Radio National will restore specialist programs on religion and the media, and introduce a Breakfast-style live current affairs program for the drive home, as part of radical schedule changes proposed for 2012.

Programs including The National Interest and Australia Talks will be dumped and PM sliced to half an hour for the RN audience as part of the biggest shake-up to the storied national network in years. Station manager Michael Mason today confirmed the changes to Crikey.

Calls to staff impacted by the changes were either not returned or fobbed off to management, but it’s understood producers and presenters were surprised by the scope of the changes in nationwide teleconferences yesterday. “Almost every program will be affected in one way or another,” said one staffer nervous about being identified.

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“The audience next year won’t be happy,” they said.

In the mornings, the Breakfast program hosted by Fran Kelly — required listening for the political set — will be extended by half an hour to 9am, pushing the block of specialist programs into a new timeslot at 5.30pm.

Of those, the Health Report, Law Report and Movietime will return in 2012. They will be joined by new programs on the media and religion and ethics — a back flip on the controversial decision in 2008 to dump programs devoted to those subjects. Rear Vision and Future Tense will be shunted elsewhere in the schedule.

“We’re looking at refocusing the thematic of that slot so it’s more report-based and more traditional rounds,” Mason said.

The daily Book Show hosted by Ramona Koval will also be re-jigged with a broader arts and cultural agenda. This will offset the loss of Sunday morning program Artworks and other changes to the weekend schedule, and comes after ABC TV dumped the Sunday arts omnibus Art Nation while outsourcing all other arts programming.

Mason understands the broadcaster will be open to criticism but insists the number of programming hours for arts content will increase: “I think when you listen across the network you will hear a greater mix of arts and talk than you do now.”

From 6-8pm, new flow programming will attempt to transplant the live current affairs format to the evening. As Crikey first reported in June, staff were concerned cheaper live programming — replicating Local Radio stations — would replace labour-intensive specialist programs.

Mason told Crikey the new evening show — folding in the policy discussion and talkback from The National Interest and Australia Talks — was about offering a smarter alternative for commuters increasingly returning home later. He claims the number of pre-produced programs will still increase in the 2012 schedule as part of a “greater commitment” to specialisation, with fewer repeats of programs.

“It’s about sounding mobile and live when the audience is in that frame,” he said.

Management began consultation on a new schedule earlier this year, built around freshening up programming and shoring up aging demographics. Mason believes the changes will strengthen the key 40-year-old-plus cohort while “maintaining our position in contemporary thought and discussion”. “We want to maintain our influence,” he said.

Mason will consult on the draft for the next three weeks. He says impacted staff are the key concern.

On the scope of the changes, despite assurances to staff of an evolution rather than a revolution, he said: “Some will say we’ve gone too far and some will say we haven’t gone far enough.”

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