An extraordinary opening comment by Radio National Religion Report presenter Stephen Crittenden this morning (listen to it here) was the first many ABC listeners will have heard about serious changes to the RN schedule planned for 2009. Former ABC religious broadcaster Paul Collins takes up the tale:

Words tell you everything. When you hear “interdisciplinary” you know it means “dumbing down” and “consumer focused” always refers to the lowest common denominator. This is precisely the rhetoric used yesterday by ABC Radio National management to describe their intentions for RN programming next year.

Several specialist programs are being taken off-air including the Religion Report, the Media Report and Radio Eye. The Reports are flagship programs that deal with issues central to current culture. Apparently they are being replaced by a movie show and something about the future. Specialist broadcasters will spend more time responding to opinionated bloggers rather than making programs. God help us!

Let’s be clear what ABC Radio management is up to: it is a case of the bland leading the bland. Specialisation is out. Nowadays the belief is that any old (or, more likely, young) “interdisciplinary” journalist can deal with any topic. Well, I’ve been interviewed literally hundreds of times on ABC radio and TV. My experience is that while most journalists make a reasonable go of it, they just don’t know the detail and often have to be led to the key questions.

Take religion for example. There are no more than half a dozen specialist religious journalists in Australia. Two work for Fairfax (Linda Morris and Barney Zwartz) and the rest for the ABC which has had a religion department since the beginning of the Corporation. Stephen Crittenden, John Cleary and Rachael Kohn are able to cover a complex spectrum of beliefs, practices and theologies from a wide cross-section of traditions precisely because they are specialists.

Nowadays religion is a mainstream political, cultural and socio-economic issue with enormous impact on world affairs. To cover it adequately you need specialists. That is precisely what Stephen Crittenden has done on the Religion Report. He knows what the issues are and where the bodies are buried. Sure, he’s upset some powerful people, but that’s the nature of a free media.

I’m not paranoid. I don’t see this as an attack on religion. It’s more a lack of appreciation of specialization, derived from the half-witted, post-modern conviction that everyone can do anything. Sure, they can ask a few prosaic, “man-in-the-street” questions. But that’s not the task of Radio National. If you think it is, get a job with the commercials.

We need to be clear where this is leading. It effectively spells the end of religion as a specialization in the ABC. If you only have a couple of minor, essentially life-style programs on air you don’t need people who know their stuff. All you need is an ‘interdisciplinary, consumer-focused’ approach, produced by the type of journalist who doesn’t know the difference between an Anglo-Catholic and an Evangelical!

Paul Collins is a former specialist editor (religion) for the ABC.

An ABC spokeswoman said:

“A number of line-up changes are planned for ABC Radio National next year, these are currently being finalised and will be announced shortly. They do include a number of programs being moved, changed or ended.

“These changes are in part a response to the move in ABC Radio National’s audience growth, particularly online. This necessitates a shift in resources – in some cases from on air to online. There will be no job losses.

“Stephen’s comments were made independently without the knowledge or approval of network management. The matter is under review.

“Stephen Crittenden is a respected broadcaster with whom discussions have taken place regarding the schedule changes, and as with any other staff affected, future opportunities with the network are being discussed.”

Peter Fray

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