The ABC Radio boss sits for an exclusive interview with Steve Ahern
Amongst all the announcements about budget and program cuts, Michael Mason has been confirmed in his role as Director of ABC Radio, with his first task being the difficult one of implementing required changes to the Radio Division, in response to budget cuts across the whole of ABC.
Newcastle will be hit hardest in Local Radio, a range of programs will be cut from RN, NewsRadio will move into the News Division and Classic FM will be hit with a $1.5 million cut.
radioinfo’s Steve Ahern caught up with Michael Mason as he travelled around the country explaining the impending changes to ABC Radio staff.
Could you outline the changes to RN. Which programs will go, and will there be any new programs? How many staff will have to leave?
A number of programs will be decommissioned: Bush Telegraph, By Design, RN First Bite, Weekend Planet, Sound Quality, The Quiet Space, and the Feature programs 360documentaries, Into the Music, Hindsight, Poetica and Encounter.
We have taken the decision to decommission Bush Telegraph because we feel that on RN the best service to regional Australians is not through an explicit rural program but by a weaving a national consciousness into our own style of programming, including during the key times of Breakfast and Drive. We are particularly keen to source arts and culture content from regional Australia. Cuts have to be made, but in the light of the advent of the Regional division, we feel there are more effective and relevant ways to serve regional audiences than by dedicating this one hour each day to regional issues. Country Weekend (a popular program) will continue to be heard on Saturday mornings.
By Design and RN First Bite will be replaced by a two hour Saturday morning program focused on everything that makes up a good life: food, design and more.
The Weekend Planet, Quiet Space and Sound Quality will make room for the popular Jazztrack program, which will move from ABC Classic FM to RN.
Our Features programs will be replaced by a new, four day-a-week strip of 30 minute radio documentaries and features, broadcast at 1100 Monday to Thursday(with repeats on the weekend, at times TBC). The change in broadcast time and duration will give RN’s unique feature content a stronger terrestrial broadcast to a larger available audience, as well as making it more attractive for podcast and mobile listening.
We are proposing to introduce a new Afternoons program. This will be a curated mix of highlights from our built programming allowing listeners to sample and enjoy our more complex programs at a busy time of the day.
There will also be a new program called Between the Lines with Tom Switzer on Thursday evening at 7.30pm. The program will feature current affairs analysis and opinion on the big issues in contemporary international affairs.
16 positions are now potentially redundant from RN. A further six are potentially redundant from Rural because of our proposal to decommission Bush Telegraph. There would, however, be opportunities for some staff to be redeployed.
It is also proposed that eleven new positions are created in RN, including digital specialists to allow a more sustainable, digital footing in the changing media environment. We know there is a current and emerging RN audience who want our content, but want it on their own terms, on mobile and on demand. This strategy ensures we are there to meet them.
And the changes for Local Radio: Some regional outposts are being closed – please explain which and why.
The five outposts in question: Wagin, Morwell, Port Augusta, Gladstone and Nowra are very small. Wagin, for example, has not had anyone working in it for several years. Their closure would have minimal impact on staff and involves no loss of regional content. Where there are affected content makers, it is proposed that they will be relocated to nearby ABC offices.
While the ABC is committed to maintaining its investment in regional and rural Australia, it does not mean that everything we do has to remain the same. The bush is changing and so are we. The idea behind the new Regional Division is to take a fresh look at how we deliver for those audiences. There will be a period of consultation before the final shape of the Division is decided.
Larger stations like Newcastle and Canberra are also being trimmed back. What’s happening there? Which programs will go and how many staff lost?
It is proposed that Newcastle would be reconfigured as a regional station, which means that it faces a great deal of change, but 1233 would stay local when it matters most, in prime time shifts.
The proposal sees the potential decommissioning of two 1233 programs – Sunday Mornings and Newcastle Afternoons – to be replaced by networked programs from Sydney, in line with other regional stations around the country. It is also proposed to reduce the level of admin support, promos production, marketing and online production.
Rather than maintaining a local marketing presence, resources would be allocated on a needs basis through the NSW/ACT Marketing team. Likewise, promo support would be provided from the NSW promo team in Sydney, just as support for regional promos works in all other states.
Local Radio has recently undertaken a review of the way resources are spread over the country, which showed that inequities had occurred over time. As a result we are proposing to reallocate resources between stations. As part of this, we are proposing changes to the Content Director role in Canberra, Newcastle and Hobart, which would see them take on some production duties within their current role.
Any other changes in Local Radio?
Through our process of finding potential savings in Local Radio, a large part of our focus has been on strategic changes around Statewide broadcasting, both from a budgetary and audience perspective. We believe our energies need to be focused on strong regional Statewide and local Drive programs as this shift fits better with audience lifestyles and listening patterns. We believe Statewide Afternoon programming lends itself more readily to a single Statewide program.
Queensland would lose the regional Afternoon show out of Rockhampton which will be replaced by the Afternoon show with Kelly Higgins-Devine out of Brisbane.
NSW would lose two Afternoon programs, Statewide from Port Macquarie & 1233 ABC Newcastle Afternoon which would be replaced the Afternoon show with James Valentine out of Sydney. The Statewide program from Port Macquarie would move to Drive, replacing the current Statewide Drive out of Sydney, giving a stronger regional focus at this critical time of day.
Mark Scott talked about regional operations changing – what is meant by that? What will be the effect on programs and people?
The announcement of the Regional Division would provide a truly-converged service to regional Australians at a time when commercial media services are in marked decline.
We know people who listen to our radio programs, consume our news services, hear our Rural Reports or visit our online offering don’t distinguish between the different departments in the same way we do. Creating a separate division and simplifying reporting lines would enable teams to work with a common purpose for their local community.
Since these changes have been announced, has there been any backlash from the audience, especially in Newcastle or Canberra?
There are no on-air impacts in Canberra, and while there has been a focus on Newcastle with the potential loss of two programs, levels of local content and community engagement will remain high. We do appreciate that changes in local stations are felt by communities, but Newcastle and Canberra will remain vital voices for the audiences they serve.
When will the changes take place?
The ABC is now in a process of consultation with staff and the length of these negotiations will affect how and how quickly any changes may be implemented. However, we would hope to start the new program year with the new program schedules in place.
Mark Scott also announced that NewsRadio will leave the Radio Division and go to the News Division. Why? What is the benefit of this change?
NewsRadio was created at a time before the ABC had a stand alone, cross-platform news division. It makes structural sense that NewsRadio sit within News, as the NewsRadio team will now be able to collaborate more closely with a much bigger team.
Are there also cuts within the management and other non-program areas of ABC Radio? What is planned in these behind the scenes areas?
As mentioned, there has been an extensive review of Management and Support areas across the ABC.
As a result, 13 admin support roles and nine management positions within Radio are potentially redundant or will be abolished. This represents a considerable, 15% reduction in these support roles.
What about digital radio transmission, is funding secure for that?
The ABC is very pleased with the strong, continuing growth in listening to digital radio in the five mainland state capital cities. There are no plans to withdraw from digital radio and, with the rest of the radio industry, we continue to talk to the Federal Government about expanding transmission into regional centres.
Digital and online channels such as Double J, ABC Jazz, ABC Country, etc – how will they be affected?
There will be no effect on the digital-only stations.
Mark Scott talked about cutting back on some websites. Which ABC Radio sites will be closed or cut back?
The ABC established its first sites almost 20 years ago (ABC Radio was particularly early in jumping online) and understandably, we do now have quite a few sites that have become outdated and have stopped attracting audiences. It’s a good time to review them all, and identify the ones which could either be closed down or consolidated so that we can put more effort into the sites that audiences do visit and maintain a more coherent and consistent web presence overall. The Managing Director has offered an estimate of about 100 sites closing down across the ABC, and yes, a fair share of those will belong to Radio.
Will the special digital fund that is being created benefit ABC Radio services? How?
There will be an immediate benefit to radio audiences from the installation of new audio streaming infrastructure. The new hardware will offer a more robust service than currently available and will have the capacity to allow delayed streams of the national services into all states where required, as well as the staged introduction of regional radio services. We plan to have 17 regional services (roughly half of all available) up and streaming by mid 2015. The new infrastructure will also better support any and all future developments in online audio delivery.
Radio has also been guaranteed annual digital research and development funding to enable us to stay front of world in online and digital delivery to audiences.
You are travelling about talking to staff across Australia. How are radio staff feeling about these cuts?
Staff are understandably feeling anxious, particularly those directly impacted by our proposed changes. Staff naturally feel for colleagues facing potential redundancy – our people work in close knit teams and this is a sad time for all of us. There’s also a great deal of information to get through.
But ABC Radio is incredibly resilient and we believe that we can get through this process and remain a strong vibrant place full of creativity, innovation and ideas.
Any cuts to Classic FM?
ABC Classic FM will be required to find $1.5m in cuts, and the proposal currently under negotiation would result in the loss of around 14 positions. Savings would primarily be found from a reduction in the number of classical music concerts recorded annually (300 per year will still be broadcast, as is pretty much the case now), a reduction in the number of management positions and changes to music programming.