Voice of a sunburnt country: Seven decades of ABC Rural, from wireless to tractor selfies

By Matt O’Sullivan
Content director, ABC Rural

Dust, flies, floods, boom and bust – life as a rural reporter is one of extremes. But ask anyone who has worked for the ABC’s Rural department over the past 70 years, and they are likely to tell you it is the best job they ever had. Since the Country Hour first went to air on December 3, 1945, ABC Rural has chronicled the highs and lows of Australian agriculture.

Rural reporters were at the launch of the Snowy Mountains irrigation scheme in the 1940s. They reported on the hopes for massive development in northern Australia with the Ord irrigation scheme in the ’60s. They were there when farmers marched on Canberra in the ’80s; on the docks during the 1990s waterfront dispute; and shoulder to shoulder with their communities during the devastating Millennium Drought.

And for all that time it has been about one thing – the people of rural Australia and their stories.

After World War II when the first efforts were made to bring all of the ABC’s rural information together, the emphasis was on reporters getting out to where the story was happening. It was about talking to farmers – and others – in their own environment, away from the confines of a radio studio.

It was a style that translated well to the arrival of TV in 1956, when programs like A Big Country pioneered the powerful storytelling that’s still in evidence now on another rural flagship, Landline.

After seven decades, that innovative commitment to in-the-field journalism is as strong as ever, although the truckloads of gear required for an outside recording in the 1950s have shrunk to the smartphone in 2015 – an all-in-one studio, audio and video recording unit, social media device and camera that allows a 21st-century rural reporter to be flexible, agile and mobile.

Lucie Bell, the rural reporter at Karratha, Western Australia, covers a patch as big as France.

She recently told Landline: “You have to like your own company a little bit, because you’ll be spending a lot of time on the road, spending a lot of time introducing yourself to people and trying to win them around a little bit, to tell you things they might not tell other journos or other people.”

Rural has always been proud to be an innovator and a training ground. Foreign correspondents such as Sally Sara and Zoe Daniel attribute part of their success in remote and difficult locations around the world to the skills they learnt as rural reporters.

Our reporters have always been self-sufficient, able to multitask, solve problems and overcome difficult situations. Remoteness in itself is a challenge. ABC Rural’s 35-odd rural reporters are scattered across Australia, from one-man posts in Kununurra and Katherine to the big regional centres such as Wagga Wagga and Launceston.

Location gives reporters enormous autonomy to decide the key rural stories of their patch and to craft them in a way that can often resonate around the world. (Who doesn’t love a story about a kangaroo that thinks it’s a dog?)

But it can also be a challenge to remain at arm’s length from the natural disasters which regularly hit various parts of the country, and the big, complex issues that can affect farmers, their land, and their communities. It is our responsibility to be a balanced voice, not the “farmers’ friend”, and to present diverse points of view, including those our core audience may not want to hear.

It is something we work hard at.

And ABC Rural has had a much bigger influence than just training journalists.

Queensland Country Hour presenter Craig Zonca investigates drought conditions in the state's west. Courtesy of ABC Rural.

Queensland Country Hour presenter Craig Zonca investigates drought conditions in the state’s west. Courtesy of ABC Rural.

The department was established by John Douglass, an agricultural scientist who oversaw Australia’s food production during World War II, when he encouraged new crops such as sweet corn, beans and zucchini to feed the American troops stationed in the Pacific.

When the war was over, Douglass saw the potential to use radio to encourage further innovation in agriculture, and ABC Rural was born.

One of the new department’s priorities was to encourage “Australian” voices on the very BBCsounding national broadcaster. Douglass wanted his programs to be distinctive and, along with offering weather and real-time market information to hook in farmers, he appealed to a broader listenership with drama series including The Lawsons and, later, the legendary Blue Hills, grounding dramatic storytelling in the real problems facing rural communities. Listen The voice of a sunburnt country From the wireless to farmers sharing tractor selfies, ABC Rural has been part of the bush for seven decades writes Matt O’Sullivan to some of these episodes today and the same issues come through – the battle between farmers and development, environmental degradation and the decline of rural communities.

Along with Blue Hills, the roll call of ABC Rural programs over 70 years resonates across generations – The Country Hour (Australia’s longest-running radio program and one of the longest-running in the world), the Rural Report, To Market To Market, Jackaroo, A Big Country, Landline and, of course, Australia All Over.

Increasingly in 2015, rural reporting is also about being effective in the digital space, both online and on mobile. This has required a different way of working for reporters, who operate under a mobile-first model of content delivery.

We no longer wait to “break” stories when the next Country Hour rolls around. Like every other media outlet, we need to get the story out as soon as possible, wherever possible.

That change is reflected by our audience. Every day farmers on tractors and in utes are uploading photos to Facebook from their phones out in their workplace. They re-tweet our stories, stream our programs and engage in conversation with us. As always, they continue to tell us – in the strongest possible terms – when they don’t think we’ve got it right.

That connection to our audience is one of ABC Rural’s key strengths. As regional media shrinks, it is our responsibility to keep telling the stories of rural Australia – boots on, in the paddock – showing just how diverse, innovative and sophisticated agriculture in this country has become (with not a hayseed or dramatic soundtrack in sight).

Matt O’Sullivan is the content director for Rural, part of ABC Regional. This story appears in Issue 85 of The Walkley Magazine.