A furore has erupted over what have been claimed to be major changes lying ahead for ABC Classic FM. Station Manager Richard Buckham issued a statement via Facebook categorically ruling out any transition in its programs to automated computer-based selection of music.
It was prompted by an article by Limelight’s Maxim Boon and Clive Paget that warns of a “major shake-up” being planned for the station. Having received their information from “senior sources within the broadcaster”, they say the Breakfast Show and Drive Time will be retained in their current format but that other programs “will become largely automated”. They write: “The rest of the broadcaster’s programming will be replaced by the pre-programmed “streamed” broadcasts similar to the type that replaced the overnight programming of Classic FM in November 2014”.
Boon and Paget also say that the station is set for “a large number of redundancies, primarily of producers and presenters, including some of the broadcaster’s most high-profile figures”.
Their article sparked a storm of outrage from listeners.
Buckham’s statement in response dismissed the article as “highly speculative” and made the following assurance: “There is definitely no move towards ‘automated’ music programming on ABC Classic FM”.
To prevent any confusion, we must separate two issues here. One is talk-free streaming radio. ABC Classic FM’s Overnight program introduced this in 2014: so from midnight to 6 am the station switches to Classic 2, its continuous talk-free streaming service.
A different matter, however, is how the music is selected for a show – the programming method used. A human programmer can do this manually (obviously the traditional method) or with the help of software and associated audio libraries; ABC Classic FM now uses such software. Or playlists can be entirely generated automatically.
Buckham’s statement seems to be addressing the very last point. “There is definitely no move towards ‘automated’ music programming on ABC Classic FM,” he says. “In fact, last year we employed four new full-time, very talented (human) music programmers”.
“They work with a newly-built database of music audio and associated information, to select and arrange music for our shows. Maybe the rumours about ‘computers’ choosing the music and programs being ‘automated’ originated in the introduction of this system. But the database is the servant, not the master of programming, and our humans are still very much in control, and will remain so.”
But back to what the Limelight writers were probably really on about, which is the question of whether faceless ‘juke-box’ radio streaming is gradually taking over ABC Classic FM. In a move that seems designed to appease disgruntled listeners, Buckham says the station is going to revamp Overnight by the end of this year:
“ABC Classic FM is planning some changes to its Overnight program, which will actually mean more, not less voiced presentation on air,” and: “A plan is on track to reintroduce a ‘voiced’ program for the midnight to 6 am timeslot before the end of the year.”
The terms “voiced presentation” and “‘voiced’ program” here are interesting, because they seem to suggest that Overnight will not be returning to a live-to-air format. Instead – and this is purely speculative – the station might be aiming to implement a technique known in the radio industry as ‘voice tracking’. This is when an announcer records voice tracks that are uploaded to the scheduled playlist to give the impression that the show is being presented live.
If this were to be the case, its introduction to Overnight could pave the way in the future for voice tracking across more of the station’s programs, thus reducing the need for live announcers.
These could be needless fears, but the fact is we simply don’t know what changes might be waiting in the wings. Buckham says he is committed to making “great radio”. We hope he’s right.
On the question of staffing, Buckham’s statement actually does not deny Limelight’s claim that redundancies are being planned. Indeed, his statement gives quite an opposite and encouraging picture:
“As you probably know, we have great new presenters for some of our regular shows this year, including Martin Buzacott in Mornings, Genevieve Lang in Sunday Recital and Gordon Hamilton in Screen Sounds. We are also developing a group of new presenters to take on regular presentation roles in the future. We wouldn’t be investing time and training in new presenters if we were moving away from presented programs.”
Again though, the picture in reality is not so clear. While it is obviously welcome to hear that ABC Classic FM is training up new presenters, we can only hope these recruits will be employed in traditional format, live-to-air presenting roles, not in ‘cyber jocking’ as it is sometimes called when radio stations utilise voice tracking.
In the absence of fuller information about the changes that are about to take place, listeners can only speculate on what might lie ahead.