ABC Trouble Lies in Culture Resistant To Change

By Thomas Murrell MBA, CSP International Business Speaker

This article was originally published in the West Australian newspaper in November 2000.

The future of the ABC is again in the spotlight as the broadcaster faces further budget cuts. But as Thomas Murrell* argues the challenges facing the ABC are more than just about money.

The recent announcement that ABC Managing Director Jonathan Shier is to cut $3.7 million from its news budget has generated a predictable response from both politicians and staff.

Our public leaders have strongly complained that regional and rural areas will suffer while staff plan stop work meetings and supporters organise public rallies.

In reality the issue is not about money. It's about work practices, attitudes and public perception.

I was in the privileged position to spend what I call a "12-year apprenticeship" with the ABC working on the editorial side as a reporter, presenter and executive producer but also spending 6 years in a management role as a Senior Executive.

Internal ABC Culture

It gave me a unique insight into the internal machinations of the ABC and how different and varied parts of the organisation worked.

This was reinforced during my last 12 months at the public broadcaster when I had the opportunity during yet another restructure to manage both ABC Radio's Regional network and the Perth metropolitan station, 720 6WF.

Even within the same building - work practices, attitudes and morale was vastly different. I remember one meeting relatively early in my management career when the newly appointed national marketing manager flew across from Sydney to address local staff.

Typically held in one of those ABC meeting rooms deep within the Adelaide Terrace bunker with mission brown walls, grey carpet and cheap partitioning, this particular marketing manager delivered a range of new, fresh and different marketing ideas to the group.

He was from a successful commercial network and you would have thought a group of program makers would embrace ways to increase the number of sets of ears listening to them. But no, the attitude was of deep cynicism, mistrust and outright rejection of any new ways of thinking.

In fact this was just one example of the deep-rooted internal culture of the ABC that is immensely resistant to change.

So is the ABC overstaffed or under funded?

If you are a presenter used to having four support staff and you're cut down to two then you need more resources.

But if you're a politician and you go to a press conference and you see 9 people from the ABC there then you probably have the perception the ABC is overstaffed.

Let me give you an example of a media event I've been to where there has been an ABC cast of thousands. Three from ABC TV news, three from ABC TV current affairs, one from radio news, one from radio current affairs and one from a specialist radio department.

And then the politician turns around and does a phone interview with the local ABC morning radio program. What do you think their view of the ABC is going to be?

In fact during a time of shrinking ABC budgets some may wonder why the local Perth ABC radio station doubles it's on air staffing going from one breakfast presenter to two.

Doing More With Less

Sure the ABC has trimmed down over the years. In fact to highlight how much harder journalists are working these days with less resources, I give my own personal story during media training workshops I run where I share an insiders view of how the media works.

In 1988, when I came to Perth with the ABC I was appointed to the position of Rural Reporter Grade 3. In those days there were 7 people working on the Country Hour radio program. Today it's two and in fact I was in at the ABC studios recently doing an interview and it was down to just one person.

A lot of the changes over the past 10 years have been due to shifts in technology and work practices. But the fact still remains the same that two people instead of seven now put an hour-long program to air.

So there have been enormous changes. But it's the public perception of the ABC that politicians see at media conferences that shapes their thinking.

They also travel around Australia and observe how lean some of the regional centres operate.

If you visit the ABC studios in Kununurra you'll see the ABC broadcasts daily across the Kimberley from one of the bedrooms in a house it owns. Remote locations breed independent thought and action.

Maybe this is what doing more with less means?

Having worked in regional and rural Australia you soon learn quickly how to be resourceful.

As a rural reporter based in regional Australia it was standard practice to get the most out of each radio story. You would take a local angle for your own regional breakfast show, take a Statewide angle for the State program, a national one for the whole network, a news grab for the newsroom and then voice the story with another grab for a later news bulletin.

Jonathon Shier might be wondering why the whole of the ABC doesn't work like this?

Change As An Opportunity

The problem within the ABC is the clash between an internal public service driven culture and the need for creativity and different ways of thinking.

I was fortunate in the latter part of my ABC career to be exposed to outside ideas by doing an MBA at the University of Western Australia and learning from leading management thinkers like Professor Andre' Morkel at the Graduate School of Management.

It taught me the value of seeing change as an opportunity. The value of setting benchmarks, targets and being accountable.

It may not have helped mould me into the traditional ABC way of thinking but it did allow me to see how other organisations operate and also how the media is a growth area - expanding, dynamic and interesting.

I now share my experiences with audiences throughout Australia and Asia and while Jonathan Shier battles with budget cuts his challenge will be to deal with change and overcome the internal attitude barriers within the ABC.

* Thomas Murrell is an international business speaker and media consultant. He spent 12 years with the ABC, the last 6 as a Senior Executive in a management role. Visit his website for more.