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Why our airwaves create a valuable public space

Radio National's unique ability to foster the arts needs protecting, Beth Spencer writes.

Imagine a country in which, no matter where you lived, there was a public space just down the road, easily accessible, well-lit and safe, food available, your favourite drinks on hand, and excellent chairs. Or if you liked, you could bring some chores to do to keep your hands busy while you enjoyed the show, or even lie on the floor and do your daily exercises.

Imagine if in this space there was a constantly changing program of performances, talks, lectures, theatre and music by some of the best writers, sound-artists, actors, thinkers and storytellers, not just in this country, but from around the world. And that the staff at this public space were experienced and skilled at nurturing new talent, as well as bringing out the best from the more experienced.

Imagine that this was all funded by taxes, and so entry was free!

And it was never sold out. You could turn up two minutes before or even late and still get one of the best seats. No matter how remote from cities you lived, how old or frail or disabled or young you were, how many children you had to care for, how little money you had, you were still able to be a part of that grand collective pulse, witnessing and breathing life into a new work by your combined attention. And if you coughed, or were ill or came in your pyjamas or had to leave early, no one minded.

If, like most of us, you were too busy to attend this space every single time there was something on, would you feel it was a waste to have it exist? Or would you be glad that at least some members of your community were being enriched and inspired and moved and expanded by participating in these events? Would you be glad that it was there for you, and your children, when you did want to make use of it?

ABC Radio National arts and features is such a space.

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And it is currently in the process of being judged to be too great a luxury by the ABC management, with experienced staff being retrenched, long-running, flagship and innovative programs being axed, and remaining staff expected to produce more with less - inevitably reducing the quality and diversity in myriad ways.

Recently there has been a huge debate in the mediasphere over whether we want to have a public space that enables the kind of invective and misinformation promulgated by the likes of Alan Jones on 2GB - served up every day and funded via the invisible advertising tax we pay on a wide range of products.

However, there is little debate or discussion occurring around this sudden decision to gut arts and features at Radio National. (Partly because, unlike Jones, ABC staff are prohibited from even talking about this or letting their listeners know what is going on.)

It seems that the cost of supporting Alan Jones to be on the air is around $500,000 per week (or at least that is what is claimed is being lost in revenue with advertisers refusing to be associated with - that is, refusing to fund - his show).

The annual savings expected from this drastic slash and burn at Radio National is $1 million, or two weeks of Alan Jones's funding.

As a percentage of the population - or compared with the ratings of shock jocks like Jones - the ratings for any one episode of the Radio National arts and features programs look ridiculously low.

But just because both forms of entertainment come out of the same little box in your house or car, is it valid to compare them?

What if instead of comparing RN arts programs to other radio ratings, we compared them to other arts delivery methods, and to arts audience numbers in general?

An audience of 40,000 for a theatre performance, for instance, in a bricks-and-mortar space would be considered extraordinary, especially if it toured around the country to provide equity of access to all Australians, and even went overseas. But imagine the cost of such a show - and hence the price of the tickets - and the government subsidies required to keep entry remotely affordable.

On another level, imagine the cost of sending in actors to read to people who are housebound, or sit beside people in their cars, so they can all share together in the one story over a number of weeks and feel inspired and connected?

Or the cost of organising writers, artists, sound engineers and performers from right across the nation to produce and deliver innovative sound and word performances each week - to be, effectively, in the same room, engaging in a ''conversation'' with each other's work?

Through programs such as The Night Air, The Book Reading, Airplay, Creative Instinct and Sunday Story (all slated for the chop) - plus programs that have disappeared in previous purges (The Book Show, Soundstage, The Listening Room, etc) - Radio National has been a significant nurturer of talent in Australia.

What is going to happen when this infusion of support and this unique culture of distribution and engagement is gone?

While there is definitely room for discussion and debate around how best to use resources, there is no doubt that radio is an excellent and cost-effective mechanism for the production and delivery of quality performative and literary arts across our very wide and diverse land.

The benefits of fostering imagination, storytelling and creativity within a culture are incalculable; the long-term costs of choosing to save a million dollars in this way, unimaginable.

Beth Spencer is a freelance writer who blogs at www.bethspencer.com.