What’s going on at the ABC? (pt 2)

Greg Smith is an inductee into the Australian Radio Hall of Fame, and a Director of Radio Today.

Today we publish Part 2 of Greg's piece about 'what's going on at the ABC'. If you missed Part 1 on ABC TV, click here

Let’s talk about ABC Radio.

Kate Dundas, Director of ABC Radio, was kind enough to answer my questions.

Greg : Did the ABC make a fatal strategic error by not converting their AM stations into FM ?  Are they missing out on a generation of FM listeners in the major markets ? Are they now aiming for a younger audience on AM ? If that’s true, does it make sense with an ageing population ?

Kate : The ABC’s transmission arrangements have never been solely within its power and as you know we do not own or operate our transmitters. There was never a moment when the ABC was offered an opportunity for wholesale conversion though as we added new services or coverage areas we tended to do that on the FM band.  If we had had the opportunity to convert all our AM (in regional areas too) not only would the cost have been prohibitive, the greater propagation of the AM signal is hard to replicate. In most markets, the ABC would have to make a difficult decision about whether to provide a smaller number of listeners with a better signal, or maintain a service across a broader geographical area. Not an easy trade-off.

That said, we are well aware of issues with AM. It is true that younger listeners are less aware of its presence and that there are now devices which don’t offer it as an option. It is also the case that the AM signal is degrading over time in the larger cities. But this is why we have put so much effort into digital radio (DAB+), which was launched in the 5 largest capital cities in August 2009, and has been a much bigger success than even the industry predicted. 1.2 million listeners in the last survey! The ABC has also been part of a digital broadcast trial in Canberra for the past 12 months, and we continue to encourage government to extend the signal to the roughly 40% of the population currently living beyond the footprint. Digital will ensure the future of broadcast radio.

Greg : Is there a push inside the ABC for more talk & less music programs ?

Kate : No, there isn’t. The proportions of talk to music have remained very stable on our analogue services and we have no plans to change this. The majority of our digital-only services are music-only. These include ABC Dig, Jazz and Country, and our newest service is triple j Unearthed, which plays 100% unsigned new Australian music.

Greg : Some people tell me that the hiring process at the ABC is too unwieldy & they are missing out on some very talented people.

Kate : I genuinely think that this may be old information. We’ve put a lot of effort into streamlining our recruitment process over the past couple of years so people aren’t left hanging, but it’s true we don’t do instant hires for ongoing positions. It is also extremely rare that we make offers which are not accepted. At the ABC we apply a merit-based selection process which means selecting the best person for the job without favouritism or discrimination, using a process that is fair, objective and transparent.

The ABC is lucky to have a distinct identity and a great reputation not just among our audience, but also as a prospective employer of choice.  As a consequence many roles are hotly contested.  To ensure ‘best fit’, applicants are required to undergo a rigorous selection process by being required to demonstrate skills, behaviours and knowledge against well defined selection criteria for every advertised vacancy. The aim is always to ensure we get the best person for the job.   So we’re continually looking at ways to improve our recruitment and selection procedures, to simplify and streamline the process – as an example, for the large-scale recruitment campaign for ABC Open, Radio developed new and creative ways to attract and employ talented people across regional Australia.

Greg : And what are the criteria for choosing presenters ?

Kate : High level skills in a range of areas – including but not limited to: general knowledge, curiosity, global and local interests, ability to tell stories, ability to grow and learn, ability to simplify complex ideas, listening skills, news appetite, ability to research and find a range of arguments to a story, sense of humour/fun, a genuine passion for radio, and to serve audiences. Depending on the program or network we may also require music programming and presentations skills and specialist knowledge.

Greg : What are the meaningful improvements ABC Radio has achieved in the last few years & what does the ABC need to do to grow audience share & listener satisfaction ?

Kate : As mentioned above, we are particularly happy about our move into digital radio and the launch of the digital-only services, which include ABC Grandstand and ABC Extra. These have allowed us to provide a lot of additional content to our audiences. We have also paid a lot of attention to our multiplatform presence, and each of our services now has an active online presence, spreading across into third party sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Triple j is the standout of course, with successful ‘tentacles’ across an enormous range of platforms and great stats (including half a million Facebook fans), and we developed some very successful apps (for triple j and Unearthed), but all networks are doing well online.

We also launched ABC Open in 2010 (www.abc.net.au/open), which has been well-received in regional Australia. There’s also a new ABC radio app on the way. While we’ve been doing all this we’ve been refining our traditional services and continuing to hold and in some areas further grow audiences. In terms of growing audience share and satisfaction we use the traditional research tools like anyone else and focus on quality improvement through airchecking, TSL workshops, program sampling and review etc. We put a high value on audience feedback – whether its complaints or engagement with us on social media platforms, our websites, through talkback or SMS.

We also have goals other than share or pure audience satisfaction, such as breaking news, providing a depth in commentary and analysis through our leading current affairs programs like AM and PM; providing the best recording of live music possible on our music networks; and providing a comprehensive sporting service through our ABC Grandstand programs. For example we are really looking forward to bringing Australians all over the country a world class Olympic coverage this month.

Greg : Why wouldn’t you move football to News Radio ?

Kate : It depends which football you mean – we cover all codes. If you mean the AFL and the NRL – they are both very popular across the country and with the addition of new teams we would limit choice and the number of games we covered if we concentrated football in just one network. We have therefore moved some AFL football to News Radio, in Brisbane, Sydney and Canberra. This has enabled us to meet the demands of our listeners of both NRL and AFL, with AFL on News Radio, and NRL on local radio. We’ve also been able to use our digital radio station ABC Grandstand to make more sport available to listeners in the 5 capital cities and therefore on digital Local Radio we play alternative programming. Essentially we aim to cover everything we can using a mix of networks and platforms where relevant and necessary. We also stream where our rights arrangements allow.

Greg : Do the Local Stations have any autonomy ?

Kate : Yes. They share some networked programs such as Grandstand and while they follow a common approach to work practices (and a common editorial policy), each station is encouraged to cover local stories with editorial independence. There is no “head office” directive toward story selection; these are decisions that are made locally every day. Put simply, the people at the front line have the best feel for what content will resonate on their shows today.

Greg : Does programming all of the music from Brisbane still work ?

Kate : For Local Radio, which is largely on AM in the capital cities, we might be playing as few as one song per hour – but this is not to say that song is unimportant – it could be argued it’s even more important to play the right track. The regional and FM stations in the Local Radio stable play more music per hour, but again much less than a music network.  As a result, compiling our various playlists across 60 local stations is a task that can be centralised – this allows someone with expertise in the area to make the selections, and it doesn’t really matter where they are based.

Greg : However, I get the sense that ABC Radio is on a path of continuous improvement albeit at a slow pace. They’re paying attention to commercial radio.  Sometime ago Rod Brice, myself & others from the major commercial radio networks took part in a discussion at a national ABC radio conference held in Sydney with the topic being ‘What Can The ABC Learn from Commercial Radio’

Kate : ABC Radio keeps the radar tuned for developments in a number of areas – commercial radio included.  We also seek to learn from NPR in the US, CBC in Canada, and the BBC in England. It’s our contention that commercial and public sector broadcasters are more alike than different, as both are seeking to super-serve audience needs they have identified in their respective markets. We look at our entire offer into a market – not just local radio – and we have a very healthy share and reach in every market we are in. We may compete with other broadcasters but we also collaborate with them – the industry-wide push for digital radio has been a great example of this.

Greg : Also hiring Jeremy Millar as head of Capital City Local Radio was a smart move. I worked with Jeremy & was always impressed with what he brought to the table.

Kate : Jeremy, as Manager of Metropolitan Local Radio, has been a terrific addition to the Radio Executive, and yes, he has a deep knowledge of radio here and around the world and has very valuable insights. Jeremy came to us originally to be Manager Local Radio for NSW (including 702 ABC Sydney and the regional stations). We didn’t specifically look for someone from commercial radio to fill that position – we never do – we look for the best person available at the time. His replacement in that position is home-grown ABC.

Greg : In my experience of listening to 612 ABC, there’s good hooking & teasing of upcoming events plus the branding of segments is much improved. I’d like to hear less read-out tweets & SMS messages & more on-the-street listener interaction. There’s been a marked improvement in production values. However, the ABC can ill afford to lose talented performers like Madonna King (pictured).

Kate : Inevitably people move on, and we’d be the first to agree Madonna’s decision to retire from radio was not welcome news, but we are also very proud of the development that went into helping make her one of the countries great radio broadcasters. There are other good presenters coming up through the ranks. One of our biggest challenges is in growing our own talent – it’s very rewarding to see people work their way up like this (and it’s one of the things we like to pilot during summer leave and other holiday programming).

With respect to tweets and SMS, it’s not really our choice as much as the audience’s. These are platforms that people are increasingly engaging with us on. 10 years ago we almost never put a mobile phone call to air, now we hardly seem to get a landline call (with call drop-outs being a new problem for presenters to deal with). 10 years ago faxes were a principal way newsmakers got in touch with us, now we almost never get a fax. Five years ago we had some SMS and no Twitter – but now thousands of listeners prefer the ease of these tools, plus the anonymity of not having their voice recognised. SMS and Twitter don’t replace phone calls, but they absolutely supplement it in ways we could never have imagined.  These technologies are being used behind the scenes as well – for example it’s not unusual to be sent a resume that simply consists of a link to YouTube. The web has provided an incredible channel for people to further engage with our content, and mobile apps are letting people consume and interact with content well beyond the immediate coverage area.

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