Religion lives on in the ABC's shallow pool

Compass imagesThe question of the coverage of religion is vexed. It's useful to compare how it has fared on TV and radio. This week ABC TV's Compass celebrates its 21st birthday. In the fickle and faddish world of television that's quite an achievement.

But there is a certain irony and sadness in the anniversary. While the longevity of the flagship religious program on TV is being lauded, the religious flagship program of ABC Radio has been axed. I refer of course to the cancellation of The Religion Report, and I use the words 'irony' and 'sadness' advisedly.

First, the irony. Although TV is an intellectually shallow medium, radio deals well with sustained presentation and discussion of ideas. Television struggles to present complex and abstract ideas, beliefs and values. Driven by visual narrative, TV has other strengths. It presents story, emotion and personality well. So in dealing with and presenting religious experience, perhaps it's the more powerful medium.

When I was trying to entice serious religious commentators to appear on TV, they often voiced concerns about being trivialised, or complained that they couldn't possibly express themselves in a 15 second interview grab. I always responded that while TV overall may be shallow, at least Compass is the deep end of the shallow pool.

So it's ironic that serious coverage of religion is being celebrated on ABC TV, while being purged from radio. But in television religion has always been on the margins, while being mainstream in radio, at least on Radio National.

For its first three years, Compass aired at midday on Sunday. It took quite some arguing with management to shift it to Sunday evening.

Even now with its floating timeslot, usually 10–10.30 p.m., sometimes later, it's difficult to build a regular viewership. The constant complaint from viewers is, 'Why is Compass on so late? Can't it screen earlier?' The quality of the program has been increasingly recognised by ABC management, and there have been successful attempts at some periods to schedule it at 9.30 p.m.

On the other hand, on ABC Radio a raft of religious programs has always aired in mainstream timeslots. As well as The Religion Report, the schedule has included Spirit of Things, Encounter, The Ark, Rhythm Divine and, on ABC Local Radio, Sunday Night with John Cleary. So Compass tries to achieve on television what this range of programs does on radio.

One way of looking at this anomaly between TV and radio is to note that in television a program on the periphery is being recognised and brought more into the mainstream, but that in radio the opposite is happening. Religious programs that have always been at the centre are now being marginalised.

Radio management has made an argument for this downgrading, or marginalising. They say that resources from a number of cancelled programs, not just The Religion Report, needed to be channeled into burgeoning online activity. Given that this need is legitimate, there should have been debate about which programs to axe.

I would have argued that The Religion Report and Encounter, religious current affairs and documentary respectively, should form the core of specialist religious programs, and should be the last to be ditched. As far as I know, there was no consultation, resulting in deep anger both in the ABC Radio Religion Department, and in the broader community.

So the anniversary of Compass is tinged with sadness. Certainly Stephen Crittenden's announcement on air that The Religion Report had been axed was brave, but also rash. Though I didn't always agree with his analysis, spin, or particular enthusiasms, I will certainly miss his expert, thoughtful and thought-provoking programs.

But it's not just about him personally. I mourn the passing of the program itself.

In October last year in front of a Senate Committee, ABC Managing Director Mark Scott described Radio National as 'the jewel in the crown of the ABC'. With the passing of The Religion Report, the jewel that is Radio National now shines much less brightly.

The Compass 21st Birthday Dinner special may be viewed online, or this afternoon at 5:55pm on ABC2 (digital only).

Peter KirkwoodPeter Kirkwood was one of the founding members of the Compass production team in 1988, and worked on the program for most of his career. He was the program's producer until he left the ABC in December 2008. He has a Master's degree from the Sydney College of Divinity.

Topic tags: peter kirkwood, compass, abc radio national, religion report, steve crittenden, mark scott



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Existing comments

Simple really, ABC Radio means local content with local aussie accents, listened to by a large number of Aussies, ABC TV is unwatched by the vast majority of Aussies so it is easier to put on canned, overseas produced material with an aussie intro by Geraldine.
Fr Mick Mac Andrew Bombala-Delegate NSW | 06 March 2009

As a keen listener to the now defunct 'Religion Report' on Radio National, I was outraged at its removal from my life. I found it always interesting as I do 'Eureka Street' now, but especially in its printed form. And I am an atheist!
Alan Slatyer | 06 March 2009

I too miss the Radio National Religion Report. I would only rarely find a religious program interesting enough to stay tuned in but The Religion Report consistently put a point of view that held my attention.

On latest figures, only around 3 per cent of morning radio audience switch on to Radio National; to what wind is ABC management trying to temper its quality programming?

The ABC's termination of the RR seems to me to be a backward step. But thanks Peter Kirkwood for reminding us of Compass' achievement; I will pay more attention to it!
Paul Munro | 06 March 2009

Simple really, ABC Radio means local content with local Aussie accents, listened to by a large number of Aussies, ABC TV is unwatched by the vast majority of Aussies so it is easier to put on canned, overseas produced material with an Aussie intro by Geraldine.
Fr Mick Mac Andrew Bombala-Delegate NSW | 06 March 2009

'The Saints come marching in and the Truth goes marching on" ... the rest is poppycock ... how anyone could design a uni degree around that beats me.
Greig Williams | 06 March 2009

It is a great shame that The Religion Report was axed. It was the only intelligent discussion of religious or theological issues on our increasingly "shallow" radio national.

I must confess, I'm not a fan of The Spirit of Things, it has too much 'spirit', and not enough 'things'.

I have made my feelings known to the void that is the "have your say" button, only to be given the rote response. The next obvious ratings draw will no doubt come from advertising.
david akenson | 06 March 2009

The axing of The Religion Report means that an essential component of the much vaunted education revulution has been lost. Computers supply reams of data but knowledge gained from the data is by a critical minds. Minds that have been nurtured by the humanities. We need well trained workers equipped with the latest technologies but the imagination that made them possible is being neglected.

The Religion Report was a part of the humanities that develops critical minds. It challenges the status quo that paved the way for the ideas that gave birth to the new technologies. This important discipline is being overlooked by the bean counting mandarins who advise governments, who are blinkered by the shiny new computers. They are forgetting the dreamers whose dreams made them possible.

Old Plato recognised the importance of them, he placed them at the top of the heap, today they are being placed at the bottom.

The humanities are needed badly in these critical times as solutions to the economic crisis are sought. Perhaps the experts, like Bernanke head of the US Reserve, would not have got it so wrong if he had read the humanities and programs like The Religion Report.
Reg Wilding | 06 March 2009

It's not just RN - Music for The God who Sings is now scheduled at either 10:30pm or 11:00pm on Sunday night - so late I'm not even sure of the exact time. I supppose the assumption is that The God who Sings is a nightowl. But I know it's hard for many who work early hours .... and yes, I know we can podcast ... but why should we have to!
JD | 06 March 2009

Strongly support Peter Kirkwood's piece and regret the loss of The Religion Report and related programmes. Agree while it might be necessary to achieve some rationalisation of resources the dumping of all is pathetic, particularly without any consultation. I thought it was "Our ABC".
Dan Hourigan | 07 March 2009

Thanks to Peter for a thoughtful discussion, and also that interpretation of the strengths of radio and TV, which he so simply and convincingly expresses. I have wondered since the demise of the Religion Report why there continue to be numerous religious programs on radio, even with extended times (hasn’t the Rhythm Divine lengthened to 30mins?). I worry that religious current affairs is axed where other religious programming, essentially more of faith than of inquiry, is spared.

I even worry there may be an agenda behind it, but hope and trust not. Stephen Crittenden was challenging and presumably made some enemies amongst powerful people of various faith communities, and his final outburst wouldn’t have gone down well with ABC management. To me, the socio-political aspects of religion are real and quite frightening in our current world and easily deserving of time on RN with some considered, knowing, behind-the-scenes reportage.

I’ve also been disappointed by the various 8.30am report replacements. I enjoy hearing the Movie show, and it’s intelligent but by nature not so deep. My judgment is still out on that futurist replacement, but it hasn’t impressed so far. I’ve lost treasured shows before on RN and some change needs to happen over time, so I was reticent to comment, but at the moment it’s looking like this change is mostly loss for little gain.
Eric | 10 March 2009

I was a faithful listener to the Religion Report. Now, with nowhere else to go in its old time slot, I resort to classic FM. RN has lost me, at least for that half hour. The RR was often exquisitly provocative and it appears RN couldn't handle such insecurity and took the safe way out. I crave religious discussion which is stimulating and challenging, like those who founded the great belief systems. And, no, TV doesn't do it.
John O'Donnell | 12 March 2009


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