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The real issue with ABC radio

By Terry Ryan - posted Thursday, 5 March 2020


There is a substantial debate about the ABC primarily on its political and cultural perspectives. As it is a taxpayer funded organisation there are arguments that it should be neutral in its political and cultural perspectives. Different political groups and their supporters take different views on whether it is biased.

However there is a more fundamental issue that our Ministers, shadow Ministers and appropriate Government departments, Treasury and Finance in particular, are not addressing or even mentioning. Taxpayer revenues are always limited and should be diverted to addressing problems and requirements which deliver the most efficient outcome from the limited taxpayer resources available.

There is an inbuilt inertia in governments reviewing policies and programs that may have been appropriate in the past but become redundant or unnecessary because of technological and other changes in society.

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Taxpayer-funded institutions like their appropriations and generally seek more on the basis that they are providing some form of public good. Rarely is there a review to consider whether the conditions that existed for the creation of these institutions still apply.

A review of the ABC should consider whether all its activities are still appropriate. Leaving aside the political bickerings of bias, a review should consider whether taxpayers are funding roles that are already adequately provided in the private sector whether commercially or mutually.

A simple overview of roles ABC radio has taken on indicate that many do not add value but inhibit or reduce the private provision of services that do not need to be funded by taxpayers. I will not comment on the political views or discuss their major metropolitan and national news networks.

The pop music networks.The ABC presents pop music on its J networks. I cannot identify any failure or problem in the market for radio provision of pop music. Why does the taxpayer have to fund this service?

The classical music networks. There was a voluntary classical music FM network operating before FM stations were commercially available for any kind of music. The ABC entered the space of providing this music where there was no identifiable market failure. Disappointment with the performance of the ABC network has led to the creation of multiple voluntary classical music stations in Australia. There may be issues in providing access in regional areas to these stations. This could be rectified by small subsidies or facilitating transmission or contractual arrangements with existing broadcast networks. The service could be readily provided without the need for the major overhead of a fully taxpayer funded ABC network with its staff and capital requirements.

Emergency station role. In times of floods, fires and other emergencies, the local ABC stations have been given the task of being responsible for the provision of information. They have done this well in the case of the metropolitan stations such as with the Canberra bushfire in 2003 and the 2018 Heathcote bushfire near Sydney. However 4 weeks before the Heathcote bushfire there was the Tathra bushfire in regional southern NSW. The local ABC radio station broadcast the football match and did not cover their emergency role for the bushfire. Metropolitan stations appear to have more resources and capability to fulfil the emergency station role effectively. However, regional stations appear not to have the necessary capabilities and resources.

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There has been the development of a possible alternative emergency station role in regional areas. Community radio stations, voluntarily run, are expanding across rural and regional Australia. They are run by locals who are well connected and have substantial local knowledge. They are volunteers who will help the region and in times of emergency would have greater resources and connections than the local ABC station. There may be some additional costs such as signage on roads informing visitors the frequency of the emergency station in the area they are entering.

Using community radio stations could provide greater resources and more effectiveness in this crucial role in rural and regional Australia. The ABC should not have a monopoly on this service especially in rural and regional areas.

The Expenditure Review Committee of Cabinet should use this as an example of the need to review all expenditure programs to ascertain whether there is a continuing requirement for these expenditures of taxpayer funds.

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About the Author

Terry Ryan is an independent economic analyst.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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