QUENTIN DEMPSTER. A short history of the ABC. Part 2.

Oct 24, 2018

The Senate will be enquiring into political interference at the ABC. Quentin Dempster provides useful historical background to that inquiry. 

Creative Contribution. 

   The ABC’s creative contribution, within the constraints of its legislated role and functions, has helped to embed the broadcaster in the nation’s affections. From memorable radio days of ‘synthetic’ Test cricket  broadcasts with scores relayed via telegram from London to local commentators adding ‘thwack’ sounds effects, to often contentious news commentary, to radio serials which engrossed listeners, to great orchestral performances with visiting conductors of world renown, it has been the ABC’s distinctive content which has complemented the efforts of the Australian commercial sector. 

   From the outset the ABC set out to be a creative production house, hiring writers, musicians, announcers, performers and specialists in science, education, history, religion and literature and turning them into broadcasters and program makers.   Education programs, run in conjunction with the curricula of   state education departments prevailed until the mid-1980s.   This specialisation  helped to establish the ABC’s authority and credibility across the diversity of Australian intellectual and cultural life.   With the exception of stalwart specialists who became household names – Robyn Williams in science and Dr Norman Swan in health – specialisation as a strategic goal was downgraded over time by personality-led flow programming  said to better engage with contemporary audiences.  But with the rapid uptake of podcasting delivering an expanded domestic and now global audience,  the value of specialisation was becoming more apparent to ABC broadcasters by 2012.

   One of the ABC’s greatest contributions  to the cultural life of Australia has been its involvement in the development and promotion of concert music through the nation’s symphony orchestras.  From 1932 to 1935 all concerts were broadcast live. Then through disc recording technology the ABC was able to pre-record performances and maintained studio ensembles, dance and jazz bands to exploit the phenomenon.  Small ABC orchestras were built to full strength symphony orchestras with the assistance and support of  the federal and state governments.  After WWII a country with just more than 10 million people had six symphony orchestras – Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Queensland, Tasmania and West Australia – with all the conservatorium and teaching resources required to maintain a through-put of professional musicians.  The orchestras worked with some of the world’s greatest conductors: Sargent, Szell, Schnnvoigt and Beecham.  ABC guest conductors over the years  included  Manzel, Rostropovich, Barenboim, Brendel and Ashkenasy.  From 1947 to 1956 Sir Eugene Goosens led the Sydney Symphony Orchestra  building significant public interest and support later enhanced by conductor Stuart Challender from 1987 to 1991.   A resident conductor program  delivered Henry Krips, Willem van Otterloo,   Hiroyuki Iwaki and Edo de Waart  to Australia. Regional tours exposed the orchestras, their musicians and their instruments to school students throughout the nation introducing many to a life-long love of classical music. The orchestras were managed by the ABC under a Concert Music division until their ‘corporatisation’ in the 1990s through an entity called ‘Symphony Australia’ with the ABC continuing its role as a broadcast showcase of their output and a retail outlet for their CDs through ABC shops and centres. 

In radio The Country Hour  engaged rural listeners, The Argonauts captivated youngsters, Blue Hills by Gwen Meredith reflected and confirmed the Australian conservative but decent character within the national consciousness and identity.   The exploration of religion and all forms of spirituality were seen as a Charter objective  through scheduled radio and television religion programs and an online portal.   For decades the ABC televised live Sunday morning services from Christian churches and finished nightly transmissions on radio and television with Evening Epilogue.   Notes on the News,  Singers of Renown, The Search for Meaning, Relax with Me, Music to Midnight, Sunday Bon Bons, the Village Glee Club, Late Night Live, The Science Show, Ockham’s Razor, The Health Report, Life Matters,  the documentary Death of a Wombat  were milestones. Sport, particularly cricket, was from the start in 1932 the ABC’s defining  service until the commercialisation of sport from the 1980s left the ABC at the margins, but nevertheless still a player through coverage of minority and women’s sport. 

   On television content creation was  categorised into ‘genres’ – children’s, documentary, drama, news and current affairs, comedy. Because television drama was considered too expensive,  a system of co-productions with commercial production companies and compatible external investors (government film and television  funding bodies and lotteries’ funds)  was introduced from the mid-1980s.  Through a tax concession called the ‘producer’s offset’ (where available)  ‘out sourcing’ or external funding and production of television programs,  was extended to all other genres except news and current affairs by 2010 leading to an ongoing dispute with staff about the ‘deskilling’ of the ABC.

  In drama ABC TV started with live broadcasts using  sets constructed at its Gore Hill (Sydney) and Ripponlea (Melbourne)  studios to evolve into award winning series: Power Without Glory, Bellbird, Certain Women, Rush, G.P. Seven Little Australians, Scales of Justice, Brides of Christ, Blue Murder, Leaving of Liverpool, Sea Change, Palace of Dreams, Changi, Grass Roots.  In comedy: Mother and Son, the Gillies Report, The Norman Gunston Show, Aunty Jack, Frontline, Australia: You’re Standing In It, The Games, Kath and Kim, We Can be Heroes, the Chaser Decides.  In childrens: Adventure Island, Play School, Mr Squiggle,  Bananas in Pajamas. In science: Why is it So?, Quantum, Catalyst. In  natural history: Nature of Australia, In the Wild with Harry Butler, Wolves of the Sea.  In rock: Six O’Clock Rock, GTK,  Count Down, Rage.  Studio based entertainment: Club Buggery with Roy and H.G., The Big Gig, the Money or the Gun, Enough Rope. In documentary public affairs: Chequerboard, A Big Country, The Investigators, Australian Story, Monday Conference, Four Corners, This Day Tonight, Nationwide, The 7.30 Report, Lateline,  Stateline, Foreign Correspondent, BTN, Q and A, Media Watch.  

International Broadcaster

   The ABC has been an international broadcaster since 1950.  From wartime government control of international radio broadcasting,  the ABC took over and developed a short wave radio service it called Radio Australia.  Funded  by the Department of External Affairs there followed  25 years of dispute between the ABC and its international paymaster over editorial control. Editorial independence was effectively established from 1975. Through transmitters in Shepparton (Victoria), Carnarvon (Western Australia) , Cox  (Northern Territory)  and Brandon (Queensland) , eventually RA grew an audience  of an estimated 50 million through Asia and the Pacific broadcasting in nine  languages: English, Vietnamese, Thai, Standard Chinese, Cantonese, Indonesian, Japanese, French and Tok Pisin.  Carnarvon was closed in 1996 and its subsidy transferred to a new satellite television service (Australian Television International) which had been established  in 1993 through federal start-up funds but with a commercial business plan to develop revenues through sponsorship. ATVI carried a half hour nightly news produced from Darwin and general and sports programming. The service faltered through inadequate operating funds  and was sold  to Channel Seven in 1997. From 1996  the then federal  government cut RA’s budget in half and sold the Cox transmitter  to  a Christian broadcaster leaving the ABC to reconstruct its short wave radio service through re-broadcast arrangements with domestic broadcasters in the region.  By 1998 76 local radio stations in 20 countries in Asia-Pacific took RA programs in various languages. Australia’s satellite television broadcasting returned to the ABC in 2001 through a tender process for a five year contract with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The new service was called ABC Asia Pacific with an evolving footprint rising from 14 countries and progressively adding Japan, Solomon Islands, Hong Kong,  Taiwan, Thailand, French Polynesia. The DFAT tender was re-opened  in 2005. The contract again went to the ABC  but only after a dispute in which  the ABC threatened not to bid until the department withdrew a clause giving it the power to remove any program considered not to be in the national interest.  From 2006 the service was re-named Australia Network.  When the contract was again opened to tender in 2011 the ABC faced a competitive bid from Sky News Australia but the assessment of the bids was abandoned when the then federal government claimed leaks had compromised the process. Competitive tendering for the service was then terminated when the federal Cabinet decided to make Australia Network a permanent feature of the ABC’s role and functions.  In 2014 then Foreign Minister Julie Bishop unilaterally terminated her Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s contract which had underwritten the operations of Australia Network.  Under cover of this withdrawal from international broadcasting the ABC closed Radio Australia short wave transmissions, replying sole on some FM transmission, re-broadcast arrangements and a website presence.     


   Two  people are pivotal to the ABC’s governance and management:  the  chairman and the chief executive.   Executive Council (the Governor General advised by Federal Cabinet) appoints the ABC chairman. The chairman and the ABC board appoint the chief executive.   In 80 years of the ABC’s existence attention has focused on the perceived leadership strengths and or weaknesses of these individuals. 


Charles Lloyd Jones 1932-34; William  Cleary 1934-45; Sir Richard Boyer 1945-61; Dr James Darling 1961-67; Sir Robert Madgwick 1967-73; Professor Richard Downing 1973-75; Dr Earle Hackett 1975-76; Sir Henry Bland 1976-76; John Norgard 1977-81; Dame Leonie Kramer 1982-83; Kenneth B Myer 1983-86;   Wendy McCarthy 1986-86; David Hill 1986-87; Robert Somervaille 1987-91; Professor Mark Armstrong 1991-96; Donald McDonald AC 1996-2006; Maurice Newman AC 2007-12; James Spigelman AC QC 2012-2017; Justin Milne 2017-18; Kirstin Ferguson  (acting)  2018.

Chief Executives:

 (Called general manager from 1932 to 1983, managing directors on statutory five year contracts from 1983):Harold Williams 1932-33;Walter Conder 1933-35; Sir Charles Moses 1935-65; Sir Talbot Duckmanton 1965-82; Keith Jennings 1982-83; Geoffrey Whitehead 1984-86; David Hill 1986-94; Brian Johns 1995-2000; Jonathan Shier 2000-01; Russell Balding 2001-06; Mark Scott 2006-2016; Michelle Guthrie 2016-2018; David Anderson (acting) 2018. 

   The longevity in management of Moses and Duckmanton (in total 47 years) was attributed to their leadership, authority  and consequent political survival skills.   Both were broadcasters in their early careers. With corporatisation from 1983 came greater concern about politicisation both from the former political connections of some of  the appointed chief  executives and some contentious board appointments by both the Australian Labor Party  and Liberal-National Coalition federal governments.  In 2012 an amendment to the ABC Act prescribing  board appointments through what was called an arm’s length short-listed merit selection process was carried.  The amendment also re-instated the staff-elected director position which had prevailed in the ABC Act from 1983 to 2006. The staff-elected director position, this time with a five year statutory term, was filled through an Australian Electoral Commission ballot in 2013.    The ABC’s governance and management objective has been to strive to maintain good relations with the federal Minister responsible for the ABC Act, particularly through the triennial funding negotiations  since 1983. The biggest recurrent cost is payroll, taking about 70 percent of the annual appropriation. Operational base funding of all ABC services (not including analogue and digital transmission costs)  peaked at $1.05billion in 1985-86, dropping to a low of $675million in 1997-98 before trending upwards to $800million by 2011-12.  This represents a reduction in real terms of 24.4% from the peak funding period.  The ABC’s staffing rose to a peak of  more than 7000 in 1985 and fell through various budget-driven  restructures  to a low of 4200 by 1999  rising through more recent budget enhancement to 4600 by 2010-11.  Around half the staff work in Sydney leading to consistent complaints about the institution’s ‘Sydney centrism’.  The ABC structures its services to provide branded ‘bridges’ to audiences: Radio National, Classic FM, News Radio, Local Radio, Digital Radio,  Triple J, ABC Online, ABC Open, ABC iView, ABC 1, ABC 2, News 24, ABC 3. Radio Australia, Australia Network and ABC Shop.  On radio ‘market’ penetration through all outlets  was reported to be 23.6% by 2010. On television   the ABC’s five city metropolitan prime time (6 pm to midnight) share of audience was reported at 16.5 %, with 17.7% in regional markets.  ABC Online had a monthly reach of 3.5 million internet users with 56.5 million podcasts (audio) and 15 million vodcasts (video). Australia Network reported an estimated audience of 31 million ‘can see’ homes in 45 countries. ABC Commercial reported a net profit of $7.9million.  ABC shops and centres, an expanding retail network since 1983, were to be disrupted through the digital revolution and were closed from 2014, being replaced by online sales of programs and products.  


   The future strategic role of the ABC in Australia’s media is being re-defined in the years following the federal government’s  2011-12 ‘convergence review’. The review was prompted by technological advancement in mass communications which is said to merge broadcasting, computing and the internet and which  ‘smashes’  national boundaries. With optic fibre-to-the-premises rolling out through a National Broadband Network, audiences will be able to watch, listen and engage with content from any global source with almost limitless capacity. Two issues  confront the ABC:  its role in sustaining a sense of national identity and the adequacy  of operational base funding with which to do,  with high standards,  all the tasks a multi-platform strategy would require  of it.  

* This is an extended and updated version of Quentin Dempster’s contribution to A Companion to the Australian Media  (published in 2014 by Australian Scholarly Publishing, edited by Bridget Griffen-Foley) and re-published here with kind permission.  

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