Australia ain’t what it used to be

From this weeks Third Sector… I don’t think I’ll ever get used to being subbed, but I’d rather be subbed than snubbed….
Expert view: Australia ain’t what it used to be
By Damian Radcliffe, Third Sector, 19 September 2007

I remember the Summer of ’97 as if it were yesterday. I’d just helped to launch the UK’s first ever volunteer-led commercial radio station, Oxygen 107.9.

In theory, Oxygen could be heard by 180,000 people; in practice, its audience was probably a lot smaller. It was the glory days of Britpop: Blur, Oasis and Pulp were in their prime.

In commercial radio, Australian-influenced formats and production ideas were increasingly dominant, and many felt that commercial radio down under was the best in the world. So when I recently visited the country I was excited to see whether the sector still had a lot to learn from the Aussies.

Sadly, I don’t think it has – certainly not in terms of how charity issues are covered. In a country where the Salvation Army has been Aussified to the point that it is known as the ‘Salvos’, I expected a more down-to-earth approach to promoting the sector. Instead, the only time I came across the Australian voluntary sector on television or radio was in the context of rather old-fashioned public service announcements.

Presenting issues such as volunteering or cancer in this way immediately makes the content seem too dull and worthy. It is a turn-off.

The contrast with the UK could not be starker. Partnerships such as those between CSV and BBC local radio ensure that voluntary sector content is considered to be mainstream – it sits alongside other output. In doing this, we seek to avoid ‘otherness’; we normalise voluntary sector issues, making them part of audiences’ everyday lives.

Capital Radio’s coverage of its Help a London Child charity does the same thing. It is both high-profile and mainstream, which gives the issues importance. The heart disease infomercial I heard on an Aussie station did the opposite when it was billed at the outset as a public service announcement. It was the equivalent of going up to someone in the street and saying: “I’m sorry to bother you, but …”

The lack of pride or conviction in the material I came across in Australia simply reinforced traditional views of worthiness. The communications failed to grab me by the scruff of the neck.

That’s what good charity campaigns and good broadcasters do, and that’s what I found sadly missing down under.

So next time you find yourself despairing that the British media doesn’t ‘get’ you – which, granted, it sometimes doesn’t – then consider this: you’re still probably better off than some of our southern hemisphere counterparts – even if they do get better weather.


– Damian Radcliffe is Head of Broadcasting for volunteering charity CSV