RN's future guaranteed?

RN's future guaranteed?

In an hour long discussion with ABC alumni, Chris Oliver-Taylor, the ABC’s recently appointed Chief Content Officer, said he hopes that Radio National has a “long and healthy” future. But, he cautioned, there will be change.

Chris Oliver-Taylor

ABC Alumni President, Jonathan Holmes, outlines here the wide-ranging discussion, which was led by Dr Gael Jennings. 

Q: What will the ABC look like in five years?

We hear a lot about the importance of digital, but, Chris said, he would rather use the words on demand. Most people are not going to access ABC content by turning on the TV or the radio. The ABC needs to increase the use of ABC iview and ABC Listen by 40% in five years.

Q: Is the ABC targeting the young at the expense of its older viewers and listeners? 

The ABC has always wanted a younger audience than it has, said Chris.  But it has to be smarter about what programming it targets at what age group, so that there is something for everyone, but not everything for everyone.  

ABC content on platforms like TikTok and Instagram is crucial to make the ABC relevant to younger audiences. But that doesn’t mean that ALL ABC content should be aimed at the young. Local radio, said Chris, is listened to overwhelmingly by the over 50s. There’s no point in trying to change that.

Similarly, he aims to increase the number of episodes of Back Roads on ABC TV, in a regular slot on the schedule. But it’s a mistake to try to make Back Roads content for TikTok.

“Our older audience is our biggest audience,” said Chris, “and always will be.”

Q: What’s the future of Radio National? 

“I hope, a long and healthy one,” says Chris. “Radio National as a brand, its output and what it stands for, are fundamental to the ABC.”

But that doesn’t mean there won’t be evolution. RN’s current share of the national radio audience is 1.4% and dropping. AM radio as a technology is on the way out. Most of RN’s content is also available as podcasts, and often the podcasts get bigger audiences.  Conversations has been downloaded 35 million times already this year.

The ABC will continue to invest in RN storytelling but has to make sure it is available on the platforms that people use.  Chris did not make clear whether RN as a continuous, curated stream of programming would continue somewhere, if not on AM radio.

Q: Screen drama and comedy: How can the ABC compete with the international streamers? 

“Under my watch,” says Chris, “we are not getting out of drama. Drama is my passion”.

The challenge is the dramatic increase in supply of English-language drama. In the last six to seven years it has doubled, driven by the streamers. But there is still a strong enough market globally for Australian stories to allow us to produce them at a level we can afford.  

The ABC will make eight to ten drama and comedy series a year.  Chris would love to make that 12, but might not get there.

Q: Why have you cut back on the Arts and broken up the Arts Commissioning Team? 

The ABC has NOT cut back on arts coverage, said Chris. Two people left, three people joined. 

We have a new TV program on the way presented by Virginia Trioli.  Arts is a core area.  We are spending more on the arts, more on classical music, we’ve just commissioned eight new classical concerts.  

Q: What about Science? It’s good on radio, but what there is now on screen is light and frothy.

Chris said he believes science is crucial. With the demise of Catalyst as a 38-program-a-year strand, the brand has changed and lost visibility. ABC TV has a bunch of good science docos, mostly on Tuesdays, but the audience can’t find them. So it’s about the branding of ABC science and how we can bring in an audience that knows what it is. Work is under way on that.

The ABC is doing too much, said Chris

Chris emphasised that in his view, the ABC was trying to do too much with its limited funds. (Director of News, Justin Stevens, made the same point to ABC Alumni recently.)  

“We have so much output. We made around 180 podcasts last year, we have multiple national radio networks, we have eight breakfast shows on local radio plus all the regionals, it’s too much. The ABC ends up doing everything in a way that’s a bit underwhelming, I’d rather do 20 things that are big, really big, and people will go ‘look at the ABC, it’s amazing!’  

“We can’t do it all. We’ll never have enough money, but we have hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money to do some amazing things.”

“I see this job as the biggest privilege that I will ever have in my career, and I’m determined not to stuff it up.” 

Who is Chris Oliver-Taylor?

A veteran production executive at the BBC and the ABC, and in recent years CEO of major Australian production companies Matchbox, Fremantle and Netflix Australia and NZ, Chris is now responsible for all the ABC content that is not produced by the News Division.  

View an extended account of the webinar here.

Sophie Arnold
E-news Editor