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Aus Music Dealt A 'Devastating Blow' On ABC Local Radio

9 February 2024 | 11:45 am | Stephen Green

"It’s a missed public resource if it’s no longer offered to Australian musicians, and it’s a stinky use of the airwaves."

ABC

ABC (Supplied)

Anger is growing in the Australian music industry after revelations of music policy changes at ABC Local Radio. Statistics obtained by The Music show that a significant shift has occurred over the last few months at the national broadcaster, with opportunities for local music the biggest casualty.

A year-on-year comparison of songs aired on ABC 702 Sydney in January shows a big swing in the amount of both new and Australian music played on the station. In January 2023, the playlist featured 27 percent Australian content, dropping to 19 percent in January 2024. Over the same period, songs released in the previous four years halved from 18 percent of the playlist to around nine percent.

The result of the two changes means that in January 2024, just three percent of the songs played were of Australian tracks released in the previous four years, down from 11.5 percent the previous year, meaning a loss of two-thirds of the airplay opportunities for new Australian artists on the network over the twelve months.

The figures for Q4 2023 show that the results were also consistent across that period.

In March last year, the ABC announced the appointment of ex-Netflix and BBC executive Chris Oliver-Taylor as the ABC’s first ever Chief Content Officer. Soon after, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that ABC Local Radio had appointed former 2SM and 2CH music director and general manager Cherie Romaro to “modernise programs for younger audiences”. Romaro’s impressive career also saw her at Triple M and 2Day FM. Music fans will recognise her from the documentary John Farnham: Finding The Voice, where she was credited as being one of the first to spin You’re The Voice at 2SM.

Upon her appointment, she said: “My involvement is to give an external perspective and provide added value to be able to assess the entire audio offering nationally and define where ABC Radio can grow their audiences and re-connect with listeners who have left us.”

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In July, ex-Nova Content Director Ben Latimer was appointed Head of Audio Content, overseeing the current transformation of the ABC radio brands and setting the new direction with a re-focus on over-50s for ABC Local Radio.

Speaking with the SMH in December, he said: “The really big part was focusing the presenters and the producers on understanding their audience, which is 50-plus. We’ve reimagined our music and designed a playlist that is really catering for that 50-plus audience.”

The new management structure has seen changes to the ABC music department more broadly, including triple j with the departures of Richard Kingsmill and Meagan Loader, as well as new appointments, including ex-Triple M head Mike Fitzpatrick in the role of ABC Local’s Head of Capital City Network & Sport.

“When asked about the changes to the playlist this week, Latimer told The Music: “The ABC Local Radio music playlist is thoughtfully crafted with our target audience in mind, those aged 50-plus. The music strategy was adjusted last year and includes a mix of well-known songs from beloved artists from Australia and around the world.”

“The ABC continues to support new and established Australian artists across our network. The ABC has many platforms that showcase Australian music including Double J, triple j, ABC Jazz, ABC Classic and ABC Country as well as our dedicated new Australian music station triple j Unearthed.

“Our ABC Local Radio playlist is constantly evolving, and audience insights play a crucial role in ensuring we’re getting the mix right.”

When asked, Latimer did not address whether playlists changes are to be expected at the ABC’s other radio networks, although The Music understands that an announcement about the new Head of Music appointment who will oversee triple j, Double J and ABC Country is imminent.

The Music has spoken to various current ABC Local Radio insiders across Australia who have expressed concerns with the changes. One insider suggested that the “new recruits in management” have not taken the time to understand the ABC’s charter and that they have “missed the memo” that they are not here to replicate a commercial station.

Another reported that an email was circulated to all staff from content boss Chris Oliver-Taylor congratulating the management team, which particularly raised eyebrows for those fighting for Australian content. The email read: “I’m loving the new playlist. Every time I hear a song now, it’s a song I know.”

Another suggested that the focus on playlist changes was a “rookie mistake that all the outsiders that come in without understanding the stations make”.

“ABC Local Radio is a talk station. If you come in and the first thing you do is pick apart the playlist, you obviously haven’t taken on what we actually are. When we play music, it works best when it’s for specific reasons. Our listeners are here for the talk. If there’s a song we can talk about or that relates to the news of the day, then we should play it. Nobody wants to hear a discussion wrap up and then the announcer go ‘and here’s a classic from Michael Bublé’.”

“When we do play music, it might as well be something interesting or Australian. There may be problems to solve, but that’s not one of them.”

Another insider suggested that there were music changes that needed to be made at the station and that some staff appreciated that a shakeup is necessary, but that the focus is not in the right place.

“I do think that sometimes in the past listeners might have preferred something a little more familiar, but I think if they were serious about getting the music right, the focus should be about how to make things topical and relevant town by town. Surely for a supposedly local talk station like the ABC a song that’s resonant to an audience in Adelaide and a song that’s resonant to an audience in Hobart or Brisbane may not be the same song, especially if you’re only playing a a few of them in a given show.”

The changes have yet to show positive audience results with ABC Sydney suffering a 2.1 percent drop in the 65-plus audience in the final ratings results of 2023. The station’s cumulative audience dropped a substantial 50,000 in its target over-55s demographic. The station will be hoping that new breakfast host (and ex-Chaser) Craig Reucassel will help turn their fortunes around.

The CEO of Eleven Music and manager for Missy Higgins, Cold Chisel, Midnight Oil and others John Watson said the playlist shift was a blow for the Australian music industry.

“It’s weird and frustrating that the Albanese government is putting its foot on the accelerator for Australian music at the same time as ABC Local Radio seems to be hitting the brakes. If similar changes are made across other ABC stations it will be catastrophic. Of course, we’re already at 50-year lows in terms of new local music chart share, so these numbers are a symptom as well as a cause. Local music is increasingly marginalised on most of the online platforms where music discovery now happens. As such, the programming changes at ABC Local Radio probably reflect this fundamental problem while also, sadly, making things even worse for Australian artists and Australian culture.”

Radio legend Bill Riner, long-time programmer of the ABC Local Radio network and pioneer of the ABC Local music format, said that the changes were sad for Australian art. He pointed to ABC Local’s unique position to be able to champion local artists to their local area and the importance and thought that was traditionally put into the network’s support for Australian music.

“It’s a very unsung thing that happened for musicians when they got ABC Local Radio’s support. There’s a great deal of talent in this country that will now lose that stepping stone of opportunity to find an audience. There are fewer and fewer opportunities for airplay with the consolidation of music and media. It’s a missed public resource if it’s no longer offered to Australian musicians and it’s a stinky use of the airwaves.

“It’s like shutting down a bunch of art galleries and then wondering why there’s nowhere to hang art anymore.”

ABC Local Radio is primarily a talk station with different splits between music and chat station to station. The playlists work differently to most music-based stations, with announcers provided with a log of songs, but they may only play a selection of what is provided, depending on the length of segments. This means that material aired can vary significantly station to station on the ABC Local network, despite being programmed from the same playlist. Traditionally, announcers have had flexibility to play more locally focused choices, but it is understood that this has continued to tighten up over the last few years and the provided playlists are now largely adhered to.

Ash Hills, GM of UNIFIED Artist Management, and manager of Australian artists Dan Sultan and Teen Jesus and the Jean Teasers, said: “We need to hear more new Australian music on the radio, not less. ABC Local Radio has a long history of supporting both up-and-coming and established artists, many of which don’t receive playlist support on commercial networks. The adverse impact of less new music on our local ABC radio stations around the country is a devastating blow - and not just to the artists and local communities, but to culture more broadly.”

ABC Radio 702’s Most Played Songs - January 2023
1. Mana TakatapuiJen Cloher
2. Say I Love YouRenee Geyer
3. Ready For The SkyBudjerah
4. Bad Moon RisingCreedence Clearwater Revival
5. Say NothingFlume feat. May-A
6. Running Up That HillKate Bush
7. Walking On SunshineKatrina & The Waves
8. 2 Be LovedLizzo
9. You’re The VoiceMitch Tambo
10. It’s A Man’s Man’s WorldRenee Geyer

ABC Radio 702’s Most Played Songs - January 2024
1. Running Up That HillKate Bush
2. JoleneDolly Parton
3. Suspicious MindsElvis Presley
4. BudapestGeorge Ezra
5. From Little Things Big Things Grow Paul Kelly & Kev Carmody
6. You Can Call Me Al Paul Simon
7. 59th Street Bridge SongSimon & Garfunkel
8. Stuck In The Middle With YouStealers Wheel
9. Crazy LoveVan Morrison
10. RecklessAustralian Crawl