Radio Days Europe 2010

This was the paper I delivered at the Radio Days Europe Conference.

James O’Brien
Content Director, Networked Local Radio
ABC Local Radio – Australia

Thank you very much for inviting me to speak at Radio Days Europe. In Australia, we’re a long way away from the rest of the world. It took me over 24 hours, non-stop, to get from Sydney via Bangkok to Stockholm (where I have been for the past two weeks). And for those reasons, I’d like to acknowledge my fellow country-man, Joan Warner from Commercial Radio Australia who is also here and who spoke yesterday.

On the issue of social media, it may surprise you (or maybe not), that Australians were recently recognised as the world’s heaviest users of social networks like Twitter and Facebook.

But before getting into that level of detail of why and how the ABC has used UGC and social media, I’d like to make a few brief comments about the unique characteristics of Australia. It’s important information because it explains how our use of social media has developed in a country with a small population, a large landmass, with people living mostly in cities, but also in the outback, and with a large immigrant population, including many who speak English as a second language.

Firstly, Australia is home to the world’s oldest living indigenous culture. There’s evidence of aboriginal culture dating back at least 50,000 years. Since 1945, Australia has also become a home to people from all around the world. Over six million people from 200 countries have come to Australia as new settlers. People born overseas make up almost one quarter of the total population. And almost 50% of the population were either born overseas; or had one or both parents born overseas. Many of the people who have come to Australia have not had English as their primary language. In fact, Australia has a government and advertising funded national foreign language television and radio network, called SBS,which operates two television and two radio networks which feature programs in languages other than English.

One other very quick fact in terms of radio is that Australia is one of the world’s most urbanised countries, with about 70 per cent of the population living in the 10 largest cities. Having spent the first 30 years of my life in rural and remote areas of Australian, I can tell assure that sometimes you feel quite remote from the rest of Australia and the rest of the world.

Which brings me to a brief overview of the three main elements of the radio sector in Australia.

First, the national broadcaster. There are ABC local radio stations all over Australia. There are also national networks on AM and FM, including a national youth music network, a classical music network, a news network (which also broadcasts federal parliament), a specialist talk network. Since the introduction of digital radio in Australia, DAB+ in the five mainland capital cities last year, the ABC has also operated one or two sports stations depending on the season, as well as music stations for “adult contemporary music”, jazz and country music.

The commercial radio sector is dominated by two or three major players in each capital city. Generally speaking, the major station is a right-of-centre talk-back station. The other dominant commercial radio force is music programming, based around adult contemporary formats, dance formats, rock music, and greatest hits formats. Although the metropolitan commercial stations have faced some difficult times recently, the Murdoch Family has recently bought a number of stations in Sydney and Melbourne, which is seen as a strong vote of confidence in the sector.

In the regional areas of Australia, there has been a significant increase in the amount of networked programs in the commercial radio sector. When I was young man growing up in a small country town, the local commercial station would often broadcast 24-hours a day. In most centres, now, that station only has a breakfast show, with the rest networked from the nearest capital city.

Thus, the ABC has become a much more important force in smaller country towns, creating new stations and employing new people while the commercial sector has cut back operations. This why regional Australia has become the focus for a number of UGC and social media initiatives for the ABC including “ABC Open” which I will talk about in greater detail shortly. The other major player in regional centres is the community radio sector, which operates with volunteers.

I mentioned earlier the recent research about social media in Australia. The research by Nielsen, found Australians were using social media for about seven hours per month, compared with the a global average of five-and-a-half hours. When the research came out, one of the reasons offered was the small population in a vast landscape. There was a newspaper at the time which quoted Mike Minehan, a former television current affairs presenter and now journalism lecturer who said… “There’s a subconscious drive in Australia to step outside this isolation we find ourselves in. I think that’s what’s driving it here, the desire to be part of the world and not to be an insignificant island nation in the southern hemisphere.”

We’re known as a national of early adopters. Although it sometimes take the technology a while to be introduced, we embrace it quickly. For example, digital radio was launched only late last year. And it was reported a few weeks ago that “more than 100,000 digital radios have been sold in Australia six months after the launch of the medium, far exceeding initial expectations that 50,000 would be sold in the 12 months”. The newspaper report went on to say… “This year the figure is estimated to grow to more than 250,000, meaning there will be close to 400,000 digital radios in the market.” So that’s a good example of how we like to get in there early with new technology in Australia.

The ABC’s earliest experiences with social media were simple guest-books We encouraged our listeners to leave us a comment. But sometimes what they said was pretty awful. Sometimes they were just plain mean. The anonymity of the Internet and the guest-book allowed people to say things they would never say to your face. One of the great issues I faced as a radio station Program Director was managing how our presenters reacted to these guest-books. Thus, an early lesson we learned was the importance of creating a real sense of community with your online audience. We now use Facebook for some of the same reasons we used guestbooks. Listeners are far more likely to think more clearly about what they have to say if their name is next to the comment.

The other major social network which has been strongly embraced by the ABC has been Twitter. There’s an ABC-TV show, for example, called Q&A which featuring leading politicians, where the viewing audience is encouraged to tweet during the live broadcast. Q&A is often the most discussed topic at a particular time on Twitter, which should not be underestimated for a country of 21 million people. Twitter, in particular, has been embraced by the ABC from the top down. The ABC’s Managing Director, Mark Scott has been exemplary in his use of Twitter. The other major early development was in the use of Twitter by our radio stations in their role as emergency broadcasters. In the case of the bushfires in Victoria twelve months ago where over 200 people died, the ABC local radio station went into rolling coverage on radio with information. But we also used the radio station’s Twitter feed to disseminate that information. And the third major development we have seen in terms of Twitter is that we have also seen some our major personalities, embrace Twitter. As they go about their jobs researching stories, they will tweet along the way, linking to interesting research they have found. This helps create a sense of anticipation around the story. And valuable feedback after the story goes to air, often with important follow-ups.

Which brings me to one of the great challenges a public broadcaster such as the ABC faces. A few months ago the ABC issue some staff guidelines to help us through the maze. And without over-simplifying the document, the essence of the advice was this was just another platform. That you should never say anything online that you wouldn’t say on the radio or on TV At the core of that policy document was the current philosophy of the ABC that it should be wherever the audience is. If the audience is using mobile phones, or social media, or two tin-cans tied together by string, we should be there.

In radio, we’ve become very sophisticated in our research methods. We know what sounds good. We know what songs or issues will get a response from the audience listening to us on radio. But when it comes to social networks and their role in our primary business of radio, I think we’re still learning. One of the greatest lessons we’ve learned in Australia is about the difference between the audience you know and the audience you don’t know.

Each year, the radio station I’ve worked for 702 ABC Sydney holds a dinner called The Andrew Olle Media Lecture. It’s a black-tie event which remembers our esteemed Morning Presenter who, when he died suddenly far too early, was mourned by the nation. The lecture seeks to offer an insight into current media trends. And last year’s lecture was given by Julian Morrow, a member of a comedy team called The Chaser who ran into trouble over a poor-taste sketch they put to air. They encountered the same problem Jonathon Ross and Russell Brand did. The primary audience saw and heard the material, and weren’t that concerned. But when it was distributed via social networks, things got out of control.

At the lecture Julian described the dilemma as such…

“The primary audience is mainly people who want to watch a show or at least chose to for some reason or other. They come to content through the platforms of the original broadcaster, whether it’s TV or radio, or the various catch-up technologies. The primary audience at least approximates in some way the target audience for content. By contrast, the secondary audience come to access controversial content because it’s controversial. The secondary audience often tends to be the very opposite of the target audience.”

With every new development in social media, there is an excursion into the unknown. And there are three projects I would like to mention which have been innovative, and risk taking.

Triple J Unearthed: For several years, the national youth network Triple J has been asking unsigned musicians to send in their material for airplay. They’ve amassed an amazing database of 53,000 tracks from 22,000 artists.It was recently launched as an iphone application where people could stream or download the music, add to personal playlists or shared on social media and via email. When it was launched it very quickly became the most popular iphone application in Australia.

ABC Pool: This is a more experimental project where people can upload their own work whether it’s text, audio, image or video and download other people’s work to build upon or remix. Little bit by little bit we’re also releasing ABC archives back to the public for their use and reuse under an open licence.

And the other project I’d like to commend to you is called “Heywire”. ABC Heywire: Heywire is a space for young people from regional areas, the smaller country towns to have their say. In some ways, it’s a precursor to the new project ABC Open. It’s been going for ten years, and I’ve had the pleasure of judging some of the entries which have come in. You get to see and hear from people you would otherwise never hear from, talking about the issues that matter to them. Entry forms are sent to all high schools and tertiary institutions in regional Australia, as well as at the ABC. Entries are judged in the regions and one winner is chosen from each region. The winning entry is then professionally produced by the ABC by our local staff. Our staff sit down with the young person, help them record the segment, maybe help with revising the script if needed, and so on. And then we broadcast these spots over summer. The forty young people are then also invited to a forum held in our national capital. The five day Forum focuses on communication and leadership skills as well as understanding the processes of government. Part of the Forum involves developing a proposal around an issue and presenting this to an expert panel. The Forum also provides the opportunity for the young people to meet and network with their local Members of Parliament, other politicians and government officials, along with relevant community and industry representatives.

This brings me to the next major development for social media in Australia which is a project called ABC Open. In last year’s Australian Budget, the ABC was allocated $15 million to build regional online hubs. In November, at the Media 140 (social media conference) held at the ABC’s Sydney HQ, the managing director announced ABC Open. In doing so, he said…

“These skilled producers will be able to go into local communities and work with groups or individuals to assist them in creating their own media. They will provide them with the training and knowledge to fully embrace the opportunities of web 2.0 tools. We see this as a vital role of the ABC: building new relationships with our audiences and seeking new opportunities for collaboration and conversation. Educating Australians to create their own media will in turn benefit other media organisations around the country as more and more people learn the skills to be able to engage using digital media. ”

There was a pilot project a few months ago in Tasmania, the island state of Australia, and if you want to have a look at some of that material it’s already available online. You can listen to some of the stories there. After the pilot project was done, the next step was to advertise these new jobs. 15 people will be appointed this year. And the deadline for applications was two weeks ago, March 5. Even though the project is in its early days, there has been some controversy surrounding it.

I’m not here today to discuss that controversy, nor get engaged in that debate (that’s not my role). However, I’m happy to report on the debate. In February, a major newspaper executive, Brian McCarthy from Fairfax the ABC of threatening Fairfax’s rural publishing arm with its plan for online regional hubs. The Age newspaper reports….

McCarthy said the ABC Open project, designed to allow regional people to share their ideas and tell their own stories online, might undermine Fairfax by stealing its rural audience: ”I do not believe it is the role of the ABC to disrupt the commercial landscape by building empires with public funds.”

More recently, another newspaper executive, Brendan Hopkin from APN, was quoted in The Australian newspaper on February 24 as saying….

“I don’t see why politicians should be extending the purse strings to enable the state broadcaster to compete with us.”

The company he runs APN, the newspaper article reports, has 14 daily newspapers and 75 community publications, and is the largest regional magazine publisher in Queensland.

In response, the ABC’s managing director, Mark Scott wrote an opinion piece on March 2nd in which he said…

The ABC Open Project, which has drawn unfair fire, is about teaching regional Australians how to tell their stories in the digital age – to create, collaborate and share.
The ABC is doing this not because it is a financially profitable activity but because it isn’t. Commercial media was certainly not going to do it, even if the ABC had not gone down this path. Yet it is socially profitable, and an activity that will transform regional life.

As I say, though, it’s very early days in the project.

So in summary, I’d argue the ABC’s experiences with social media have ranged from the simple – guestbooks, facebook, twitter, to the more complex – where, in the case of Heywire (and ABC Open), there’s a strong training and community education development to what we do. There has always been a degree of innovation (and sometimes risk) in what we have done. There has always been a high degree of engagement from our presenters and managers, and when something is no longer relevant or engaging, we have tended to move on. The bottom line has been that wherever our audiences are, we should be there too. And currently they’re heavily engaged in social media – the heaviest social media users in the world – and that’s why we’re there.

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