The Broadcasting Act 1942 is a document long since replaced, but one of its dusty sections survives in the memory of media organisations. Section 103 made religious programming “compulsory” for broadcasting licensees. Even though the section was subject to review and wide interpretation throughout its legal life, secular broadcasters still like to make believe they’re flouting the law. Radio host John Safran — you could never call this old-fashioned guy a “DJ”– liked to make believe he was following the law. In early press for Sunday Night Safran, the host of the religion-focused program would say that he was only employed as a matter of legal obligation.
Safran has no clear memory of making this claim but tells Crikey: “It does sound like the kind of thing I would say to be an idiot.”
Last Sunday, Safran and co-host, the Reverend Father Bob Maguire, announced the end of their faux-compulsory engagement on Triple J. For 10 years, the pair made a game of seeming conventional and an art of breaking broadcast rules. They talked for much longer than a broadcaster is instructed to, they engaged interview subjects who, as Safran says, had “sometimes done bad things”, and, worst of all, ignored the advice to pretend they were just like everyone else.
On television and radio, the ABC’s personalities are now hyper-democratised. We see Tony Jones on Lateline promotions “spontaneously” discussing his work with Emma Alberici, and on radio we never hear a broadcaster addressing the audience as anything but a precious individual. “What do you think? How are you doing? Do you like your ABC?” Whether by design or by instinct, Safran and Maguire disobeyed and always called us “Dear Listeners”. They reminded us — and we do need reminding — that mass media is still mass media and it does not always function to reflect us in the way we would like to be seen.
Instead, we often listened to people who did “bad things” on this odd and wonderful program. And, rather than supposing, as we routinely are led to suppose by other broadcast media, that these “bad things”, like white supremacist activism or military desertion or murder, were an exceptional threat, we began to understand them in a more usual context. You didn’t listen to this program and ever come away with the view “how did such a dreadful thing ever happen?”. You tended, more often, to think something even more disturbing: “I am surprised that this awful thing doesn’t happen more often.”
“I have slowly built some scope for discussion, with an Australian audience at least,” said Safran. “We would have the most outrageous people on the radio show; on paper at least.”
Through their refusal to be “just like us” and their regular failure to interview people “just like us”, Safran and Maguire created a singular forum where we were able to gain an understanding of people who were not, at all, “just like us”. In the context of this meandering, old-timey program that did away with the contemporary broadcast conventions of understanding, we could, for just two hours, begin to more actively “understand”. It’s not nice to think that people who do bad things are “just like us” and more part of the usual fabric of society than we would normally admit. But it is kind of essential.
Safran, a former colleague who has always seemed to me a fairly candid man, says that there are places he won’t go and stories he won’t tell. And not because he, a person who made himself first known to Australian audiences by streaking through the streets of Jerusalem, is particularly afraid to break “taboos”. Rather, it’s because faith, and certain forms of extreme behaviour, identity and thought, have become his speciality.
“There’s a wheelhouse or a category of interests I get away with because I have built that capital over time. An audience might first think ‘he has talked to this Israeli soldier who went AWOL’. Or, ‘Why do you have this dude on who is a white supremacist and why is it on the ABC and why are you letting him talk?’ Now, I can do it, within a certain range”.
It is within this range that Safran’s next book will be written. He has been talking to both Islamic and anti-Islamic extremists for a work due to be released next year. He will approach this project with the same blend of Jackass-style and intellectual curiosity that informed his radio program and his better television broadcasts.
The question of extreme faith or, more generally of extreme adherence to a world view — the sort that requires us to think there are people “just like us” and people who are not — might be off the air, but it will be in this next book.
“It’s not accidental that this is what I end up talking about. I pretend I am talking to others. It’s an elaborate way of figuring out faith. And making out I am some kind of journalist.”
Sunday Night Safran was “some kind” of journalism. In the current era, it was the best kind of journalism. Maguire and Safran’s sustained curiosity for others, even and especially extreme others, was wonderfully religious. Like the priest obliged to save all souls, or the imaginary broadcast institution obliged to respect all faiths, this program had a divine indifference to usual order.
Many of us will miss this unique absence of normalising morality. The most challenging radio program in the nation was the one informed by old religious texts and old laws. That’s probably not accidental, either.