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Death of a friend: the end of 'The Religion Report'

By Binoy Kampmark - posted Thursday, 30 October 2008


Radio National, and a considerable number of listeners, is farewelling an old friend. On October 15, it was revealed that The Religion Report, hosted by the enthusiastic Stephen Crittenden, would be axed. Others will join it: the Sports Factor and the Media Report are also set for the radio morgue.

Some have argued, Crittenden foremost among them, that this is not so much a farewell as a brutal assassination inflicted by ignorant managers. He may have a point. The report balanced the political, economic and the religious in a manner few programs in Australia do. Its loss will be felt by its not inconsiderable following.

The programmers won’t go quietly into the night. Crittenden has been reprimanded for an outburst on The Religion Report that took place on October 15: “The decision to axe one of this network’s most distinctive and important programs has been approved by the Director of ABC Radio Sue Howard, and it will condemn Radio National to even greater irrelevance.” He is currently being investigated for having used the Radio National platform in an “inappropriate” and “misleading” way.

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The question, raised on ABC’s Media Watch (October 27) is whether the demise of The Religion Report may have been in part due to the strong nature of the opinions expressed on the program at various stages. There may well be another subtext at work here: individuals such as Sydney Bishop Robert Forsyth are not shedding too many tears on the subject of the Report’s demise. He expressed satisfaction that the religion had been moved from its ghetto specialisation to a more “mainstream” focus.

Not all the Anglicans agree. The Primate of the Anglican Church of Australia, Archbishop Philip Aspinall expressed disappointment at the move. “The number of specialist religion reporters in Australia appears to be declining, and that is of concern to me as spiritual leader of Australia’s four million Anglicans. I hope the ABC will not add to that decline.”

In denying any ulterior motive in cancelling the show, the ABC has argued that the revolution in programming, set to commence on January 26 next year, will “allow ABC Radio National to convert a small number of positions into roles with a stronger online and digital editorial focus and to enable general enhancements to the networks website”.

But the “downsizing” of supposedly esoteric (some would say inconsequential and unpopular) programming is something that quality broadcasters are succumbing to globally. The blight instigated by the Murdoch Empire, a debilitating condition that stresses readership, or viewers, before quality, is something that traverses all carriers from Deutsche Welle to Radio National.

In the United Kingdom, BBC’s Radio 4, the British equivalent of Radio National, has had periodic attacks on its relevance and the like. While Radio National may not be, like Radio 4, “a barometer of cultural decline” to use Stefan Collini’s words, the parallels are similar.

Last year, the BBC revealed plans to cut back its fabled radio newsroom in Radio 4, arguing that BBC 5 (the sporting, somewhat lower-brow arm) could do much the same thing at lesser cost. An outraged petition followed. Had the comedy genius of Monty Python still been in business, a venomous sketch directed at the Beeb would surely have been in the offing.

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Instances of protest can be found on the Religion Report website along with the mounting complaints that are arriving in ABC offices. The Radio National listener may not be as committed as an avid Radio 4 devotee of The Archers or the Shipping Forecast, but they are trying very hard to put up a fight to save the show.

The point in all this cutting lies, as always, in the obsession with the “digital age” and what the viewer can do outside standard viewing or listening times.

If a podcast or a vodcast attains considerable mileage, then it’s bound to be treasured. Those that don’t are liquidated by managers who can’t see beyond the book balance and rate of downloads. While economics is an undeniable reality, so is colossal ignorance.

An editorial in the Scotsman (November 4, 2004) on the subject of funding cuts to an institution such as the BBC is worth noting: ministers and CEOs are temporary figures. Institutions such as the BBC, and in this case, the specific programming of Radio National, endure well beyond the damaging acts of an official. Or at least we can hope they do.

Given the current economic crisis, a symptom as much occasioned by inventive, ethics-free credit crunching as relentless profligacy, we could do more with inquisitive programming of the value of Crittenden’s. We can only hope that more will follow in the footsteps of the 2,000 respondents who have made complaints to the ABC.

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About the Author

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He currently lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and blogs at Oz Moses.

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