Friday, 5 October 2012
The Bottom Line is the End of ABC Radio Drama
Noelle and I won AWGIE Awards this year for radio drama. I began my speech by paying tribute to the 17 radio writers who 50 years ago banded together to form the Australian Writers' Guild. I then looked into the sea of glammed up producers and artists and made a simple declaration - I love writing for radio.
If I cast my mind back over the 25 years in which I have been writing for performance, radio drama looms large. Long before I began writing for the medium, I would (don't laugh) sticky tape my transistor radio to the handle bars of my mountain bike and ride out among the apple orchards listening to the Sunday radio play. I never missed it. To this day, I can still see in my mind's eye characters as diverse as war vets and comatose patients and hitchhiking blowflies in weekly dramas written by Australian writers. Sometimes, an Australian theatre piece would be adapted, and I was able to experience first hand a play that would never receive a production in New South Wales. In this way, I supplemented my study of our national catchment of playwrights, and learned, in due course, to join their ranks.
In a breath-taking break with its own history and tradition, ABC Radio has decided to cut radio drama from their schedule. The programme dedicated to this artform, Airplay, will be axed. Listener numbers are down, apparently, but what is meant by "down"? When I first wrote for radio I was told the average weekly audience for radio drama was 45,000; a new Australian play, especially one that has found a home not on a mainstream stage, will reach an audience of a few thousand, so that's not a bad hit rate. In fact, that's massive exposure, and a major contribution to the development of our profession and national imagination. Just think what listener numbers could be if radio drama was available as a podcast.
Word on the street indicates that Airplay (and other language-loving programmes such as The Book Reading and Lingua Franca) will be replaced by hybrid doco/dramas, improvised drama, and listener-made programs. That is, by programs that dispense with professional performance writers, and downgrade their craft and skill and status. Jobs will be lost. The chance to build a body of creative work in this medium will be lost. Audience access to a national storytelling and performance platform will be lost. And a career pathway that has always admitted creative women in great numbers will be lost.
The decision, we are told, is all about the bottom line. But it's a decision more about an appalling and lamentable lack of will and vision to revitalise and reposition an important artform that has been an ABC staple for at least 80 years. The ABC is due a radio drama format revamp, but no, the baby is instead going out with the bathwater.
I love writing for radio. I've only ever thought of it as an artform in its own right. One that exercises specific dramaturgical muscles and creates intimate and powerful experiences that often live long and richly in the mind's eye and imagination. But incredibly, depressingly, funded radio drama, my artistic practice in this medium, and quite probably the AWGIE Award radio drama categories, may soon be bulldozed from our national landscape.