Retaining Relevance in the Digital Era

John Tranter, one of Australia’s most prolific and gifted living poets wrote a poem based on another poem by Hölderlin, the German lyric poet.

Called After Hölderlin, an honest and unambiguous enough title, it sets out the story of someone who is spending his lunch hour away from the factory or the office, in a beer garden. Dreaming.

Sitting there among the bees and breezes, sets off a longing in him for “a library loose with rare volumes or a movie theatre’s satisfying gloom”, some place where he might simply surrender to what he read or saw on the screen.

Being alive was not enough, he needed more. To live imaginatively. “Growing up among the complicated stories” he said, “these dreams were my teachers.”

For the ABC, this is what our involvement with the arts is all about. To help Australians engage imaginatively with their lives in this way, to meet that yearning for something beyond the day to day. To experience those dreams that are our teachers.

And I realise I’m risking the wrath of the Australian Hotels Association – but not everyone should have to go to a beer garden for that experience.

The Australia Council and similar cultural bodies throughout the country share that part of the job description with the ABC. For all of us, it’s part of the institutional DNA. It’s that sense of shared purpose – to enlarge and enliven the quotidian life, by bringing artists to audiences – that’s brought us here today.

A little later I’ll take you through a presentation of some of the ways in which connecting Australians with all kinds of content, including the arts, is being continually transformed at the ABC.

We’re at a point where we’re bridging the analog and digital worlds, not just technologically

but culturally. A great flowering of creative activity has been made possible through digital media. And at the ABC, we celebrate that new creativity and imagination just as we do the old. Digital media has also given us new ways to connect the public with Australia’s arts, to extend the reach of work that matters so much to so many.

There’s more activity, and there’s more accessibility. The question for the ABC – as it is for
those of you involved in marketing the arts – is how to negotiate this shifting landscape, to
reshape what we do for a digital society. We’re asking old questions for this new world: what
should we keep? What should we leave behind?

While the ABC has, of course, multiple audiences, I often talk about a phenomenon we call the “bifurcating audience”.

On the one hand plenty of traditional ABC viewers and listeners are happy to have TV or radio bring them something they can just sit back and enjoy.

Meanwhile, there’s a growing audience that wants something more. They want to collaborate, comment, participate, create – and digital media has given them the means and

the habit for this. The phrase “It’s your ABC” doesn’t haunt us – it’s come to life with new meaning.

And as the National Broadband Network expands throughout the country, I can see it enabling a new wave of cultural expression from regional Australia. Projects like ABC Open are going to tap into this transformative potential, and bring the digital storytelling with new insights into regional life to the rest of the country.

It’s an exciting prospect, like so many of the prospects of the digital era. This need not be the age of anxiety. If there is a lesson to be learned from the music industry, it’s this: digital media is full of opportunities, but if you miss them, or if someone responds more creatively and beats you to it – as Apple did with iTunes for instance – digital can turn out to be your graveyard.

At the ABC, we’re ensuring we don’t miss our opportunities. We won’t leave the traditional media audience behind, but are determinedly reaching out to and building tomorrow’s ABC audience who have different expectations of us. This involves some creative risk. As everyone here knows, sometimes you’ve got to kiss a lot of frogs before you find the prince. The future of the screen – whether the television, the computer, the mobile or the digital radio screen – belongs to this audience.

The ABC was long synonymous with Australian cultural aspiration, the kind of people we wanted to be. Historically, there was no parallel to the authority and influence it exerted on Australia’s perception of the arts.

Now, in a very different media landscape, it may not be possible to emulate the influence we once had, or even aspire to it.

But while the world may have changed, the job remains the same. The ABC Charter asks us to “encourage and promote the musical, dramatic and performing arts”, to offer programs that are both “specialist” and “of wide appeal”.

That means a great range, a diversity in which we find pop and opera, poetry and painting – graffiti and the gallery – opera, theatre, movies and games. Each enriches our lives in some way, there’s a lot of creative energy around, and the ABC is privileged to be able to present such a kaleidoscopic picture of it.

Radio National has a vigorous, vital presence in the arts. It’s doing the heavy lifting daily, helping us come to grips with the vast range of Australian cultural expression and those conversations around it that add to our understanding and appreciation.

It presents the only daily program about books and writing in the world. Last year alone, RN featured the work of 90 Australian poets, the short stories and novels of 40 Australian writers and 25 new Australian plays. I knew ABC Radio had been at this for a long time, but even I was surprised to learn recently that long before we had an independent news service in radio, we had a drama department.

Radio National is currently in discussion with the Australia Council on two important arts projects. One will open a door to the past, the other a door to the future.

Radio National is exploring the possibility of releasing archived ABC Radio recordings, by Australian writers and actors, to make them available to a wide audience via digital download.

RN is also looking at ways of expanding on the success of the Ian Reed Foundation Writers in Residence program with a similar program leveraging its experience and history in radio drama. In the same way that triplej has for many years been Unearthing new musical talent, RN will look to set up a program where editorial guidance and encouragement for emerging drama writers can be provided, a stepping stone in what they hope will be some distinguished Australian writing careers. But more on this later this year.

We continue to reflect a restless, energetic Australian culture. We talk about it and analyse it, firstly on the ABC, from where this ABC content then travels rapidly through social media. We’re quite happy to see our content run on own networks and these parallel social networks as well. As you will see later, this is where more and more people are spending more and more time, so we’re doing everything we can to make sure ABC content is seamlessly available within them.

And if we looked at arts coverage on ABC TV over the past fifty years as a slowly moving mobile, you would be sure to get a glimpse of every significant moment in Australian artistic and cultural life over that half century.

The arts on ABCTV used to be as much a fixture of Sunday afternoon life as the footie. You made your appointment. Today however, arts content is dispersed across all channels and all platforms.

Of course you can still make your appointment and watch Fenella Kernebone each Sunday at 5.30 with the half-hour arts magazine program Art Nation.

This program is both culturally and geographically diverse, with home grown and international talent, classic art forms and cutting edge ones too. Emerging artists across regional and rural Australia are given exposure.

The article was published at Retaining Relevance in the Digital Era.

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