Is a host the only difference between radio and a mixtape? That’s a question many of Classic FM’s staff and listeners are asking after the ABC radio station switched up its overnight programming in early August.
For years, from midnight to 6am, Classic FM has aired a program called All Night Classics. These broadcasts, of which there were hundreds, were pre-recorded, with an announcer introducing and explaining the music. They were reused and repeated — the content was timeless. But now they’re gone — replaced by what’s airing on Classic 2, ABC Classic’s new online channel, which airs short classical tracks performed by Australian artists. Classic 2, which is aimed at a younger audience and was launched in June, has no hosts, and the tracks are not announced. Online listeners can see what track is playing, but radio listeners need to look up the track list online.
The change has been controversial. When it was announced, Classic FM’s Facebook page was flooded with complaints, and now staff at the station have begun to raise their concerns. In a series of emails sent to all ABC Classic staff, and obtained by Crikey, many vent their frustrations at what they see as a retrograde and concerning development. No staff have been made redundant due to the changes (regular All Night Classics host Bob Maynard still works at Classic FM, and many of the other All Night Classics hosts had already left the ABC some time ago, though their voices could still be heard on the recordings). But many fear what they see as a concerning new development. “[A] quarter of our broadcast day now voiceless,” one staff member wrote. “If a quarter of the day can be Classic 2, what’s to stop it being a third, a half, the whole?”
Another said he had no problem with Classic 2 as a music-only service, but he didn’t want to hear it on the national FM radio network:
“In my view, this decision to replace presenter-based programming with a juke box is very poor policy because it sets a dangerous precedent. It fundamentally ignores the primary reasons why we have loyal and passionate listeners, and what makes the other 18 hours of Classic FM a drawcard over any other jukebox-based digital-only service — our presenters and programmers who support them. The ability to engage the audience directly and enthusiastically, with immediacy and sincerity is why precisely why radio stations succeed over voice-less services.”
Another said the programming was of a lesser quality to that broadcast during the rest of the day, and added that the lack of information about what was being heard made it far less useful for listeners:
“[W]e aim to be real people presenting real music in a way which is meaningful to our audience and which treats them with respect. It’s what we’re told we should do in our air checks. It’s what we do because it’s good radio, and it’s what we all, as professional broadcasters, do well. Having everything we strive for — and are told to strive for — negated by the simple playing of random tracks with no presentation for 25% of every day is not only wrong, it’s depressing.”
The changes come as the ABC braces for budget cuts, likely to be far larger than initial projections. But ABC Classic FM station manager Richard Buckham told Crikey the changes had nothing to do with cost savings. In fact, he added, two producers in Sydney were employed fine-tuning the Classic 2 stream choices (programmed by a computer according to set parameters). “So you could say more staff hours are being devoted,” he said.
“The expert commentary and educational value of a curated program has essentially been replaced with a jukebox … “
“Last year, when we were planning Classic 2, we thought it was a good opportunity to renew our overnight programs, and also to promote Classic 2 to Classic FM listeners. These conversations happened way back before the funding changes — before the election, even. That was at all what was behind it.”
ABC Classic listeners are fiercely devoted and rarely welcome change, Buckham says. “There’s always a reaction whenever we change anything”.
“About four years ago, we took off a half-hour brass band program and had lots of correspondence. But now, people love what’s replaced it. It’s typical of an audience like ours, which is longstanding and loyal. We appreciate it, but any change can bring a big negative reaction.”
But changing the genre of a program isn’t as radical a change as getting rid of presenters altogether. Asked about the problems with ditching hosts, Buckham says he understands the concerns of his staff and listeners. “[But] some people who listen to our general programming often say they wish we’d just play the music. Some people feel strongly the other way. Some people like the companionship overnight, but the music itself is our offer — our main reason for being. We’re providing a stream of what we think is engaging music overnight.”
Classic 2 only plays music played by Australian performers, and Buckham nominates this as a benefit of the new programming. “It’s a way of supporting Australian artists. There are numerous music streams out there — our point of distinction is Australian performance.”
That hasn’t proven enough to placate the Community and Public Sector Union, which is calling on ABC Classic to reverse the change.
“At the core of this decision is the removal of the ‘human element’ from the overnight shift. The expert commentary and educational value of a curated program has essentially been replaced with a jukebox,” CPSU president Michael Tull told Crikey. “The listeners don’t like it, and nor do staff, who are insulted by the fact that they weren’t consulted.”
“This has done little to allay fears that the takeover by Classic 2 won’t stop there. If experienced presenters with their extensive knowledge and experience of classical music repertoire and performance are not deemed necessary for a quarter of the programming day, then what’s to stop more people being replaced by a machine?”