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Australian Culture: Heard but not seen

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There was a time when academics rarely talked about their work to anyone outside of the universities, a time when Australia was so genuflective to Britain and Europe that it lacked a distinctive cultural voice. 

And then came the ABC. Or more specifically, the radio service now known as RN – Radio National.

With the ABC celebrating its 90th Anniversary in 2022, ABC Alumni is publishing a series of articles throughout the year, ranging from little-known history to recollections of significant and colourful times, and showing the many ways in which the national broadcaster has helped to shape the Australia we know today.

Sharon Carleton begins with the remarkable and largely forgotten story of ABC’s original flagship, the now world-renowned Radio National. 

By Sharon Carleton / 18 January 2022

Radio National’s roots go back to a time when accepted parlance would have it that ‘once a typist, always a typist’. Admittedly, two years after the ABC started in 1932 the ABC Women’s Association was permitted to broadcast House Keeping Advice.  But the number of female employees was minuscule and the roles stereotyped. Nine decades later the male/female split is 49/51 in favour of women. This trajectory is typical of the kind of change in which the national radio network has been at the forefront for 90 years. In that time RN has established itself as one of this country’s most significant cultural institutions. Internally and on air, it has both reflected and influenced the ethos of Australia. And it’s not just me saying that, an RN freelance contributor.

There is surprisingly little in the general public sphere about the history of Radio National or its predecessor Radio 2. Sure, there are smatterings in larger histories of the ABC and general descriptions of ‘public service broadcasting’, like this from British media historian David Hendy who explained that the principles behind PSB are:

.. working for the public good, furthering democracy and encouraging the free and open sharing and continual remaking of culture in the broadest sense.

But behind the scenes, not so much in ivory towers as cramped little offices at Macquarie University in NSW – or working from home – a small group of academic media researchers has been pumping out papers for years precisely on Radio National.

Dr Virginia Madsen is the Lead Chief Investigator on the current ARC Discovery Project, Cultural Conversations: A History of ABC Radio Nationaland once worked for RN, in the 1980s. Why should RN be valued when the budget is tight, choice of listening abounds and the rest of the ABC is struggling to keep their own domains viable?

RN is more expensive than other radio stations in the ABC orbit, its audience share is less and that’s why that question goes to RN, and it’s certainly not new. The programs do cost more to produce than ‘flow radio’ where you play music, or press releases come in and you do interviews on the phone, you don’t have to pay anything, it’s rip and read, or talking about what the latest books are. Now the ABC is under stress and its budget has been cut, that question emerges yet again.  

Radio National, and Radio 2 before it, going right back to the beginning of the ABC, continues the tradition of distinctive programs that explore different specialist areas in depth. They look behind the News, behind the ideas being talked about. They enlighten, entertain and educate which is at the heart of the public service broadcasting mission. You need more time to make those types of programs. It’s not instant radio. Some documentaries can take weeks and weeks to pull together. I understand there are jealousies within the ABC itself that RN presenters often had time enough to make their programs when others didn’t.

But a media organisation like the ABC needs to look at a bigger picture than that. It needs to ask: Does the value of RN programs last longer? Can a program be repeated? Are there programs on RN which would never come to a person’s ears on any of the other ABC stations? The answers are yes, yes and yes. But it takes more research, more production time, and in many cases more experienced personnel, which means more money.

The Beginning

In his history of the ABC (This Is The ABC, 1983), Ken Inglis says the aim, derived from the BBC, was that ‘listeners attracted for light refreshment should be induced to stay on for more nutritious fare’.

Dr Madsen: Why shouldn’t an ordinary listener, who may even be illiterate, get to hear a Nobel prize winner who doesn’t dumb down, who makes sense and is entertaining? I would argue that the BBC and the ABC were instrumental in teaching the scientists, the academics, the dons from Oxford who’d wear their gowns into the studios, to talk to a diverse audience. At first they were pretty boring but in time producers started taking them in hand and got them to talk in a more relaxed way.

No one was allowed to actually interview them. The experts wanted to be in charge of what was said and delivered orations.

The ABC’s annual report of 1937 explains its Talks Programmes:  

the Commission has a service to perform in giving listeners information which will help them better to understand current events of all kinds. More than this, some talks should stimulate interest in literature, art, science or public affairs and some should try and provoke thought.

Radio and the Religion Wars

It wasn’t only the intelligentsia who had to be encouraged to be more accessible, so did the religious speakers. There was a daily devotional service broadcast on all transmitters in the 1940s and ’50s. The percentage of broadcasts given to each church was arranged strictly minute-for-minute according to the percentage of faith adherents in the annual census. 

Another researcher at Macquarie University, Dr John Potts, looked at how the ABC’s national radio network (predecessor to RN) contributed to an awareness of religion and culture in those early years.  

ABC policy was strictly ecumenical at a time when Protestant/Catholic sectarian bitterness was a significant social issue. Religious broadcasting is considered as part of the ABC’s contribution to a national conversation on religion, tolerance and culture.

There was mutual hostility between the ‘foreign’ Catholics and the socially dominant Protestants. The leaders of both faiths were acutely aware of any perceived slights, who spoke first at public events and who led public prayers were matters of jealous pride.

And then came the Reverend Kenneth Henderson in 1943.  He was, effectively, head of religious programming.  His policy, according to Dr Potts:

… was to avoid the broadcasting of sectarian religion altogether. Henderson aimed to communicate with as many Australians as possible through broadcasting, dogmatic differences could only be an impediment to this goal. Henderson’s vision of Christianity was ecumenical and resolutely non-sectarian. He was, in fact, an Anglican priest.

The two Christian faiths simply wanted to broadcast their services directly from their churches but for Henderson this was anathema. He found it ineffective and uninspiring. Boring.

The Rev. Henderson told them:  

The artificial utterance called ‘a parson’s voice’ is a fault guaranteed to lose a broadcaster all his audience at once.

So he trained them to speak more intimately, more personally.

The even-handedness of the ABC’s national radio was in stark contrast to what was happening on commercial radio, which was either staunchly Catholic or stridently Protestant. Of course, the network was heavily criticised but its policy of ecumenical broadcasting continued.

John Potts: The policy of inclusiveness in religious broadcasting pursued a vision of cultural radio, whose foundational version was the BBC. In considering the ethical commitment of a national broadcaster whose goal is the common good, Paddy Scannell (a leading media studies & history scholar)argues that public broadcasting’s reasons and justifications are ultimately ethical.  

The corrosive antagonism between the Catholic and Protestant faiths, sustained by prejudice and mistrust, was a serious social issue, which the ABC Radio Religion Department sought to alleviate. Its intervention in this area through sustained religious broadcasting can be regarded as a significant voice in the national conversation at the time.

Today the national conversation on multiple different faiths, spirituality and atheism is far more complicated. RN’s religious programs are determinedly pluralist, dealing with multi faiths, no faith and a sprinkling of secular philosophy.

According to Dr Virginia Madsen this is another vital part of RN:  

The religious programs on RN today (which are nowhere else on the ABC network) don’t approach religion by just looking at the various beliefs, they explore the culture which has religion in it. For example, Andrew West’s ‘Religion and Ethics Report’ is a modernisation of the area. There are debates out there in the community already, but a program like Andrew’s puts them on a public stage and it makes people accountable. It has a subtle influence on the debate.

Andrew West:  Post 9/11 when religion roared back into public consciousness as a part of geopolitics makes it extremely relevant. Also the Pew Research Centre, which is probably the most authoritative research outfit in the world when it comes to measuring public opinion, projects the world is going to be more religious not less. I think now more than ever you need a religious program that approaches in a journalistic way, not in a devotional or sectarian way, the coverage of religion. In Australia, however, at every census the number of self-identified ‘religious’ is falling so we do have to broaden and modernise the sort of stories we do.

The fastest growing religions in Australia are Hindu and Muslim. If you’re going to be an immigrant country then you’ve got to understand that religious diversity is part of that story. The other thing we’ve had to do to stay relevant is broaden the discussion to ethics as well. It used to be that religion was only interested in the ethics of, say, abortion and euthanasia, but today there are so many more bioethics issues like surrogacy, sexuality and sexual fluidity which are actually quite divorced from religion.

Andrew, like the Rev. Henderson many years before, is not always popular with religious leaders.  Echoing the early divide, many of those religious leaders don’t like their faiths being looked at critically. But as Andrew says, his program is not there to proselytize or promote faith but to facilitate understanding. And could this be done anywhere else in Australia but on RN?

Hell no.

Theatre’s radio start

One startling claim, to me at least, is Dr Madsen’s contention that early ABC radio helped establish a theatre industry in Australia:

The ABC supported theatre through the production and broadcast of radio theatre or radio drama on its national cultural network. In the 1930s to the era of mass television, the ABC produced plays every week, many of them original Australian work. This helped support and grow a whole theatre and performance writing culture across the nation. ABC radio drama survived until 2012 and is returning today in some of its fiction podcasts. Radio employed lots of actors and writers for the plays they broadcast. These were both light and serious, Shakespeare, Beckett, Sumner Locke Elliott and Ruth Park. The commercial stations produced very little new original Australian work while the ABC thought it was its mission to do so. It cultivated a milieu. It helped build an ecology.

The driving force behind this development was Leslie Rees, appointed ABC’s first federal drama editor in July 1936. After graduating with an Arts degree from the University of Western Australia he’d gone to London, studying on a scholarship at the Slade School of Fine Arts and working in Fleet Street as a theatre reviewer and interviewing many luminaries. It was a heady time, with playwrights like George Bernard Shaw, Noel Coward and Somerset Maugham, and top actors of the day – Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud, Vivien Leigh, Peggy Ashcroft, Flora Robson.

Rees returned home determined that Australia – starved of a literary life – must have access to the great plays of the time and, importantly, must find its own voice in the Arts. Until his retirement from the ABC in 1966 he encouraged and mentored countless writers, helping them to produce radio drama as well as plays for theatrical performance – another of his passions. Among them were writers like Ruth Park, Douglas Stewart, Sumner Locke Elliott, Coral Lansbury, Gwen Meredith and Eleanor Witcombe. The latter went on to become one of Australia’s most significant screenwriters during the revival of the film industry in the 1970s.

Witcombe described Rees as ‘an oasis in the wilderness’, writing in 1999:

The acceptance and recognition of an Australian literature and a truly Australian voice did not just happen. It has taken many generations of struggle. … The present owes a great debt to the past. In the long history of the fight for existence, some names stand out: one of them is Leslie Rees.

Leslie Rees was well known for his generous support of new writers, particularly with practical advice, often with an introduction to radio writing – the only paying medium available for would-be writers. … It has been claimed that almost an entire post-war generation of scriptwriters and playwrights were influenced by him.

John Bell, actor, director and last year’s presenter of the ABC’s Boyer Lecture series (broadcast on RN) well remembers his family listening to Radio 2:

It was the only station we listened to. It had such an eclectic range of programs, from nature to travelogues and drama, classics and modern plays. They produced some very fine vocal actors who later went on to work in theatre. And encouraging Australian writers was important too. So when theatre took off, the actors and writers were already well trained. I remember hearing Ron Haddrick in ‘Julius Caesar’ on Radio 2. He, along with many others like Gordon Chater, Alistair Duncan and Neva Carr Glyn, would be doing radio broadcasts during the day and be on stage at night. They had to, to make a living. Radio made them famous which made transferring to theatre easy. Audiences already knew them.

Money, money and less money

Spool forward a few decades and we leave behind the glory days. Painful and controversial cuts were made to RN’s budget in 2012. More years, more cuts.  Music, arts and drama departments were emaciated. Core parts of RN’s programming were tossed out and specialist staff let go. Its distinctive profile of being a cultural public service broadcaster was getting slimmer. As budgets contracted over the years, it became slimmer still.

It was the same across the whole ABC. In 2018 Chief Financial Officer, Louise Higgins, told Senate Estimates that:

Thirty years ago, the ABC had five platforms and 6,000 employees. Today we have six times the platforms, two-thirds the staff and half the real funding per capita.

At RN, Australia’s long-running literary flagship show Poetica disappeared in 2015 after 900 programs and an even longer tradition of supporting the broadcast of poetry. Documentary-making was halved. All but one music program was axed, Arts shows and short-form storytelling were hard to find.

According to Virginia Madsen the emphasis was on so-called ‘flow radio’: 

No one was looking outward at the public service stations all around the world which were still making the sort of content which RN excelled at. The content was not there necessarily to get the largest audiences, but to have an influence on the culture in a much more subtle way. Science, the Arts, Indigenous affairs, distinctive music programs, all these areas were innovative and RN was making sure people across Australia (city, regional and rural) had access to this information and entertainment which they couldn’t otherwise get, at least not easily. Budget cuts made RN’s national conversation more difficult to sustain.  

Listeners and Poddies

And now there’s podcasting.  

According to Professor Mia Lindgren, Dean of Social Sciences, Media, Film & Education at Swinburne University of Technology, writing in The Conversationin 2014:   

Around the world radio is enjoying a renaissance. Creative forms of radio production, radio features and audio storytelling have become sexy and, unlike some naysayers have claimed, neither video nor new media killed the radio star.

Rather, radio (always the most versatile of media), has reinvented itself to take advantage of what digital technology has to offer.  

Radio National embraced digital recording and editing techniques, teams experimented with cutting-edge sound design and music tools, and, according to Virginia Madsen, the network led the ABC’s development of podcasting.

The highly specialised programs in terms of subject (law, philosophy, religion, music, health, international affairs, science), documentary features, and investigative journalism were perfect podcast fodder. Listening literacy made quality content mainstream.

Virginia Madsen’s research shows that the assumption that young people only want content which is ‘young, sexy, funny or foodie’ (as one RN staffer wryly put it) is wrong. Latest figures on the most popular podcasts show that documentaries are up there with comedies:  

That’s quite extraordinary. And the figures have not dropped for radio, radio is resilient and adaptive. Now is the moment for these well produced programs and certainly what public service broadcasting should be dealing with. The ABC should be a leader. It doesn’t have to worry about public opinion all the time and following the ratings. Programs should be made because they are important, they add to the national conversation.

But, (and isn’t there always one?), according to some on the inside, turning a traditional and highly produced radio show into an audience-friendly podcast is not as simple as top and tailing. 

Geraldine Doogue, presenter of Saturday Extra, says:

There’s definitely a slightly less formal, slightly more friendly, more feminine feel to podcasts, and to repurpose our pre-existing shows we have to cut into the radio production of our material or ask people to work more for nothing. Neither is entirely doable. Or not without great effort. I doubt we’re going to get any more money so we’ve got to prune the pre-existing material and make it work. There’s still quite a lot of resistance to doing this, but that has got to be what happens.  

I can’t imagine how we will maintain the level of creativity and commissioning of new young talent without a network like RN. I don’t think that a collection of podcasts can be relied upon to produce that constant level of output in the audio space by comparison with radio.

I fully accept this is the big battle to win. There is a feeling around that networks, if they’re not just doing reactive stuff and are trying to do more than that, they’re like a museum. I completely disagree. But there has to be an interconnectivity with the podcast world and those of us on air need to spend more time massaging our pre-existing work for podcast in order to get that new audience in.

This is a very important moment for us. We have to prove to those who are sceptical about us that we can do it, but it’s not easy.

Can you concentrate for long enough?

In October 2021 Fran Kelly announced her resignation from RN’s Breakfast program after 17 years. One commentator noted that the Breakfast audience is one ‘with an attention span to enjoy a program that for three hours every weekday tackles national issues in a decidedly serious manner’. Add to that Background Briefing, Drive, Late Night Live, The World Today and Saturday Extra – all thoughtful, in-depth analyses of national and international affairs.

Geraldine Doogue:  I don’t think we could do a program like mine anywhere else on free-to-air but I have to consider that it could be part of a podcast. On radio (other than RN) it would be deemed to ask too much of the audience’s concentration span and focus. There’s a complete obsession/anxiety that the audience is so pummelled with stimuli and competing attractions that it just isn’t available for serious talk, which is what I try to do. I do try to make it sparkling. I try to curate over the hour and a half a really interesting mix so people can do other things as well as listen. But you do set your producers the task of looking at ‘where’s the intellectual development?’. That would only be on Radio National.

So what if these serious discussions were to disappear, we’re submerged in information anyway?

They’re needed because they grow people. I think back to that somewhat enclosed, protected young woman from WA who I was, and who became a journalist. I went to London, came back to Australia and in a roundabout way found myself at Radio National. In that time, I felt I’d been stretched intellectually and emotionally by public service radio and television. I think my model was my grandmother, an Irish woman who lost her sight and she absolutely lived by 6WN in Perth (the local station of the national service, est. 1938), the forerunner of what became RN. Here was a woman who was limited by her sight but she didn’t stand still, she grew intellectually, by listening to demanding radio. I think it was wonderful what it did for her. And I have applied it to my life.

It’s the routine nature of the radio program which is important. It’s served up to people and it’s not necessarily where they’d go without an awful lot of effort to sample it themselves. Which is what is happening with podcasts. There is a cornucopia of possibilities in the podcast world, I acknowledge that. I made a list recently of my intended podcasts but I had to go to the effort of finding them, of having podcasts referred by others, and then consciously set myself times to listen. Whereas it’s much easier when there’s a network, which is funded by the taxpayer, where people curate a timetable which comes up week in, week out, which they think will be good for you. You can tune out of course. But it’s curated by someone else who makes their career by putting themselves in your shoes. I’m incredibly grateful for people having done that for me in the past, and now I try and do it for others.

I think RN has showcased the enthusiasm and exuberance for ideas within Australia that you couldn’t have assumed would have happened elsewhere.  

When Norman Swan became general manager (1990-93) he was the one who said we had to ‘value add’ to the mainstream fare which was on the ABC. What had come before was like a whole lot of semi-autonomous pods of intellectual ferment and academic growth but it wasn’t applied, in his view, to the mainstream. He believed, and I still follow this, that the ABC was excellent at providing the generalist, middlebrow fare, and pushing that middlebrow in both television and metro radio, but we had to go further on Radio National. We had to know what the mainstream said and then take it further.  That is our ‘value add’, that is our promise to the taxpayer.  He had a profound influence on a lot of us at Radio National.

Reporting Science

Where else but on a publicly-funded network would you get technology, culture and science, and I mean, heaps of science: All in the Mind, Body Sphere, Dr Karl (Kruszelnicki) looking at Great Moments in Science, the edgy Science Friction, going Off Track or into The Philosopher’s Zone, to say nothing of the world’s longest-running science and health shows with the same presenters, The Health Report and The Science Show

Of course I’m biased, I’ve worked casually for Robyn Williams and The Science Show for 35 years.  But that doesn’t change the facts.

Dr Madsen: PSB has to have a stake in the mainstream but it has to look for where the gaps are, where there are areas which are underdeveloped. If we look at science and the rest of the media, for many decades it’s been under-represented and not based on enough expertise. Robyn Williams has had the time to develop that expertise over a long period of time (‘The Science Show’started in 1975) that wouldn’t happen in other media. It’s often seen as too hard for ordinary journalists, you need some expertise to approach it but you also need great broadcasting skills to extend that knowledge to ordinary listeners. ‘The Science Show’ has built up extraordinary networks and Robyn Williams is known in the science communities throughout the English-speaking world.

‘The Health Report’ (first aired in 1982) also has someone with great expertise, Dr Norman Swan, to build up networks within the health and medical communities.

Nowhere else have we seen the power of good PSB than in the current COVID situation. Norman Swan has gone from doing ‘The Health Report’ to doing his daily ‘Coronacast’ podcasts (with Tegan Taylor) and has become a public figure. But without that training ground in RN, that niche in the ecosystem, we might not have people like Norman Swan or Robyn Williams. RN has provided that support and we have a more informed public as a result.  

And the future?

Despite its history and ongoing importance as a national cultural institution, RN always seems to have the ghost of a guillotine just above its head. With the conversion to digital technology, it’s feared it could be destined to eventually become a ‘self-service’ audio-on-demand platform without a ‘live’ network of daily, ready-curated programming.   

Geraldine Doogue would like to see more value placed on RN, even within the ABC itself:

Television has absolutely dominated. I think this is a tragedy which I feel terribly strongly about, having served in both. I still do. The quality, the talent, the versatility, the pivoting, the audience focus is so much more in radio. But somehow or other it doesn’t seem to capture the zeitgeist, even internally. It seems to be that a lot of the people running the ABC feel that they die in the ditch unless television is seen to be thriving. I think it’s a great mistake, there should be far more focus on radio. I think the ABC is at its very best with its range of networks which spawn so much talent. But I fully accept that the argument is being won by television so that much of what we’ve talked about doesn’t get the attention it deserves.

Virginia Madsen agrees:  

I do have hope. But that message of the value of these ‘rich mix’ programs has to be made, not only by the people making them, but it has to be made elsewhere in the ABC. And that’s a problem.

When funding for the ABC is being cut left, right and centre, people inside the organisation are grabbing for what’s left. Sections of ABC staff outside RN resent the higher status and privileges traditionally associated with thenetwork. But RN is a completely different beast to ‘flow’ and news/talk radio.  

By the time Michelle Guthrie arrived at the ABC as managing director (2016-2018), all pretence of this special case idea for RN had given way to a much more ruthless pragmatism, and arguably this was due to ignorance of the outlet’s status as a national cultural institution as its history clearly shows and because of that reduced thinking which prioritised ‘content in an audio space’ over those formerly rich cultures of program-making and values of excellence and creative risk-taking inherent to RN.   

The arguments have to be made, continually, about the soft power of RN programming around the world and about the importance of this network to the wider culture of Australia.  

About the Author

Sharon Carleton joined the ABC in Perth as a cadet radio and TV reporter in the mid-1970s and went on to work for News, ‘This Day Tonight’ and ‘The 7:30 Report’ in Sydney. She has compered ‘Statewide’ in WA and ‘Nationwide’ in Canberra, and continues her affiliation with the ABC today as a regular freelance contributor to ‘The Science Show’, as well as being an active member of ABC Alumni. 

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