As the board meets to discuss changes, Quentin Dempster sets the record straight on Classic FM.

In a Limelight exclusive, seasoned ABC Journalist Quentin Dempster has issued a statement regarding his motivations for raising concerns over possible changes to ABC Classic FM broadcasting. Dempster’s comments over the past couple of weeks regarding the potential implications of inevitable ABC spending cuts have become part of an increasingly impassioned campaign by ABC staff and the public to protect well-loved staples of ABC’s output.

Dempster first voiced his worries for the station’s future in an article posted on the ABC Friends website last week stating that ABC Classic FM was at risk of being yanked from FM transmission and migrated to a digital radio station or an entirely online service – a suggestion that has angered many Classic FM listeners. The alleged proposal was flatly denied by Classic FM Station Manager Richard Buckham in an interview with Limelight published on September 29. However despite Buckham’s assertions that the rumours were “baseless and without foundation”, Dempster remains adamant that the threat to the station is real, and has called on figures higher up in the ABC to confirm Buckham’s denial. 

“As a devoted Classic FM listener myself I would do nothing to unnecessarily upset its loyal audience”, Dempster said following the public outcry over his initial claim regarding potential changes to the station. “I note Classic FM station manager Richard Buckham’s reassurance to Limelight (and Classic FM staff) that there is no truth to the speculation publicly voiced by me on September 22” he continued. “I would be doubly reassured if the ABC Board now clearly enunciates its own reassurance to the Classic FM audience.”

Quentin Dempster addressing the ABC demonstration this morning

In his statement, which is printed in full below, Dempster was keen to iterate that, contrary to Richard Buckham’s insistence, he was providing a platform to voice legitimate anxieties within the ABC. “My information is coming from concerned staff and management sources” Dempster said. “As a journalist my instinct is to get information out to the public as soon as possible. I’ve found that organisations will not be frank when the information on matters under active consideration can impact adversely on them.”

In response to Buckham’s contention that Dempster should have no reason to speak out about the ABC’s future radio strategies, Dempster outlined the reasoning behind his whistleblowing. “Based on briefings and speeches delivered by our managing director, Mark Scott, re-shaping will necessarily impact on ABC output which ‘skews old’” he said referring to Scott’s recent pronouncements that the ABC should become more digitally engaged to attract a younger audience.

“Mr Scott names ABC radio networks ‘local radio, NewsRadio, Radio National and Classic FM’ as examples of ‘old skewing’ output, implying that a reallocation of resources was now urgently needed to address the mobiles and tablets deficiency. Public broadcasters take issue with this strategy.” Certain changes in recent months to Classic FM add further credence to the rumours within ABC that a major cull in existing programming is imminent.

“Classic FM’s  overnight presenter-less streaming playlist is an indication of a cost constrained future as Mark Scott tries to re-shape the ABC to meet the ‘explosive’ demand for content for tablets and phones,” said Dempster. These concerns are further backed-up by proposed restructuring of similar areas within the ABC. Dempster’s statement continues: “I understand the ABC, SBS and the Department of Communications are now considering cutting/merging TV multi-channels (ABC 2, ABC3/SBS2) to cut the costs of digital transmission contracted through Broadcast Australia. Why wouldn’t they look at FM radio transmission as well in any review of costs?”

Dempster is not the only high-profile ABC journalist to flag up the radical changes to ABC output expected in coming months. Former Media-Watch presenter Jonathan Holmes issued a national plea yesterday to petition the ABC over fears that the broadcaster may cut Lateline and other similar investigative journalism programming. In a statement issued yesterday via Australia’s largest campaigning organisation, Get Up, Holmes expressed near identical fears to those voiced by Dempster last week.

Media Watch’s Jonathan Holmes

“Recent reports strongly suggest that the Managing Director of the ABC Mark Scott and the ABC Board are poised to sacrifice iconic investigative reporting programs such as Lateline, in what many are speculating is an attempt to appease the Abbott Government”, says Holmes. “Why? Because Lateline has a strong reputation for holding governments and politicians to account by asking the tough questions. You know, the very reason independent media like the ABC was first established.”

The statement continued by referencing the same ABC Board discussions about future programming that Dempster had alluded to raising concerns about ABC’s plans for Classic FM – discussions that Classic FM Station Manager Richard Buckham had claimed that Dempster should have no knowledge of. “The ABC Board are set to meet Wednesday morning. Chances are they’ll discuss which programs to save, and which can be sacrificed.” Holmes’ stated. “It’s highly likely the future of Lateline, amongst other iconic programs, will be high on the agenda. While the ABC Board might be willing to sacrifice investigative reporting, the people who pay for these programs (all of us!) sure aren’t”. 

Despite the ABC’s efforts to dispel rumours of internal panic among staff and alleged changes to channels and formats, the public outcry over changes to Classic FM, Lateline and other staples of ABC’s programming has been irrefutable, with over 55,000 signing Jonathan Holmes’ petition in less than 48 hours. Over 100 protesters converged on the ABC studios in Ultimo this morning to attend a last minute demonstration at which both Jonathan Holmes and Quentin Dempster spoke. As today’s ABC board meeting gets underway, many are now braced for an announcement that will involve potentially devastating alterations to Classic FM and many other ABC channels.

Quentin Dempster’s Full Statement

As a devoted Classic FM listener myself I would do nothing to unnecessarily upset its loyal audience. I note Classic FM station manager Richard Buckham’s reassurance to Limelight (and Classic FM staff) that there is no truth to the speculation publicly voiced by me on September 22 that: “Classic FM apparently is in danger if the ABC management makes it a digital radio or online service and reassigns its FM transmitters”. Richard said the ‘Radio division has no such plan’. I would be doubly reassured if the ABC Board now clearly enunciates its own reassurance to the Classic FM audience.

My information is coming from concerned staff and management sources. As a journalist my instinct is to get information out to the public as soon as possible. I’ve found that organisations will not be frank when the information on matters under active consideration can impact adversely on them. This is understandable.

The ABC’s response to what is now known as the ‘digital revolution’ (and Federal Government funding cuts) is the context of a radical reshaping of the ABC soon to be approved by the ABC Board. Based on briefings and speeches delivered by our managing director, Mark Scott, this re-shaping will necessarily impact on ABC output which ‘skews old’. He says the ABC has underinvested in content for mobiles and tablets to meet the ‘explosive’ demand being generated by younger audiences in this phase of the digital revolution. Mr Scott names ABC radio networks ‘local radio, NewsRadio, Radio National and Classic FM’ as examples of ‘old skewing’ output, implying that a reallocation of resources was now urgently needed to address the mobiles and tablets deficiency. Public broadcasters take issue with this strategy.

Of course we should be building a younger audience who will access our content only through mobiles and tablets. But we should continue to service growing older audiences through the transformative digital years ahead. We should do both.

Classic FM’s overnight presenter-less streaming playlist is an indication of a cost constrained future as Mark Scott tries to re-shape the ABC to meet the ‘explosive’ demand for content for tablets and phones.

Like Radio National, TV and radio current affairs and local radio news bulletins the ABC Board is considering targeted cuts from existing output areas to get to $50m recurrent ‘savings’. We’re now expecting corporation-wide redundancies, including those from Classic FM.

I do not withdraw from my publicly stated concern about Classic FM’s  future transmission strategy. That is a legitimate fear expressed to me.   

I understand the ABC, SBS and the Department of Communications are now considering cutting/merging TV multi-channels (ABC 2, ABC3/SBS2) to cut the costs of digital transmission contracted through Broadcast Australia. Why wouldn’t they look at FM radio transmission as well in any review of costs?

I fear that Classic FM, like ABC TV and radio current affairs and other ‘old skewing’ output are in for a rough few months. We await a definitive statement from the ABC and the Department of Communications on both the transmission and programming impacts of the ‘re-shaping’ of the ABC.

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