusiasts to the executive, it made the conspiracy case a proven one to those who indulge in such theories.

Certainly, under the new and generous funding of the Whitlam government, it did indeed seem to 'be time' for a change. In many ways, in terms of program innovation, it was. If the members of RAM didn't meet too often after 1972 (because 2JJ was now on the agenda and the Board had promised more power to the National Network) it was because they were flatout producing genuinely 'new' programs and there is nothing like the prospect of deadlines and peer judgment to focus the mind.

RADIO NATIONAL: COMING OUT

The style of the 1990s was really set in the years from 1972. It was not so much a result of the decision by the Board to more keenly focus the National Radio Network, nor the fact that 2JJ's very existence suggested to staffers that some strange but as yet unexplained new order was on the way. Rather, it was the fact that an ABC threatened by management investigations and, crudely, a desire to be 'with it', seemed to be willing to try anything new.

The parade of new programs included Sunday Night Radio Two, a postmodernist mŽlange of different materials and discourses, which replaced the chocolateboxy Quality Street . Lateline, beginning the same night, set the style, if not the idiosyncratic individualism of Late Night Live (especially in its well-funded use of OTC and a flashy desire to make international phone calls and avail itself of more producers in less than one hour than a BAPH state regional station has on permanent staff for the week's work.

Inglis (passim) has observed that not just Quadrant, but colleagues in the ABC itself now began to feel threatened by radicals, supported by more conservative commentators, like Max Harris, harping on themes of a new inferior and philistine ABC.

The Science Program is the program most beloved of liberal commentators (and cultural party throwers), perhaps because of the persona of its presenter Robyn Williams. In fact, the founding head of the Science Unit was yet another refugee from the Catholic priesthood, Dr John Challis, formerly an education producer who'd moved sideways in the 1970s as it became clear that schools programs weren't going anywhere. Williams, through programs like Ockham's Razor, has become the interlocutor for science, simultaneously broadening its definition, whilst never abandoning the Victorian definition that splits humanities off into the less favoured body of C.P. Snow's twin, Two Cultures .

But in 1975, International Women's Year, the most exciting (and still, pehaps most intriguing) of the new Radio Two offerings was The Coming Out Show, produced by an Australian women's broadcasting cooperative that included Julie Rigg from the Science Unit, Liz Fell, a Lateline producer and a wide range of other professionals. It couldn't fail, even though the critics, fifteen years on, still see it as a nest of harpies and unreconstructed feminists in an age of post-feminism.

Simultaneously, the less 'sexy' education programs were being herded out. The minidramas, the little documentaries and the secondary correspondence service courses began to fade away, in preparation for the later purges. Radio Two was now, resolutely, on the intellectual ball. If you weren't in, you were due for the white envelope, and the casualties began to mount up, setting a pattern for the 'budget driven' purges of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

When Dix (v.2: 54) suggested that Radio Two should "acquire something of a generic character by becoming mainly a spoken word network", it was also suggesting that Schools broadcasts should also be reduced. It was probably the most far reaching and sensible of the Dix offerings, for it meant that Radio National, as it would become, would by the end of this century be amongst the best, if not the best, Talk Radio in the world by any standard. The Dix Report, though full of statistics and offhand suggestions, was a volume of some weight. And for an Institution lacking even in corporate goals (let alone that dreaded 1980s invention, the Mission Statement) it was both a threatening document and a useful pretext for management to effect often arbitary changes (though such arbitrariness, cloaked as professionalism was hardly new) changes - not necessarily spelt out in the Report. But the Dix Report scared management. So any change was good change.

With the new Broadcasting Act in place, management and the new Board had to appear to be doing something new . The new corporate managers and controllers and new vertical separation of radio and television functions was only scratching around.

The National Advisory Council, set in place under the Act, for a while acted as a de facto secretariat, with papers on new directions on radio, schools programs and drama, but the professionals felt themselves in an antagonist role with the Council and there were some dramatic confrontations minuted at the first half dozen meeetings of the National and State Councils. But change there had to be, and the commercial industry at large (Federation of Australian Radio Broadcasters, 1981) had already criticised the methodology of the ANOP (Rod Cameron) poll which had led to Dix (in mid 1990 the ANOP poll showed a consolidation of the ABC audience across the board).

As Davis (1988: 28) noted: "Dix did not address the contradictions of the organisation's position. Instead, the (Dix) report offered platitudes". A meeting of radio managers in July 1984 offered the Board something new alright: conversion of the existing format (so beloved of traditional classical music lovers) into a national stereo rock service. Well, if youth were the future, why not?

The Board ended by retaining the known, whilst organising reports and funding from government for a separate youth oriented FM network, now JJJ, networked out of Sydney (of course). This was getting nowhere and the Board's philosophy, commissioned from within their number from Canberra based economist, Richard Boyer, went through many drafts before it was published (July/August1985) and ignored - whatever its value and cogency. Force majeure was operating, as usual. Or, simply put, ABC management were still really in charge and the Board was, as usual, a cipher. The Force was with the managers.

Meanwhile, Radio National was sounding the goods. The model set in the 1970s was to be the matrix for Radio National under the new Corporation, and in fact, looking back from 1991 to late 1980, little of real substance in terms of the production schedule has changed, though by the mid 1980s, of course, schools programs had taken on new forms. By 1991, with the demise of Tickle Pot (the last children's program), youth and educational programs roamed the airwaves under names like Offspring and Connexions (a community educational network hosted by Sandy McCutcheon out of Hobart) and gradually linked in to computer databases throughout Australia and internationally. But both programs, though placed in poor timeslots, at least showed a response to federal concerns about access and equity.

Rescheduling of programs in a more responsive manner and featuring repeats of key programs were necessarily cosmetic. Still, today, the usual motley bay at the heels of Radio National - citing its priorities as paradigmatic of what is wrong with the ABC. The publication of the ANOP research showing that the ABC is not "narrowly based or elitist" (Cameron, June 1990, National Broadcasting in the 1990s Conference) has hardly slowed the pace of the accusations ranging from those of elitism "Wankery... " (Max Harris, The Australian 6 May 1990: Weekend 2) to those of incompetence: "music - less claptrap" (Max Harris, The Australian 2 December 1989: Weekend 2).

But not so much the style of Radio National as some sort of ABC flagship (albeit one with average metropolitan city ratings of two or less throughout the country) but its existence as a wasteful national indulgence somewhere in there with parliamentary broadcasts has been the real issue of these debates over the last decade and beyond.

Along with Philip Adams (passim), Huw Evans (Quadrant, no.3, 1986: 32) had anticipated a post-Dix revival of regionalism and local production. So had the National Advisory Council (if not the Board) of the Corporation from its very first meetings (Minutes 1984: 1, 2) - and later, as the stakes became higher, all of the State Councils, until their dissolution in December 1989 - which shut them up. Radio National, along with ABC television, remains the most irritating component of the organisation for the widest and often most conflicting of reasons.

John Nurick, for instance, in Mandate to Govern, attacked the ABC for waste and inefficiency. His first target in a program that would involve a 75 per cent reduction in funding to the ABC, was Radio National itself, which Nurick saw as part of a totally unncessary 'National' broadcasting system (Nurick 1987: 176-177). The State and National Advisory Councils, in spite of mounting despair at the retreat to Sydney, never seriously advocated this, nor did the Board, though shortly after David Hill's accession to the position of managing director, the idea was back on the agenda.

Certainly, in his essay in Meanjin (v.44, no.2, 1985: 167) and at a guest lecture at Griffith University (Contemporary Culture Course) in the same year, cultural historian Tim Rowse, who was at that time looking hard at the Australia Council, called for a government Arts Policy that stepped back from the deadly centralisation in Sydney and was prepared to look harder at the many different constituencies in the arts generally and the media in particular.

Of course it could never happen, not if the evidence of the Arts Council and the already monolithic Film Finance Corporation are anything to go by. And they are. Bureaucrats in control do not let go.

THOSE CARDS, THOSE LETTERS

"Roll over Beethoven, switch off Australia " (Max Harris The Australian 3 December 1989: Weekend 2).

The rollcall of disaffected columnists, and writers looking for an Aunt Sally or two, is endless. Buzz Kennedy. Max Harris, of course. The newly minted Padraic McGuinness. Max Suich, Des Keegan. Philip Adams, however, is less critical since he ascended the Late Night Live throne in 1991. The more interesting disaffection is kept within the confines of ABC internal correspondence.

INTERNAL DIGESTION

In May 1987, a joint staff/management working party reviewed options for Radio National. The staff had, on the whole, seen the game as a creative one, an attempt to make Radio National more 'relevant' and 'viable'. Of course the meetings were largely an internal political exercise, created by management in response to a parliament-driven terror of the future. After all, Hill and his somewhat cowed Board had seen another multimillion dollar cut coming and, as before, saw radio as a place to chop without too many Friends of the ABC-style shock horror statements to the press.

At the same time, coproductions in television, many merely duplicating commercial television drama initiatives, whistled past the gatekeepers without comment. Television, as is well documented was, to David Hill, very sexy. Radio was not.

The task was to 'redefine' Radio National. Jackie Huie, head of the Banks group, and Rod Cameron of ANOP are, still today (1991), the professional outsiders of choice. Huie, a world expert in 'ad babble', at the 1990 Conference: National Broadcasting in the 1990's, kept referring to a bigger ABC out there, as if there was some sleeping giant waiting to be woken by a kiss. Working staff were not impressed.

Huie talked of a need for a focus for Radio National. It all sounded terribly like the McKinsey work for the BBC in 1969-1970 (see Burns 1977: 233-241) where, as before, the re-titling of jobs without necessarily altering their functions, and the creation of buzzwords for objectives - 'Infotainment', "Multiskilling', 'Outposting' etc - so obsessed the organisation.

As with the earlier (1984-1985) television plannings meetings, the whole exercise degenerated into clichŽ construction. Concepts (or rather, wordsÊ, since the concepts were unformulated) ruled the final write up. One staff member was so disaffected as to write a dissenting view. Though it was ignored, it makes much more sense than the 'official' conclusions of the gathering. It also offers an insight into planning procedures in the new Corporation.

A MAD TEA PARTY

Tony MacGregor's ignored report, not widely circulated inside the Corporation and unseen outside it, noted:

"Redefining Radio National and its target audience was the first task. After much debate the Working Party accepted the principle of the Banks group analysis: Radio National should aim to be "contemporary" and "experiential"... and its audience... the New Establishment . This is the audience the network was going to "take further"?

Having spent two days considering the research and arguing through philosophy ... the Working Party then proceeded to ignore this network paradigm:

"The contradictory uses to which Audience research was put was patently political... in practice Audience research amounted to a delphic oracle whose contradictory pronouncements were applied and interpreted as the political situation demanded."

MacGregor went on to mention a 'hit list' of programs to cancel, noting that the process seemed alternately "woolly minded" or "number crunching", using "poor ratings" as a bludgeon, while new programs were created "on impulse" (MacGregor, 16 June 1987).

What Tony MacGregor records is fairly typical of other working parties in action, not least the notorious Television Staff Conference of October 1984. This was a conference that turned into a kind of Borgesian machine for generating affirmative adjectives such as 'appealing', 'flexible', 'creative', 'exciting', 'provocative', and so on. This somewhat fatuous celebration utterly failed to impress the NAC (Minutes 6/84) but seemed to do wonders for Board morale.

STILL, THE LEAST WORST

Nevertheless, Radio National is still an outstanding network, well resourced and with a growing number of trained professionals on staff, from 'non broadcast' backgrounds as diverse as Jesuit college, economics, the law, science and advertising. The pool of expert speakers has measurably broadened - though extended listening can lead to a feeling that the usual suspects are still being rounded up. International drama (Playback ) has not yet been banished to FM and innovative programs like the postmodernist The Listening Room may still be about as falsely avant-garde as the Dadaists (Krauss, 1985: 151ff), but still offer a real space for experimentation, even if the forms are rapidly becoming as familiar as pop art the third time around. As Max Harris notes: "people who go to Kuta beach with a tape recorder, put together a concatenation of sounds and pass it off as a new artistic idiom" (The Australian 6 May 1990: Weekend 2), though this comes strangely from the once and former Angry Penguin fl‰neur .

Certainly, in radio, especially with parliament gone to its own frequency at last, the ABC has "the ball at its feet" (Max Suich, Sydney Morning Herald , 18 April 1989) - signified not least by the flight back to the ABC of those who once saw the commercial networks as El Dorado. While the debates about the future of Radio National continue, the voices calling for its end are fading. Even deconstructive Glyn Davis piously hopes that if metro radio carried advertising, a separate Radio National could then remain virginal (Davis 1988: 136).

The institutional amour propre and (real or imagined) sense of professionalism of the ABC is nowhere more evident than at Radio National. So this last seems the unlikeliest of scenarios of all the options facing the ABC. Yet programs like Connexions are indeed providing a new kind of space to outside groups and networks, attracting international public broadcasting interest as they do. In the 1990s, as never before, the existence and programs of Radio National remain the only argument going for the retention, in some form, of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

ABC (1984+) Advisory Council Minutes (National, State and Territory Councils), Sydney: ABC Corporate Relations.

BURNS, T. (1977) The BBC: Public Institution and Private World, London: Macmillan.

DAVIS, G. (1988) Breaking Up the ABC, Sydney: Allen and Unwin.

DIX, A. et al (1981) The ABC in Review: National Broadcasting in the 1980s (report of the Committee of Review of the Australian Broadcasting Commission), Canberra: AGPS.

EVANS, H. in Quadrant, no.31, 1986.

INGLIS, K.S. (1983) This the the ABC, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.

KRAUSS, R.E. (1985) The Originality of the Avant-garde and Other Modern Myths, London: MIT Press.

NURICK, J. (1987) Mandate to Govern, Perth: Australian Institute for Public Policy.

ROWSE, T. in Meanjin, v.44, no.2, 1985.


New: 7 March, 1996 | Now: 21 March, 2015