TV & Radio

Oct 29, 2012

A memo to my Radio National colleagues: welcome to the 21st century

ABC Radio National has axed its radio drama department and around 11 staff, putting more emphasis on live programming. Which according to one network insider is only fair.

Earlier this month, Crikey reported on a major overhaul at ABC Radio National that will see the radio drama department axed and around 11 staff made redundant. Staff in the features department have been particularly concerned at cuts that will see the number of senior producers reduced from five to two. However, as one RN insider writes, some at the station believe change is long overdue ... I am absolutely gobsmacked by the resistance to change exhibited recently be arts and features makers who are facing a small handful of redundancies, some overdue unit restructuring to adapt to 21st century cultural changes and slightly shorter deadlines. Last week, management sent around an email answering some of the 208 questions -- yes, 208 -- posed by a committee of Radio National employees. As I read through the questions, I grew more and more irritated with the bunch of producers. Most of them are aged over 50 and have been at the ABC most, if not all, of their working lives. They are disproportionately higher paid than producers working on "daily" and current affairs programs (Drive, Late Night Live, Life Matters, Breakfast, Saturday Extra). The wages budget at RN is only so big, so for years the high concentration of highly paid arts and features producers has resulted in a stifling of promotion and pay rises among producers on daily programs -- where there has been a higher concentration of younger, casualised staff in lower pay "bands". Some of these younger staff have been working at RN "casually" for several years, and find themselves unemployed for four to six weeks every Christmas and at other random times, when contracts "end", only to be re-contracted at the last minute in January for the same show. It's stressful for them not knowing if rent and mortgages can be paid. Across the board, many producers who are permanent have had not been able to move into higher pay bands regardless of exceptional performance -- that bites harder when you know you are forever stuck at a low level. Last year there were cutbacks to staffing levels on several daily programs, new shorter deadlines for Background Briefing and longer air time for Breakfast. Next year, Breakfast will probably lose a producer position -- meaning increased workloads and more stress as already time-poor producers struggle to maintain the high standard of material on the network's flagship program. And the new Drive program with Waleed Aly has been operating with a shoestring staff all year. So it's not as if arts and features have been unfairly targeted. It's finally their turn to share some of the pain. But of course, they can't take it gracefully. So my irritation only grew as I read the list of questions, most of which cluelessly ask about things that were clearly laid out in the initial RN Production Sustainability Project report. Others show an embarrassingly egotistical tendency to equate any program or unit changes with the catastrophic loss of the ABC commitment to that entire broadcasting area -- eg: radio drama -- as if it has to be done the same way, by the same people for all of eternity. Then I came across these questions and laughed out loud.  At first I thought someone from the Chaser must have planted them as a joke, but no, that's just how completely out-of-touch these people are. For example:
"Why are you making Features producers do more work?"
Who in the modern media, I wondered, isn't doing more work? Then came the kicker:
"Why should Features producers have to submit budgets and timelines?"
My response: are you f-cking kidding me? How on earth do you think it's reasonable to work at a public broadcaster (or anywhere on the planet) and not do your work to budgets and timelines? Who the hell do you people think you are? I'm frankly shocked and outraged you were allowed to operate without timelines and budgets for so long. It makes a mockery of the pressure the rest of us are under. That you have no shame in revealing that level of indulgence underlines how much we need change at Radio National. For the record this is the management response:
"Proposals will need to include a credible timetable for production, including a projected completion date, and details of studio and engineer time required. All proposals should fit within recommended production timelines. All project proposals should estimate costs involved, such as the use of actors, rights costs, and travel. Costs are not seen as a competitive requirement in terms of pitching, but as a way of making costs of production inputs more transparent and therefore easier to track and maintain."
That sounds more than reasonable to me. CLARIFICATION: The original version of this story stated the ABC memo answered questions supplied by the Community and Public Sector Union. The memo in fact answered questions different to the ones from the CPSU.

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4 thoughts on “A memo to my Radio National colleagues: welcome to the 21st century

  1. archibald

    I must say it is pleasing to read the other side. I suspect there is much truth in it.
    I am concerned that management was required to spend so much time doing this rubbish given the significant improvements they have made to the network recently. I love what is happening to RN. The staff there is very lucky to have such talented leadership. (Yes I am a retired manager).
    May I suggest that succession planning be established at RN? Yes Philip Adams and Robyn Williams are replaceable. (What – no new clever science broadcasters emerging?). Phase them out and give them a presence. It works for Caroline Jones on Australian Story. Same goes for the old producers. OK…keep some, but refresh!

  2. rupert moloch

    “fair”, in this instance, would seem to be: whatever enhances yr contributor’s job security & salary package. & that, at the expense of his colleagues.

    RN’s problems are several. Budgetary constraint, cultural inertia, & editorial timidity probably addresses most of them. The first of these reflects the political agenda of successive federal governments, and the Howard govt in particular. The second & third have been RN’s native responses to the first.

    Talk is cheap. The programs your correspondent identifies – essentially commentariat colloquia – are the cheapest kind of radio there is. But perhaps not the best, nor the most expertly informed and engaging. Some of it, perhaps, might be considered more appropriate to ABC local radio?

    What is currently taking place represents a radical realignment of editorial priorities. And there’s a succession crisis; management is struggling to conceive of a new program grid in the absence of Tony Barrell, Ramona Koval and Alan Saunders.

    At this juncture it seems inevitable that, sooner or later, RN will be merged with Newsradio. But I remember well programming of the order of Adrian Martin’s The Week in Film, Eva Cox’s discursions on social policy, the radio essays of Bob Ellis. None of that made great claim to the station’s resource. It was unashamedly polemical, but well-reasoned and illuminating. The challenges those programs visited to their audience are increasingly disappeared from the RN schedule.

  3. Tim H

    Well I’m not a radio insider (fortunately?) but I find it pretty easy to see the logic behind the questions put. Surely the producers aren’t complaining about being singled out but in fact are just trying to stick up for cuts in their area.

    I don’t think it’s at all persuasive to argue that because certain staff at RN are being abused by their employer, then all staff should be.

    And I’m pretty sure the reason behind the question about budgets is revealed by the reply from management “Costs are not seen as a competitive requirement in terms of pitching”. The producers and the union are worried that management is going to chose the cheapest rather than the best segment (or whatever these budgets are for).

    The correspondent’s outrage seems a tad confected.

  4. nicko

    So the move to TV personalities and politicians to supply “new” programs, is money well spent?

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