The ABC is hoping the appointment of former 7.30 political editor Chris Uhlmann to host AM will sharpen up the morning radio program and restore it to its agenda-setting glory days.

In a shock reversal yesterday, the ABC announced current ABC News Breakfast co-host Virginia Trioli will not replace Tony Eastley as AM host, as had been announced with much fanfare only 10 days earlier. Trioli, who was planning to move from Melbourne to Sydney for the new role, will remain on television as co-host of News Breakfast. Trioli is married to ABC fact-check editor Russell Skelton, who works mostly out of Sydney, and has a son aged under two.

The ABC says Trioli changed her mind due to private family reasons.

While Trioli’s decision could have been a major blow for AM — heard by around a million listeners a day on almost 60 ABC stations — ABC sources say Uhlmann is viewed as a more-than-worthy replacement within the broadcaster. Uhlmann will host the show out of Canberra and, in a departure from current practice, will conduct the big political interviews.

AM‘s heyday was 10 years ago when what politicians said on the show set the agenda for the whole day,” a senior ABC source said. “It’s time for it to be freshened up.”

There is a view within the ABC that AM has ceded influence in recent years to Fran Kelly’s Radio National Breakfast, which has a smaller audience but can react more quickly to breaking news. AM, meanwhile, has been locked into a more rigid format, with most big political interviews conducted by ABC Radio’s chief political correspondent.

One ABC mole expressed concern that the political correspondent role could be “emasculated” if Uhlmann conducted the big political interviews.

There are also concerns about Uhlmann hosting the show from Canberra while veteran executive producer David Burgess and most of the production team are based in Sydney. As an insider characterised it: “It is complete madness. It’s the golden rule: you don’t have your EP separate from the host. But there was a hole to fill after the fuck-up with Trioli.”

Asked about the split presenter-EP arrangement, ABC current affairs boss Bruce Belsham told Crikey: “It’s a bit new for us but it’s something we believe we can make work … We have much more sophisticated communications technology than we did in the past.”

The move appears to scotch speculation that Uhlmann had stepped down from 7.30 to avoid any perceived conflicts of interest given his wife is rising Labor MP Gai Brodtmann, currently the shadow parliamentary secretary for defence. Uhlmann was making a documentary on the Rudd-Gillard years for ABC TV; Belsham says he’ll step away from the project but it will still go ahead.

Former foreign correspondent Tony Eastley, who hosted AM for 10 years, is moving to ABC News 24 as a senior presenter.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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