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30th anniversary of ABC Radio's 'A.M.' program; panel discusses the program and the future of radio current affairs

PETER CAVE: You've heard what the Prime Minister thinks of A.M.and the job that it does. We've assembled a panel representing a wide cross-section of opinion to look at what we do and where we're heading with radio current affairs. Here with me, in Sydney, is the ABC's Managing Director, Brian Johns; in Canberra, Senator Natasha Stott Despoja, the Democrats spokesperson on youth affairs and an avowed JJJ listener if I'm not mistaken; in Alice Springs, we have Tracker Tilmouth, the Director of the Central Land Council; and in London, two distinguished A.M. alumni-Channel Nine's Ray Martin and the BBC News's Foreign Assignments Editor, Malcolm Downing.

Brian Johns, if I could start with you; you are my boss after all. You've heard what the Prime Minister has had to say about our sometimes narrow focus. Is that fair criticism?

BRIAN JOHNS: Well, it's a very personal view as I think the Prime Minister made clear. He also mentioned the ABC's obligation to hold audience. Well, I'd point out that A.M. is one of our top three programs and draws an audience of about-well, 1.75 million.

PETER CAVE: His belief is that we've passed our best; that in the '70s and '80s we were in our prime and we've sort of lost it a little bit since then.

BRIAN JOHNS: Well, I don't agree with that, and I certainly think that the future is very challenging indeed, and I think that A.M. and, in fact, news and current affairs-as the Prime Minister himself indicated-is the spine of the ABC's activities. It's a core activity and I think that the changing media environment is going to present us with increased opportunities, not diminished opportunities.

As you know, technology-as a result of vastly improved technology, our broadcasting capacity is going to be greatly expanded over the next 10 years, and the ABC is preparing now for that. The ABC has to continue to be at the top table because we're an essential element in media diversity in this country.

PETER CAVE: I'd like to look at that in just a little while.

Senator Stott Despoja, have we managed to keep youth listening to us?

NATASHA STOTT DESPOJA: Well, I certainly think your mention of JJJ is particularly relevant, because I would argue that the ABC in a range of areas-including A.M.-has offered diversity of expression; has offered channels for different viewpoints, social, political and otherwise, and I think while young people's main source of information, particularly political information, continues to be the media as well as their parents, I think there's a large opportunity to be relevant. But certainly, while young people are switching off from the mainstream and the commercial, if you like, there are lots of opportunities for programs like A.M. But of course, JJJ is your national broadcaster for young people.

PETER CAVE: Tracker Tilmouth, if I could turn to you, now. You heard what the Prime Minister said about our sometimes narrow focus, that perhaps sometimes we concentrate too much on narrow issues. What do you think of that?

TRACKER TILMOUTH: Well, the Prime Minister, again, is speaking from his experience. We, within the indigenous community, find the A.M. is a refreshing-as ... said-early morning start to the day, but being refreshing in that we end up with a balanced view. If you lived in Sydney over the last year or so and had Alan Jones every morning talking about the New South Wales Land Council, you know, you'd really throw your hands in the air.

PETER CAVE: So you think we're on your side?

TRACKER TILMOUTH: No, I don't think you're on our side, but in terms of the media that's available to indigenous people, you know, it's quite limited and most of it is fairly hostile, especially the commercial stations. And with the thugs of Packer and who is that other bloke who is supposed to be an Australian, Murdoch, turning up with the newspapers, you know, at the end of the day the Aboriginal community either have that to listen to or read or watch on TV, and A.M. comes across, or the ABC comes across as very much a down the middle, tells it as it is type program.

PETER CAVE: We're sometimes accused of being the Sydney Broadcasting Corporation. You're just about as far into the bush as you can get, I guess.

TRACKER TILMOUTH: A thousand miles from anywhere.

PETER CAVE: Do we represent the views of the broad spectrum of Australian society, from Aboriginal views, from views from the country, that whole spectrum?

TRACKER TILMOUTH: Well, I think you do. You know, we will have pretty intensive debates, I think, in the future in relation to native title and Mabo and land rights in general, and these are issues that will impact totally not only on the indigenous but also on the non-indigenous community that's pretty remote.

PETER CAVE: Ray Martin and Malcolm Downing in London-when A.M. started, it wasn't a political program, was it?

RAY MARTIN: It was cheeky. It was a cheeky program. We were told that, in fact, this was going to be radio as Australians had never heard it before, and it was that. It was basically a couple of old newspaper veterans who ran the ship and a bunch of Young Turks who tried to ginger up society, which is what they did.

MALCOLM DOWNING: I think one of the things which has been consistent throughout the history of A.M. and it's one of its big pluses-and I think the Prime Minister touched on it-was the breadth and range of its international news, and I think the fact that the ABC maintains so many foreign bureaus to have an Australian perspective on world news-and that this is reflected in A.M. and other programs-is one of the great strengths of it.

PETER CAVE: Brian Johns, I think you'd like to come in there.

BRIAN JOHNS: Yes. I must say that, in the early '70s as Chief of Staff of the Sydney Morning Herald I was responsible for its news coverage, and I've got to say the A.M. gave us hurry-up, literally hurry-up, because when we'd gone to press at one o'clock in the morning, A.M. was busily gathering material from around the world, from the ABC's overseas correspondents and here in Australia. And so, when the papers were being delivered at 8 o'clock in the morning, A.M. was there with those hours ahead of us, an advantage.

PETER CAVE: Ray Martin, are we too serious, too politically correct these days?

RAY MARTIN: No. It was interesting listening to Tracker and also to the Prime Minister. I think they both have their bias and their perspective of course. I think it's still required listening, probably more than it was 10 years ago, in the '70s, the PM talks about. I think it's more relevant to daily journalism in Australia than any television program is. It kick-starts the day. If you get all your news from A.M., then you're probably a dope, but if you don't listen you'll probably miss something.

PETER CAVE: The television current affairs programs, including your own, have been accused of perhaps moving towards lighter stories. Is that the way of the future?

RAY MARTIN: No, not at all. But I think the PM's comment about the 'Who cares?' test is a valid one. There were times there that I was on the program, on A.M., and I think certainly afterwards, in which, as a listener, you'd have to say: 'Well, who does care?' It became more 'Granny' than the Sydney Morning Herald. But nevertheless, all news programs go through that.

PETER CAVE: Malcolm Downing, the BBC has, over the years, done a lot of thinking about where it's going and what it's doing. What's happening with the BBC in that regard?

MALCOLM DOWNING: Well, the major development in BBC radio over the last few years has been, about three years ago, a brand new network called Radio Five Live which is a combination of news and sport, and the idea was to enlarge the audience. And the traditional audience for BBC Radio Four, which is the speech channel, the sort of channel on which a program like A.M. would appear, has been sort of middle-aged, fairly serious, interested in serious issues, analytical development.

Radio Five reached out to a new audience, a younger audience, a non-metropolitan audience, and by mixing it up with sport they've enlarged the audience and they've reached out and treat .... Although they do the tabloid agenda and they do sport, of course, they do treat serious issues. So when Bosnia happens, or Rwanda or Afghanistan, those reports appear on that channel, too.

PETER CAVE: And is it rating? What's rating in Britain? What's happening in the rest of the world?

MALCOLM DOWNING: Well, in terms of the audience, Radio Five is building up. It's obviously stronger on the sports, on sports days, and the follow-on from that, but they're hoping for a spill-over effect, and it's gradually building. And Radio Four is maintaining its share of the audience, vis-a-vis, commercials, and I think the Radio Four more serious programs have only benefited from it.

PETER CAVE: Okay. Well, just before we take a look at the future, I'd like you to hear what Kim Beazley had to say when we spoke to him in Canberra last night.

EXTRACT

KIM BEAZLEY: Well, I've always said of the ABC, generally, that it's world best practice radio, and one of the reasons is I think it does current and cultural affairs enormously well. And I guess the standard bearer for that is A.M. And I've been an avid listener for most of those 30 years, but when I first appeared on it or had a thing to say on it I cannot remember.

MATT PEACOCK: What do you like about it the most, then?

KIM BEAZLEY: Well, it is pretty even-handed, actually. You do get a reasonable go on A.M. and you get a reasonably lengthy go. Like you'll get three or four minutes if you actually manage to get yourself on it. So the good thing about radio generally is its unfettered access to the public mind, unedited access to the public mind by the politician-or anyone else who happens to be appearing-and A.M. has enough leisure to allow you to get your point across quickly.

MATT PEACOCK: People have said that radio will die out. People have also said that A.M. would die out. Do you think that it's got a future for another 50 years?

KIM BEAZLEY: Well, I hope it has a future. I'll tell you what I think is going to happen in radio. I think we're going to go to digital audio broadcasting and we're going to get there for a variety of narrowcasted services, and many of them will be quite completely insane. And that worries me; that prospect worries me. It creates a level of nastiness in the community which has, I think, been beautifully missing from us for some considerable period of time, so I think when that occurs, the ABC generally will be at risk.

On the other hand, I might be completely wrong in that pessimistic assessment, and the mere advance of digital audio broadcasting, while it will have its niches, will nevertheless see the fact that there is a bit of balance and common sense out there will ensure an audience surge for A.M. and for the ABC generally. But it's a question. It's a question as to which way it will go.

PETER CAVE: Opposition Leader, Kim Beazley.

Brian Johns, I'd like to talk to you about digital radio in just a second, but Senator Stott Despoja, you heard what Mr Beazley had to say about unedited access to the public mind. Is that what A.M. gives politicians?

NATASHA STOTT DESPOJA: It certainly does. In an age where we're expected to grasp and master the 60-second sound bite-not even that, these days; and I think that makes the community fairly cynical about us-it's actually nice to be able to express your thoughts in a couple of minutes and actually talk about issues in a more in-depth manner. I think that makes a big difference.

PETER CAVE: Tracker?

TRACKER TILMOUTH: Yes. It's a bit scary when you allow unfettered access by politicians, though, let me tell you.

PETER CAVE: So you think we should be censoring?

UNIDENTIFIED: You should head for the hills.

TRACKER TILMOUTH: But that given, and then talking about in-depth issues which is also very scary, but at the end of the day, yes, I think the A.M. program allows you-you know, I've been on it a few times -allows you to get into the issues that are near and dear to your constituency and allows you to articulate those issues in a broader sense, so that the misconceptions that you get on the 30-second grab on the commercial radio or even in the print media can be lost somewhere in the discussion.

PETER CAVE: You can still gather your thoughts at 5.30 in the morning, can you?

TRACKER TILMOUTH: Well, if you're awake, yes.

RAY MARTIN: Peter, I think one of the changes that I've noticed in the program in the 30 years is that the politicians have done their media courses. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. The days when we first started you could pre-record some of these politicians and cut out their boring bits, and also make them sound a little more intelligible. Now, they've insisted, of course, they've got to go live because otherwise these scurrilous journalists edit them and edit out their important points. I think this was probably ....

PETER CAVE: I think we used to edit out every breath, didn't we?

RAY MARTIN: It was probably cheekier then.

PETER CAVE: Malcolm Downing?

MALCOLM DOWNING: Well, of course, I'm not in the Australian scene, these days, so I can't really talk from knowledge of how A.M. has developed recently. Thus yes, I'd agree with Ray, in the early days we did a lot of that editing and I think the end result was probably less than honest.

RAY MARTIN: Shame on you.

PETER CAVE: I won't say anything about that.

Brian Johns, Mr Beazley was talking about the future of digital radio. I guess there's also the Internet. Where is the ABC heading?

BRIAN JOHNS: Well, first of all, I understand Kim Beazley's wariness, in one sense, about the multiplicity of channels and the multiplicity of outlets that are going to come to us over the next 10 years or so. But I'd like to point out something that I'd really like-it's a favourite point of mine to make-that if you go to your average corner bookshop, there's 32,000 different titles in a decent-sized local bookshop. People are well used to making selections in print, and I believe that they will become very accustomed and very knowing about making good selections in broadcasting, despite the multiplicity of outlets.

And I believe, therefore, they'll go to-as they go to bookshops, when they're making their selection they go to publishers with a reputation for quality and so on, an identity, then that's why the ABC will be in a very strong position over the next 10 years, I believe, because we've got a very strong identity, we're a quality broadcaster, and we're a much needed broadcaster, and that need is very clearly expressed in news and current affairs.

PETER CAVE: In times of uncertain funding, though, does the ABC, does any public broadcaster across the world, have the ability to do that?

BRIAN JOHNS: Well, we certainly have to remain at the top table as I said at the beginning of this discussion, and being at the top table, the new menu will be digital television, digital broadcasting, and we have to be given the resources to remain at the top table. And that's very important because we have-it's unique around the world, our broadcasting environment in Australia because there's an equal balance, almost, between the commercial and national broadcasters. Australians have come to value very much that dual choice and, therefore, we can't be left behind in these new technological advances.

And I believe, having said that, again, we're making a very early and urgent start in equipping ourselves for the provision of content. And interestingly enough, that start has begun in news and current affairs. As you well know, we're bringing our radio and television news and current affairs together so that we can maximise our impact and our skills. We're concentrating on the creation of content, content that regards as secondary the means of delivery.

PETER CAVE: Ray Martin, where does the ABC fit into the scale of things? Have commercial radio and television developed to the stage where the ABC is no longer relevant?

RAY MARTIN: No, no, not at all. Of course the ABC is very relevant. You asked earlier about whether programs should go lighter or not to become more popular. Clearly, there's a role for The economist or there's a role for Esquire magazine or Time depending on target audiences. No, obviously the ABC is relevant.

I must pick up what Brian was saying, too, that in my years in the ABC and in New York, for example, there was nothing in American radio that could match A.M. in the morning. The BBC's been luckier. I think it's a precious resource that we have and we must retain it.

PETER CAVE: Senator Stott Despoja?

NATASHA STOTT DESPOJA: Well, I think, increasingly, as media, print media goes tabloid, as people need avenues and opportunities for expression, especially diverse opportunities for expression, like young people, increasingly you need a political staple, if you like, that's relevant, that will be high quality, and I think that A.M. fits that particular position. While everyone else is mainstreaming and providing more and more homogenised radio, if you like, and print opportunities, I think A.M. is as important as ever.

PETER CAVE: Malcolm Downing, the public broadcasting organisations around the world have been having troubles getting funds. I mean, the BBC has had cutbacks, CBC has had cutbacks, Radio New Zealand has almost disappeared. What do you think is the future of public radio in Britain?

MALCOLM DOWNING: Well, I think it's fairly healthy, actually, and I think the way the BBC's been tackling this is on two fronts. It's obviously been arguing for more resources-as Brian said, that's the key to it-and a society which didn't put decent resources into public service broadcasting would be very short-sighted.

But also, it's been going through some rather painful slimming exercises. And he touched, also, on the question of the new technology and digital broadcasting and, in two months' time, the BBC's starting up a 24-hour television news channel to complement, if you like, Radio Five, and that is a very expensive business, and to be able to do that with little additional support from the Government, there's been, as I say, a very painful slimming exercise, and I think this is a thing we just have to live with.

PETER CAVE: Could I ask you a difficult question: why, in Britain, has the BBC managed to remain on the top of the ratings heap, whereas in Australia and a lot of other countries public radio has always had more of a niche market?

MALCOLM DOWNING: Well, I can't really answer that, actually, because I don't know what's been going on in Australia recently. But I think the commercial sector in Britain has never been as strong as it has in Australia and the commercial sector came along somewhat in the wake of the BBC and was imbued, at least in the early days, with something of that public service broadcasting ethos which has lasted. It's tailing off these days and, of course, the diversity is extending enormously with satellite and cable. But I think there's still a big hangover on that and I think the BBC got so well established before, as it were, the commercials became commercial, that it's in a very strong position and will probably remain so.

PETER CAVE: Tracker Tilmouth, we've always been a mainstay of information provision out in the bush. How can we stay there?

TRACKER TILMOUTH: Well, I think, at the moment, you don't have very much competition, but that shouldn't allow you to rest on your laurels. The commercial radios-thank heavens, we get Lawsy at nine or 10 whatever it is and thank Christ we don't get Jonesy but ....

PETER CAVE: You don't like him very much, do you?

TRACKER TILMOUTH: Oh, well, I don't think these blokes have got a role in the world, but that's my opinion.

PETER CAVE: What about having information delivered via the Internet, via digital radio? Is that going to meet the needs of the bush?

TRACKER TILMOUTH: Well, I think it's a mix of the lot. I don't think there's one or the other. The Internet allows you to take off the front page of certain newspapers in the morning, especially in Alice Springs where your newspaper doesn't come in till about 10o'clock with the early morning flight. ABC radio, or A.M. for that matter, allows you to get the first bursts, if you like, of information flown from the eastern State quite early in the morning, long before the local or the commercial stations pick it up. And most of the information you get at that time is unfettered, it's unbiased, I hope-and listening to the blokes in London on their editing, you wonder if it is. But at the end of the day, you get this unfettered information so early in the morning and it's way out in front of everything at the moment.

PETER CAVE: Brian Johns?

BRIAN JOHNS: I'd like to just follow in, briefly, that point that Tracker made, that it's not a matter of choosing one or the other. In fact, we're putting a lot of energy into our on-line services by re-using, recycling the material from A.M., our news coverage and so on, and in fact, we've virtually got a rural daily newspaper on-line called The Bush Telegraph. We've got four or five specially crafted bulletins each day, news bulletins, on-line, so as Tracker was saying, it's not going to be a matter of choosing one or the other in the next decade. And with our resources, our diverse resources and skills, I think-I keep insisting-we're going to be well placed.

PETER CAVE: I think we've got about 30 seconds left, so Senator Stott Despoja, I'll give you the last word. Do you think that digital, the Internet is the right way to deliver A.M. in the future?

NATASHA STOTT DESPOJA: I think it's one way to complement the radio version of A.M. I think A.M. is replaceable in its current form but let's use all the different and exciting technological media available to us. So perhaps interactive A.M. on Internet and on radio-who knows?

PETER CAVE: In Sydney, we've been speaking to the ABC's Managing Director, Brian Johns; in Canberra, Senator Natasha Stott Despoja, the Democrats spokesperson on youth affairs; in Alice Springs, Tracker Tilmouth, the Director of the Central Land Council; and in London, Ray Martin and the BBC's Foreign Assignments Editor, Malcolm Downing. Thank you very much for joining us.