not as easy as ABC

Representing what for many is the pinnacle of their careers, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) has traditionally had little difficulty in attracting the talent it needs. The harder challenge is how to live up to the high expectations of the Australian people and the standards set in the broadcaster’s charter. We asked Samantha Liston, Director of ABC People, to explain how the Corporation’s employment practices seek to uphold these values, their importance in sustaining ABC’s employer brand and how talent management is evolving to meet the requirements of accelerating change within the media.

ABC’s 5,000 staff bring together a huge array of different talents. There are the presenters, camera operators and other production teams that create the content; the technicians that bring it all on air and the innovation teams that are spearheading the digitization of the Corporation. The workforce also includes the HR, finance and other support staff that keep ABC running and the commercial teams who market the DVDs, books and other spin-offs.

ABC makes programs both in-house and as co-productions with independent companies. Its production facilities span Australia’s major cities. It also operates an extensive local radio network and broadcasts across the Asia-Pacific region through the Australia Network and Radio Australia. 

Like any media company, ABC is in the business of making sharp and appealing content. But as a publicly-funded broadcaster the remit and expectations go much further than its commercial counterparts. As part of its statutory charter, ABC has a responsibility to provide independent national broadcasting services. The result is a zeal for probing and challenging that doesn’t always make it popular with politicians and other powerful interests, though that tension demonstrates that ABC is living up to its charter. 

ABC also needs to be ‘comprehensive’, both geographically and in seeking to reach out to Australia’s multicultural population. The outcry over the shutting down of TV production in Tasmania highlights the fine line the Corporation has to strike between inclusiveness and cost control. 

attracted by values

“We’re not the highest payers in the market, but I believe we are an attractive company to work for,” says Samantha Liston. “For a journalist, for example, moving from a newspaper to work for ABC News puts you at the top of your profession and many will be prepared to take a pay cut to get there. Our commitment to independence and integrity is also a powerful draw as it gives journalists a freedom and mandate that they might not always enjoy elsewhere. Clearly, journalists with that readiness to challenge aren’t always the easiest to manage, but that’s the nature of our job here in the people team!”

“The attractions of our brand also extend to our support and commercial teams,” continues Ms Liston. “We have a relatively low staff turnover rate, which suggests that people want to be part of our organization and align with our values.”

reflecting national identity

The training and opportunities that might be difficult to find elsewhere are also an important part of ABC’s employer brand. Its journalism and technical skills ‘cadetship’ programs draw a flood of applicants every year, for example. ABC’s latest intake of journalist cadets specifically targeted applicants from indigenous and ethnically diverse backgrounds and those with digital skills. 

The opportunities offered by ABC are also an important element of its commitment to indigenous employment through its Reconciliation Action Plan. A key priority is providing career development and employment opportunities for indigenous Australians and contributing to the growth of opportunities in the wider media industry. While this may not be a priority for commercial parts of the media sector, as a public broadcaster, the ABC has a unique responsibility to ensure that opportunities are provided to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander persons in the industry.  ABC has also set up a dedicated Indigenous drama unit. The result has been what The Australian newspaper has described as ‘an explosion of indigenous production’ both from within ABC and from independent production companies such as Blackfella Films, which includes a number of people who began their careers at ABC. 

When the uncompromising prime time series Redfern Now was launched in 2012, the Sydney Morning Herald said: “For the people behind Redfern Now, the success of the six-part ABC drama series won’t be measured in rating numbers so much as in the simple fact that it got into prime time at all - and in the fact it has unearthed a new generation of indigenous storytellers along the way.” In fact the program has proved to be a rating success and a second series has been produced.

“Reflecting Australia in all its myriad diversity is something that we at ABC are proud of and our recruitment, training and career development policies are an important driver of this,” says Ms Liston. “We want our audience to see the faces and hear the voices of all sections of the population. We are committed to making sure that traditionally male and white-dominated areas, be they newsrooms or executive boardrooms, are much more diverse. There is always more that we can do, but the fact that around more than half of our executive team are women is a good sign of progress.”

an industry in transformation

This is an industry that is experiencing rapid and often disruptive change as a result of channel and wider digital proliferation. But Ms Liston believes these developments have opened up opportunities for ABC. This includes the launch of ABC2 and ABC3 services, which provide a diverse range of content for pre-schoolers, children and young adults. There continues to be an increasing demand for online content with the ABC’s i-view player having a monthly average of 4.5 million program plays with two-thirds of these on iOS devices. Social media is also a key part of its evolving training programs with the ABC’s Digital Skills Training Manager delivering more than 130 digital skills sessions across the ABC last year. The ABC has over 150 content related Facebook pages and more than 200 official Twitter accounts. 

“We need to adapt to developments and be as efficient as possible in the way we generate content. For example, journalists are expected to provide stories across our digital, television and radio channels, rather than operating as distinct teams,” says Ms Liston. “At the same time, we need to be true to our values. I think we are getting the balance right – a large majority of Australians (85%) believe that we provide a valuable service. How we sustain this trust through the relentless change we’re seeing in our industry and wider society is a challenge we can never take our eye off.”

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