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.”
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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.