Who’s really in charge at Radio National?

Comment from Peter Saxon

Just over a week ago, Magic 1278 in Melbourne axed pretty much all its staff – for the second time in two years. Word is, the station will take on 2UE’s Talking Lifestyle format, as will Brisbane’s Magic 882, from next February. It was a purely commercial decision by a commercial network operator.

There was hardly a ripple of objection from those affected – not publicly, anyway. No one wanted to go on the record. In commercial radio, once you get a reputation for being a trouble maker you could find it hard to get another job – especially as you get older.

Of course, you could try the ABC where, if such trouble makers exist at all, you’d be unlikely to be classed as one just for openly criticising management – if the cacophony of protest over the decision by management to revamp Radio National is any guide. 

At one point staff, some of whom had signed a no-confidence motion against RN management, reports The Guardian, confronted ABC Managing Director Michelle Guthrie at a function in Perth to quiz her about cost cuts and told her how upset the staff and listeners were to lose more documentary and music programs.

ABC staff told Weekly Beast they watched on “with their jaws on the floor” as Guthrie became very defensive and raised her voice, repeatedly asking them “what they would do” and how they “justify their massive budget when their reach is so low”. She also asked staff whether it was fair that RN had three times the budget of Triple J.

Can you imagine rank and file staff at Macquarie Media bailing up, say, John Singleton or Executive Chairman Russell Tate and telling them how to run their business? In all likelihood, they’d be gone quicker than a dimwit on Eddie McGuire’s Million Dollar Minute.

And what if they then went public and defaced the boss’s facebook page as also reported in The Guardian: An indication of how controversial her leadership has become emerged on Friday when her Wikipedia page was defaced. She was described as a “corporate stooge” for News International and as “director of corporate greed” for Foxtel.

“In December 2015, it was announced that Guthrie would become damaging director of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), replacing Mark Scott who retired in April 2016,” her Wiki page has been edited to say.

When asked for a reaction, Director of ABC Radio Michael Mason told radioinfo, “I think its great that people are passionate around their radio and what we do. I don’t think there’s this sort of passion around other radio networks. But it happens at radio national because it adds real detail and substance to the national discourse towards ideas and debate and culture and that’s something we’re all deeply committed to.”

Clearly the possession of advanced diplomacy skills are of greater importance for managers at the ABC than for their commercial counterparts. It seems Mr Mason is abundantly blessed on that score.

In the commercial world success is all about the math as measured by ratings and revenue. At the public broadcaster it’s more about “the vibe.”

“Its not our brief for RN to be the big ratings winner kind of station. We don’t measure it on that,” says Mr Mason. “We measure it on its quality and its distinctiveness and its ability to help inform. What happens with RN is the trickle down affect. Its the ideas and concepts that are discussed there and in many cases help shape how we all think… help shape public policy and help, hopefully, to shape the kind of society that we’re living in.”

That’s all very fine but who determines what the pass mark is? Well, just about everyone, it seems: parliament, media, the left, the right, listeners, non-listeners, ABC staff and (almost forgot) ABC management. 

Of course, everyone has a different view, mostly subjective.

“Every taxpayer is a stakeholder,” says Mr Mason who firmly believes that a consultative management approach is the way to making better programs, “We’ve got to make sure we are actually engaging with audiences and community feedback. Indeed our staff know they bring a lot to the table as well. In some ways it can look messy or slow but ultimately it does assist us to get the right outcomes.”

Nonetheless, some staff have complained that there was little by way of consultation on this occasion. Mr Mason maintains these changes are relatively minor compared to others made in recent years, “With bigger changes we would clearly try to engage staff very early in that process so that they feel a sense of ownership and have strong input into the decisions,” Mr Mason said.

Read our report on changes to Radio National here.

Peter Saxon

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