Digital dereliction

Marius Webb reports on the ABC’s Delivering the Digital Future—Radio 2000

The Eugene Goosens Hall at the ABC Centre in Ultimo was the setting last month for the second Digital Radio Conference organised by the ABC to provide a forum for the discussion of rapidly developing technology. The conference attracted some 200 delegates from across the industry.

The number of forums, conferences and seminars about the digital future attest to the fact that we are living in a digital age. The reality is that most of what is being discussed is actually happening now, or is at least possible. Those working with the technology generally know exactly what the machinery can do or achieve. It’s just the poor consumers who are in the dark. To illustrate: in the generous folder handed out at the conference there’s an introductory page on ABC Radio’s output. “There are six ABC Radio networks,” the leaflet boasts, “the newest being the around-the-clock news update service, News Radio.” A generation ago a small group of young ABC producers put a submission to the Maclean Inquiry into the feasibility of FM broadcasting. The year was 1974 and the substance of the submission was that the ABC should be running at least six networks rather than two.

In the early 80s at Metro Television, a community access TV outfit located in Paddington Town Hall, a mixed group of broadcasters, artists and assorted ratbags set up a so-called ‘slow-scan’ audiovisual link with a conference of performance artists at MIT in the US. With a little technical help from Telecom, ‘TELSKY’, as it was called, this was a very early experiment with the sort of technology that is now being routinely used on the Internet. The point about these anecdotes is that it is very often the on-the-ground workers, artists and performers who realise the potential for new technologies and put the pressure on to get it developed.

At a break in the conference a senior ABC Manager asked me what I thought and I said there seemed precious little to do with the creative side of things. “It’s a technical conference,” she hissed. And touché, she was right. Minister Lee promised to light up the airwaves with some test licences to begin digital broadcasting. This is great news for the technos, but as it will be some time before there are any receivers available there won’t be much for the rest of us to talk about, much less any creative content.

Because of the way it was structured, the conference was essentially an opportunity for technocrats to strut their stuff and lap up the latest from o/s. Nearly half the participants were from the ABC, which is understandable but hardly balanced. Of these 90, only two were program makers! There was a sprinkling of people from commercial radio—all managers. Only SBS and community radio managed to send any ‘real’ people along and naturally they didn’t get much of a look-in when it came to participating.

The keynote speakers introduced us to the wonderful world of interactive radio where we will be able to get instant traffic updates (whoopee) and order concert tickets at the press of a button. While admitting that content was what it was all about, Steve Edwards, the hot Canadian tech exec of the moment, said “Radio’s prime focus will continue to be companionship and high quality music entertainment.” I can live with the music bit, but companionship! Sadly the conference never got much beyond this pathetic put-down of an exciting and creative medium. If Brian Johns is really going to encourage creativity at the ABC, they’ll have to do better than this.

RealTime issue #9 Oct-Nov 1995 pg. 13

© Marius Webb; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 1995
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