Veteran broadcaster and writer Phillip Adams shared some of the high and low moments that have marked his radio career – from Bedtime Stories: Tales from my 21 years at RN’s Late Night Live – with 390 people at the historic Pier 2/3 at Walsh Bay.
One of his most challenging interviews was with a Burmese Buddhist monk who answered his questions with a “beatific smile” – to the surprise of the Late Night Live crew he could not speak English. One of his most erudite guests was Christopher Hitchens. “When Christopher would come in, the neurons and the synapses – though sodden with Johnny Walker – would come alive, and he’d give a dashingly cogent performance,” Phillip said.
He also spoke of his endeavours to improve ethical practice in radio over the years and hypothesised that traditional mass media will be overwhelmed by the internet, which gives people access to information that is not often accountable to professional journalistic oversight.
“Now people live in their own media bubble,” he said. “They live in a world that reinforces views rather than challenging them. Those of us who choose our internet, pick and choose the ideas we want to hear.”
He said that despite pressure to privatise the ABC and accusations that it is unbalanced, he doubts that the national broadcaster will ever be privatised because conservative radio listeners tune in as often as others, and it provides essential public services, especially to listeners in the bush who require its weather alerts and market information.
He also points out that Radio National is responsible for airing interviews with guests who have made important achievements yet would not otherwise be interviewed because they are not celebrities. “It’s often just so wonderful when someone is on, because they’re entitled to be there, because they’ve done something wonderful, not simply because they’re famous for being famous,” he said.
Working for 2UE in the 1980s and 90s taught him how audiences are responsive to having their prejudices reinforced by reward, and that his response was to present the audience with on-air examples that challenged them to question their views.
“So you could trap the listener. You could misdirect them, and confront them with the fact that this perfectly charming person, making another point about refugees, was in fact Asian.”
He said Radio National provides the context, complexity and varying opinions that the shock-jock ethos lacks, and is in this way its antithesis.
“I’ve had a great number of alternative Phillip Adams positioned against me with a counter point, and sometimes they’ve been quite civilised,” he says. “Sometimes they’ve been raving nutcases. But that’s a better way of getting balance than by silencing.”
He said that he hasn’t been retrenched from Radio National thus far because when John Howard asked in 1996 where the right-wing Phillip Adams was, the ABC realised that firing Adams would seem like a politically motivated act.
“What happened was that Prime Minister John Howard saved me, and I’m very grateful to John for that.”