Radio Australia, the 58-year-old international service of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), has reacted vigorously to a suggestion that it be closed in order to save money. The suggestion was contained in a government-commissioned report on the state-owned ABC prepared by Bob Mansfield, a former chief executive in the telecommunications and newspaper industries.
Mansfield received 10,615 submissions and made 19 recommendations in the report, which was presented to Australia’s Communications Minister, Senator Richard Alston, in January.
In response to the report, Radio Australia has carried numerous news stories containing negative reaction to the proposal, and has coordinated a protest campaign on the Internet.
Among those registering their displeasure with the suggested closure are individuals and a variety of organizations throughout the Asia-Pacific region. Fellow broadcasters, ranging from China National Radio to Radio Vanuatu, have expressed support for retaining Australia’s international service.
Mansfield cites a simple reason for closing Radio Australia – money. In the financial year 1996-97, the government provided funding to the ABC of $AUD531 million (about US$400 million) That figure was cut by AUD$55 million (more than US$40 million) for 1997-98 and Senator Alston favors similar budget cuts in each of the next two financial years.
Mansfield recommends that the ABC limit its activities to the “core business” of providing commercial-free radio and television within Australia.
Although the Corporation would be free to broadcast internationally as a “subsidiary function,” Mansfield is unequivocal on the likely future of Radio Australia, stating “the ABC should be permitted to apply net savings from the closure of Radio Australia to the achievement of its savings target.”
In addition to closing Radio Australia, which would save the ABC AUD$20.5 million (about US$16 million) a year, Mansfield recommends “complete divestment” of the ABC orchestras which have operated in each state capital for more than 50 years.
Radio is not the only area of the ABC to face cutbacks under the Mansfield recommendations. The international satellite service Australia Television would be privatized or closed down in June 1997. The ABC would also close most of its domestic television production and buy programs instead.
The managing director of the ABC, Brian Johns, says he agrees the Corporation must protect domestic services. Radio Australia has served the country’s interests well, he says, but its future “needs to be seriously considered.”
David Hill, who was the managing director of the ABC from 1986 to 1995, is critical of the Corporation’s board which he regards as being too willing to accept reduced funding. He says there is little doubt the Mansfield recommendations will be implemented. In his view, “this is the end of the ABC as we have known it.”
Shortwave and satellites
Begun in 1939, Radio Australia currently employs 170 full-time staff and draws on reports from correspondents in 16 countries.
Radio Australia describes itself as “a center of excellence in Asia Pacific affairs, providing information services in nine languages – English, Indonesian, Mandarin, Cantonese, Vietnamese, Khmer, Thai, Tok Pisin (a language of Papua New Guinea) and French.”
The service is broadcast 24 hours a day on shortwave. It is also available via satellite in South East Asia, Europe and North America. Some Radio Australia programs are broadcast by the ABC domestic services.
The shortwave transmissions of Radio Australia are probably the most important source of international news in English speaking countries of the South Pacific, and are rebroadcast by numerous local stations.
Although Radio New Zealand International also supplies news and current affairs programs tailored to listeners in the Pacific, it is hampered by having only one transmitter. Radio Australia can transmit on more than a dozen frequencies at once, making it the favored choice of local broadcasters looking for the clearest signal to relay.
A dramatic indication of the service’s importance has come from Papua New Guinea, only 150 kilometers from Australia across the Torres Strait, where the Prime Minister has offered to forego a million dollars in Australian aid over the next five years in order to help save Radio Australia.
Doubts about effectiveness of shortwave
Mansfield maintains the “potential” shortwave audience of Radio Australia “has declined from an estimated 100 million in 1981 to 20 million in 1996 (and a likely actual weekly audience of five million).”
Critics contend that the 100-million figure was an unsubstantiated estimate, made before accurate surveys were available, while the figure of five million was an estimate of minimum audience in some target areas.
Radio Australia insists that shortwave has a bright future, telling Mansfield that “international broadcasters like the BBC and the Voice of America are investing hundreds of millions of dollars expanding their services.”
Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade attempted to persuade Mansfield of “the significant role the ABC’s international services play in advancing Australia’s trade and diplomatic objectives.”
Mansfield replied that he had “some difficulty in identifying the extent to which the ABC plays such a role and, if it does, the extent to which it is effective in doing so.”
Furthermore, Mansfield noted that the ABC is not required to accept the views of government or any of its policy directions. This is in direct contrast to the situation of the BBC World Service which, he said, is required to broadcast in accordance with objectives, priorities and targets set by the British government.
In assessing the usefulness of Radio Australia, Mansfield told the government it must determine whether:
- the service is reaching its target audience,
- the type and mix of programming remains valid, and
- shortwave remains the most cost-effective means of delivery.
“On the basis of the limited evidence put before the review,” he reported, “I consider that there is insufficient evidence for the Government to draw firm conclusions in any of these areas.”According to a Melbourne newspaper, The Age, Australia’s foreign minister may try to convince his cabinet colleagues they ought to save Radio Australia. It is possible the fate of the service will not be known until the next federal budget is announced in May.
Whatever the outcome, the Mansfield Report contains at least one recommendation that may ease the pain being felt at the ABC.
It urges the government to establish triennial funding arrangements beginning in 1997-98 and to permit the ABC to retain the proceeds from any sale of property to finance capital investment, pay debts and compensate staff whose jobs are eliminated.
* First published 16 April 1997 in the International Edition of Radio World