Joe Gelonesi was appointed as the new Content Manager for ABC Classic and ABC Jazz in July 2021, following Toby Chadd’s move to the Australian Chamber Orchestra. A longtime ABC staffer, Gelonesi presented The Philosopher’s Zone on Radio National and was a member of the RN executive editorial team for almost two decades. He was also part of the team which produced Triple J’s first Hottest 100 in 1989, and developed the ABC Top 5 media residency project for early-career scholars in the arts, sciences, and humanities.

ABC Classic

Jo Gelonesi. photo Supplied.

You have worked in radio and broadcasting for most of your career. What is it about the medium that you most love?

I love the sheer intimacy of the medium and its capacity to convey depth and nuance. It works on some basic principles using a small range of primary materials and yet can convey so much – a bit like music really. That dynamic is now finding its way into other forms of audio – podcasts primarily – but radio still has a significant role to play. ABC Classic is enjoying its strongest audience reach figures on record and ABC Jazz continues to add listeners, so there’s a lot of love for radio and broadcasting among listeners.

What is the music you listen to when you’re not at work?

Quite a range really, from classical music to jazz to more contemporary forms.  Always have. Though, for the moment I am immersing more deeply into the repertoire of classical and jazz, to places I haven’t properly ventured before, to see and hear better the connections and coherences, as well as departures, in the music. Of late, I’ve been really enjoying Max Richter’s reworking of The Four Seasons. And like many people during this unsettled period, I’m gravitating to music that provides comfort and composers like Ludovico Einaudi have been getting a bit of a run in my air pods. Apart from that, I don’t think you can ever get enough Hildegard von Bingen.

You have been at the ABC for a while, but mostly in talk formats at Radio National. What inspired you to apply for the ABC Classic role?  

ABC Classic has always been my ‘other’ network as a listener. In fact, as a kid I recall its very first day on air in 1976 – as ABC FM. I’ve followed it through all these years, always seeking it as respite from talk and deliberation, to reset in the pure delight of music. I did for a time fill in for Margaret Throsby, which made my appreciation of the network even stronger. It’s quite a privilege to be given this responsibility for ABC Classic, along with ABC Jazz.

What do you see as the major differences between RN and Classic? What can you bring to Classic that it is lacking at the moment?

There are differences of course, but some important similarities. RN, being fundamentally talk driven by specialist departments, is more akin to a television network with different interests coming together to form the whole. Music networks portray more of a singular personality, defined by the style and scope of their programming.

But much like talk, music can also be characterised by its appeal to specific, heavily invested audiences. That’s certainly true of classical and jazz.

Most of my work at RN has been via specialist departments with whom audiences connect deeply via content and engage passionately with those making it. In that sense, there’s little difference between what we offer on RN and on ABC Classic and ABC Jazz. So, it’s more of a case of how I can help undergird these similar strengths at the music networks.

ABC Classic has performed brilliantly in recent years, reaching larger audiences around the nation and bucking the general trend of people listening to radio for shorter periods. It’s clear we are offering something people want, especially in these unsettled times when the power of music to connect is paramount. 

Our special interactive campaigns such as the Classic 100 and Jazz 100 are off the scale in terms of engagement and participation. We are also focused on supporting emerging Australian creative talent, through initiatives such as the annual Festival of Female Composers.

This year’s ABC Classic and ABC Jazz composer commissioning fund will support new Australian music from emerging and diverse voices and stories, including the perspectives of Indigenous musicians and the LGBTQI+ community. More than half of the successful composers and performers under the fund are female, which is one way we are helping to bring greater balance to the industry.

There is so much potential in ABC Classic and ABC Jazz to bring people together and inspire creativity, ultimately all for the common good. I will do my best to maximise that in my time here.

The media landscape is shifting, with a move away from linear broadcast to on-demand listening. However Classic still has a very high percentage of its audience who listen to traditional, linear, live radio. How will you navigate that tension? 

That’s the puzzle for all broadcasters, across talk and music, AM and FM. Live and linear broadcasts are our backbone and still attract large audiences, so we will keep delivering great music for them.

At the same time, we are increasingly focused across the ABC on transitioning towards on-demand listening and digital platforms, in line with changing audience expectations and behaviours. We are already creating bespoke content for social media sites such as YouTube, Instagram and Facebook. We have also focused more time and energy on enhancing the collection of videos and articles our own ABC Classic site.

A lovely example is our recent video of ABC Classic presenter Genevieve Lang playing her harp live while hosting the breakfast program. That really connected with our audience, as have our “live at home” sessions, where musicians under lockdown create their version of well-known pieces. Lakme’s ‘The Flower Duet’ as interpreted by double bass power couple Kirsty McCahon and Kees Boersma is a standout.

Audiences also loved the video with violinist Emily Sun on what makes Vaughan Williams The Lark Ascending so arresting. Similarly, ABC Jazz hosts engaging digital content such as its monthly Artist-in-Residence, where a distinguished Australian musician discusses influences and explains favourite tracks.

The impact of COVID-19 has, in fact, highlighted the potential of the digital world in helping us connect with and engage audiences. Last year’s virtual Classic Choir saw more than 1500 singers of all ages and locations joining voices to premiere a new Australian Christmas carol by Yorta Yorta composer Deborah Cheetham. For many, singing in the choir was a way to come together with loved ones who they couldn’t see in person and switch off from the worries of life during the pandemic.

We’re now working on the 2021 Classic Choir with a carol written by another super well-known Australian composer. Stay tuned for more on that when we launch in November.

ABC Classic still records a great deal of material, not just live but in studios. Yet the ABC Classic record label has slowed reduced its output dramatically in the past 18 months. Is there still a place for the ABC to release recordings by Australian artists, and do you think the reduction in recorded output weakens Classic’s commitment to Australian artists and composers? 

We’re still committed to releasing recordings by Australian artists and composers through our ABC Classic label. Some great recent examples include the Genevieve Lacey & Marshall McGuire release Bower and the Emily Sun and Andrea Lam album Nocturnes. Nat Bartsch’s Hope is yet another sparkling release, which can be heard on both networks – ABC Classic and ABC Jazz.

The changing market and consumer movement towards music streaming services have forced us to reduce our number of releases in recent years. The ongoing impact of COVID-19 restrictions has also reduced our ability to record new music.

But we continue to invest in Australian composers and artists. Last year’s Fresh Start Fund and our recent composer commissioning fund highlight our continued commitment to Australian artists and composers.

After major lineup and personnel changes in 2016, the last few years have seen strong ratings results for ABC Classic and ABC Jazz. Do you have plans for on-air changes in the near future? 

ABC Classic and ABC Jazz are enjoying outstanding audience reach and engagement, so there are no significant on-air changes in the pipeline. Of course, we are always looking for ways to best meet the needs of our audiences. One of the great strengths of the ABC’s music networks is our ability to adapt and evolve with our listeners, particularly in terms of the content we offer.

It has been a tough couple of years for the music industry in Australia. What do you see as ABC Classic’s role as we (hopefully) move out of lockdowns and back to some semblance of normality?

The past couple of years have been challenging for everyone in the industry and continue to be so. To show our support, ABC Classic and ABC Jazz last year funded new music works to safeguard local creativity and content against the impact of COVID-19 restrictions, as part of the ABC’s $5 million Fresh Start Fund.

It’s vital that we keep supporting and connecting with the industry through and beyond this difficult period. To that end, we’ve been giving a greater focus to projects and partnerships, to give artists a solid foundation on which to rebuild after the pandemic.

ABC Classic and ABC Jazz have long prided themselves on being the voice of Australian music and creativity, across our radio and digital platforms and label releases. I look forward to building on that support as we emerge from the latest lockdowns, particularly on the live music front.

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