Chris Taylor: How To Fix ABC Radio

Chris Taylor: How To Fix ABC Radio

As Aunty turns to consultants to fix its radio ratings woes, Chris Taylor, offers some free advice of his own.

I received a phone call from the ABC this week, asking if I was available to fill in for James Valentine on his local radio breakfast show. James was apparently seeking a couple of weeks off over Easter to spend some quality time with his saxophone, or his family: whichever offered the least resistance. And where once the offer to take the reins of ABC Sydney’s flagship breakfast slot might have been a terrifyingly big ask, recent reports about the station’s disappearing audience made me breathe a little easier. It’s harder to feel daunted when the number of listeners you’re talking to lies, in industry-speak, “somewhere between 2SM and zero.”

I’m sure there’s no shortage of experts currently lining up to tell ABC Radio where it’s going wrong. Which is why I was somewhat puzzled to learn that the one expert who’s been formally parachuted in to save the day is the former general manager of 2CH, a station with such a shaky intuition for what audiences want that it’s no longer actually on air. Hiring a 2CH executive as your miracle radio-whisperer is a bit like hiring someone from Tiger Air to teach you how to fly. It’s a curious choice. But it begins to make more sense when you realise few other radio executives can empathise with the ABC quite so well when it comes to facing shrinking relevance on a daily basis. At 2CH, the combination of Steely Dan and horse racing news ultimately proved a losing formula. But at least that’s one format the ABC can now confidently take off the table. That’s a good start.

Of course, in many ways, it’s no surprise at all that ABC Radio numbers are falling. The real surprise is that it’s taken this long. In the bedfellow medium of television, the ratings have been in free-fall for more than a decade, as the audience has become splintered across the myriad of other viewing platforms now available to them. But radio remained oddly defiant, recording no comparable nosedive, leading many industry suits to buy into the nonsense of the medium’s timeless invulnerability.

The ABC was perhaps more complacent than most, confidently believing that its old audience would never tire of old technology. That wisdom held true to a point. But no newfangled technology remains newfangled forever, and soon enough the greying denizens of Turramurra and Brighton were not only not confused by the concept of a podcast; they were positively entranced by it.

Here was an ear-opening new toy that, much like the emojis that they over-deploy in text messages to their children, they couldn’t get enough of. Podcasting, clearly, is a threat to all radio stations. But it poses a particularly sticky challenge for the ABC, whose audience is naturally drawn to the kind of thoughtful, esoteric, unapologetically long-form conversations that thrive in the podcast world. It’s like Radio National, but with fewer cobwebs; and, perhaps more critically, it’s a place where an interesting idea doesn’t ever have to be put on pause, to make way for news headlines or a traffic update or a banal string of text messages from listeners. The attraction of that cannot be overstated.

It never ceases to amaze me how, in the age of smart-phone addiction and instant information, ABC Local Radio still devotes a considerable amount of its air-time to tell us things we already know – or can readily find out – from our phone apps. With the greatest respect to Vic Lorusso and his colleagues in the traffic business, no driver on the road in the year 2023 needs to be told where to expect delays: we all have Google Maps open in the car, and the sections of road shaded red speak far more directly to us than anything Vic can tell us from his chopper. Ditto with weather reports. Ditto with time-calls. Ditto with market results. For many listeners, it all increasingly feels a bit like dead air: the sort of radio you get when your format is rusted-on, even in the face of evidence that your audience no longer is.

There are exceptions, of course. In times of genuine emergency, the ABC remains peerless. At the first flicker of a flame during bushfire season, the network’s ability to pivot from a discussion about sponge cakes to rolling evacuation orders is stunning. It is, frankly, public service broadcasting at its purest and best. And there must be those inside the organisation, in their most perversely cynical moments, who secretly wish bushfires happened more often. Nothing guarantees relevance quite like a crisis. So maybe the answer to the ABC’s woes is much more obvious than it thinks. It’s not a consultant that they need to keep them in business. It’s an arsonist.

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