Andrea Ho was the Head of Planning for ABC Regional and Local until earlier this month, when she took a redundancy.
She shares her thoughts on the breakup in this article for radioinfo.
It’s a strange thing, to write to friends about your breakup. But here we are.
After more than 21 years, my long-term relationship with the ABC is over, and we’re going our separate ways.
I was young when I met the ABC, but not inexperienced; I’d already worked in community broadcasting for almost a decade, with stations such as 3RRR and 2UNE and even Channel 31, broadcasting on air, training volunteers, and managing stations.
The ABC and I took a chance on each other at the turn of a century, in country NSW. Then as now, regional stations are where you learn everything, and I became a producer, Breakfast presenter, and station manager at ABC New England North West. I enjoyed stints with Sydney, Darwin, Illawarra and Wimmera stations too.
I linedanced in the main street of Tamworth, reported on floods at Nundle and storms at Inverell, recorded soldier-settlers’ wives in Edgeroi, long-lunched with Sardinian tobacco farmers at Ashfield.
Most of all, I learned what sits at the heart of radio craft: to listen to my community, to evoke the theatre-of-the-mind, to give company along with content, and to love my audience. And bless them, they loved me back.
As PD at ABC Hobart I eased back from the mic but not content: when the Beaconsfield mine collapsed, and massive bushfires ravaged the east coast, I EPed broadcast teams, syndicating their content around the country. Took a leap of faith and harnessed then-new 3G tech to deliver the team’s dream of A Day On The River: every program from Breakfast to Evenings as back-to-back OBs from different spots on the Derwent River, leapfrogging broadcast kits as we went.
At ABC Canberra I joined a strong high performing team and grew my skills shaping content, coaching talent. There, I worked on connecting with the underserved audiences – culturally diverse, in the suburbs – which spurred me to a Churchill Fellowship. I co-presented several ground-breaking national Lunar New Year programs, and in 2009 I briefly returned to my home town, Melbourne, to work on the Black Saturday aftermath.
My relationship with the ABC took a new turn in 2017: finally, I had the chance to put these years of experience into senior executive leadership. From a big restructure we built the Regional and Local team, and I grew into strategy and operations with a national remit.
It’s been a wild ride, but all rides come to an end. And my end came along with several hundred others in this round of ABC cuts in July.
The dark heart of the love affair
When I first stepped behind a mic at 19, it was love at first sight. But before radio, telling stories drove me; still does.
There are two main kinds of factual storytelling: shining a light in dark corners, the tough stuff of investigative reporting; and stories of interest that catch the ear, and light up the mind and heart.
As a student, I loved the idea of the former, but found my skill lay with the latter.
In the 90s in big-city community music radio, those stories of culture and creativity and cool were the best fun. We went beyond being jocks, with all the platters and chatter that matter, to give listeners real value radio with their music. The sheer joy of flying by the seat of your pants out at the bleeding edge of popular culture was unmatched.
But somewhere things changed: a public conversation came up that questioned “the Asianisation of Australia.” Ugly racist graffiti and dog-whistling in media re-emerged. Half-Asian myself, I wondered whether I really knew my own country, let alone my place in it. So I dusted off my journalism degree, and went bush.
I found two basic truths. Firstly, political rhetoric tends towards the extreme, and wherever you are in Australia the vast majority of Australians are decent people. Decent people can and do hold biases, or even believe things that are just wrong; but presented with new data, they can learn and change their thinking. Not everyone’s like that, but most are.
Secondly, bias comes from somewhere, and for most people a large part of that ‘somewhere’ is mass media, their main source of information, where extreme rhetoric is grist for the mill.
Radio, like any media, is as good as the people in it.
Right now, when it comes to reflecting and engaging all Australians, our media is not at its best. Contemporary Australia, even in COVID times, is vibrant, diverse – but our mass media falls short of the sum of us. And the audience know it.
Research by a coalition of universities with Media Diversity Australia, released last week, show TV presenters for news and current affairs are woefully out of step with the community. This finding is completely predictable. Step outside any major studio or newsroom and you’ll see the difference right there on the street.
Nearly half of all Australians were born overseas, or had a parent born overseas. More than 40% of Australians have heritage other than Anglo-Celtic. The majority of Australians are women. Yet nowhere in mainstream Australian media can you consistently see or hear this.
Our grand old radio standards of golden mics and paternalistic voices are an anachronism: a revered relic of a distant past. The audience for these old standards is rapidly shrinking.
Diversity in media isn’t just about “doing the right thing,” it’s a hard-headed business decision.
Listeners choose relatable radio, and right now they have a worldwide choice, on demand, in their pockets – they don’t have to choose us, and industry-wide declines in TSL and share are real. If advertisers, the most hard-headed bunch of all, are putting colour into the faces in our ads, then we have to see the writing on the wall.
There’s a danger that in lean times, with job cuts, networking, falling revenue, we’ll focus on triage only – how to get by. But even now, we can innovate, and make brave choices. If we don’t, we’re just marking time until the audience makes brave choices of their own, and leave us behind.
To quote CBC’s General Manager and international radio luminary Susan Marjetti: “If we don’t get this right, we’ll be a precious emblem to a dying elite.”
Hello, new horizons
So even as I step back from daily radio, I’m committed to working with industry leaders and teams to make brave change. I’m breathing new life into my blueprint of practical strategies for increasing diversity, ready to work with those who want to take the plunge, consulting from the top down.
I’ll miss the ABC, it was my ‘home place’ for a long time, and I’ll always love it. But we’ve said our goodbyes.
There’s good work to do.
Jackson Browne wrote one of the great breakup songs of all time; just like he sang, “I’m running for that morning flight, late for the sky.”
Andrea Ho has now joined the Economic Media Centre as a Founding Co-Director.
She will speak next week in a live webinar titled: “Who Gets To Tell Australian Stories?” Register here.
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