ABC Classic FM is once again embroiled in controversy, this time over its commitment to broadcasting live concerts. Carl Vine, Musica Viva’s artistic director, has criticised senior management at the ABC for “quite viciously” cutting the station’s budget to the point where it is “ripping the guts out of what Classic FM should be doing”. Live concert broadcasts used to be one of its central pillars, but Vine says the number it programs per year has reduced from 600 to 300 over the past six years. “I believe that this year it’s going to be 100,” he told Limelight.
Classic FM meanwhile gave Limelight an assurance that it will maintain the figure to around 300 per year and denies it has plans to further reduce live broadcasting.
One ABC source told Music Australia that Vine’s figures are nearer the truth. “There are now so few live broadcasts direct from the concert venues”. On the station’s claimed figure of 300 total newly recorded and direct concert broadcasts a year, our informant is deeply sceptical.
Listeners have not yet heard a noticeable reduction of concerts on air. However, as the repeat broadcast rights for the backlog of older recorded concerts are exhausted, our source believes that by the end of the year the output will drop considerably due to fewer recent concerts replenishing the supply.
Alarmingly, the station has already dropped concerts from its schedule on Friday and Saturday nights where for decades it featured regular, high profile direct broadcasts from around the country. This might be because playing recorded concerts on weekend afternoons could bring them to a larger audience, but according to our source, CFM staff suspect that the intention is to weaken the link to live music-making and lower expectations in advance of cuts. Many listeners will remember how ‘Sunday Live’ was dropped in controversial circumstances two years ago.
“The saddest part is that we lose a sense of what’s happening musically around the country. Also, musicians will cease to be heard talking about music due to the loss of interval features and the axing of the weekly feature program ‘Music Makers’,” our source says.
The problem is that for all radio stations live broadcasts are costly, and one can easily imagine how opera and orchestral broadcasts are particularly so with their elaborate technical needs. The Lewis Efficiency Study into the ABC and SBS in 2014 concluded that “In calendar year 2013, around half of the total Classic FM budget, approximately $4.3 million was expended on 610 live concerts, of which 12 percent was associated with broadcast rights and artists fees.”
It should not be surprising, therefore, that CFM might be looking at ways of further reducing costs where it thinks it can. This is especially so given a major restructure of the national broadcaster that is anticipated next month.
“You need a lot less staff if you don’t do live broadcasts,” says our source. “Also, listeners will notice the reduction of live concert broadcasts less if they are shifted to different hours.”
Furthermore, our informant says that in a rush to streamline the station and reduce staff numbers, management have abandoned the ABC’s comprehensive CD libraries for a much smaller collection of ripped recordings, repetitively programmed out of a computer database designed for pop music. Presenters generally have no say in the music selected and are being pressured to pre-record their announcements for automated playout. Most staff believe that very soon some airshifts will feature little more than generic station IDs and promos. Morale is very low as a consequence.
Another change widely anticipated from within ABC Classic FM, according to our source, is a move to purely digital radio and online streaming. This would put it on par with the talk-free Classic 2 streaming service and the yoga and meditation oriented Classic Flow which ABC Radio introduced in 2014 and 2016 respectively.
“The fear is that FM transmitters will be lost to Classic FM and be given over to the metro stations [which are presently on the AM band],” says the informant. “The ABC has made very public changes to the names of the AM stations by removing the AM frequencies (702, 891 etc.) from their titles, and this may be seen as a prelude to moving them to FM, and reducing CFM to digital radio and online streaming only. Within the ABC, this is almost entirely believed will happen.”
“But in the process it will result in a huge loss of audience for Classic FM.”
To its credit, CFM has recently freshened up its line-up of announcers and injected some new liveliness to the station, notably by way of guest presenters. This could usefully reposition the network in its hunt for wider audiences. But the question is whether its calculations risk alienating existing audiences in the process of winning over new ones.
At the least, greater transparency seems needed. Rather than introducing changes by stealth which the station has been previously accused of doing, it should be more upfront with listeners and partnering musicians – whether orchestras, Musica Viva and ensembles large or small – in decisions that affect the whole classical music sector.
“Everybody understands the cuts the ABC has faced, and how it has needed to reconfigure programs,” the informant says. “But this is no reason why the ABC can’t be completely transparent so that changes are discussed beforehand with audiences and partners. The ABC is quite dictatorial.”