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Radio National changes ‘rip the guts’ from features, docos

Award-winning staff will depart along with some programs at Radio National next year. Insiders speak out about the direction of the storied ABC network.

Some of ABC Radio National’s most experienced and highly regarded radio makers have been placed on a redundancy hit list as the station seeks to cut $1 million from its bottom line next year.

RN staff and the union representing them are dismayed that station management has decided to target individuals for forced redundancy rather than go through a voluntary process. There is also a broader concern about a shift away from specialist programs with high production values towards local radio-style content.

RN management plans to axe the radio drama department, cut the number of senior producers in the features department from five to two and reduce staff working on Fran Kelly’s top-rating Breakfast program. Up to 11 staff are expected to be made redundant.

Tom Morton, who recently left Radio National after two decades as a journalist and presenter, says he’s alarmed at the proposed cuts to the features unit. ”You are losing people who represent a very large part of the intellectual capital and experience at Radio National,” he said. “It is potentially ripping the guts out of the whole culture of features, documentary making and drama.”

The features staffers who have been told they may be out of a job are: Sharon Davis, Jane Ulman, Sherre DeLys, Robyn Johnston and Brent Clough. All are in the station’s highest salary band for reporter/producers. Head of radio drama Anna Messariti’s role has also been made redundant.

Although not household names, Morton says those staff members who have been targeted are internationally recognised for their work and play a crucial role mentoring emerging journalists. Radio documentary maker Davis has won four Walkley Awards — more than anyone else at Radio National; Ulman has won more prizes at the Prix Italia — the world’s oldest and most prestigious radio festival — than anyone in the world.

I know Mark Scott has a high regard for journalistic excellence,” Morton, now director of the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism, told Crikey. “I think he’d be asking himself if the ABC wants to lose people of the calibre of Sharon Davis or Jane Ulman.”

Others on the redundancy hit list have a record of innovation and international reputations. DeLys, who was the founding executive producer of the Pool website, has also won international radio awards. Clough, who hosts the decomissioned Night Air program, has worked at the ABC for more than 20 years,  as has the WA-based Johnston.

This has been a flawed process,” said Morton. “If RN really needs to lose staff — and so far the case hasn’t been made publicly why it does — it should be through a voluntary redundancy process.”

Crikey understands that staff members have written to ABC chairman Jim Spigelman and managing director Mark Scott to register complaints about the axing of radio drama and cuts to the features department.

One of the staff members in line for redundancy told Crikey: ”The most senior, experienced people in the features unit will be out the door. We’re the highest paid so they are getting rid of us. All of us are highly skilled people and none of us knows if we will get jobs out of this.”

The RN veteran, who asked to remain anonymous, says the process has been handled “incredibly badly” by management: ”We all feel like we have been badly misled.”

The Community and Public Sector Union is planning a public campaign against the cuts and has threatened to take the ABC to Fair Work Australia over a lack of consultation with staff.

Staff are also questioning the wisdom of management spending $55,000 on a radio drama and features conference, Radio Beyond Radio, held only days before it was announced the radio drama department would be closed.

Staff at the station’s highest-rating program, RN Breakfast, are also incensed about a proposal to cut its resources next year. As outlined in the recently released Project Sustainability Project report, RN Breakfast —  which took on an extra half hour of programming this year with no added staff — is slated to lose one full-time producer in 2013.

We are already the most productive show on the network,” an angry Breakfast insider told Crikey. ”They don’t understand what we do because they’re not in here [early in the morning].”

Management hopes Breakfast can share more resources with Waleed Aly’s Drive program, which will pick up an extra staff member next year.

Not all staffers, it’s important to note, are unhappy with the change in direction. “It is commendable that someone is finally trying to tackle the huge work imbalance between the daily shows and features,” one current affairs producer said.

ABC RN manager Michael Mason told Crikey: “Of course we don’t want to lose staff but we’ve got to make the best decisions for the network.

The draft schedule shows that next year 76% of programming will be original, which represents an extra 14% of original content for our audience. If you combine this with the increased specialisation on air this year with the additions of the Media Report, the Religion and Ethics Report, Download this Show, Common Knowledge and The Body Sphere, RN is well and truly delivering on its role as the network for intelligent audiences who want a deeper understanding of the world.”

He says consultation about the proposed cuts is ongoing and there would still be 21 staff in the features unit. Staff members in the highest salary band who are made redundant will also be able to apply for an equivalent position in the new creative audio unit.

Former RN veteran Peter Clarke says Mason should be congratulated for finally addressing the “weeping wound” that is the station’s budget. But he says he’s concerned about the loss of specialist arts content given there will be no standalone shows devoted to movies or books next year.

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  • 1
    Mark from Melbourne
    Posted Thursday, 4 October 2012 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    They could start by ditching Fran Kelly. I’ve been listening to Breakfast for a long time now and frankly Fran is not all that good IMHO. Quite grating at times.

    Geraldine has been like a breath of fresh air over the last week or so. Or if Gerry doesn’t want to get up early, bring back Peter Thompson - he was excellent.

  • 2
    Moving to Paraguay
    Posted Thursday, 4 October 2012 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

    The Night Air was a miracle of radio. Losing producers like Brent Clough takes the soul out of Radio National. It is such an important national voice, accompanying lives around the country. Where is the Minister to come to its defence?

  • 3
    archibald
    Posted Thursday, 4 October 2012 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

    I read that RN staff went through a lengthy and comprehensive review process before staff agreed on the new schedule. I love it! Given the generally conservative nature of the audience I suspect it will take some years before the audience rebuilds.

    With a new plan in place, the staffing needed to be re-arranged and refreshed with producers and presenters who have the appropriate skills to meet the requirements of the new programs. I imagine voluntary redundancy won’t facilitate this. It’s a tough media world today.11 jobs only. Fairfax and News staff would see this as luxurious.

    It’s always sad to lose people and it’s hoped that they find new employment.
    It’s also sad to see radio drama cut but I guess it’s expensive and was designed before podcasts were an option. I get all sorts of good stuff that way. It’s also sad to see Robin Johnson go. I am not sure how many staff are left on the Breakfast show. It may be a good exercise to compare the numbers with every other ABC Radio Breakfast show. Maybe staffing comparisons could also be made between the size of the Breakfast Show and my favorite specialist show “Download this Show”He sounds like a one man band?
    Please don’t get rid of Fran. I have never been a fan Sharon Davis’s work. Personal choice I guess. Hasn’t Philip Adams been there long enough? And why music in the afternoons? Put Robbie Buck on FM thanks.

    A lot of people have won awards in radio. It’s not too hard when there are small and defined categories in competitions. One should not place too much importance on them.

    I don’t reckon the ABC has ever been run better than it is now. Take a look at Ch9,Ch10, Fairfax and News and let management at the ABC get on with it.

    I

  • 4
    AR
    Posted Thursday, 4 October 2012 at 8:16 pm | Permalink

    MexicoMark - I wanted to like Fran as she’d be an very good UK & Euroid correspondent but her breathless, blathering efforts to fill 3 hrs per morning are a great disappointment.
    Worst of all is her infuriating trait of not listening (or perhaps not understanding)answers to previous questions and forging on with her set list of questions, as does Leigh Sales. Neither seems to grasp the point that they are seeking the views/opinions of the interviewee, not showing how clever their questions are.

  • 5
    AR
    Posted Thursday, 4 October 2012 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

    ..would be “Fran had been a very good UK..”

  • 6
    Cuppa
    Posted Thursday, 4 October 2012 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

    I’m pessimistic about the future of Radio National, and in fact the ABC as a whole. Considering the downward trajectory of impartiality and quality over recent years, at this rate ABC programs will soon be as tabloid and conservative as the commercial media’s output. When it gets to that stage it will almost impossible to put a sustainable case for why the ABC shouldn’t be sold off and made officially a commercial media organisation.

  • 7
    Posted Thursday, 4 October 2012 at 9:51 pm | Permalink

    I agree with the evening out of resources between Radio National’s feature programs, many of which are over produced to my ear, and the daily programs. I also Like Fran Kelly’s Breakfast: she clearly knows her material and usually challenges interviewees who should be challenged.

  • 8
    paul walter
    Posted Thursday, 4 October 2012 at 10:12 pm | Permalink

    How can there be a “gaping hole” in its budget when it is underfunded in the first place?

  • 9
    Rupert Moloch
    Posted Thursday, 4 October 2012 at 11:37 pm | Permalink

    The future of RN is tabloid talk: lifestyle programming. The cheapest form of radio there is!

    Budgetary pressures were self-inflicted when management directed financial resources to feather-bedding redundant JJJ presenters*. That move was in response to the genuine problem confronting RN: its audience is aging, & younger listeners aren’t tuning in.

    (JJJ -> RN… a perfect fit? Only in the minds of ABC management)

    Earlier this year, ABC management floated a proposal to outsource swathes of RN production. This model has worked well for BBC radios 3 & 4 in the UK, generating exciting & expert programs by people beyond the Beeb’s immediate family. Personally, I think it was a good idea, but it wasn’t supported by RN staff.

    The new proposal looks like a nuclear option, but with the predictable result that it’ll remove those senior producers best equipped to exec-produce external production.

    RN at its worst is a sinecure/shelter workshop for “air personalities” whose best years are long behind them. Philip Adams is the prime offender: to hear his mocking dismissal (‘interviews’) of Slavoj Zizek or James Howard Kunstler et al is to confront his failure to acknowledge the existence of some of the new millenium’s best thinking. But, much like Alan Jones, he enjoys the devoted affections of a grey power demographic.

    Anyways! The events now transpiring have a long historical context dating back to the Howard years, & Alston’s tenure as responsible minister. RN is a small but significant target on a culture-war kill-list, still. More needs to be added, tho’ not right now…

    * remembering that those presenters are the management muppets parachuted into position after the Jays management studio lockout of the early 90s - an event which has been disappeared down the interwebs’ memory hole…

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