Sunday, July 01, 2007

ABC turns 75 today

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation celebrated its 75th birthday today by opening the doors of its Sydney studios to the public. Roads around the Ultimo studio were closed off to accommodate large crowds with concerts, talks and tours planned for the day. Many of ABC’s personalities, real and invented, will be on hand for this rare open day.

The ABC began as a series of radio stations in 1932. Australia was in the middle of the Great Depression with unemployment close to 30 per cent. Radio was a cheap entertainment for the masses. The medium itself started in Australia ten years earlier with ‘sealed set’ (pdf) radios tuned to only the frequency that consumers paid for. Unsurprisingly, this closed system proved unpopular and was quickly scrapped. In any case, it was quite easy to avoid the licence fee by building a set or modifying one to receive more than one station. A 1927 Royal Commission followed a similar enquiry in Britain (which led to the formation of the BBC in 1926) and recommended a national broadcasting service. In 1929 the Government nationalised the transmission facilities and contracted the provision of programming to the Australian Broadcasting Company a consortium of entertainment interests. This company was nationalised in 1932 by the Australian Broadcasting Commission Act. Although only a third of Australians owned radio sets, the new medium quick took off.

At 8pm on 1 July 1932, Prime Minister Joseph Lyons launched the Australian Broadcasting Commission. Lyons said the purpose of the ABC was to “provide information and entertainment, culture and gaiety ... to satisfy the diversified tastes of the public”. It began with 12 radio stations inherited from the semi-private Australian Broadcasting Company, who began transmission under the new banner. Sydney and Melbourne had two stations each and the others were at Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth, Hobart, Newcastle, Corowa, Rockhampton and Crystal Brook (SA). The ABC was funded by radio listeners' licences (TV and radio licence fees were finally dropped in the 1970s).

The opening day programs included a children’s program, horseracing from Randwick in Sydney, British Wireless News received by cable from London, weather, stock exchange and shipping news, the ABC Women's Association session (topics were 'commonsense housekeeping' and needlecraft), a talk on goldfish care, morning devotions, and music.

Unlike goldfish, local news was not high on the new stations agenda. The press barons led by Keith Murdoch (Rupert’s father) had enormous power at the time. Murdoch’s Herald and Weekly Times also had significant commercial radio interests. Newspaper owners were initially wary about the impact of the new public medium especially fearful of its potential news coverage. Murdoch lobbied Lyons to stop the ABC from setting up an independent news service. Throughout the 1930s, the press maintained a stranglehold on local news while the ABC took a feed from the BBC.

However the ABC slowly began to grow its news expertise. It hired its first journalist in 1934 and its first federal news editor in 1936. When World War II started, strict censorship was imposed and even weather forecasts were stopped for several months. In 1940, the Department of Information, under the control of the ABC’s old foe Keith Murdoch took control of the nightly news. But listeners complained and the ABC regained control of the news after three months. The ABC bulletins had gained a reputation for authority and independence, and from 1942 onwards they were broadcast nationally. The ABC was now recognised as an essential part of the nation's infrastructure. By the end of the war, the ABC had a string of local correspondents in the Asia Pacific region. These included ABC journalist John Elliott who was killed in action in Borneo by friendly fire.

In 1947, the ABC's independent national news service was inaugurated. It was expanded further with the beginning of television in 1956. It is now the largest, most comprehensive, independent news gathering body in Australia with full-time staff correspondents around the world. The organisation has a reputation for accuracy although has often been accused of bias by governments of all persuasion. The current government have been particularly active in accusing the ABC of ‘left wing bias’. It has abolished staff board position while stacking the board with its own supporters such as Ron Brunton, Janet Albrechtsen and Keith Windshuttle.

The board’s chair is Mark Scott. Scott is a former Liberal Party staffer and was appointed chair in 2005 aged just 42 after resigning as editorial director at Fairfax. Scott denies he is a creature of the Howard government saying “I have a cordial, nodding relationship I suppose with the Prime Minister and the minister, but no more than that.”

Although not overtly rating conscious, he leads an organisation that remains healthy. ABC prime-time household share is 17.5 per cent (up from 16.3 per cent for the same period last year). Scott’s main task now is to meet the challenge of the coming digital age. He believes the ABC is already a player in this sector. "Nobody in Australia or even the world produces as much original podcasting content that is regularly updated as the ABC does," he said. "We have two million downloads every four weeks.

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