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ABC Radio National's bland vision


Article from The AustralianOn Thursday, the Senate called on ABC management to immediately make public the reasons for its decision to cut programs from Radio National's 2009 schedule.

That followed Religion Report presenter Stephen Crittenden's announcement to his listeners on Wednesday that eight programs including his own were being 'decommissioned'.

Crittenden said: 'The ABC's specialist units have been under attack for years, but the decapitation of the flagship program of the religion department effectively spells the death of religion at the ABC. That such decision has been taken in an era when religion vies with economics as a determinant of everything that's going on in the world almost beggars belief.'

Religious commentator Paul Collins developed the argument further in Wednesday's Crikey, suggesting that replacing Radio National's specialist programming with interdisciplinary content is 'derived from the half-witted, post-modern conviction that everyone can do anything'.

He said it produces 'a few prosaic 'man-in-the-street' questions [from] the type of journalist who doesn’t know the difference between an Anglo-Catholic and an Evangelical'.

The problem is that the only statement from ABC management was both brief and lame, and did not even admit to a move away from specialisation. Hence the Senate's 'please explain'.

In announcing a review of the ABC and SBS, Minister for Communications Stephen Conroy said on Thursday: 'We need to make the right decisions now if the national broadcasters are to thrive in a digital, online and global media environment.'

It appears that the main reason for Radio National's changes is the reality that its content has more of a future in podcasts and other forms of digital delivery, than traditional broadcast radio. This is about making the most of new technology, and only to be admired. In fact, it's precisely what Eureka Street did when we abandoned print for online in 2006.

But the issue of digital delivery is being confused with the actual content. The station is currently conducting a listener survey aimed to assist it to provide a 'better service'. But all the questions are about delivery platforms. There is no opportunity for listeners to tell management that they believe a better service means maintaining and enhancing specialist content. It seems specialist content is simply not on the mind of the station's management.

The need for the ABC, and Radio National in particular, to provide a serious forum for informed debate has only increased with Fairfax's commercially-motivated decision earlier this year to dilute its editorial content.

As journalism educator Chris McGillion wrote in Eureka Street in September: 'Fairfax’s latest decision to cut jobs means that, more than ever, the standard in investigative and in-depth reporting — the test of the 'brand' — must be set by the one mass, non-commercial operator. This is the ABC.'

It is fortuitous that Senator Conroy has announced the review at this time, and we hope that those who value specialist content will speak up. For its part, Radio National management might consider postponing these significant programming changes until the voice of the people has been heard.

The Religion Report
Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy – ABC SBS Review

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.


Topic tags: michael mullins, abc, radio national, religion report, specialist programming, stephen crittenden



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Existing comments

I agree entirely. It is yet another example of media management manipulating a situation to gain the maximum advantage in controlling rather than informing public opinion. The technology reason is specious. This is a deliberate curtailment of religious thinking, in much the same way that some hospitals, or rather health area management, banned the placing of bibles in bedside tables by invoking 'infection control'.

Roy O'Neill MSC | 20 October 2008  

There has been a sustained attempt to divest the ABC of a religion department for decades, even when Leonie Cramer was the big wheel. As religious affairs editor of the Australian I was frequently aware of devious plans to downgradethe department, and growing determination to treat religion as a sociological phenomenon and not a matter of belief.I take Crittenden's point that never was there a greater interest in religious questions than now, so the move to dump religion as a specialist department is irresponsible ands dishonestly covered by the claims of the new technology. The Catholic Youth Pilgrimage surely highlighted the communal interest in matters of faith but the post-modern espionage is highly successful in subverting serious consideration of ultimate questions. The ABC should hide its head in shame.

james murray | 20 October 2008  

Since the 1960's I have been listening to religion on the ABC. I can recall such series as 'Plain Christianity' that were very really revealing of the attitudes of the time. It is important that sound theological thinking is broadcast on the media, not bland 'Fundamentalism'.

john ozanne | 20 October 2008  

I do not like the sound of this but I did like the sound of the religion programs on the ABC. In fact I felt I had missed out when recently I found cricket instead. This is worse!

Pat Sheahan | 20 October 2008  

Michael Mullins quotes Stephen Crittenden on the axing of ABC specialist units as saying: "That such decision has been taken in an era when religion vies with economics as a determinant of everything that's going on in the world almost beggars belief."

Crittenden goes on to say: "A couple of years ago they axed the environment program."

To me, this does not in any way "beggar belief", but is in every way predictable, logical and understandable. What is the first thing that the dominant forces in a society do when in power? Shut down debate! Our recent ex-PM stacked the boards of the ABC, educational bodies, even the National Museum, with his cronies. In what way does this beggar belief? Is this not predictable?

We read surveys showing that the majority people’s perception is that the USA and Israel are the major progenitors of terrorism in our unhappy world. Do we need a PhD to see the obviousness of this? Is it more than a minute and 'fringe' part of planetary discourse?

Post 9/11, the question was asked: "Why do they hate us so much?" Again, do we need a PhD to answer the obvious? It is our BEHAVIOUR that causes "them" to hate us.

It is precisely the questions that are 'stopped' from being asked that NEED to be asked in any courageous, honest debate about our contemporary planetary situation.

Someone wrote a book recently: Religion: The root of all evil. Closing down the ABC's Religion Report will ensure debates around this reality never happen.

Debates on religion, the environment, the cause of 'terror' and so on NEED to be had and that is precisely why such discourses will be opposed.

David | 20 October 2008  

Oh how I agree with you, Michael!

The ABC, both local radio and radio national, are losing their way. If they think they can go completely "mainstream," well, my house will be very quiet from now on, except for me talking to myself - I'll make as much sense.

Thank you for your timely article!

Alison | 20 October 2008  

I did the linked ABC survey and used the opportunity presented by the "How often" question to list each program I listened to.

I identified Eureka Street as one of the sites I regularly visited. Besides the quality of the articles, I think this is because I allowed Eureka Street to push email at me.

As for the survey itself, it misses the point of radio - I do not have to do anything to listen - it is an environment. Podcasting is not. I use it but only as a fallback.

As for using email pushing to promote content as Eureka Street does - the ABC is so big, it would be annoying.

Now that I think about this, I am subscribed to "ABC Science Updates", but I rarely read them - the radio keeps me up to date!

Peter Horan | 20 October 2008  

I can only agree! RN is the only forum on radio covering these issues. And they do it so well! Even topics that do not normally interest me - such as sport - are presented from an interesting and engaging angle. Long live the Religion Report, and specialist programming, on the ABC! It is one way in which I feel I get value for money from my taxes.

Sharon Hillcoat | 20 October 2008  

As a long-time (30+ years) avid listener to RN, I can only say that, like so many others, I am appalled at this decision - for all the same reasons. Like Peter Horan, I too did the survey. Similarly, I am of the opinion that it really did miss the point: as Peter said, radio is "an environment"; podcasts are not.

Noel Kapernick | 20 October 2008  

I agree Michael! Being the same age as the ABC and the Sydney Harbour Bridge, my response is I and the first, aformentioned , have been maintained for our age. Not so for the ABC! It is suffering for all the ills of old age, for which I am trying to combat! A solution, using the principle of my grandfather who bred draught horses, was to put it down, carefully and lovely, it has served its day!
Shoot Radio National, bury it and then go to the vibrant branches; News Radio, Local Radio. FM Classic.

Jacque | 21 October 2008  

In this 21st Century we certainly need the kind of information and opportunities for reflection that is offered through The Religion Report ABC program. To cut this program is to deny many people the immense benefits that have come through this program. Not only does the program present us with world views that are INCLUSIVE but it provides us with good discussion points and challenging criteria for further faith sharing in small groups. Shame on the ABC should this program be axed.

Joan Reynolds | 21 October 2008  

Facebook users - if you care about this issue, please join the Facebook group 'Save the ABC's Religion Report'.

There you will find a draft letter that you can email to the ABC Board.

Mark | 21 October 2008  

Thanks to Michael Mullins for his fine editorial about the coming bland-izing of ABC Radio National - and all power to Stephen Crittenden for his courageous airing of the forthcoming program cuts.

As a former ABC broadcaster, I feel I have seen it all before. Of course there are changes in program schedules from time to time, and many of them have been positive, despite initial fears from listeners who traditionally dislike change.

However, when it appears that specialist programs like the Religion Report and Radio Eye are to go, one does indeed wonder what can take their place that might be any better. Has anyone complained of the quality of these programs, can anyone see how they could be significantly improved? All we are given by way of explanation are nebulous phrases about 'inter-disciplinary programs' - i.e. less specialized?

I agree with Mullins that ABC management is confusing content with the means of delivery. It is no use making new digital avenues available if there is no decent content to send through them.

Rodney Wetherell | 21 October 2008  

Hey why am I not surprised. My opinion...just another less subtle shift in the move towards an anti-religion bias evident in the ABC for many years.

Take for instance the three part series titled Root of All Evil they showed on Compass some time ago? The positive stories on Compass regarding religion are few and far between.

The BBC recently ran a very interesting series titled The problem with Atheism.

Oh don't you just love the Post Modern era in which we live, it's making us stupid!

Tim | 23 October 2008  

I am troubled by the sometimes uninformed outcry over the changes to Radio National formats. It seeems to be true that some specialist programs are to go - but by no means all. Similarly, while the Religion Report is to go Encounter and the Spirit of Things will stay. And new progams are to be introduced. It seems clear to me that those that are staying are those that attract a wide podcasting audience and/or much listener feedback.

I remember writing to the ABC in high umbrage when they first proposed moving to national broadcasting and away from local broadcasting only to discover that Radio National was even better than 6WN had been before. While some decisions are poor and the ABC is subject to huge political and economic pressures I think that listeners (and presenters) need to take care not to assume conspiracy theories are always the only explanations for program changes.

And while I admire Stephen Critteden's broadcasting style(sometimes) I think he did behave unprofessionally in using his position to state his own views and it was appropriate that he be disciplined by the ABC.

Anna Alderson | 25 October 2008  

I am a counsellor family therapist who grew up in a Catholic family knowing about something called mixed marriages - as a kid I had no idea what that meant. I moved on and structured Catholic was not enough - the world of belief was bigger with my Catholic origins being an important and valued foundation from which to explore my search. The whole raft of ABC religious programs have been a wonderful way of exploring the complexity and inter-connectedness of this broader world.

As a counsellor what I have learnt in listening to the Religion Report has been frequently of enormous assistance as I work with individuals and couples whose religious beliefs and practices take in the world of race and religious belief and gender. It has given me enough grounding to ask the questions that need to be asked.

With Australia such a melting pot it beggars belief that the national broadcaster should take away such a rich resource. Richard is fearless in his insightful question and comment. What is it that as a society we seem to be so afraid of such scrutiny? Are we afraid that we will not be able to integrate what we discover? The collapsing finance system shows the cost of ignorance. I wonder when we will realise the national cost of this decision.

john dallimore | 28 October 2008  

I've just returned from a pilgrimage to Celtic Christian sites in the UK and Ireland - to be confronted with blatant Australian agnosticism: the ABC is too lazy to be forthrightly atheistic: a lame, vague agnosticism is prevailing in this country - to our longterm spiritual peril.
Stephen Crittenden was a fearless and articulate observer of religious affairs in australia and world wide. i can't believe that the ABC is so intellectually sloppy as to go down the route of a general 'dumbing down' of serious debate and criticism.
and what can ordinary people do to influence their decisions? nothing. another sad day for the Australian spirit.

barbara overbury | 08 November 2008  

Thanks Michael for your editorial. What to say about Philistinism, cultural impoverishment, intellectual and spiritual debasement by a thousand ignorant cuts? I guess I reveal my prejudice. An ex-tertiary educator, I have seen the systematic and generational reduction of the provision of knowledge in university programs and the abasement of standards in 'performance requirements', and so, of levels of achievement, of desire to achieve by everyone, not just students. Routine has bit hard and ambition has come low, as Joy Division once sang. It's no surprise then that the ruling class that was born into and has grown up under this (at least) three-decades old regime of decaying values now thinks on its bum and not with its head.

walter musolino | 29 December 2008  

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