Leave Them Wanting More…

For some time now I’ve watched with growing dismay as our once superlative public broadcaster is slowly gutted and made over as a cheap copy of commercial stations.

There are many lies told as the rationale for this slow bleeding out of Aunty, and probably the biggest and simplest is that the ABC should, or needs to behave like a commercial broadcaster. As with any propaganda war, once you get people to accept the big lie, the rest is easy.

You can then follow up with smaller stuff like: not having a live cross on radio can “kill the energy” of a program, and: halving the length of an in-depth news and analysis program like PM is a good idea, because it “would leave the audience wanting more”.

That is what Tanya Nolan, the managing editor of audio current affairs is reported to have told staff last Monday. It’s telling, by the way, that this has been reported nowhere on the ABC itself. The story was published by The Guardian, and that alone is a sorry commentary on current affairs in the ABC.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that ABC management continues to make statements like this with a straight face, but for once I couldn’t just let this go through to the keeper without comment. I’m not going to try and deal with the larger question of public broadcasters, and the difference between them and commercial broadcasters, that’s another topic. I’m just going to deal with this farcical notion that radio news and current affairs is entertainment.

First off, let’s consider this “live cross” argument. The contrast is between playing a pre-recorded “package” that has been prepared by a reporter ahead of time – quite possibly the same day, but not right now – and getting the same reporter to say the same thing “live to air”. Let’s consider the differences: radio is audio only, so there are no cues as to the location of the speaker, and there are no cues as to whether the audio is live or recorded. Unless we hear gunfire, or flames, or sirens in the background we cannot tell (and it probably doesn’t matter) where the reporter is standing, and unless the situation they are describing is literally unfolding before their eyes (“Oh, the humanity!”) it makes absolutely no difference whatsoever whether the audio is recorded or “live”.

We have, in fact, no real way of knowing whether either end of the conversation is live or recorded, because they both could be. How a conversation between two invisible people “kills the energy” unless they are both speaking right now really escapes me. Typically when I am listening to a conversation on radio, I’m not looking to be “energised”. Informed, beguiled, diverted perhaps, but I don’t listen to a conversation for the “energy”. It’s not a prize-fight…

TV news now makes frequent use of the “live cross”, which nearly always results in the same, ridiculous situation of a reporter standing, in the dark, in front of some closed, dark public building like a courthouse or parliament, reporting “live to air” about events that happened some hours ago inside that building when the sun was in the sky and the building was open. It’s farcical, and is clearly an attempt to turn a news broadcast into some kind of live entertainment, in which “live” performers are better than recorded ones.

We know that nobody is going to emerge from the dark, closed building. We know that nothing new is going to happen while the “live” broadcast is going on. We know that the story the reporter is telling “live to air” is a script they wrote hours before that hasn’t changed since, but instead of a taped package that was made immediately at or after the event, we get to watch some lonely reporter “live” in a darkened empty street in front of streetlights.

Usually the “live cross” is punctuated by a few questions and answers between the studio presenter and the “live” reporter. These are always clearly rehearsed, and moreover are pieces of information that any competent reporter would have included in the story if it had been prepared as a package. It’s also a ridiculous role-reversal, since the newsreader is just that, a person who reads the news, and who has probably no better chance of asking a penetrating or revealing question than someone in the street. The reporter is the one with the knowledge and insight, but it’s the newsreader who “asks” the question. “So, Fred, does this represent a turning point in the Middle-East peace process?”. “Well, Mary, all the experts agree blah blah blah.” This has nothing to do with news, or information, or analysis. It’s just entertainment.

If it’s ridiculous on TV, it’s doubly so on on radio because the only possible reason you could ever have for real, “live” radio is for real-time commentary on unfolding events. Otherwise I’d far prefer to hear a coherent, polished script, possibly with added relevant soundbites, one that has been edited to remove “ums” and “ers” and errors, than to listen to the same person deliver the same script “live” to microphone.

That’s bad enough, but the idea of “news as entertainment” reaches far greater heights – or depths – in the “leave the audience wanting more” argument.

This leaves us in absolutely no doubt that Tanya Nolan’s belief, and presumably that of ABC senior management, is that they are not in the news business, not in the information business, not in the analysis business, they’re not responsible at all for providing facts or balanced commentary, they are in SHOW BIZ!

Because only in SHOW BIZ is it important to “leave the audience wanting more”. When do we stop a weather forecast half way through, because that “leaves us wanting more”? When do we tell only half of a breaking news story, because that “leaves us wanting more?”. When we read out a list of towns threatened by a bushfire or a flood, do we stop half way through, because that “leaves us wanting more”?

To treat current affairs programs as though they were a Charles Dickens novel, full of cliff-hangers, is to demonstrate a total lack of understanding of both current affairs and of public broadcasting. In the theatre it’s important to have a great first-half closer, because that “leaves the audience wanting more”. In a multi-part drama series, you don’t tell the whole story in the first episode, because that “leaves the audience wanting more”.

But for pity’s sake, I don’t want my intelligent, thoughtful and balanced news and commentary turned into a burlesque show in the hope that this will make me want to tune in tomorrow to find out whether Malcolm Turnbull will reverse his position again, or whether James Bond will escape the fiendish Dr. Fu Manchu. I’d like to hear the whole thing, thanks, because it is precisely that in-depth, more than 30 seconds long analysis that makes programs like PM so valuable and so valued.

By this ridiculous rationale, reducing PM to just 15 minutes would be even more effective, because it would leave us wanting even more.

This rationale for slicing in half the longest-running and most consistently valued current affairs program on radio is just so patently absurd and demeaning I can only hope Ms. Nolan is moved over to light entertainment where her talents obviously lie, and someone who understands radio and current affairs replaces her.

With Ms. Nolan the ABC has succeeded admirably, because she has left me wanting much more.

Seriously. As this article from ABC Friends has it:

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