Dan Buckingham has been the chief executive of Able since May 2022. In this letter, he lays out what Able is — from what we do to the values we embody — and where he sees the future of the organisation heading.
Able is 10 years old, and I am filled with gratitude to have been part of its journey for the past 18 months.
Though I’ve only been at Able for a year and a half, my relationship with the organisation began a long time ago. Wendy is still listed on my phone as Wendy Youens from TVNZ, and I have vague memories of chatting with her in the line at the TVNZ coffee cart. It’s where she shared the news with me that their department was going to be moving out of the building and making its own way in the world.
So my involvement with Aotearoa’s screen sector runs in parallel to when Able was the Access Services department at Te Reo Tātaki, and potentially as far back as when it was TVNZ Captioning (i.e. before audio description was added as a service in 2011). Regardless of where the timeline starts or crosses over, before I joined the team, I always held Able in high regard.
For those who aren’t familiar with Able, it is difficult to do justice to explaining who and what we are. On the surface it is relatively self-evident – we deliver captioning and audio description services to Aotearoa’s screen sector, and we do it in a way that is world-class. I feel like I’m still new enough to simply be a fan, and I can say that the sheer number of assets we deliver is phenomenal. With an average of 505 hours of captions and 136 hours of audio description coming out of Able to be broadcast on New Zealand screens every week, I believe there must be more content consumed within the walls of 110 Symonds St than anywhere else in the country.
Yet we are so much more than a service provider.
For me, there has always been an aura to the organisation and something about how the people who are a part of Able carry themselves. I now of course get to work alongside the people who are deep in the mahi and feel what it is like to be part of the lifeblood of what we do.
The team is full of passionate people – people who care immensely about the meaning behind the work we do; people who love consuming, conversing about, critiquing, and championing the content that is created. We are full to the brim with pop-culture lovers who care deeply about doing things well and for the right reasons.
For the people who come through our doors to work, we are a place where you can be yourself and bring your whole self. We are a place where people are treated like adults and trusted as adults to do good work. For many, we might be a first ‘real’ job, or a stepping stone in their working life, and we embrace that – seeking to give people a good experience, a yardstick to measure other work experiences against, and seeking to set them up to go well out in the world. For others we are a place to dedicate a decent chunk of their lives to, embracing the freedom, flow and meaning working at Able brings. But however long they stay, and regardless of whether the person is simply a lover of pop culture or seeking to work towards a more accessible and equitable world, Able delivers in spades.
I believe how we got to be who we are today comes from those who have gone before. A sentiment I have shared this year is that it is hard to distinguish between whether it is the people who work here who live and breathe the values of Able, or whether it is Able as an entity that has absorbed the values of the people involved. Upon reflection, I do believe it is the latter. Able has harnessed the values of the people involved and made them its own, becoming an organisation that exudes a force beyond what an entity should be capable of.
In 2023, through sessions with the entire team, we have sought to capture and articulate the unique values Able holds. When the findings were presented back to us, my first thoughts were that if an organisation was seeking to turn itself around, or aspiring to become something greater than it is, this would be a blueprint of what it should aspire to be.
The four values we settled on reflect what Able is: warmth and inclusiveness, reciprocity, calm intent and standing in the gap. There is a story behind each, but more importantly, there is a feeling behind each. They are values that have come from within, taking what’s already here and articulating it, as opposed to an organisation choosing words they aspire to reflect who they want to be. That we already have these values must be cherished, protected, and used to continue to do good and make a difference in the world as we mature, grow and evolve as an entity.
Beyond the people and how we go about our mahi, the model of how Able operates is in itself extremely fascinating, and worth touching on. Through the culmination of circumstance and the people involved, a unique way of being has been created that is yet to be replicated anywhere else in the world. In the world of delivering access services, we are unique in that we are not attached to a single broadcaster or platform, and we’re not driven by commercial imperative; we are a partnership of public and private – a private entity that holds kaitiaki over public money, and we have a pure ambition to deliver for the key audiences we serve.
We know what we deliver impacts so many people in so many ways. Apart from our primary Deaf/hard-of-hearing and blind/low-vision and deafblind audiences, there’s also the current rangatahi generation who might be using captions while watching content on their phone, or the multi-tasker mum or dad using audio description in their home so they don’t have to pay complete attention to the screen; we enhance media that producers work so hard to create so that people can consume it in new and innovative ways.
But the core of what we do and what we value so much is delivering to and ensuring those who wouldn’t otherwise be able to access media are able to immerse themselves in New Zealand’s unique language and culture as it is reflected back to them through the magic of our screens. We are the epitome of universal design – by delivering assets that capture those on the edges, we create a more accessible world for all.
So what of our future? What’s next? As is often the case when we reach milestones and reflect upon how we have got to where we are, it must be asked, what then for our future?
When I first came into this position, I thought I was inheriting a business model where the focus would be sustaining success. The simple story of Able is that it began its life as somewhat of a start-up, with a passionate team ready to dive in boots and all. They found their flow and then received a significant funding increase that led to a growth strategy, which I joined at the tail end of. Along the way, Wendy and her team, and those tasked with setting up what we have become, created something special, and I was entering a position where I simply needed to continue to steady the ship. However, once I dived deeper into this world I realised it is full of nuance, variables and challenges. As I got into the work and heard the stories, I realised that Able has always had to navigate change.
Ultimately, I have come to believe the business model has always been and will continue to be one of constant realignment. There has never been a static period where Able has simply ticked over; by nature of what we do, we are part of a screen sector that is constantly morphing and evolving, and there have always, at the very least, been projects on the horizon as we have continued to strive to grow and evolve and ultimately do more.
With so much great work to sink our teeth into as we navigate the future, I look forward to and love a Monday morning where I have a fresh week laid out in front of me, ready to fill with interesting and invigorating mahi. It is fair to say that New Zealand’s screen sector comes with its share of uncertainty, but the uncertainty is overwhelmed by how exciting it is to be part of it, especially at this time of accelerated change as we all seek to figure out what the way forward will be.
Quite simply, I am excited about the future. Change is coming, as it always has. We look forward to working with broadcasters and digital platforms as we, along with the rest of the world, navigate a future that will be delivered digitally.
What people create, and how people consume content, will come in ways yet unknown, but we aim to be right there in the thick of it.
We will continue to use a beautiful mix of the latest technology and the human touch to deliver our services as we strive towards our vision of a New Zealand where everyone has equal access to audio-visual media.
Chief Executive, May 2022 – present.