A controversial two-year-old decision to replace ABC Classic FM’s overnight broadcasts with the ABC Classic 2 stream — which airs only Australian music without presenters — will be reversed by the end of the year, the station’s manager Richard Buckham told Crikey this morning.

The assurance presenters are returning comes after classical music magazine Limelight yesterday published a story saying staff at the station were bracing for a radical restructure accompanied by a “large number of redundancies” at the station, which could see “all but two existing shows become largely automated”.

Asked if Classic FM plans to undertake redundancies in the near future, Buckham says he cannot answer that yet. He says planning for the next calendar year usually occurs in the last quarter of the year. That means he doesn’t have his budgets or plans for next year. “We’re just a way off that,” he said.

And on the issue of automated broadcasts, Buckham, whose official title is “classical lead” courtesy of a re-organisation of radio earlier this year, says the station is going back to presenters after midnight.

When Classic FM’s Overnight program was replaced with Classic 2’s stream two years ago he said no staff had been made redundant as a result of the change, which was intended to introduce Classic FM listeners to the ABC’s otherwise digital-only feed. Speaking today, he says that’s worked well, “and we think it’s probably time to move back”.

Classic FM hosts are highly knowledgable companions to Classic FM listeners, many of whom reacted with horror when the overnight programs with pre-recorded presenters were replaced. Without hosts, what was the difference between radio and Spotify playlist, many asked. Buckham acknowledges the change was controversial, but says while many wanted a voice to introduce the music overnight, listener figures for Classic FM have actually gone up in the past two years. “Of course, you’re not talking about a lot of people listening to radio at that hour,” he said. “But we did get a higher share.”

The plan isn’t to go back to the old pre-recorded programs that aired on overnights, some of which were quite old and featured presenters who had since left the station (some retained a ghostly presence — when pre-recorded shows stopped airing some listeners assumed those presenting them had been sacked, when the presenters had actually left the station years before). “We won’t be going back to the old programs,” Buckham said. “There’ll usually be a new program every night.

“We think we’ve got the music choices right for overnight, and we will put back fairly minimal presentation. A voice telling listeners what they’ve just heard, in a low-key way.”

Rumours still swirl within the organisation about the future of Classic FM. A review of live music at the ABC is currently underway, which, as Crikey reported in April, is expected to result in a reduction in the number of sound engineers who actually go to concerts to record the music currently aired on stations like ABC Classic. The ABC’s news budget was cut in the last federal budget, though this doesn’t directly affect Classic FM.

Peter Fray

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