We still live in a great age for Radio… Digital era a chance to take greater risks: ABC’s Michael Mason

In this exclusive article for radioinfo, Michael Mason, the Director of ABC Regional & Local, writes about the place of ABC Radio in the changing media landscape and explains how Australia’s national broadcaster is rethinking its strategies to better engage with evolving audiences in the new media landscape.

Like all media, Radio is in the midst of major change. The digital disruption we are experiencing has been building for a long time, as technology inevitably influences the habits of audiences. We see it in both the habits around how people access media and also in their content choices and consumption patterns.

Much has been written about digital disruption and the media industry. For radio, this disruption has had positive elements as well as presenting challenges. The digital era has brought an explosion of choice for Australians, who can now easily access the best content from all over the world.

Choice is a great thing – and no-one, including the ABC, should be afraid of choice. But that increase in choice has impacted on the time spent listening to our services, as Australians incorporate more media sources into their schedule. 

I believe we still live in a great age for Radio. It’s not the first time that we’ve heard about the decline of radio – TV was predicted to be death of radio and that proved to be far from accurate.  The digital era gives us the chance to take greater risks with content and also a deeper understanding of what audiences what through the digital data that comes with that technology.  

The appearance in the market of the big international players has changed audience expectations around quality. Listeners now expect on-demand content that is seamless, intuitive and personalised. These are welcome developments, enabling listeners to create their own personal media schedules and to have tailored content delivered to them how and when they want it.  And ABC continues to compete above its weight in this regard, producing world-class programs and audio products enjoyed by people all over the globe.

However, the reality is that the global players who set the standard in this technology have achieved this through huge investment in technology and service delivery. Their budgets dwarf ours and this presents challenges for us over the coming years.

One of the biggest challenges of all is the need for the ABC to continue delivering its linear radio services while developing and responding to the rapid uptake of digital services.  Australians have always been early adopters of new technology and this is evident in the fast-moving changes to Australian’s media habits.

Maintaining linear radio services requires a fixed budget, which incorporates the costs of distributing our metropolitan, regional and national radio services to almost every corner of the country through a system of more than 600 transmitters. 

At the same time, there is increasing demand to invest in our digital content and services to meet the expectations of the growing number of our listeners who prefer this means of delivery.  These costs are growing exponentially as we ramp up the production of digital-first content and continue to invest in the technology needed to deliver this content, including distribution to third-party platforms.

We don’t have a choice other than to service – and fund – both streams, if we want to continue to reach a large section of the Australian community, particularly younger Australians.  This is particularly challenging for us in the current funding environment.

Changing media habits have meant that we in turn, have had to change our services and programs in response.

A good example of this is our Radio Current Affairs. Traditionally our audience would tune into our current affairs programs at particular times of the day – mornings, midday and early evenings.  But this is increasingly not the case as more and more Australians access news and current affairs online and throughout the day.  Audiences can now dip in and out of news and information whenever it suits them and on a wider choice of platforms.

We made changes to The World Today and PM at the beginning of the year to respond to this, reducing the length of The World Today and PM from one hour to 30 minutes. These programs have a long history as part of the RN and Local Radio schedules and we need to do what we can to ensure they are successful into the future. We need to evolve as our audience evolves and adjust our programming accordingly.

This year we also made once-in-a-generation changes to our Capital City network line-ups. These changes were in part a response to the trends I’ve already outlined, but they have also been made to ensure our stations truly reflect the wider communities and interests they serve.  ABC’s Capital City network at its best, celebrates the life of the city each station serves.  Our Local Radio city stations nuture local talent, report local news and reflect each city’s unique identity. 
Our charter obligation is to serve all Australians. Not all ABC Radio stations aim to be relevant to all Australians. In fact, services such as ABC Classic FM, RN and triple j are targeted at specific interests or demographics. But ABC Local Radio has always been the ABC’s station for the whole community and as such, it’s vital that it reflects that wider community.  

We don’t make programming decisions with the same commercial pressures faced by other radio networks. Instead, our pressures come from our charter obligations and fundamentally our need to stay relevant to the Australian people. We can’t afford to be complacent and accept reaching an increasingly narrow section of the Australian radio audience with our mainstream radio network. And that was the trend we had been seeing across Local Radio. We reach certain segments of the population well, but there are others that we hardly reach at all.

Transmitting Local Radio on the AM band is part of that story. All stations broadcasting on AM – both the ABC and commercial stations – have been losing share for some time, even amongst their heartland older demographics. Younger audiences barely listen to AM. It has a reach of less than 20 per cent among the under 40 audience compared to close to 90 per cent for FM. Digital platforms provide part of the answer to this issue, but AM remains an ongoing issue for Local Radio.

But regardless of the platform we broadcast Local Radio on, our content needs to reflect the broad range of interests in the community and our presenters needs to be diverse, just like our communities are. This isn’t to say we target any particular demographic in our presenters, more the reverse, that clearly our presenters should come from a range of demographics.

We know the changes we have made are significant and that for our audience there are some big adjustments in 2018. Introducing new presenters is always a challenge. It’s a balancing act between risking upsetting listeners who have built a relationship with a particular presenter over many years and introducing new voices which is part of the necessary evolution that keeps a radio network relevant.

Fundamentally, the 2018 schedule changes were made because as the ABC, our job is to be relevant to Australians. We have to anticipate and meet the demographic, social and media usage trends that shape Australia. That’s our job and is absolutely critical to making quality radio that is part of the day to day lives of a large number of Australians.


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