“Nothing has been left untouched.”
The ABC’s Director of News Gaven Morris explains the strategy behind the recent cut to the 0745 radio news.
In a detailed interview with Steve Ahern, Morris says there is a bigger picture than just cutting a bulletin, the change is part of the rebalancing of priorities to better serve digital audio services, as well as broadcast radio.
Despite petitions and public outcry, Morris doubts that there will be any reversal of the decision to drop the flagship 0745 radio bulletin.
“At this stage it is a proposal… we are listening to feedback from our audience, but we have to find $84 million in savings so nothing has been left untouched. If we didn’t cut this bulletin we would have had to cut something else…
“Let me be clear, we don’t want to cut it, but we had to make some hard decisions. I would rather keep reporters in the field, because that is a priority for us.”
Morris says dropping the 0745 bulletin will allow the ABC’s News Division to do away with 7 positions across the country. ABC Managing Director David Anderson is on the record saying the cut to the 0745 bulletin will save about $2 million, but it is a little more complicated than that when the issue is examined in detail. It is more of a workload and workflow issue than simple job cuts.
The 0745 bulletin in the larger states requires a producer and news reader, but otherwise it uses existing content which is available across the corporation. However, there is another level of complexity, reporters often have to make longer versions of their reports for the 15 minute bulletin than they do for shorter 5 minute hourly bulletins. Cutting the longer bulletin will create more efficiencies across the newsroom, making workflow more efficient and allowing the already reduced number of news staff to spend more time on news gathering, according to Morris.
With the cut to the 15 minute bulletin, Local Radio breakfast shows will have more time to fill. Morris says newsrooms will help with this when possible by supplying longer interviews with newsmakers, or doing Q&A explainer chats and location reports on breaking stories.
“Shows on local radio have a news vibe to them… we can help them expand their content.”
He also makes the point that the 0745 bulletin has always been very capital city based, which will now change in that quarter hour. “That bulletin has always had a capital city focus which was not always relevant to regional listeners… we can now provide more local news and information in that 15 minutes for regional breakfast shows. News will be able to provide them with more packages and Q&As.
“We are trying to create positives from cuts that we have been forced to make, so we have thought a lot about how to provide comprehensive services in the best way we can.”
In regional breakfast shows there is often a local or rural news bulletin at 0730, because that is the only time to fit it in, but then it is quickly followed by the longer news bulletin. Freeing up the 0745-0800 quarter will allow more flexibility for local reporters to report their stories in greater detail at prime time, but still leave room for other breakfast presenter content before going to the state news and the national AM current affairs program at 8 o’clock.
Morris has good news for the purists who are despairing that the last remaining long version of the ‘majestic fanfare’ news theme will no longer be heard. “The 7am bulletin will remain 10 minutes long and will become our flagship morning bulletin. We will use the long version of the majestic fanfare theme there.”
The shorter majestic fanfare theme will still be heard for now on other radio bulletins, but on new audio platforms Morris says the newsroom will use more contemporary themes.
DIGITAL AUDIO PLATFORMS
Beyond the 0745 bulletin, there is a lot more happening behind the scenes as part of the internal restructure, aiming to feed audio news to as many platforms as possible with fewer staff than there have been in the past.
The ABC Listen app, smart speakers, podcast platforms and other digital audio services all require feeds that are consistent with the quality of the broadcast radio services and are updated as regularly as live radio bulletins. To fulfil this need, Morris is involving NewsRadio, with changes to the format being put in place so that content from that network can be used on digital platforms. For example, this week, for the first time, I have begun hearing traditional local radio news bulletins at the top and sometimes the bottom of the hour on NewsRadio, presumably freeing up the presenters to better prepare the rest of the content and to send other content to digital platforms.
I heard Sydney based news reader Helen Tzarimas this week doing updates on News Radio, which were also the same updates I heard on my smart speaker flash briefing. Morris says this is an example of the new multipurpose nature of some bulletins. “That update is fed to smart speaker flash briefings… Helen is now part of the digital news team, we need experienced readers like her on the new platforms to maintain the quality that listeners expect from the ABC.
“Audiences are changing their listening habits especially so during the pandemic (see our earlier reports), that bulletin has lost about 20% of its audience over the past few years. We can see that audiences are changing their habits and more of them are using on demand audio services, so we are trying to respond, but at the same time recognise that we still have an existing audience on traditional platforms.
“Make no mistake, we know it is a disappointing decision to cut the 0745 bulletin, but something’s gotta give when there is not enough money to do everything in the same way as it has previously been done… We are looking for a better way to do something new.”
The national digital hub team will expand and the current 12 daily flash briefing and podcast bulletins will triple, to 36 per day, so that updates on digital audio platforms will remain current. Digital audio platforms will also make more use of content from NewsRadio. “NewsRadio will evolve and do more to feed the digital platforms so that we can build our audio brand. Previously our online offering was pretty random, but now we have a plan to retain our reputation on these new platforms and build for the future,” he says.
I put to Gaven Morris that there is more duplication of content now than ever before. For example a story heard on AM in the morning will often be exactly the same story, except with pictures added, as seen on ABC TV News or 7.30 at night. By that time it is 12 hours old. He acknowledged that it is not desirable, but said: “We have to be smart about commissioning content… we can’t afford to have dedicated teams any more for radio and tv…
“We have cut The World Today and PM from one hour to half an hour, we have cut back the number of episodes commissioned for tv shows like Foreign Correspondent, a few years ago we cut Lateline. There’s no part of our output that hasn’t been affected in recent years.”
Morris says the ABC is open to all options as budgets get tighter, but concedes that advertising, even on the new non-broadcast platforms, is unlikely to be used to fill the budget shortfall. “The commercial stations don’t want us competing for their advertising dollar, it’s not in our charter, I can’t see that happening any time soon, but of course we have to have all types of discussions because we can’t continue to do things the same way when we don’t have the same amount of money… We still have a public service remit and we don’t want to be beholden to any advertisers.”
About the Author
Steve is the founding editor of this website.
He is a former broadcaster, programmer, senior executive and trainer who now runs his own company Ahern Media & Training Pty Ltd.
He is a regular writer and speaker about trends in media.
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