Radio National’s history revisited as ABC celebrates 90 years

During the ABC’s 90 year history, RN has established itself as one of this country’s most significant cultural institutions.

In an article published on the ABC Alumni website this week, Sharon Carleton tells largely forgotten story of ABC’s original flagship network, Radio National.

First known as Radio 2, following the BBC tradition of numbering radio networks sequentially, the network became Radio National in the 1980s and is now known simply by the initials RN.

When Radio 2 began to broadcast it was full of academics and experts who would just come to the studios to record their talks and lectures. No one was allowed to actually interview them. The experts wanted to be in charge of what was said and delivered orations, according to Carleton.

The ABC’s annual report of 1937 explained  that Talks Programmes had “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.”

Eventually, audio producers were able to take more control of production and evolved the style of programming to become more engaging than just a single person reading a lecture.

The article quotes Dr Virginia Madsen’s explanation of the long form style of RN programming:

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.

The article also explore the ‘religious wars’ in the early decades of the ABC at a time when “ABC policy was strictly ecumenical at a time when Protestant/Catholic sectarian bitterness was a significant social issue,” and how the national network helped to strengthen Australian theatre under the ABC’s first federal drama editor Leslie Rees:

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.”

In the 1970s the ABC moved from the British BBC ‘licence fee’ funding model, which redefined the way the national broadcaster was funded and began a slow decline in funding that continues today. The article chronicles how the funding changes affected Radio National over the past few decades, as it did for all the ABC Radio networks.

The block format of RN’s specialist programming has now had a new lease of life through podcasting because listeners can now find the content they want and listen to it when and where they wish. It signals that a rebirth of RN style programming on new audio platforms is ahead.

Virginia Madsen’s research, quoted in the article, 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.

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, says Carleton’s article. 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… 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.”

You can read the full article here.

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