ABC International today operates on a budget of $11 million per year, estimated to be less than a third of pre-2014 levels. It has a staff of 38 who work mainly in media development programs for the Pacific region, and sometimes parts of Asia, and a small number who manage and administer its various international broadcast channels (radio and TV) as well as wide-ranging digital content activity. ABC International management and staff have been committed to keeping the ABC and Australia relevant in the Asia-Pacific region, but its resources are manifestly inadequate for the complex and crucial task of reaching a potential audience of more than three billion people.
ABC’s Current International Reach
By Claire M Gorman, Head ABC International Services / 13 September 2021
On 20 December 1939, just after the start of World War II, Robert Menzies launched Radio Australia with the words: “The time has come to speak for ourselves”. I have these opening remarks saved on my desktop. Every so often I play this 30-second audio time capsule, to remind myself of the 80-year investment that the ABC has made in speaking to audiences across the world on behalf of the people of Australia.
We have little information on who the audience was back then, although we know the shortwave broadcasts boomed around the globe in languages chosen as a result of the conflict of the time. These days we know a lot more.
Our international audiences are in the millions and, in these rapidly evolving times, they are in the regions and countries we target due to their great geostrategic importance to Australia.
Our 2020 results have just been finalised and they tell us that each month, through ABC Australia (our TV network), ABC Radio Australia and ABC websites and apps we reached an estimated total of 15 million unique overseas audiences (i.e., the number of individuals who accessed our output, not including revisits). Of this, across the Pacific each month we reached approximately 1.5 million people and this includes 14 per cent of the adult population in Papua New Guinea. We know that we reached almost 5 million people per month in Asia. These and the more granular results for ABC Australia and ABC Radio Australia and our digital products tell me we are on the right track in executing our charter mandate. (These results do not include audiences reached through third-party platforms including YouTube, social media platforms and syndication partners. Results are an extrapolation from figures drawn from studies in multiple Indo-Pacific countries including the Ipsos Affluent Asia Survey, the Tebbutt Media Survey, and from Google Analytics. Populations are estimates only.)
But it will come as no surprise to this readership that the ABC has the capacity to do more to reach audiences in the Indo Pacific region and I know from recent conversations with members of the Alumni that you will support us in the quest to convince key stakeholders to provide funding and support for needed expansion.
I want to take this opportunity to provide you with some detail about our current international broadcasting activities as we move through these challenging times.
Across the Pacific and Timor-Leste, ABC Radio has a monthly listenership of at least 407,000. Through our FM service in 13 of the most populous locations across the Pacific and in Timor Leste, we strive to inform, entertain and engage urban and peri urban citizens as they drive their cars, on their mobile handsets (which are often equipped with FM receivers in this region) and on their radios at home.
We continue to examine ways in which we can reach more geographically isolated audiences with content. We have syndicated our in-language (Tok Pisin/Solomons Pidgin/Bislama) news and current affairs program Wantok to Radio New Zealand (RNZ) and they take it on their shortwave service which is heard in the remotest locations across the Pacific. We also share Wantok and our other daily news and current affairs program Pacific Beat with partners such as PNG’s NBC provincial services. In addition, we continue to make the case to Government to expand Radio Australia’s FM footprint.
Alongside this, our International Development team works with local media and broadcasters to build and strengthen their own transmission capacity, in order to take home grown media and stories to populations in remote and urban regions. This is best practice development assistance for countries in need.
We have had some very encouraging recent success in bringing in funding from DFAT to create a new Pacific focussed sports program for ABC Radio Australia (Can You Be More Pacific). It builds on our existing bespoke programming for our Pacific radio audiences which includes comprehensive coverage of Pacific news and current affairs (delivered in English and through the in-language Wantok program) produced by ABC’s dedicated, specialist Pacific team in the Asia Pacific Newsroom in Melbourne.
After securing the radio rights for NRL coverage in the region last year, we now position the network as the home of NRL in the Pacific. As well, we have commissioned the ground-breaking Pacific women’s issues program Sistas Let’s Talk. We run education content for pre-school and early primary students in Pacific Playtime and a Pacific focussed music show Island Music.
We have also been successful in securing DFAT funding to create a pan Pacific TV sports show – That Pacific Sports Show. Produced in Sydney, featuring presenters with Pacific heritage, the show examines the experiences of Pacific sports women and men in Australia and across the region, with local crews in-country commissioned to produce and film stories from the various Pacific nations. Run in prime time on ABC Australia and featured in ABC Australia iview, we also share it with our Pacific public broadcast partners and it has a domestic run on the ABC and on iview.
The news and current affairs content of ABC Australia showcases Australian values and perspectives, and covers international stories through the flagship program The World, produced out of the Asia Pacific Newsroom in Melbourne. To complement this, we want to create content for our Indo Pacific audiences which tells compelling stories that: depict our contemporary multi-cultural Australian life; examine and critique Australian society; feature Indigenous Australia’s culture, life and history; and display the geography and natural history of our country.
We have been successful in pitching for funding from DFAT for a range of special episodes for our ABC Australia and ABC Australia iview audiences of Landline, Backroads, Gardening Australia and Catalyst. We also obtained DFAT funding to create the compelling and very entertaining ‘digital first’ series Chopsticks or Fork (comprising 6 episodes x 15 mins each).
In addition, we acquire content from across the commercial production sector in Australia and from SBS and NITV, and search for high quality kids shows from within the ABC and from the commercial and independent production sectors.
Where funding permits, we invest in and commission content which examines important and topical stories for the region. We have recently reached an agreement with ABC’s News division to contribute to the next series of China Tonight, which will have a particular focus on the geopolitical issues extant and emerging for countries across the Indo Pacific given the increasing muscularity of China in this region. Across Asia and the Pacific, ABC Australia has a monthly viewership of over 2.1 million.
In addition to this, we are looking at the digital future and what it means to be an international public broadcaster as media habits change and on demand increasingly dominates. As we are the only international public broadcaster with a video on demand platform (ABC Australia iview) available to global audiences, we are in a unique position to move forward on this key challenge of our time. Other international broadcasters are utilising social digital distribution platforms, but we think it’s important to have our own service to further build brand awareness of the ABC in the region. .
Alongside these bigger broadcast activities, we have a range of bespoke activities.
We produce and distribute a suite of digital content for English language learners and we run the ABC Learn English Facebook page which has approximately 5.5 million followers.
We create Chinese language content for audiences in mainland China and diaspora communities across the region through Weibo and We Chat. This content looks to reflect Australian life, culture and values and is designed to complement the ABC Chinese (Mandarin) news output at abc.net.au/news/chinese and ABC Chinese Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
We continue to amplify the ABC’s Bahasa Indonesia digital news content, abc.net.au/news/indonesian, through syndication deals with Indonesian digital media platforms which means this content reaches millions of readers in the archipelago, on partner platforms including Detik, Kompas and Tempo.
And as mentioned previously, we produce our Tok Pisin language program Wantokand support ABC’s Tok Pisin online news service in PNG, abc.net.au/news/tok-pisin.
We also seek to use social media to distribute our content. Facebook is the de facto internet for people across the Pacific and recognising this we have resourced our ABC Radio Australia Facebook as a standalone distribution channel taking a range of content including news and current affairs stories, re-purposed and re-versioned, from the Pacific news team in Melbourne. This channel also carries content produced specially for it from our other bespoke Pacific shows. It is very encouraging for us that ABC Radio Australia Facebook regularly reaches up to one million people per week and we are working at growing that audience.
We have used ABC Radio Australia Facebook, along with the radio network, to address information needs across the Pacific during the COVID 19 pandemic. Our aim is to support the welfare of our neighbours and to counter misinformation and vaccine hesitancy. Alongside our broadcast and distribution efforts, the ABC’s International Development unit continues to support Pacific broadcasters to keep their journalists safe and citizens informed. This remains important as the crisis continues in Fiji and PNG’s vulnerability to the Delta strain is exacerbated by an extreme rate of vaccine hesitancy.
I have only briefly mentioned our ABC International Development team and the work they do across the region in this piece. They are the quiet achievers of the ABC. Conducting journalism training and media development activities has not been easy during a global pandemic, but they continue to forge vital people-to-people links in their activities. This unit also has the potential to do more to support regional media to counter disinformation and to build capacity to produce news and current affairs coverage which adheres to the recognised standards of objective journalism. A great example of the work this team is doing can be heard in thePacific Prepared program. This is a ground breaking regional co-production which is shared with the participating radio networks across the Pacific and it is aired on ABC Radio Australia.
We could, of course, do more with more investment. On an ongoing basis the ABC refines and develops potential content and distribution initiatives that we could roll out if more funding were made available. From the Chair and the Managing Director down we continue our advocacy work with both the Departmental and Ministerial levels of the Government.
The ABC’s international services are significant and highly valued. They are essential assets that serve the national interest at a time of increasing instability in the region. We are the only multiplatform media organisation in the country that has already established distribution channels and audiences across the Indo Pacific region. We are known and trusted by our neighbours, with an 80-plus year history, and we have the ability to support and develop media organisations and journalists’ skills across the region.
The strong support of ABC Alumni to promote our activities now, and our potential to do more, is acknowledged and greatly appreciated. I look forward to continuing to work with the Alumni to strengthen the ABC’s role in the region.
When Politics Fail: The folly of Australia’s international media strategy – Helen Grasswill
Facing a World in Disarray – Geoff Heriot