Wrong headed approach at Radio National: Tom Morton

“Radio National faces some real problems…”


Tom Morton takes issue with Michael Mason (see our other story) about what changes are needed at Radio National.

Morton worked at the ABC for 22 years, mostly at RN as a presenter and reporter/producer at Background Briefing and as a documentary and feature producer with Hindsight, 360 and Into the Music. He is close to many of those being offered redundancies.

Morton is now Director for the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism and Associate Professor of Journalism, Information & Media Studies at UTS.


He says Radio National has an ageing staff profile, and many of its staff are in the upper levels of the ABC’s salary band structure.

This means that (a) RN staff are expensive compared with other divisions in Radio and (b) it’s very difficult for the station to recruit badly-needed new blood, outside of the daily live current affairs programs.

However, he believes the current “reforms” approach this problem in a totally wrong-headed manner, for the following reasons:

1) They are driven by a model of radio no longer relevant to the way people listen. Podcasting has been RN’s biggest success story. However, programming, resourcing and staffing decisions are still being driven by the broadcast schedule: programs have to fit slots of a certain standard duration, delivered every week at a certain time. 

The ‘younger audience’ which RN is seeking to capture just doesn’t listen that way. They don’t care how long a show is, or when it is broadcast, because they are listening online, on mobile devices, on an iPod plugged into their car stereo.

The “reforms” are still in thrall to the tyranny of the broadcast schedule.

They perpetuate a kind of Fordist, industrial model of production: every feature/documentary program should take the same amount of time to produce and involve the same amount of producer labour.

In my view, RN should make a much bolder shift, in line with the ‘digital first’ strategies of the Guardian and other forward-looking media organizations.

It should shift all of its feature and documentary production and its specialist programs online and cut the cord to the disappearing AM broadcast audience.

This would open up the space for the kind of innovation that management says it wants but is actually too timid to embrace.

The strength of the program idea should be paramount and the amount of resources, production time etc it attracts should flow from that.


2) It is perverse and shows a complete lack of natural justice to target staff not on grounds of performance, but precisely because they have excelled at what they do.

Sharon Davis has won 4 Walkleys for documentaries which combined very strong investigative journalism with sophisticated storytelling and audio production. These things take time. After Crime and Punishment, the series for which she won one of those Walkleys, was broadcast, the Chief Justice of the NSW Criminal Court rang her and told her it should be required listening for all judges.

Targeting Sharon and the other senior broadcasters who are under the gun sends all the wrong messages.

Does Radio National really want its staff not to win Walkleys?

Isn’t that why the ABC is there – to do the sort of work that other broadcasters can’t or won’t do?

For the record, I think the new Creative Audio Unit is a good initiative. But surely people like Sharon, Jane Ulman, Sherre Delys, Brent Clough etc are needed to mentor and nurture the next generation and pass on the rich radio culture which RN has sustained.


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