It has been a lousy week for Radio National. That is unless you subscribe to the “any news is good news” theory. In the eight days since Stephen Crittenden’s revelation that nine programs, including his own Religion Report, are to be axed, the network has been hit by some horrible press while stumbling to explain its intentions and direction.
As a matter of priority, the network should find a narrative — to use the buzz word of the month — or it faces a lack of confidence from staff and listeners alike.
This week began with an email to staff from the head of Radio National, Dr Jane Connors. As well as announcing that Crittenden would be suspended for exposing the planned cuts, it sought to buy time for the “immensely complicated” task of reshaping the network. Its tone was soothing, although its concluding promise that the network would end up “looking, sounding and feeling remarkably like Radio National” was enigmatic.
Personally I don’t doubt the commitment of Connors. She gets what Radio National is about and takes her stewardship of the network seriously. In fact I’d say the same of many in the current management team. So what is driving all this? Is it, as many staff are speculating, the agenda of the head of Radio, Sue Howard? If not, she should be on-air herself correcting the insiders who say it’s her mission to reshape the network in the image of local radio. Either way, she should be publicly spelling out her vision for Radio National as a matter of urgency.
Is this turmoil a consequence of the failure to understand on-line and how on-air programming relates to it? Is it the result of some budget hole even deeper than the one that permanently troubles the network?
The problem is that after a week, we still don’t know whether this is about genuine renewal, as the managing director Mark Scott claims, or about the removal of much that’s precious to make way for more flow programming.
And the reason we don’t know is that since last Wednesday the corporation has been dissembling on the topic. Here are a few of the inconsistencies.
The first is Scott’s announcement that some of the new specialist content, such as religious programming, will be made for podcast-only. I don’t understand the rationale for spending precious funding to make material only for pod downloads when it costs almost zero to put that programming to air on the network. Why wouldn’t you broadcast something that a highly skilled and talented specialist has produced, especially when the network already has too many repeats?
The second inconsistency is that because young people are attracted to the cyber world, the programming should move over to on-line at the expense of the older audience. Anecdotally, these demographic assumptions just don’t stack up anymore as loads and loads of us under-50s are avidly listening. But isn’t it mysterious that the young people are downloading exactly the same stuff that the oldies are tuning into on-air? It proves that there is universal appeal in the content and suggests it would be unwise to stop making it for either audience.
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The third inconsistency is that one doesn’t go into nine. The planned Technology or Future Report does not fill the gaps left by all the departing shows. How will the network fill these gaps, including the repeat times, while sending resources to on-line and avoiding flow programming, without an extremely unlikely budget increase?
The fourth inconsistency is the assertion that staff members are involved in the decision making. That came as news to the people I spoke to this week. In fact insiders say that only a month ago that they were told there would only be very minor changes in the schedule for next year.
The fifth inconsistency is Scott’s explanation that some of the programs have been targeted because they’re old and yet of the five 8.30 programs on RN it is the three youngest which face the chop while the highly regarded, but much older, Law Report and Health Report are exempt.
Radio National is in the communications business. It can, and must, do better than this.