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TV & Radio

Jun 21, 2011

Radio National’s nip-tuck: managers meet to freshen up network

Key Radio National producers are bunkered down to again delineate between worthy and stodgy programming. After 80 years of broadcasting, management is concerned the station -- and its audience -- is starting to show its age.

Jason Whittaker — Former <em>Crikey</em> editor and publisher

Jason Whittaker

Former Crikey editor and publisher

Key Radio National producers are bunkered down at the ABC’s Ultimo headquarters today to once again delineate between worthy and stodgy programming. After 80 years of broadcasting, management is concerned the station — and its audience — is starting to show its age.

Devoted staff, stung by previous schedule shake-ups and listener drives, are circumspect. They’re being consulted this time and nobody expects radical change.

But the lobby to capture younger ears — and introduce fresh shows, perhaps at the expense of others —  has some sceptical. One staffer fears more flow programming — live talkback rather than the highly pre-produced, and more expensive, packaged shows the station was built on.

“Basically just do Local Radio but … a bit smarter,” they said, pointing to Radio Australia — the ABC’s Asia-Pacific radio transmission — which has “…ditched a lot of their operation to go to flow programming”. “I know there are people in Sydney who are really suspicious.”

One participant locked in the two-day “blue sky” workshop concluding today rubbished the claim, saying to air more talkback would only encroach on the audiences for News Radio and Local Radio. Speaking to Crikey late this morning, they said program executive producers are “all in broad agreement it’s a good opportunity to re-examine”, but no concrete proposals had been signed off.

What’s clear is the ABC wants to slice about a decade from its average audience. Said one staffer: “Management’s line seems to be that all the stations are aiming at audiences that are too old for what they want. Even at Triple J they want the audience to be a lot younger.” (Though the popular metropolitan network, they note, seems to be excluded.)

And another: “The head of radio [Kate Dundas] has targets for all the radio networks to change their audiences and RN, like nearly all of them, is supposed to move 10 years younger.”

Audience and demographic information is fiercely debated within Radio National. Management point to the fact the station’s audience has only steadied over the last 15 years despite a deeper potential listener pool, and continues to age as fewer listeners transition from younger networks like Triple J. Others highlight the network’s wildly popular podcast line-up — with an audience that is difficult to measure but presumably younger — and talk up its 2.4% share of a national and highly competitive market.

“The youth are there,” said one program-maker. “You’re looking at broad averages.” And only averages across capital cities; RN has strong engagement in regional areas.

Reports in the Fairfax press last week on re-jigging the line-up didn’t come as a surprise to staff — meetings have been held with producers at ABC bases across the country ahead of this week’s discussion. There’s praise for RN boss Michael Mason for keeping all options on the table, unlike in 2008 when the network dumped its Religion Report and Media Report programs with little consultation.

“That’s to his credit,” said one presenter. And another source: “Michael is being inclusive and realises the only way he can bring it about is to get enough buy-in.”

Nobody quite knows what a younger-sounding Radio National is. It’s incidentals like fresher theme music and program “stings”, according to a source, along with diversifying the on-air voices. “If old people retire we’ll replace them with younger people,” one suggested.

“People think they have to have this Radio National sound … worthy and pompous,” said a source. “Without dumbing down our content, why can’t we present it in a way that’s more open to people?”

(At least RN’s most famous septuagenarian, late-night doyen Phillip Adams, isn’t going anywhere. “They’ll leave me alone,” he told Crikey last week on returning from a break in China. “My podcast audience, local and international, is the ABC’s biggest by a mile and I understand most of them have only recently been weaned.”)

Controversially to some, Crikey understands management is keen to use its key talent more across the network. For example, specialist program presenters like Dr Norman Swan from The Health Report could provide medical news and commentary on the breakfast program.

“This actually feels like it’s for the right reasons,” said one source on the latest revolution.

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10 thoughts on “Radio National’s nip-tuck: managers meet to freshen up network

  1. Colin Thornby

    I love Radio National. It is one of the bright spots, for me, on Australia’s media landscape. Being in rural Australia, however, I mostly consume it by podcast, and I’m still mourning the loss of ‘The Religion Report’ and ‘The Media Report’ (and still waiting for the promised coverage of those areas through other means). I don’t have a hassle with using the station’s resources across the network – seems sensible to me. I would hate to lose RN, but I fear that over time we skate closer and closer to that bleak day.

  2. Ange

    When I was a teenager, living in regional Australia as we did, my dad introduced me to Radio National on our 1 hour car trips down and back from school each morning and afternoon. I was about 15 at the time, without much interest in politics or current affairs, and definitely no scope to my world.

    At first I was a little displeased that we couldn’t listen to the Triple J morning show or something of the sort, but much to my (and my father’s) surprise I quickly became interested in the reports from Fran on the morning show, and especially Phillip Adams’ LNL on the way home. These shows taught me not only the facts and figures of the day, but also new ways of thinking about the world. If not for Radio National, I imagine I’d have absolutely no serious interest in current affairs at all.

    Now that I’m 21 and at uni, I still try and catch at least LNL, if not more, even if it’s via podcast. I always felt like sending in a word of thanks to someone like Adams for having such a positive influence on me as a teenager.

    I’d have to say the main problem for Radio National with the younger generations is more to do with exposure. I don’t think many of my classmates back in highschool even knew what it was. Without my father’s insistence, I certainly wouldn’t have known. Shows like Future Tense on Thursday mornings would also be a good intro for younger audiences–they’re not about “boring” things like economics or politics, but it’s still a serious show with some very fascinating themes explored on it.

  3. Bill Parker

    I suspect that most people replying to this story will agree with Colin Thornby. I do.

    Why is it that we need the change? “A younger sounding RN?” What the bloody hell is that and why is anyone asking?

    RN is the core of any thinking person’s radio diet, pips and all. What does it matter what age we are? We are in a sea of misinformation and RN at least provides some rock solid info. I wonder if the mandarins at the A BeebC are asking….are there any thinking persons left?

    Sure, put Norman Swan on a breakfast program. He certainly gets a great response in WA when he appears on Geoff Hutchinson’s 720 Mornings. But the depth of his analyses are best left where they are and in the depth they are. The same goes for everything else. Bring BACK media report, bring BACK religion report. They are as important now as when they were axed.

    If they want to DO SOMETHING, stick RN on FM nationally.

  4. Gavin Moodie

    I, too, am a great fan of Radio National. But surely RN must start attracting a younger and hopefully more diverse audience because in time its increasingly aged audience will die out and then so will RN.

    Unfortunately Triple J has discarded much of its youthful verve and audacity. Remember its first broadcast was of a banned song – the Skyhooks’ ‘You Just Like Me Cos I’m Good In Bed’. Such rebelliousness would never be tolerated on the station now.

    I oppose the return of the Religion Report for 3 reasons. First, it was never a religion report but a Christian report, usually but not always promoting vatican II reformist catholicism.

    Secondly, Radio National already broadcasts 5 hours of religion a week (Encounter, 1 hour, repeated; The Rhythm Divine, 30 minutes, repeated; The Spirit Of Things, 1 hour repeated twice). If RN has resources to devote to a new program it would be far better to spend it on an under served subject such as Africa (share with News Radio’s Out of Africa), Latin America or home and how to (taken from the US PBS, altho it would bore me rigid).

    Thirdly, the Religion Report was virulently anti Muslim, broadcasting destructive and divisive attacks on Islam.

  5. ggm

    This Refresh has ‘disaster’ printed all over it.

    Neither fish nor fowl. Leave well alone, and rejoice in the acclaim, and resale value overseas.

    It reminds one of the ‘ocean going yacht race’ thing, with a spin:

    Q: How do you make a second-class Radio Network?
    A: Put policy people in charge of a first-class one, and invite them to re-package it

  6. Ty

    I’m 23 and listen exclusively to Radio National. I’d agree with Ange, that all that needs changing is it’s exposure to younger audiences. Most of my friends don’t know what i’m talking about when I mention I heard something on RN, so I’ve recently been emailing them links to a particular show that I suspect they’d be interested in. I would suggest that very little needs to change (in terms of content) to engage a younger audience, they just need to promote themselves to this audience a little more.

  7. Bill Parker

    I was unaware of the Religion Report’s nature – merely defending its return generically.

    One might as well ask how to make a second class airline ( out of a first class one e.g. Qantas) …. put the bean counters in charge!

  8. Peter

    RN really does need a freshen up. Sure it’s favourite ….but it really needs some work. Let them get on with it. It does not have to mean dumbing down. Indeed it could be to the contrary.
    Good luck all.

  9. nico

    I started listening to RN podcasts at uni – particularlyMedia Report while before it was axed, the Book Show and AM and PM. I hope management resist populist dumbing down of what is a great resource.

  10. Wayne Carveth

    As Bill Parker said, most people commenting here will agree with Colin Thornby. A shiver runs up my spine when I hear that RN staff are looking at freshening it up.
    I had my battery changed a couple of months ago & the young (about 25) battery man whose background was middle-eastern said when I expressed my surprise that he was listening to RN on his vehicle’s radio that he always had it on because he felt he knew more at the end of the day than when he started in the morning. He especially liked Phillip Adams.
    The only tweak I’d make is to run a few imported shows from USA (eg NPR All things considered) , Canada & UK and English language programs from the rest of the world. They usually run a few at Christmas time.
    The only time I turn away from RN is at 2:05 PM The Planet and half the time at 6:10 PM for Australia Talks. I fear that any fresh programming would be more like those.