This is the presentation I made at Radio Days Europe, March 18, 2013 as part of a session on pop up radio stations.
The slide you can see behind you now is a snapshot of the homepage of ABC Radio Australia. ABC is the national public broadcaster in the BBC mould of things, and as you can see, ABC Radio is a comprehensive broadcaster. But today I’ll be telling you a little about just one of the stations the ABC operates.
But first today, I’d like to begin by asking you think for a moment about the reason why you got involved in radio in the first place. Maybe you were like me? One of those kids who from the age of two or three was running you own radio station at home. If you might imagine for a moment one of my earliest childhood memories waz sitting behind the big old fashioned radio we had in the lounge-room, and pretending to be a radio announcer. A few years later, things became a little more sophisticated as I installed wires and speakers around the house, allowing me to broadcast to an audience of three – my mum, my dad, and my granny.
Bad sadly, as we take our hobbies and turn them into careers, we can we sometimes lose track of the reasons why I think most of us in the room got involved in radio in the first place – and that is to satisfy our own CREATIVE DESIRES, and to provide the audience with something that’s so incredibly good, and they can’t get anywhere else.
As you know, the AM and FM band have spectrum limitations, and at a fundamental level, I think the spectrum limitations of analogue radio have restricted our capacity for creativity. In music radio, I think it’s meant that we’ve confined ourselves to a fairly limited number of formats, and in talk radio, it’s meant we’ve tended to discuss a reasonably narrow range of issues and topics.
But with all of that extra bandwidth and spectrum (thanks to digital radio and streaming) we now have the room to do something extra, something a little more creative than simply purchase and broadcast an off-the-shelf music library. I think there’s room for us all to delve into our own personal creativity, and that of our colleagues, to offer something new and unique.
So I’d like to tell you about something we’ve done in Australia which is called ABC Extra, which I hope might provide some inspiration for when you go back home
The word of the year is definitely “pop up” – pop up shops, pop up galleries, pop up restaurants, and so on, and ABC Extra is a pop-up station. I’d estimate it’s operational for about half the year, and the rest of the time it’s dead. But when it’s up and running, the ABC is using ABC Extra to push the creative boundaries of radio, and hopefully connect with our audiences, and with new audiences, in ways we can’t otherwise do with our mainstream local and national networks. You know how sometimes you have a great idea, but then reality sets in, or your manager says “no”, and suddenly you realise there’s no airtime available for your great idea? Well, that’s what ABC Extra is all about.
So today I’d like to give you a few specific of examples of the type of pop up stations we’ve created with ABC Extra since digital radio was introduced into Australia in 2009.
The first I’d like to talk about is a station we set up to celebrate International Women’s Day (the other week). In short, we looked into the archives of “The Coming Out Show”. an Australian radio program of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s made “for women by women”. As you can see from the slide, this is most definitely a program from the 1970s. It quickly occurred to us the issues and themes from the program were often still relevant now, like relationship law, reproductive technology, and the role of women in the workplace.
And so we chose a dozen ground-breaking programs, and we asked some of our younger female broadcasters to listen to them and reflect on how little or how much things have changed. This photographs shows some of the original broadcasters with some of the new broadcasters who became involved. Their responses were amazing. Sometimes they were shocked. Sometimes they were amused.
And so the radio station featured one of these young women introducing a program and telling us how she, as a young woman today, responded to the content. If you’re thinking this sounds all a bit dire, I can tell you on International Women’s Day, it was hit in Australia on social media, and the number three viewed page on the ABC’s website. So there’s an audience there for intelligent coverage of women’s issues in 2013.
Another station which really went off on social media was the station we created to celebrate “Lunar New Year”, or you may know it as “Chinese New Year”.
Australia has an increasingly large and growing Asian population. You would never know it, though, from Australian media, which remains fairly caucasian. So, over five days, we created new programs looking at contemporary Asian culture in Australian life. There was everything from a program hosted by some food bloggers, to an hour-long program with the legendary Cantonese singer, Francis Yip who lives in Sydney these days.
And we did it with our staff (from Asian backgrounds) some of whom aren’t currently working as on-air broadcasters, to hopefully develop some of their skills. Once again, the website we created, abc.net.au/lunar ended up one of the most popular microsites on the ABC website while the station was active, and we also put out a some of the program nationally on ABC Local Radio and via Radio Australia.
The next pop up station I’d like to tell you about is the station we set up which commemorate the life and work of a great Australian singer called “Jimmy Little”. Jimmy was the first Indigenous Australian/Aboriginal Australian to have mainstream international hit song with the classic, “You May Speak To Jesus On The Royal Telephone”. He was truly a great performer, and was held in such high esteem by all Australians, but particularly by Indigenous Australians. He died last year, and was honoured with a state funeral and tribute concert at the Sydney Opera House.
In the lead up to this, we set up a pop-up radio station which drew upon the deep archives of ABC Radio. For the first time in many years, our audience was able to hear some very rare recordings, including an amazing interview recorded in the lead up to the 1967 census which, for the first time, recognised Indigenous Australians as citizens of our country. There were also some lovely moments from throughout this career, as he reflected on his life and family. It was a truly gorgeous piece of radio which, the feedback on social media, told us, touched many people who wanted to reflect on the life of a great Australian.
I know so far it sounds all very “public radio”, and “very worthy” so far, but we’ve also had a lot of fun along the way.
Last year, for example, we set up a station called, “Back To Vinyl”. Despite the fact CDs have been with us for about thirty years, there’s still a lot of vinyl out there. And not just old records, new ones too. Last year, for example, I bought a release from a Swedish artist, called Juvelen. It wasn’t available on CD. But it WAS available as an mp3 download, and it was available as vinyl. So suddenly, thirty years after the CD, and vinyl is hip again.
So for our station, “Back To Vinyl”, we asked about 25 of our top broadcasters from across ABC radio to drag out their vinyl records, and for each of them to create a program about the music they collected, and why they still love playing vinyl. And there was everything from some great jazz, to some 80s power ballads, to the some Turkish pop recordings from the 1970s which the parents of a young presenter had brought to Australia when they immigrated. BUT what they all had in common was passion for the music they presented.
And I should emphasise they played the actual vinyl with its occasional pops and crackles. At one point, one of the records actually got stuck, and had be to skipped along, old school.
Through ABC Extra we’ve also celebrated a number of musical anniversaries for The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and American composer, John Cage.
We’ve also done a station called ABC Classic Season, which goes a little deeper than “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”, playing classical music with a spiritual dimension.
We’ve celebrated the 100th birthday of Marshall McLuhan.
We’ve commemorated ANZAC Day (our national war memorial day in Australia).
We’ve provided provided national coverage of some our local state elections, as well as the US election.
We’ve also covered conferences, such as TED-X, and one which discussed the legacy of the September 11 attacks.
One of the most fascinating stations we set up was to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the 1969 moon landing. And what we did there was take the original 10-hour broadcast and replay it in full. And we synced it up so the exact moment of the moon landing was recreated 40 years later. It was a really powerful use of the medium, and a reminder of how important sound is in the age of video.
All of these a really important issues, and topics, and which we also covered on our mainstream stations, but with ABC Extra we were able to go that little bit deeper for those with a strong interest.
In terms of audience we’re talking tens of thousands of people, rather than hundreds of thousands, as measured by ratings and stream accesses. But those who tune in are passionate, and they’re the people who’ll go to social media and praise what you’ve done.
And how much do these cost? The short answer is virtually nothing. They can all be done from within existing resources, and I can tell you ABC Radio is certainly not flush with cash, and by drawing upon the passion and resources of the staff you already have.
So in going back to your radio station, I’d ask you to think creatively about that extra spectrum you have. You COULD purchase another generic music collection, or you might do something within your existing resources, and the personal creativity of both yourself and your staff.