Sunday, December 16, 2012

Remembering Ian Wolfe, the man who dragged ABC News into the 21st century

September 12, 1941 - December 16, 2011

When the team from Australian Associated Press walked into their usual contract renegotiation with the ABC at the start of the 1990s they had every reason to think they would get what they wanted.

The ABC had used the AAP’s foreign wire service for half a century, initially for an annual fee of 3000 pounds. Now the fee was reportedly $250,000. AAP wanted more and treated the ABC like a captive client.

Sitting on the other side of the table was the deceptively polite Dr Ian Wolfe, the ABC radio news and current affairs supremo with degrees in politics and psychology. After being told the fee increase was non negotiable he terminated the negotiation, sacked AAP and did a deal with Agence France Presse for a fraction of the price.

For the first time in its history the ABC no longer relied on a service owned by its competitors. Wolfe had already looked on with approval as the man he had appointed executive producer of AM axed its 20-year old recitation of newspaper editorials entitled “What the Papers Say”. Wolfe believed the ABC owed Murdoch and Fairfax nothing.

Then he went in for the kill.

You were glad he was on your side. Protege Robert Bolton put it this way in a bit that was edited out of the excellent obituary he wrote for the Sydney Morning Herald:

“Had some of his staff realised how well he had studied human behaviour and weakness they might not have gone into battle with him. They usually lost.”

No longer having a commercial relationship with AAP Wolfe was free to launch an assault on its revenue stream. He set up an ABC wire service to sell news stories specifically written for radio to the commercial stations who had previously been captives of AAP. The stories on Broadcast News Australia were more timely and better-written (for radio). AAP pulled out all stops to maintain its monopoly and succeeded, although things looked dicey for a while. It had learnt what anyone eventually learned who came up against Ian Wolfe - don’t mess with him, don’t mess with the ABC and don’t imagine convention will hold him back.

I was with him as he sat down for a meeting with the Sydney Stock Exchange and explained that their employees would no longer be reading a ten-minute list of share prices on radio national each lunch time. He told me afterwards it felt like axing the daily reading of the river heights on rural radio which he also had done.

He hired me direct from the Commonwealth Treasury and defended me against all manner of people who thought I wasn’t right for radio. Whenever he offered an opinion about how the broadcasting landscape would develop or news would turn out I found him to be right. I sought his advice long after I had left the ABC.

Broadcast News Australia quietly evolved into NewsRadio, quietly because ABC Managing Director David Hill was trying to sack him at the time. Hill later praised Wolfe for one of the most impressive developments in three decades of broadcasting, and also one of the cheapest.

Intensely loyal to the ABC, incredibly smart and disarmingly shy, Ian Wolfe has left us far too soon.

In the November Walkely Magazine

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