UnitingJustice Australia director Rev Elenie Poulos, along with Baptist minister Tim Costello and Catholic priest Father Frank Brennan, met ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie to voice their concerns over the broadcaster’s intention to cut religious programming.
It is understood the ABC plans to axe Sunday Nights with John Cleary, which has broadcast nationally for the past 15 years. It is the nation’s most widely listened to religious program, with up to 164,000 people listening every week in capital cities alone.
On current listenership, removing Sunday Nights will cut the audience for religion programs by more than 80 per cent.
Other religious programs are largely confined to Radio National, which has a much lower audience than ABC local radio.
Ms Poulos said the ABC is the only remaining mainstream media organisation where well-informed and well-supported conversations about religion and society are still being conducted.
“We are still disappointed that the ABC is pushing ahead with its religion programming on local radio; that is an ongoing concern for us, but we also voiced our concern that the ABC not go down the path of religion-lite in its programming,” Ms Poulos said in The Australian.
“I think everyone around the table agreed that in this point in time it is important that the public broadcaster maintained its religious programming substance. We need to make space for conversations where people can explore and come to understand the impact of religion on significant global issues.”
Last year, a group of religious leaders including Ms Poulos met with ABC chairperson Jim Spigelman and former managing director Mark Scott, who assured them of the broadcaster’s ongoing commitment to specialist religion coverage.
Anglican Archbishop of Melbourne Philip Freier has said the ABC has a mandate to offer programs that reflect the cultural diversity of Australia, as stated in its charter.
He pointed to figures showing that more people in Australia attend church every Sunday than go to football matches.
“I don’t think that there is going to be any removal of football off ABC local radio,” he said on ABC’S The World Today.
“It just simply is fact of the attendance and participation of people that religion remains a relevant and a significant part of the life of local communities, and that will continue into the future.”
A spokeswoman from the ABC said the broadcaster welcomed in the input from the church leaders.
“Yesterday’s meeting was a frank and confidential discussion with religious leaders from a variety of faiths about ABC strategies and challenges,” she said.
“The ABC welcomed the dialogue and looks forward to extending it into next year and beyond. There are some changes planned.”
The ABC is expected to announce the 2017 content line up later this month.