Tuesday, December 6, 2016

ABC anti-charter changes that shrink specialist radio shows

As we head into the festive season, one of the most religious times of the calendar year, ABC management has axed an important program that seriously explores the meaning of the season.

Axing the religion and ethics program Sunday Nights with John Cleary makes little sense from either an ABC charter or a ratings perspective. It's heard on the local radio network. Still going strong after three decades with a number of hosts, it rates its socks off, especially in Canberra. Its nationwide audience is between 300,000 and 400,000 - quite something for a program on between 10 at night and 2 in the morning.

Whereas most local radio programs deal with news, sport and lifestyle topics, this one deals with faith and the challenge of what I call 'living life together'. It is increasingly relevant in a culture that is becoming more narcissistic, gadget-oriented and anxiety-riddled. Rather than preach – anything, it provides a canvas for thoughtful conversations that go deeper than simple discussions about brands of religions.

Radio staff at the ABC passed a motion of no confidence last week citing "systemic failure" in senior radio management. Among areas of concern was the "continuing erosion of specialist programming in music, features and religion". They said it was "serious breach of the ABC Charter and a disservice to the Australian audiences that the ABC is funded to serve."

Sunday Nights wasn't axed because it was expensive. It's been run on a shoestring. I think the reason is ideological. For years, especially since the savage cuts to the ABC's religion unit in 2014, management have adopted a passive-aggressive approach to religious programs and a thinly veiled contempt for people interested in spirituality.

In the most recently published census, 61 per cent of us identified as being Christian and another 7 per cent as practicing another religion. That's a substantial audience to spurn.

Nightlife will now be broadcast seven nights a week, in an effort to smooth the weekend out. Expect even more breezy magazine content or party politics, because it's easy.

Complaints from senior clerics across all faiths have fallen on deaf ears. ABC Radio's new head of spoken content Judith Whelan has offered to meet with them, although it isn't clear what she could do. She arrived at the ABC after the decision had been made and came from the Sydney Morning Herald where she had run newspapers not radio stations.

Soon the only specialist broadcasts left on local radio will be those that deal with sport. They're regarded as so important that they displace PM when the cricket's on.

The ABC is increasingly confining whatever specialist programs it has to Radio National (RN), and even there it says they will soon (in the history of RN) be online only. RN has an informed but tiny audience. It's to get a panel-based hour long program to compensate for the loss of Sunday Nights called God Forbid. Management wants it to be, at times, comic. Let's see how long it lasts without being patronising.

Our world is becoming more complex and more perplexing. We need tools to understand the forces driving it. And there's no doubt religion is one of them. We need specialists and sophistication. Instead, the new breed of ABC managers seem to believe that everyone can do anything. Except for, most notably sport. It means religion gets ignored on mainstream outlets and sport gets given as many hours and as many specialists as needed. Newspapers have also axed their religion reporters. Whenever they do report on religion, it's about the failure of institutions.

Sunday Nights examines what underpins us. Amid the rise of nationalism built around crude stereotypes the program squares with the world while exploring powerful alternatives. Defence and security experts will be shaking their heads at the loss of a platform for exploration and respectful debate on topics including extremism and social alienation. Cleary has literally brought senior leaders of different faiths together, in the studio. Afterwards, they've kept talking.

In taking religion out of the mainstream the ABC is walking away from one of its central mandates, which is to talk about important things that others won't. Please ABC management, by all means review Sunday Nights, but don't throw out one of the few really worthwhile things local radio does.

A version of this was first published in The Canberra Times, 1 December, 2016