Apr 21, 2018 Last Updated 5:28 AM, Apr 19, 2018

Shake up for Radio Australia

New voices for Pacific broadcasts

By Nic Maclellan in Melbourne

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) is once again making changes that will affect broadcasting into the Pacific.

From 22 January, ABC’s Radio Australia (RA) will introduce a new Pacific Mornings programme, between 6am to 10am. In a significant change, the program will be hosted by two women of Pacific island heritage, Seini Taumoepeau and Tahlea Auliitia.

RA’s flagship news and current affairs programme Pacific Beat will be reduced to 25 minutes, with the morning show hosted by Catherine Graue and the afternoon slot maintained by long time broadcaster Bruce Hill.

The changes to RA’s broadcasts come after ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie introduced a major restructure of the national broadcaster. These changes have seen the break-up of domestic radio and TV services, with key staff reallocated to three new divisions: news, analysis and investigations; entertainment and specialist content; and regional and local content, focussed on Australia’s rural and regional communities.

There is a renewed focus on digital programming and new shows to attract a younger audience. This means keynote news programmes “The World Today” and “PM” have been halved from an hour to just 30 minutes.

ABC management has reacted defensively to criticism that it is “dumbing down” the network, replacing news and current affairs with lifestyle programmes. Judith Whelan, ABC’s Head of Spoken Content argued: “It does not amount to a ‘dumbing down.’ Duration is not the only marker of quality….The changes recognise generational change and the differing preferences among different groups in our community.”

As well as the domestic changes, this restructure affects international broadcasting to the Pacific. Former TV producer Kellie Mayo takes over as Managing Editor of ABC Asia Pacific News, while James O’Brien serves as RA Manager.

O’Brien told Islands Business: “As part of the restructure of the ABC, Radio Australia was no longer part of ABC International, but become part of ABC Radio. The first thing that came to me was to do more Pacific programming and that become the task of finding new people.”

The capacity of RA to report on the region has been badly damaged by budget cuts over the last five years. In 2014, the ABC lost its contract to manage Australia Network TV, with 80 TV and RA staff losing their jobs, including dedicated Pacific correspondents like Sean Dorney and Campbell Cooney.

Foreign language broadcasting also lost key staff, affecting Tok Pisin broadcasts to Papua New Guinea. French broadcasts to the Pacific were shut down - a striking decision just as New Caledonia and French Polynesia were joining the Pacific Islands Forum as full members! ABC’s New Zealand bureau was closed, leaving one dedicated ABC bureau in Port Moresby.

At the time of the 2014 cuts, ABC Chairman Jim Spieglman acknowledged: “A particularly significant loss was the considerable reduction in our specialist journalist capacity….we lost something like 1,000 years of journalist experience, much of it specialised in Asia and the Pacific.”

In January 2017, RA’s shortwave broadcasting to indigenous Australia and the Pacific was shut down. RA lost more staff last year, including Fiji-born radio and TV executive Clement Paligaru and long-time business correspondent Jemima Garrett, but has been quietly lobbying for new staff and resources.

The announcement of the new Pacific Mornings line up came a week before Christmas, following inquiries by Islands Business.

In 2017, Pacific Beat was hosted by Richard Ewart and Bruce Hill, broadcasting for two hours in the morning and an hour in the afternoon. The new format, to commence on 22 January, will involve four hours of Pacific programming from 6-10am. This will mix a shorter 25 minute Pacific Beat programme, broadcast twice during the morning, supplemented by the ABC’s AM news programme and the new Pacific Mornings show.

RA’s James O’Brien notes: “Seini and Tahlea will be doing more general programming. When news breaks it will be there, but we also want to broaden out our coverage, so it will include music, the arts and culture. The combination of these two women working together is going to produce a terrific radio offering.”

O’Brien hope the new show will connect with Pasifika communities living in Australia: “I’m hoping that there will be a chance to have much more connection between the domestic diaspora audience and with people in other countries. We’re also re-launching the RA website in late January or early February, so these programmes will be available to listen for seven days after the programme goes to air.”

With ongoing competition for staff and funding within the new ABC divisions, it will be crucial for ABC bean-counters to understand the importance of broadcasting to the region. The new staff are a welcome reversal of RA’s downward spiral, and it’s great to see Pacific women coming to the fore. But there are also complex management and resource issues in play.

Pacific Beat is managed by the News and Current Affairs Division while Pacific Mornings reports to ABC Radio. Pacific Mornings will come out of Sydney, in contrast to Pacific Beat and the Tok Pisin service, which are produced at the ABC’s Melbourne studios. It will be interesting to see how the Sydney and Melbourne teams co-ordinate their programming, with different lines of management! Good luck to the new Pacific team.

Disclosure: Nic Maclellan worked with the Pacific Beat program between 2002-5.

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