In a recent post I argued that “Over the very time we were clearing away the detritus of the various collectivist institutions we cobbled together under the name of the Australian Settlement, or ‘protection all round’, while we proceeded with economic reform by deregulating markets to try to optimise the contribution of competitive forces, a whole range of things turned up in the in tray which were in effect new and very important public goods (or bads) – which markets might be expected to deal with badly.”
Although this is part two to that earlier post it also stands on its own – and was written in response to a request from Michael Duffy to discuss the future of the ABC on his program Counterpoint – this was in the context of an earlier discussion with him in which I argued that the ABC should try to be true to its role as a provider of public goods, but that it should take that mission into the wired world, or perhaps we should now be calling it ‘Wireless 2.0’.
So this post is about how the ABC might do that. And at the outset I should say firstly that my comments are based on what I know best – which is overwhelmingly Radio National and that I’m an admirer of the ABC. I admire what it’s done in the past, and I think it is one of the best national broadcasters in the world at least for the funding it receives (though that statement is obviously based on greater exposure to the ABC than any other broadcaster.) And I think at least until very recently the ABC has done as well as any national broadcaster I know to get into the digital (podcasting) age. But it could do more . . .
The ABC has always been a public good – provided via broadcasting. But now it’s a much more powerful public good as podcasting has relaxed two major restrictions on its ‘public goodness’.
- First the ABC is now a global public good (albeit of higher average unit value to Australians than to foreigners) and
- Second the ABC is no longer a time dependent public good. Podcasting allows indefinite time shifting at negligible cost.
So at least unless there’s a ‘part three’ to this post (this is almost inevitable and a part four and five and so on, but they may not turn up here quickly and they may not be called parts three four and five) this search for policy ideas for the ABC is obviously on a much more micro scale than the grand themes sketched out in part one of the post. Nevertheless the ideas might be seen as illustrative of possibilities elsewhere.
In any event I hope the ‘grand themes’ of part one are not entirely out of place, because the first recommendation from the line of inquiry in this post is obvious enough – you can’t podcast enough.
Recommendation One: The ABC should as soon as practicable and affordable post its entire archive on the web for downloading by whomever wishes to download it – and keep the cost of doing so down with the P2P capabilities of BitTorrent.
It has to make an exception where it buys material in and cannot secure the rights to podcast. And it might want to make an exception where there is a good chance of making a good commercial return. But it should do so in full realisation of how much value is lost once the first cent is charged – on account of the transactions costs involved. And for goodness sake, how much does it make from the Boyer Lectures by charging $2.95 or whatever it charged for them last time it tried? And why routinely block the podcasting of poems and plays. Hard to believe they’re financial bonanzas waiting to happen. (I guess the reason is the rights of the publishers, but here’s hoping the ABC throws its weight around a little more in negotiations on behalf it its ability to supply these public goods to the world.
In the same spirit, it should embrace creative commons licensing as widely as it can. Could it not hold open ‘acquisitive’ competitions for things like designs and (music) themes for programs. By ‘acquisitive’ I have in mind that the ABC acquires the copyright which immediately donates, if not to the commons, then at least distributes under creative commons licensing.
And mightn’t the ABC be a micro-laboratory for trying to get the public sector to maximise the production of useful public goods. If it did, mightn’t it do things a little differently – or at least reorder its priorities.
Recommendation Two: Embrace openness in discussing programs. The ABC doesn’t do a bad job. It has internet guest books and discussion sites for most of its programs. But I think it could do quite a bit more. The blogs or guest books are not very visible, and at least on the ones I’ve seen, there’s not much sense of collegiality and discussion – it’s more in the spirit of ‘writing in’, letting off steam and perhaps being chosen to be read out on the radio.
Nothing wrong with that, but these ‘guest books’ could be revamped to have some collegiality – between presenters, producers, others in the ABC if they wished, and listeners and of course between listeners. I think each major program on Radio National should have its own ‘friends of’ support group – Friends of LNL, Friends of Counterpoint etc. It would be de rigueur for there to be a blog around the program. Trusted ‘friends’ would moderate the blog and perhaps come to run the blog. Perhaps there could be a program once every few months with a panel discussion with people who’ve been identified as the most interesting from the Friends of LNL in one state or another. (In fact as I was thinking about this post, I heard the ABC already trying something a bit like this on Life Matters where I heard a ‘Meet the listener’ segment – which was very successful I thought.) Still there’s a subtle but profound difference between having the the web discussion as a kind of adjunct to the program as we do now, and instead having the program as just perhaps the most important part of a larger conversation – in which the website and a genuine blog were central to the discussion, and to the exetended intelligence of the endeavour.
Recommendation Three: As part of this there would be openness in planning programs. The public should be invited into program planning via Web 2.0. The shows (already existing) websites could foreshadow possible and planned programs. This would enable commenters to suggest talent for various discussions, they could thrash through some of the arguments in a particular area and suggest angles they’d like covered, (and furphies they’d like tackled if they reared their heads).
Though programs ought to be able to be appreciated by people who hadn’t been to the website, there might be pre-reading or pre-surfing for those who were interested – as there is on the various ABC Radio and TV ‘book clubs’.
We’re learning how much great ‘content’ is out there from ‘civil society’ – people like you and me tapping away. Would it be useful if part of the ABCs effort and funding went to trying to get the best out of this? I think so. One would need to be careful and experiment on a small scale to see what worked and what didn’t.
I’m not sure that I’d do much with the blogosphere which seems to run itself relatively well, though the ABC should certainly cover it a bit more and use it as a source of talent more than they do. I’ve tried to get this happening but without much success. Even some of the ABC’s best presenters – like Geraldine Doogue – don’t really seem to ‘get it’. Perhaps she doesn’t get it because she’s in another world. (No criticism intended there – I think Geraldine is great and you can’t be across everything, especially things that don’t grab you.) Perhaps the answer is to invite blogdom, or Web 2.0 to present it’s own program, or to get in a presenter or two who’s more familiar with the genre. Here’s an idea – give Peter Martin a job doing ‘the economics report’. He’s a blogger, and a broadcast journo of standing and experience.
Though I think it would be best (at least at the start) with a half hour program, if one had to pick something to take off can we please remove ‘New Dimensions‘ from ABC Radio National? I think this is really the only program on the ABC that raises the prospect of violence from listeners. I know that it is a program of such fascinating horribleness that, like The Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, it must have its cult followers meeting in dark rooms with incest incense somewhere, but they can podcast it now from across the Pacific Ocean. Why they can even surf their way to the New Dimensions Cafe.
Be that as it may, it seems to me that the ABC could do a lot to access the best from community radio, bloggers, citizen journalists and so on. There are any number of ways that this could be done. It’s surprising that blogging has thrown up only one substantial new find for the MSM – Tim Dunlop (please fill me in with comments below if I’ve missed someone as I probably have).
Recommendation Four: The ABC should scour the resources of Web 2.0 and community broadcasting more fully both in Australia and elsewhere with a view both to bringing them to greater MSM prominence and also to supporting their growth.
I’d like to see the ABC make a more concerted effort to be part of the leaven with which the great broadcasters of the future are discovered. Of course we have a fairly vibrant community broadcasting scene and I guess you could say that’s their role. But I don’t listen to community radio because of all the dross I have to end up listening to. I’d like to see the ABC pick the eyes out of this – a bad image because it should strengthen the sector with its recognition and attention and perhaps with some prizes and so on.
I’m not too sure about TV, but I find it hard to imagine that the ABC couldn’t run some great ‘best of community radio’ programs on Radio National and on local radio to the benefit of ABC radio listeners and also the producers of those programs. And of course in addition to community radio, there are private podcasting initiatives popping up in Australia. The ABC should help its audience know about them, and publicise the best they produce. As Web 2.0 is showing us, it’s amazing what people will do if they think people are listening to what they’re saying. People like me.
Recommendation Five: The ABC used to have a mentality that things had to be produced ‘in house’. That seems to be over in television, though I suspect it’s not over in radio. Could they buy in programs (I’m talking of programs produced in Australia)? I would have thought so. Perhaps they do.
As I understand it there are some pretty well paid stars at the ABC. Good on them I guess, and perhaps there’s a case for this if one needs the stars. But there are lots of other good people that don’t do too well. In an age of scarce finance, the comfort of the tenured pushes bad pay and conditions to those who are not so privileged.
Recommendation Six: In the age of web 2.0 I think the ABC should at least experiment with trying to engage more volunteers. I guess there would be cultural issues within the organisation if core jobs were done by volunteers, but add on services might be so done. Friends of LNL or Counterpoint blogs might be run by volunteers – of course they could be run right now on an unofficial basis, but a bit of official encouragement mightn’t hurt. And the friends might organise to do transcripts and that kind of thing. (I’d send them off to schools doing typing and so on, and then get them proofed by official ‘friends’). Guests might be asked to provide lists of links and so on – though this is done to some extent already.
Anyway, I would as always be interested in any response readers have, and most particularly in any ways these ideas might be extended, or examples from Australia or elsewhere that might help illustrate or extend these ideas.
Postscript: The show this post was a preparation for can now be seen and listened to here (for the next four weeks at least, in the absence of a change of policy – which was kind of the point of the exercise).