As 2016 draws to a close, we look back upon a momentous year for ABC Friends, and for the ABC. Friends celebrated 40 years since its founding by Walter Bass, ran an extremely effective campaign to ensure that the ABC was an issue in the Federal Election, especially in marginal seats, and is about to sign off on the establishment of Friends as a national as well as a state-based organization. The National Fighting Fund, launched over a year ago, raised from donations over $150,000 - sufficient to mount a campaign during the election period which, through extensive use of social media and the huge unpaid contribution of the creative team, reached an extraordinarily large audience, numbering well into the millions. Max Gillies as Rupert Murdoch produced responses from all over the world. We are indebted especially to Ranald Macdonald (National Campaign Director) and Jeff Waters (National Campaign Co-Ordinator) for the success of the campaign, which did not stop once the election had taken place, but has continued apace. Friends now has a strong and effective lobbying presence in Canberra, thanks largely to the leadership and influence of our National President, Margaret Reynolds. A priority for Friends in 2017 will be to keep reminding Australia that an independent, well-funded ABC, free of political and commercial influence, is essential to our national health.
MANAGEMENT IN CRISIS
I write this whilst listening, on ABC Classic FM, to the broadcast from Melbourne of Opera Australia's outstanding production of Gotterdammerung (Twilight of the Gods), the fourth in Wagner's mighty Ring Cycle, all brought magnificently to listeners all across Australia, and around the world, by the musically knowledgable Classic FM team, with clarity and depth on a clean and vivid FM signal. I wonder as I listen how much longer the ABC will offer this service, at this quality, to all Australians, even though it is clearly part of the ABC's charter. Rumours continue of management plans to take the FM band from ABC Classic and give it to another part of the ABC, and offer classical music on a much cheaper digital stream, presumably so that we can all listen to the Ring Cycle on our mobile phones! Management should also be made aware that vast areas of Australia have an internet service so poor that receiving a strong and consistent signal is a hopeless pipedream. As a resident of the Blue Mountains, within sight of Sydney's Centrepoint Tower, my internet reception is appalling, and unlikely to improve.
Whilst we must never forget that many of the problems besetting the ABC at the moment are the direct result of drastic funding cuts at the hands of the Abbott/Turnbull governments, and these cuts are ongoing, it is tempting to draw an analogy between Twilight if the Gods, and the destruction of the world as they knew it, largely because they could not manage change, and the current practices of ABC Management, which seems determined to bring major changes to the ABC without either consultation or communication with those most affected, namely the staff who produce the programs and the audience who receive and enjoy them. It brings to painful recollection the disastrous handling by management of the hundreds of redundancies in late 2014 resulting from the first Abbott budget cuts, and the notorious "hunger games" in which staff were required to justify their retention in their positions in front of others competing for the same job! Scarcely a day passes now in the mainstream media without further reports of rising tensions in the ABC between management and those who produce the programs. These tensions are heightened by reports of the addition of further expensive layers of management at the same time as sacking program makers and creative people.
In relation to Catalyst, there has been no attempt on the part of managers to justify the axing of a program which was popular, occasionally controversial, but successfully communicated science to a wide audience in a popular format. One would think that the ABC was doing exactly, according to the charter, what it is supposed to do. Robyn Williams, highly respected veteran of 40 years of science broadcasting, put it well - "This week up to 17 Catalyst staff will leave the building, one of the top teams in the world dedicated to science communication, with not a farewell, a handshake or a stale biscuit - like felons out onto the street. This effectively halves the numbers of science journalists working in Australia." (No doubt to the delight of the climate change deniers in the Turnbull government!) "The bosses of ABC TV responsible for this travesty are morally and spiritually bankrupt." It also repeats a very bad ABC habit of showing the door to those with the knowledge, the wisdom, the experience, the culture - Quentin Dempster, Jim Middleton, Sean Dorney, Sandy McCutcheon, all great journalists and broadcasters come to mind, terminated when they still had much to offer. To quote recently departed board member Professor Fiona Stanley, "The people who know most about content and the audience they serve are not being sufficiently consulted. The ABC has a fabulous, passionate, intelligent, wonderful staff with deep knowledge in their fields. Engage more with them." Amen to that!
It has been difficult to avoid the conclusion in recent years that ABC management has a problem with intelligent radio, given the disproportionate cuts suffered by RN in comparison with other ABC platforms, and the loss of searching programs of depth and intellectual rigour - Bush Telegraph, Hindsight, Encounter, Poetica, First Bite, By Design, 360 Documentaries, Into the Music went 2 years ago. Now we are to lose The Inside Sleeve, The Daily Planet, The Rhythm Divine and The Live Set, to the outrage and bewilderment of the Music Industry. You may read in this Update the eloquent arguments of both Professor Siobahn McHugh and the Australian Music Industry why we cannot allow Radio National to be gutted further, with intellectual depth and rigour replaced by mindless and populist (but cheap to produce) "flow programming," as heard in the 6pm RN slot on weekdays. Management should read the ABC's Annual Report: "ABC RN continued to dominate the Australian podcast landscape with 71.3 million downloads or streams in 2015-16. RN produced 12 of the ABC's top 20 podcasts in 2015-16" - twice as many as all of ABC local radio. Do not deny RN the resources to keep doing it.
ABC FRIENDS WILL NOT GIVE UP THE FIGHT
ABC Friends exists because we believe that Australia will be a better, kinder and happier place for all its citizens as long as it has a strong, independent, fearless public broadcaster, free of commercial and political influence. That is why our thousands of members, along with our leadership at a local, state and national level, give so generously of their time, their expertise and their energy in defence of our public broadcaster. We are also aware that the ABC in 2016, whilst a much more diverse and complex organization in its methods of delivery, is operating on a budget which, in relative terms, is smaller than at any time in the last 50 years, and has lost 500 staff as a result of funding cuts by the Abbott/Turnbull government. We will continue to fight for adequate funding, but urge ABC management that, in their increasingly desperate search for new and different audiences for its various platforms, it does not abandon or ignore its current, loyal audiences who care with great passion about "Their ABC," and have a voice which deserves to be heard.
President ABC Friends NSW & ACT