When the government dealt more than $300 million in insidious cuts to our local public broadcasters, I was on a plane in flying across another country. Although I was in a different time zone as the repercussions for the ABC and SBS unfolded, I was running on Australian time. Fuelled by sorrow and rage, I followed the announcement of the cuts through the magic of Wi-Fi in the sky and the Guardian’s blow-by-blow blog.
By the time I landed in San Francisco, it was abundantly and devastatingly clear: the ABC and SBS were victims of a targeted attack. The cuts were sweeping and deep, with wide-ranging consequences for employees, the media community and the Australian population generally. As Chris Warren of MEAA stated, ‘[t]he minuscule savings [the Coalition] got in terms of the scale of the budget they’re dealing with is really not worth the loss to Australian culture, democracy and society that flows from there.’
Brazenly breaking hearts and election promises, Abbott further inspired rage with his insouciant description of the cuts as ‘an efficiency dividend’ . It was a disheartening day all round. The saccharine adage ‘distance makes the heart grow fonder’ is partially true here – my cerebral outrage is strong enough, but my current physical absence from Australia has definitely strengthened my sentimental streak.
Like most Australians, the ABC and SBS have directly impacted my life. Aunty has been a particularly formative force, and earlier this year I hosted a panel Exploring the ABC at the Emerging Writers’ Festival. As writers are wont to do, we got hella nostalgic. With the exception of one panellist who spoke to the virtues of the ABC as a quintessential local news source, the rest of us spent the time fondly recalling how the ABC has shaped our lives for the better.
As a young TV nut, ABC Kids played a huge part in my upbringing. Even before its dedicated digital channels , ABC Kids programming was ever-present during the early morning hours and after school snacking time. As an 80s/90s child, I can still recite the opening to Super Ted, possibly the lamest go-to ‘party trick’ in the world. I often call out ‘Burke, Feed Me’ when I’m hungry (in reference to Trap Door) and believe the predilection for backpacks many twentysomethings still exhibit is born of our connection to the slightly creepy, definitely surreal afterschool program Lift Off. I will never find the words to thank Benita and John from Play School for teaching me invaluable lessons, catchy tunes and maybe, if I’m honest, how to hold scissors properly. Nor Mr Squiggle for the laughs and inspiring my love of art, despite an otherwise sports-obsessed suburban upbringing which tried to sway me away from creative pursuits.
The cuts to the ABC feel personal because my – and our – relationship with the ABC is personal and familial. I have distinct memories of my uncle babysitting my cousins and I, revelling in our reaction to a clip of claymation dogs performing an a capella version of Credence Clearwater’s ‘Down on the Corner’ during ABC kids programming hours. Being as cool as I was (and still remain), I would stay in on Saturday nights to watch The Bill with my mum.
Even when I found my social legs in my late-teen years, the ABC was still there. I fondly (but vaguely) recall watching Rage in the early hours with friends, swaying and straining to keep my stoned eyes on the latest You Am I music video and trying not to be the first one to pass out (I was always the first one to pass out). To this very day, ABC Radio National and ABC News 24 remain my go-to news source. SBS is feeling the impact of these major cuts, too (let’s not get started on how formative SBS was to my budding sexuality…). But the giant, $245 million slashed from ABC funding are a sting we’re all feeling.
While kids programming isn’t necessarily bearing the brunt of the Coalition’s drastic measures, ABC Kids was, from a young age, the conduit to my developing kinship with our national broadcaster. ABC Kids established the setting for all the educational and entertaining content I would continue to consume as an adult on the network’s radio stations, digital channels and more recently via iView. Over the years, the ABC has stood as a symbol of quality and diversity. It is renowned as a home for voices which, although not part of mainstream entertainment, are no less significant. The ABC provides a platform for the expression of multiple voices, one which is uninfected by the pervasive advertising concerns which dictate content on commercial channels. These significant programs demonstrate our diverse national culture. It’s grim to consider that future generations might not have access to them.
This may seem sentimental, but from my humble beginnings watching kids’ programming, I learnt that ‘Your ABC’ was indeed, our ABC. Through high quality, varied programming, the broadcaster promotes a sense of inclusivity on a national scale. The protests and public outcry which followed this week’s announcement of cuts to the ABC further demonstrate its crucial role in fostering a sense of community for Australians. To reimagine my childhood without ABC Kids, my adolescence without focused arts coverage or my adulthood without ABC news is to reimagine my life entirely. And as strongly as I connected to the kids’ programming, others will have established connections with the ABC’s unique coverage of women’s sports, or the regional voices on Radio National’s Bush Telegraph. These are just two of the recently axed programs, with others likely to follow. The sad reality is that the local media landscape, which is so formative for many Australians, may be entering a period of irrevocable change.