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Select Committee into the Abbott Government's Budget Cuts - 12/12/2014

FORD, Dr Andrew, Private capacity

[14:17]

Evidence was taken via teleconference—

ACTING CHAIR: Welcome. Information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses in giving evidence to Senate committees has been provided to you. Is there anything you would like to add about the capacity in which you appear?

Dr Ford : I believe I am appearing as a composer and a writer and also as the presenter of The Music Show on ABC Radio National.

ACTING CHAIR: Thanks very much for joining us and for bearing with us over the teleconference system. I would like to invite you to make a short opening statement, and then we will throw to questions.

Dr Ford : I am assuming that you want to talk to me largely in my capacity as a radio presenter, but I would like to say something, if you do not mind, with my composer's hat on. I would like to say something about how the ABC—specifically ABC Radio, but also ABC online—helps to create and sustain and support musical communities around Australia. I am talking about audiences, obviously, but also communities of musicians, and I mean that at every level. I think we are about to lose some very important planks in that support with the removal of some specialist music programs from RN and Classic FM. You always hear the expression 'the music industry', and I never really know what that is. I think if you were to ask most musicians, they would not feel that they were part of an industry. As a composer, I feel I am more like a cottage gardener. My work is mostly pretty solitary. Even when musicians form into bands or orchestras, they are still making individual contributions. They study alone and practise alone. The same goes for listeners. We might be sitting in the middle of an audience with 2,000 other people but our experience of a song or a symphony is essentially a private matter.

As individual musicians and listeners we depend on institutions for information, commentary and a sense of community. I mean institutions like libraries, newspapers, universities and conservatoria, but above all it seems to me public broadcasting—and ABC radio is especially important in this regard: Triple J, Classic FM, ABC Jazz and Radio National, which offers the broadest range of musical experiences I can imagine. Often you are hearing music that you cannot easily hear anywhere else, especially on RN, and significantly you are hearing it presented knowledgeably. ABC radio, whether it is coming live out of the transistor in your kitchen or whether you are listening online or to a podcast, is not just a purveyor of music; it is also a guide to that music. And you are hearing Australian music—not enough of it on Classic FM, in my opinion—but more than you will hear anywhere else and you are hearing Australian performances by Australian musicians.

Among the hundreds of thousands of listeners around the country are the musicians of tomorrow. It is more than 40 years ago but I still recall the eagerness with which I listened to the radio as a child. I remember hearing certain pieces of music and finding out about them. I remember my excitement at hearing new pieces, music so new that it was being played for the first time. This is the kind of excitement that is felt by young listeners to New Music Up Late on Classic FM. That is an example of what we are about to lose, and I do not think we can afford to lose it.

I just want to say one other thing. Something that tends to get overlooked is that the ABC has traditionally been not just a curator of our musical culture but also an entrepreneur. Once upon a time it had orchestras, choirs and even a dance band. Even with those gone, on a small scale and at a local level it has continued to be a partner, recording concerts and making studio recordings. These have been diminished over the past 20 years and the result is not just the loss for radio listeners; a lot of small concerts that were once possible because of a modest recording fee from the ABC no longer happen at all. The fee might have been $200 or $300 but it provided a safety net for, say, a young string quartet. So audiences miss out and musicians lose a meagre supplement to their mostly meagre incomes. Also by putting new music online only, as is proposed with New Music Up Late,instead of on-air, you reduce composers' royalties to a fraction of what they were, and they never were that much. So by cutting funding from the ABC you also cut funding from musicians and from music itself.

ACTING CHAIR: Thanks very much, Dr Ford. That is not a perspective that we have heard directly at all today or at estimates or any of the other inquiries, so thanks very much for coming online. Senator Lines, do you want to kick off?

Senator LINES: Yes. Dr Ford, I am a great fan. Listing to your opening statement is just like listening to you on Saturday morning. I want to reflect on what The Music Show brings to me. You enrich my musical appreciation because you do bring new artists, new discussions and new ways of thinking about music and you enable, so I think the loss of programs that do that across the ABC will diminish us as a population. I think also The Music Show is a fine embodiment of the ABC charter. You embody all of the key aims of the charter in The Music Show.I agree with you that cutting programs like The Music Show and the one that is on late in the evening will impact on musicians because often when listening to your show I write down the name of a musician and follow them up. Anyway, this is not really about my listening experience—

Dr Ford : I have enjoyed hearing it, though!

Senator LINES: You are one of my absolute favourites on a Saturday morning.

Dr Ford : Can I just interrupt and say that, unless you know something I do not know, I do not think The Music Show is being cut.

Senator LINES: No, but I think what The Music Show brings is that embodiment of what is unique about the ABC. We would not find The Music Show anywhere else, across any other spectrum, whether it is on the internet, whether it is another radio program or indeed whether it is television. It exists in a niche of its own—I guess in the same way that Catalyst does or Compass does. There is an intrinsic value in and of itself of the programs that you bring. So I wondered today too what your main motivation or message to us is really. Is it those things you have talked about?

Dr Ford : Yes. Of course, I agree with what you said, but I think that one of the things that we try to do on The Music Show—and this is related to the charter, of course—is to talk about all sorts of music, and we try to rule nothing out. The basic philosophy of the program is that, whilst the world is full of bad music—most music, inevitably, is not very good; it is only some of it that is really good, and we try and concentrate on that—there is no such thing as a bad sort of music. You can find good examples of everything. There is good Italian rock opera. There is good country and western. There is good rap. There is good traditional jazz. There is good whatever it is. There are also, of course, bad examples of all of those things. But there is no such thing as a bad sort of music. That is our starting point, so we try to consider all sorts of music equally and give each sort of music the kind of attention that we think it deserves.

Senator LINES: Is that unique? If you were bidding for keeping your program, what are those—

Dr Ford : I think that probably is unique, and, to be honest—and we hear this a lot from the guests that we interview who come from other countries—I am not really aware of another program anywhere that has the same kind of breadth of interest that The Music Show has. So there is that, but there is also the fact that we talk about music, that we do not just play it. In fact, it is primarily a talk show; it is just that our subject is music. I think this is something which is very important, and this is something else which is not often talked about, but music is a form of information; it is an enormous body of knowledge. Some of the greatest thinkers in history have been musicians. Some of the greatest minds that have ever lived have been Bach and Beethoven. They thought in music. It is difficult to talk about it in words. The best way to understand Beethoven is actually to sit down at the piano and play it. The best way to understand Bach is to sing it. But most people cannot do that, and anyway there is no reason why one should not try to talk about it. It is difficult and it is ultimately, I suspect, impossible, but trying to do it, which is what we do on a Saturday morning each week, is always, for me anyway, fascinating—that attempt to talk about music and to find out what is really going on in a piece of music, whether it is by Bach or Beethoven or whether it is a 2½-minute pop song or whether it is a piece of traditional music from somewhere in the world, but actually getting inside it and pulling it apart and seeing what it is made of and finding out what its significance is for the people who make it.

Senator LINES: Thank you.

ACTING CHAIR: Dr Ford, so far you have been my favourite part of the day. I just want to test your views—I do not know whether you could hear the latter part of our session with the previous witness, but I was testing the idea of efficiency as it applies to the ABC or to public broadcasting more generally, and the kinds of efficiency metrics that were rolled over the broadcaster by Mr Lewis and probably by PwC. What is your take on the concept of efficiency as it pertains to the kind of work that you do?

Dr Ford : It is a funny sort of word, to be honest, in the context of what I do—almost any of the things that I do. It is not really a terribly useful word to talk about composing music either. But, with the radio program, obviously we have a deadline, just as I do when I am a composer. We have to get that program ready, it has to be on air at 10 o'clock on Saturday morning, and ultimately that is the test of what we do; and it has to finish up at the right time as well and it has to be interesting in between. And, each week, the show comes together in a slightly different way. We have different guests. We have different sorts of music. There is no formula for doing it. And things go wrong, as they always will with live radio. Guests cancel at the last minute or, say, turn out not to be what you thought they were going to be, where someone is garrulous on the phone, talking to a producer the day before, but then they are on air and they have clammed up. So there is an enormous amount of unpredictability involved in the kind of radio that we make, and that is at every level.

So it is really difficult to talk about efficiency in a tremendously meaningful way. The Music Show consists of two almost-full-time producers and me as the presenter, and I work two days a week for the ABC and I have only ever worked two days a week. I have been presenting the music show since February 1995 and I work Friday and Saturday. At least, those are the days that I am paid to work. As for how it comes together, I find out on a Thursday evening from one of my producers who the guests are going to be on the Saturday morning. I am not much involved in planning the program, in planning the content or the structure. I am responsible for the things I say on air and the questions I ask, but that is also based on research that is given to me. So it is a team of 2½ people, really, putting together these two hours of radio each week, and I cannot imagine what could be cut. You might be interested to know what the discretionary budget for The Music Show is for a year.

ACTING CHAIR: Go on.

Dr Ford : I am inclined to ask you to guess! But I will tell you: it is $5,855. That covers artists' fees; the booking of overseas studios, for which we have to pay; taxis, mostly for guests; newspaper and magazine subscriptions; freight; security, occasionally. It does not cover things like piano-tuning and travel. They come out of a different budget. But, still, it is less than $6,000. Interestingly, in 2006-07, it was more than that. So we are now working with less money than we did seven years ago.

ACTING CHAIR: It sounds very lean for the kind of work that you produce. I am still bugged by this concept of efficiency. Do any commercial broadcasters in this country do anything like you do?

Dr Ford : No, I do not think so.

ACTING CHAIR: And how much do you know about your audience? Because I suppose efficiency in a commercial sense is simply, 'Is there a market?' If nobody listens, they would turn you off and go and find ratings elsewhere.

Dr Ford : Yes.

ACTING CHAIR: But you have a loyal audience. You are providing something that nobody else would do. I guess I am still wondering about this concept of efficiency and that it might not be wiping out immensely valuable production and services across public broadcasters, which is the reason that we have you there in the first place.

Dr Ford : Yes. As I said, I cannot imagine what could be cut from the Music Show, when we have lost things over the years—I mean, we don't travel as much as we used to. There are things that have gone and I think that has not been beneficial. It is good to get out and actually look at our audience from time to time. The kind of audience feedback we get—apart from ratings, we obviously have a lot of anecdotal feedback. People send us emails, ring us up and write us letters, and we meet people when we go to festivals, which is not as often as we used to. Your word loyal is certainly the word I would use for our listeners.

ACTING CHAIR: I don't think there is any question about that. Dr Ford, we might leave it there. Thank you, very much, for what you do. Loyalty is certainly the word that came to the top of my mind. May you enjoy many, many long years on air, and we will revisit this concept of efficiency, probably as soon as possible. Thanks, very much, for coming on.

Dr Ford : Thanks for having me.

Proceedings suspended from 14:36 to 15 : 01