I was asked to present a paper at “Radio Days Jo’burg” on Australia’s experience with pop up radio stations. This paper was a significantly expanded and quite different paper to the one which I presented at “Radio Days Europe” at Berlin in March. This is the text from the speech I prepared (along with some slides)
POP UP RADIO STATIONS
I’d like to begin by talking a little about the radio landscape in Australia. First and foremost, we have strong and vibrant commercial radio sector which dominates the market place. Second, we have a vibrant community radio sector, with stations specialising in a range of languages and locations. Third, and this is the sector I know best, we have a reasonably well-funded (compared with many other countries) public radio sector.
This map of Australia shows you there are 60 locations around the country where we have stations. The largest is in Sydney which has a population of 4.5 million. The smallest is in Renmark, South Australia which has a population of about 25-30,000, and it’s actually the station where I began my career. A couple of important things to know. The ABC runs television, radio and online. We’re funded almost completely by the taxpayer – there’s no licence fee. We also make some money from program sales and from retail shops. Importantly, despite this government funding, we operate as an independent corporation.
In the city, spectrum on the FM band is now close to full. On top of that, urban growth has meant those big AM transmitters in the countryside on the outskirts of places like Sydney, are now surrounded by housing. Although analogue radio remains the most common way in which people listen to radio, you can imagine that changing fairly quickly.You can imagine a situation not too far into the future where a government might decide they can make a lot of money by switching off AM and FM in the cities. They would sell off the FM spectrum, and sell of the land currently occupied by those AM transmitters.
Almost four years after the introduction of digital radio, about 12% of the population listens to digital radio, and its reach remains limited to the five largest cities, and about 6-7% listens to streaming radio of domestic stations. There’s no planned switch off date in Australia yet. In contrast, switch off dates have already been set for a number of Scandinavian countries, including Denmark in 2017, Norway in 2019 and Sweden in 2022.
There’s a prevailing view amongst many, that internet radio is the future, and digital radio is old technology. Where this argument falls down is documented well by the likes of radio futurist, James Cridland who was here at Radio Days Jo’burg couple of years ago, who points out that it’s still very expensive to deliver radio over the internet radio compared with the cost of delivering radio over regular transmitters.
I don’t think we should get too caught up on the technology. Whether it’s digital radio or internet radio (or something else altogether we can’t imagine yet), the reality is we all now have more “room to play”. The easy and boring path with digital radio, in my opinion, is is to buy a “music library” off-the-shelf and program that at low cost. A better idea is to find something your local audience wants they’re not currently receiving, and doing it so much better than anyone else can.
Today, I’d like to talk with you about three key things with digital radio pop up stations. First, the background and the environment in they’ve emerged. Second, the enormous amount of fun you creating you can have with pop-up radio stations. And third, the areas where I think there’s growth potential for this kind of radio in any country or market. Before all of that – a quick definition of what a pop-up station is. Although the form and content of the station can vary considerably, the fundamental thing which defines a “pop-up stations” is that it’s temporary. It comes from nowhere, it exists, and then it goes away.
When digital radio was launched in 2009, all of the public and commercial stations immediately began to simulcast on digital radio, and many of the community stations have since followed suit. In the case of commercial radio, many of the stations also decided to create some new automated music stations which extended their brand. In Australia, we also have two public broadcasters, the ABC (a lot like the BBC) and SBS which has advertisers, and which mostly has radio programs in foreign languages. In the case of SBS, they were able to use the additional spectrum to time-shift their programs. Recently they’ve also made significant changes to the variety of languages they offer. You may be interested to know, with an increasing number of people from Africa moving to Australia, SBS recently began broadcasting in a larger number of African languages.
In the case of the other public broadcaster (the one I work for, the ABC) we began simulcasting our existing range of station on digital radio (which sounded far better than the awful old AM transmitters we have). We also had three music stations which had been operating online only which we transferred to digital radio – a country music station, an adult music station, and a jazz station. The ABC also started up a sports station, called Grandstand.
In common with other public sector broadcasters around the world the ABC has a national talk network, a national classical music network, a local talk network, a youth network and so on. We’re a fairly comprehensive broadcaster. But sometimes we want to do a little more. We want to offer something that wouldn’t otherwise be suitable for our mainstream networks. And we also started up a station called “ABC Extra”. The idea behind ABC Extra was that it would be a station to experiment with. To try out new program ideas. To try new radio formats. To extend our existing programming. So today I’d like to give you a few specific of examples of the type of pop up stations we’ve done 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.
Next week in Australia is called NAIDOC Week. It’s an annual celebration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture. And once again, this year, we’re establishing a station which celebrates that culture both in music and talk. A key element of this particular station is to develop new Indigenous talent. At the same time, this year we’ve partnered with a number of Indigenous community radio stations. We’ve been working with them to create programs which will simultaneously go out on their local transmitter, as well as nationally on ABC Extra. So as well as making great radio, another goal is to develop new talent for the future.
I know so far it sounds all very “public radio”, 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.
Later this year, we’ll have pop up stations around the fiftieth anniversary of the TV show Dr Who, as well as a station called “Exhumed” which is a national band competition. While many pop music competitions are about discovering the next big young performer, this station is a celebration of those bands who never quite made it. They’re the bands who are sitting in their backyards and their sheds making music together. They’re doing covers. They’re writing often great songs. But no one ever gets to hear them. For two weeks, we’ll be playing the music of these bands. It’s a great competition and a great idea. There’s more information at abc.net.au/exhumed
In the commercial radio sector, there have been a number of great pop up radio stations in the last few years. Every year, for the last few years, there’s been a radio station called “Elf Radio” which only plays Christmas Music. Also a couple of years ago when the singer Pink toured Australia, one of the commercial stations set up a radio station which only played her music. Also this year, the community radio station in Sydney, 2SER, set up a station which played music in celebration of the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras.
All of these station I’m talking about have been inexpensive to set up and operate. Largely they’ve been fully automated, so it means you just need to choose the content, and load it into a computer-based playout system, which is probably a good thing because the audiences are usually quite small. Although small, they’re also very dedicated audiences. And the best thing about these people with a strong interest in a subject is they become your best advocates. You don’t need to spend lots of money on advertising because they’ll Tweet about it, they’ll Facebook it, and they’ll tell their friends about the station. It’s up to you then, to use the imaging – the stings and idents you use – to direct people back to your main stations.
Having talked about digital radio pop-up stations I’d also like to talk to you about our experience at the ABC with FM pop-up stations. Digital radio in Australia continues to be available only in the larger capital cities of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth (with test transmissions currently underway in Canberra and Darwin). Even those most Australians live in those cities, there’s still a very large part of the country without digital radio, where they rely on both AM and FM. The lack of digital radio hasn’t stopped us from creating pop-up stations in those areas. There are two in particular I’d like to talk about, ABC Radio King Lake and ABC Radio Sapphire Coast.
Over the last four or five years, you may be aware, we’ve had some major disasters in Australia. In particular, there were bushfires in Victoria in Southern Australia, where a few hundred people were killed. And in Queensland, in North Eastern Australia, there were floods and cyclones which also devastated a number of communities. What we did in the wake of those disasters was bring small FM transmitters into town, along with some staff whose job was to create a radio service to help those communities recover. For most of the day, the transmitter would re-broadcast the closest ABC Local Radio service, but during Breakfast and at other peak times of the day, our local broadcasters would interrupt those programs with local interviews and community information. Our role was to inform people about the safety of water supplies, about power services and so on. It was also to provide them with an opportunity to tell their own stories. These stations operated for about two or three months, providing support to the communities in need.
Bringing in an FM transmitter and staff is not one of the low-cost options I’ve spoken about. But for a national broadcaster, like the ABC, it’s the kind of thing you realise is important when you’re funded by the taxpayer to be a “broadcaster for all Australians” (as our charter says). With the introduction of digital radio, however, this is the kind of thing you hope might be easier to achieve more often, more cheaply in a technical sense at least by simply re-allocating part of the digital spectrum, rather than necessarilly bring in a portable transmitter.
So where do I think there’s room for further development with pop up radio stations?
The first area is around special events. I mentioned the Christmas music station each year as an example. I also mentioned the example of the station set up around Pink. For community and commercial broadcasters, I think there’s room to go to advertisers and funding bodies and to talk with them about funding a pop up station. When a major international star comes to town, and your advertising people are negotiating an advertising campaign, the relative small cost of setting up a pop-up station could be a real sweetener to the deal.
The second area is around issues of community information and development. In some ways I’ve covered these issues as I’ve spoken about those local radio pop-up stations in disaster areas. But I think there’s another area to consider. In the same way you see advertorials on television, I’d argue there’s room for government agencies and others to create radio content which you could then literally loop over and over again. Not everyone will listen all the time, but if the content is good people will listen, and best of all for cash-strapped government and development agencies, it’s much cheaper to produce several hours of radio than it is to produce several hours of television.
Thirdly, and related to this, I think there’s also some capacity for tourism-related pop up radio stations. If there’s a major festival or community event, why not create a radio station that tells people the information they will need. As people are driving into the festival, you can use the digital pop-up to convey simple information to those attending.
Of course you can do all of these things I’ve mentioned with your existing radio station, or with a low-powered FM licence, but as you move towards digital radio it’s worth remembering you can do lots of interesting things with that additional spectrum, or you could just do the same-old, same-old. And remember – with all of the additional spectrum comes the opportunity for you to remember why you got into radio in the first place, and that is to be creative.