The former ‘Classic Breakfast’ producer challenges manager Richard Buckham’s denial of station shakeup.

After being approached over a period of several months by current and former ABC Classic FM staff, Limelight published an article last week reporting alleged changes, believed to be imminent, that would affect the classical radio station’s future offering. The news item outlined the belief by several highly respected and credible sources connected to the broadcaster, that the station would be moving away from its established presenter-led, live-to-air formats in favour of pre-recorded, digitally managed programming with a substantially reduced amount of presenter commentary. Classic FM employees have also complained to Limelight that the amount of music uploaded so far to the station’s digital library is severely limited in comparison to the physical library previously available to programmers. One source has suggested that in at least one instance the same digital playlist, created using the station’s new programming software, has been reused multiple times, reducing the variety of music on offer.

Earlier this week, ABC Classic FM station manager Richard Buckham took to social media to deny these claims, describing Limelight’s report as “highly speculative” as well as asserting that Limelight had no corroborating proof. The multiple sources within ABC Classic FM who approached Limelight had all done so off the record, wishing to remain anonymous because of the officious and, in the words of one source, “toxic” working environment that currently exists at the station. One source, however, has now chosen to go public with his understanding of the changes to Classic FM: veteran broadcaster and former Classic Breakfast producer Greg Keane.

Keane, who no longer works for the station but still has close ties to a number of current staff who share his concerns, was one of multiple sources who independently approached Limelight citing similar anxieties about the future quality and consistency of Australia’s only national classical station. Below is Keane’s assessment of the current circumstances at Classic FM, including its adoption of the G-Selector software, which programmers will now use to digitally compile playlists for broadcast. As was outlined in Limelight’s report last week and in Keane’s statement below, the implementation of a digital infrastructure is not the concern, but the loss of thoughtful, varied and original programming devised by experienced producers and featuring informed commentary.

The decision to adopt digital presentation at Classic FM was flagged in late 2014. Familiarisation “seminars” were held in December of that year and in March 2015. The main thrust of the innovation was supposedly to streamline programming and to make it less labour intensive. Neither seminar assuaged the suspicion that this process (G-Selector) was the thin edge of the wedge in downgrading the network.

Despite predictions that it would be “up and running” by February 2015, “programming” positions for the new set up were not advertised until early June. It was clear from the wording that, despite the usual persiflage of management speak, the main criterion for the new roles was the ability to work within a digital format.

The interviews were held in early July, and the appointments of the successful applicants were announced a few weeks later. Both successful applicants were from outside the ABC, and neither had any meaningful programming experience.

It’s worth mentioning at this point that between March 2014 and September 2015 the network lost, through voluntary retirement, four of its most experienced program producers. Whether some retirements were prompted by the prospect of digitisation or general disillusionment with the direction of the network is anyone’s guess. The contract of another programmer, who had been employed almost continually since 2011, was not renewed beyond the end of August 2015, pending the introduction of G-Selector.  

The essence of the process is the choice of music from a digital database which initially consisted exclusively of music already programmed from existing non-digital programs, which had been over a period of many months  “ripped” into the database. What went to air were essentially cannibalised versions of the original programs.

Two more people, one of whom also presents programs, were appointed late in 2015. The effect of the new system minimised creative input and because the “programmers” are regularly rotated between programs, effectively eliminated any creative dynamic, symbiosis or personal chemistry of the type that existed between Ivan Lloyd and Emma Ayres or Joanne Mason and Julia Lester, between current presenters and “programmers”. Presenters simply have to make do with what’s sent to them.

Most daytime programs are now based on G-Selector, and further plans are afoot to reduce further live presenter involvement.

Greg Keane was appointed an ABC Specialist Trainee in Programs in 1973. In recent years he has programmed and produced Just Classics with Damien Beaumont, Mornings with Christopher Lawrence and Classic Breakfast with Emma Ayres. He also co-produced the 2011 Twentieth Century Countdown. In 1997, he wrote and narrated a four-part series on the conductor, Otto Klemperer for Classic FM. He has also been a presenter and programmer for 2MBS FM (now Fine Music) and was a Director of the station for six years. He is a regular figure at both the Bayreuth and Salzburg Festivals and has been a Limelight contributor since 2008.​

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