Last week, Crikey had a look at Screen Australia’s data on declining levels of Australian content in the new digital television environment. With new multichannels to introduce, and no content restrictions to hold them back, Australia’s television network shave made hay with cheap foreign content, diluting the proportion of home-grown content on our screens.

This week we look at one practical response to that problem, from ABC’s youth radio network Triple J. A high-profile and well-funded part of the ABC’s radio empire, Triple J often cops criticisms that stem from perceptions about the commercial focus of its playlists and the general “FM radio” sheen of much of its presentation (the sweepers, the compression, and, yes, the advertisements).

But when it comes to the Australian music industry, Triple J matters. Its ability to break new artists and to build audiences for established ones makes it a key player in the local music scene, influential far beyond what its audience figures would suggest.

Now Triple J is launching a new digital multichannel — Triple J Unearthed — specifically devoted to new and emerging Australian contemporary music. The new channel will fish from the deep content pool the station has acquired over recent years via its emerging musicians portal, triplejunearthed.com, which the station says has over 30,000 artists and 250,000 users.

Crikey spoke to Triple J’s manager Chris Scaddan before the launch of the new channel last week. “It’s 100% Australian music, all unsigned and independent,” he said. “It’s got to a point that there’s over 31,000 artists on there, so there’s so much goddamn music that, you know, we’ve seen the need to create a full-time station on the radio.”

The station will roll out initially in the five big capital cities on the mainland, with plans to extend to other centres as digital radio slowly expands across more of Australia. But, importantly, the service will also stream live from the Triple J Unearthed website.

For Scaddan: “Australian content has always been important to Triple J, since it began. We’re up to the point on Triple J itself where every month we play between 40% and 50% Australian music across our general playlist and programs.” The new channel will build on this.

The format of Unearthed will be akin to ABC’s digital radio channels (Dig, Dig Jazz) but with higher production levels. There won’t be genre-based shows but rather a continuous stream with limited announcements.

“There won’t be presenters in the sense that you’d expect traditionally on Triple J or other radio stations,” Scaddan said, “so there won’t be a breakfast show or a drive show or that sort of thing. But it’s going to be a little bit beyond what the other ABC digital channels sound like as well, so it will be a constant stream of music, it’s very much going to be driven by the music. Digital radio allows text information to go out as well, so people can read track information, artist information as songs are being played.

“A couple of times across each hour you might hear an artist actually introduce their own tracks.”

This is not just a new channel on the cheap. The ABC’s radio division is investing modest funds from its own budget to staff and produce the channel. Unearthed will get its own music director, though who will fill the position has yet to be announced. “That said, Mark Scott and the broader ABC management have always been strong supporters of Unearthed,” Scaddan contends.

An important aspect of the new station for emerging artists will be the potential to garner new revenue streams through APRA payments for Triple J air time. While most artists receiving airplay won’t get more than a few dollars, the struggles of emerging artists are such that even a few dollars here and there can make all the difference when it comes to hiring that studio or buying that new set of strings.

It is easy to criticise Triple J but the new Unearthed channel shows the ABC and (indeed public sphere broadcasting in general) at its best: leveraging its existing infrastructure, technical expertise and deep content pools to present and expose Australian content.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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