Editorial RT 58

The ABC—sick at art

ABC Management has axed The Listening Room. ABC Classic FM has cut New Music Australia. Aside from Critical Mass and the occasional new arts documentary, ABC TV does little to embody the vibrant Australian arts. There’s something toxic in the organisation that’s invaded the broadcaster, eating at its art, destroying vital organs, impelling it to cut off its ears and gouge out its eyes, rendering it a near comatose, cosy-chatshow, personality-driven hulk, drained of the diverse riches that once were its life blood.

Despite the depletions it too has suffered, Radio National still manages to ingest and convert the world into rich aural sustenance but how long before the virus strikes there too? What has caused this hideous illness? Is it an agent from the outside or is it something immunological of the ABC’s very own making, hollowing it from the inside out?

It would be easy to blame the Howard government: sure it provides the sickly environment of funding deprivation, editorial trepidation and the dumbing-down fear of being labelled “elitist.” And yes, this year’s refusal by the Federal Government to properly fund the national broadcaster led, much to Senator Richard Alston’s chagrin, to the unplugging of the ABC’s new digital prostheses. But other savings had to be made. What were the solutions? Abortion— removal of the cadet training program—and sterilisation—cut out the ABC’s capacity to make art, remove the internationally acclaimed, prize-winning (2003 Prix Italia) Listening Room made by sound artists and composers from across Australia and its richly creative team of producers.

Of course, the ABC is no stranger to self-mutilation insanely lopping off an ear when it banished stereo radio drama to mono broadcast and conducting a home lobotomy with the excision of Arts Today. Julie Copeland on Sunday mornings and Andrew Ford on Saturdays just keep the arts brain ticking over, but can they live up to the prodigious Australian arts output? Why remove The Listening Room at a mere one hour a week! If it was a matter of cost, as smugly proposed by The Sydney Morning Herald’s The Guide (Nov 10-16) why not re-think, re-shape, re-budget? How about some holistic solutions for improvement? To toss it aside is to discard a living part of our culture. Where are the micro-surgeons of ABC management? Pick it up, put it back!

The Listening Room is living, contemporary art, exemplary of sound art and new developments in the generation of multimedia and hybrid art forms. As the concert hall future narrows and technologies provide new compositional tools and broadcast media, this program offers composers new ways of working. It provides established international links and outlets for Australian art. Each year an emerging artist is awarded a 6-month fellowship with The Listening Room, jointly offered by the Australia Council’s New Media Arts Board and the ABC. The associated Adlib project created by Jon Rose is archiving an astonishing collection of the ways all kinds of Australians make music. Cut out The Listening Room and you lose all of this, you do irreparable damage to the body of the ABC, the body of Australian sound art, the body of Australian culture.

The admirable New Music Australia on Classic FM plays music both accessible and challenging, recorded and, importantly, live and provides significant interviews with leading composers (a handful still downloadable from the no-longer updated ABC arts web gateway). It seems that the program will be dissected and its parts grafted onto Classic FM here and there in the hope that listeners will accept more Australian music if it becomes a part of the everyday listening experience. A lot will depend on the surgical cunning of the programmer—will the listening body tolerate an invasion of the unfamiliar and the sometimes innovative, and at what time of the day? Will the voices of living composers and musicians be allowed to interrupt wall-to-wall classics and, if yes, for how long? Will new music continue to be played live, and how often? If the transplant is rejected by audiences, what has the operation achieved? Will ABC middle management have the nerve and arts nouse to persist with a higher quota of Australian music in the face of possible bad reaction?

Again it has to be asked why the radical surgery? What’s wrong with a specialist focus on developments in Australian contemporary music in a specific timeslot, a place the listener knows they can visit. Yes, Australian music has come of age, but the mature body still needs a good solid workout, not short runs off the leash.

The death of programs like The Listening Room and New Music Australia is just more bad news for Australian artists at a time when David Throsby’s report for the Australia Council on artists’ incomes (Don’t Give Up Your Day Job) reveals high levels of poverty. With the exit of The Listening Room there will be substantially reduced commissions. The ABC may continue to make artful mini-series, comedies and documentaries but they hardly represent the full extent of the broadcaster’s capacities. When Throsby launched his report he decried the absence of an Australian cultural policy. When the ABC fails to live up to its charter “to reflect our cultural diversity” (that’s for SBS isn’t it?), to contribute to a national sense of identity and produce cultural enrichment, it appears to have no consistent cultural policy (Art is now subsumed to Entertainment in the ABC hierarchy). At times like this, it seems that achieving a cultural policy for Australia is about as likely as a policy on human rights—then we really would have to address the refugee issue.

The cultural health of the ABC used to be reflected, as the charter puts it, in its “balance between broadcasting programs of wide appeal and specialized programs”; the result was tremendous choice. Its vision of Australia was not ratings-driven. It was for all Australians, a truly diverse bunch, not a bland mass of homogenous bodies. Now the generalist position prevails with ratings clearly governing programming decisions. Lifestyle shows supplant arts programs and almost everywhere on radio live talk is easier than crafted programs and a lot cheaper—and sounds like it.

Deaf in one ear to radio drama and stone deaf to audio art, and in danger of tuning out to new music, will the ABC stop listening to Australian artists altogether? If so we might as well sign that free trade agreement with the US and get the selling off over and done with. What is needed is a coherent cultural policy so that art is assured of its place within the ABC and our national broadcaster regains its cultural well-being. KG

Happy Holidays

To all of our readers, writers, contributing editors, advertisers, subscribers and the funding bodies who generously support RealTime+OnScreen, we wish you a Merry Xmas and a creative 2004. ‘Prosperous’ is not a word thrown around casually in arts circles, but if you’re feeling flush think about treating yourself or a friend to a RealTime subscription for 2004. We’d really appreciate it and we trust you will too!

Virginia, Keith, Gail, Mireille, Daniel

RealTime issue #58 Dec-Jan 2003 pg. 3

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1 December 2003