What does ABC radio need? Not more executives, some of the ABC’s most high-profile presenters have told the board, after radio head Michael Mason last week revealed a restructure that adds more executive managers — at the cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars — to the division.

Yesterday we told you about ABC radio’s controversial new “director of transformation” role (“The only thing that’s clear to radio staff is the sight of dwindling program-making $$$ going up in smoke,” a tipster said). But it appears this was just the tip of the iceberg.

Mason told staff last week half a dozen new executive management positions would be added, in a restructure intended to “support the agenda we have for ABC radio”. Staff estimate they will cost between $500,000 and $1 million in total. And it comes at a time when ABC radio staff expect $10 million to be cut from the total ABC radio budget in the new financial year. On the question of the cost of the new roles, an ABC spokesperson said: “The outlay we’ve made into all new and upgraded roles represents a modest investment against the saving we need to make for reinvestment into content.”

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An organisational chart (click to enlarge) of the new structure sent to staff last week. Crikey has inserted arrows pointing to positions Mason told staff were new. 

As part of the restructure, several roles will be created, and many renamed, Mason told staff. For example, Deb Leavitt, the current manager of Radio National, will now report to a new role, the “head spoken” exec (who will oversee those who oversee spoken-word programs). And Leavitt’s role itself will change from its current name to be called “ideas network lead”.

It’s a similar story in the music stations; there’s a new “head music” exec, and the manager of Classic FM, Richard Buckham, has a new title: “classical lead”.

Several other positions currently filled in an acting capacity will become permanent roles, as the ABC told Crikey yesterday.

The corporatisation of many of the titles, while amusing, is only a side issue to the larger concerns of staff around resourcing. Staff feel the ABC has added a new layer of executives at a time when they’re being asked to work harder than ever, in a division that’s been smaller since 380 ABC regional radio staff were moved into the new ABC regional division.

The Guardian this morning revealed the existence of a letter sent by 17 of the ABC’s most high-profile content creators — including Fran Kelly, Margaret Throsby, Robyn Williams, Norman Swan and Geraldine Doogue — to the board, protesting against the new changes. The letter, since seen by Crikey, says many ABC radio staff are “simply too busy and even too proud to carry on about the sheer effort it takes to get good programs to air as resources disappear”:

“If the truth were told, most outsiders would find the situation simply shocking.

“It is therefore surprising and worrying to see a new structure for ABC Radio being implemented that will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and place yet another layer of management between ourselves and the Director of Radio.

“It was even more surprising in a week when Mark Scott had told Paul Barry that many more content-making jobs will need to go if funding could not be found. The situation is grim.

“If there is money enough in the system for new roles, then the ones we need are:  a) more young bright people to prepare for new challenges and b) staff in the regions and the smaller capital cities beyond Ultimo and Southbank.

“You may have been told that we are change-resistant, but this is not so. We have always moved with the times and shall continue to do so. We were the first to press for podcasting and on-line program availability. But we are not happy with changes which divert resources upwards, away from frontline content-making up into new and unnecessary management positions.

“The splendid ABC TV/Working Dog series UTOPIA showed how preposterously named executives with cosmic responsibilities will gobble up resources as well as good will. It is an experiment, in the tough broadcasting world in Australia, the ABC cannot afford. We urge you to reconsider this venture.”

ABC radio staff say they simply don’t understand the reasons for the new positions. An ABC spokesperson told Crikey: “These changes are the culmination of a significant body of work in developing our 2020 strategy. ABC Radio has chosen to make these changes in response to the pace of change in the media landscape and the increasing number of digital platforms.

“The executive changes will ensure ABC Radio continues to evolve its networks and position itself for a digital future.”

Mason’s emails said it had become clear to management that the current executive structure doesn’t support these initiatives:

“This is a significant amount of work which requires dedicated leadership resource which is very difficult to achieve on top of all of our business as usual activities. To meet the demands of a changing audio market, our digital and broadcast platforms need to collaborate more closely, both within the division and across the corporation as a whole.

“Moreover, our programming will migrate towards an audience-centric rather than a platform-centric approach. We also need to incorporate greater capacity for strategic partnerships and revenue generation.”

The Community and Public Sector Union yesterday also sent a letter to the ABC board, asking for more details about the changes. Given upcoming budget cuts and changes at an executive level (Michelle Guthrie takes over as managing director of the organisation later this month — she started her handover period with outgoing chief Mark Scott yesterday), the CPSU says “it seems extraordinary that the ABC would be seeking to increase senior executive salary costs at this time”.

“The feedback from radio members in the last few days is that the proposal appears rushed and sudden, and it has raised serious questions about whether due process has been followed.”

The CPSU asked the ABC for the total salary costs of its radio senior executives for every year since 2010, as well as the salary costs once the new positions are filled. It has yet to receive a response, though Crikey understands the ABC does intend to respond next week. An ABC spokesperson said ABC Radio has received the feedback and will address it “once it has been compiled and reviewed”.

The changes come at a time when ABC radio staff are producing more content than ever. Since the 2014 budget cut, the division has lost staff. “We’re scrambling — everyone’s busting their chops to compensate for these cuts,” an insider said. The need to market content online through the ABC website means many content makers are doing more jobs than they used to. It also comes as the ABC conducts a review into live music recording; it is expected to cut some sound engineers, responsible for actually going to places and recording the music currently aired on stations like ABC Classic.

Peter Fray

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