Here's how to let ABC Classic FM revive and thrive

The ABC is facing funding cuts and its managing director, Mark Scott intends to reconceive aspects of the ABC to ensure a successful future. Perhaps some things will be cut, others strengthened. Classic FM is at risk. Why not get in front of the game by reconceiving Classic FM too?

Almost all of the classical music heard broadcast or live this year by someone now aged 25 could have been heard also by his or her great-great-great-grandparents when they were 25! For Mozart’s music, great-great-great-great-great-great-great — and then some.

This is not an attraction likely to lure the young. As teenagers, they listen to and identify with music created by other young people. It is simple, short and shared. Classical music is long, complicated and as things stand, someone else’s.

The easiest access to classical music is via ABC Classic FM. According to Mark Scott, Classic FM has a “niche” aged 50 and over audience. (With a weekly reach of 750,000 people it’s a pretty good niche.) Apparently the ABC most attracts those aged 14 years and under and 50 and over. Understandably, Scott wants to pull in that enormous missing 35 year demographic.

In line with the ABC charter that the national broadcaster must “encourage and promote musical, dramatic and performing arts”, Classic FM broadcast 400 live performances of Australian artists last year. But if cancelled, this and a few other surviving initiatives could provide more dollars for the grand reconception of ABC audio-visual.

Possibly classical music, like the Classic FM audience, is seen as niche. It is a good moment to state loudly and firmly that this music in its extraordinary depth and breadth of expression, its amazing intellectual content and its embodiment of Olympic virtuosity is one of the great achievements of humankind. What’s more, Australians are high achievers in classical music as both performers and composers.

The ABC has the great good fortune to own and manage the country’s national classical music broadcaster, inherited from previous ABC generations. Its trajectory has headed via slow attrition towards a disc-spinning operation which, if it could no longer record Australian artists, would eventually be unable to broadcast them much either.

There is an alternative. Reconceive Classic FM as an energetic, creative force in classical music for Australia and indeed, the world.

What might this look like? To begin, it certainly would work to attract that missing demographic of 15 to 50 year olds. Since it would not want to lose the 750,000 50-90 year-olds, the total demographic would span 75 years.

Of course, there cannot be a single program and a single approach that successfully serves everyone who can tie their own shoelaces. The older audience will probably want to continue to listen via broadcast FM radio in its familiar, comfortable way. Younger generations move increasingly towards other formats and Classic FM already has them, including a second classical music program online. Program variations could serve different interest groups within the large demographic.

Classical music everywhere faces a big problem. Its main audience is stuck in the 18th and 19th centuries. These listeners might be getting bored but they don’t like the alternatives. When Australian classical composition found its feet in the 1960s, most composers wrote in the complex and dissonant style that dominated the Western world. The audience was largely baffled and deterred. Orchestras and opera companies —  the economic engines of the sector — are large organisations needing large audiences but generally could not attract them with this music. It loses money and so they program it sparingly.

It is important that there is a place for this new and complex music, but over decades it has won only a small audience. The main audience probably assumes that anything written after 1900 may be that music it doesn’t like. So programming is stuck.

We need a music of our time of power and integrity that will attract the large audience. The audience should anticipate new works with pleasure, not fear.

Since ABC Classic FM does not have a box office problem, it could take an active role in supporting the production of this new repertoire and could be a crucial player in building an audience. This music of our time could be key to winning back the younger audience that decades ago, gave enthusiastic support.

Classical music radio in the USA has disappeared in many cities and no longer feeds audience members to its orchestras and so orchestras are closing.

Australian orchestras have Classic FM and the MBSs and they have retained their audiences. With imagination Classic FM could go much further than supporting the status quo: it could be a force for renewal and diversification of the repertoire and expansion of the listener base. What an achievement that would be!

In summary, here are some activities for an ABC Classic FM that is a strong and active force in the creation of Australian musical culture:

– Reach a listener base with strong representation from all age groups.
– To this end, continue to explore FM, digital and online radio and various interactive formats as they evolve.
– Present a program with its base in the core Western classical music repertoire but extend into its evolutionary present, and include other art musics and hybrid forms.
– Give special attention to the creation and presentation of music of our time in forms capable of attracting a substantial audience.
– Commission musical works and present them.
– Commission special broadcast productions and series that illuminate the music and its context.
– Maintain and expand the live broadcast program.
– Restore and expand the recording program.
– Reclaim and reinvent a dynamic role in education. This could seek the collaboration of the programs already run by each orchestra, the opera companies, small ensembles, Musica Viva. It could bring the curriculum to  life, recruit young people as producers and present a youthful voice.
– Review presentation styles as a means of expanding the listener demographic.
– Encourage the musical arts by supporting the artists; do not exploit them. This requires a budgetary allocation.

For the annual cost of a few hours of television drama, art music radio could be transformed.

10 responses to “Here's how to let ABC Classic FM revive and thrive

  1. “We need a music of our time of power and integrity that will attract the large audience.”
    Absolutely! But overall with some notable exceptions it isn’t there. The novice audience is more likely to be won over by Beethoven than Cage.

    I think that ABC FM is great except for the now announcer less night shift which is verging on classical muzak. Just because music was written two hundred years ago doesn’t mean that it is out of touch with today. What is needed are announcers with charisma – which many of the current ones are. Perhaps more jazz programming as well.

  2. Just like those who are rusted on to pop music, classical music listeners tend to like what they get to know. The job of programmers who have an agenda of change is balancing the familiar with the new, and of being able to judge what is likely to become loved when it becomes familiar.
    This is where ClassicFM could do better. The high profile programs, such as the breakfast and drive ones with ‘profile’ presenters, could be used much more effectively to introduce new music, recent commissions by the orchestras, and new music ensembles such as Topology, which should be much better known with its repertoire of exciting and accessible music, Ensemble Offspring, Continuum Sax & Clocked Out all at the cutting edge, just to mention a few Australian groups.
    European, American and even less likely, Asian, new music ensembles should also be programmed, but rarely are to be heard.
    Currently, in order to avoid losing grey-heads and blue-rinses, no consistent programming of new music is undertaken prior to 10.30pm. This grey-head is well in bed by that time, so has to pod-cast what can be found.
    If the excitement of new music is imprisoned into just that late night period, the audience will never have the chance to discover it.
    As for Classic2, it seems to consist of short grabs, and to find out what a specific item is, you have to go to the web and chase it down – if you’re not familiar with style or instrumentation of what you’re chasing, might as well give up now. But I guess it’s dirt cheap.

    1. I very much appreciate these comments. Some have said Classic FM is doing all the things I mentioned and perhaps I have not given full credit, although that is inadvertent. However, it is not actually doing all those things.
      For instance, as I understand the ABC’s own characterisation of the listener base, it has not won over a younger audience. That is important to Mark Scott and therefore for his willingness to invest in the network but it is also a missed opportunity for the music, potential listeners and the station.
      Looking at the program, there is a lot of listener-friendly newer music (mostly short works) but from a small number of composers already well-known to listeners. Is there a calculated introduction of serious popular music artists or classical/contemporary fusion, or any introduction of art music from other cultures?
      As John points out, the tough new music is relegated to late hours so it does not disturb the regular audience but with the consequence that it is also beyond the normal reach of many listeners.
      I absolutely do not know enough about the situation or about radio in general to have the answers to all this. It would be terrific to have a discussion and I invite you all to contact me at to that end.

  3. I’m a bit late with the comments I know. I’m a tradesman and under 50 so don’t fit the usual classic FM demographic but I listen to it in the workshop all the time. I have to agree with DJW that they are already doing most of what has been suggested. If you take the time to listen for a while you realise they actually play a very broad range of music – far broader than any other station I have ever listened to (even mainstream pop appears on occasion, all be it usually as a joke). As an aside if it wasn’t for Classic FM I wouldn’t have been introduced to the music of Australia singer Katie Noonan. She crosses a range of genres and as a result she gets little airplay on commercial radio but she is, to my untrained ears, a national treasure.

  4. I’m sorry Richard but I can’t be help but be disappointed by this article.

    ABC has created ABC FM2 which has been doing a lot of what you are advocating, or at least heading in that direction when compared to ABC FM. I have a hunch that ‘Robin’ was hinting at that.

    See here:

    I’m a big fan of it and my only disappointment is that I can only get it as an audio stream via the WWW. For reasons that escape me they are ‘hiding it under a bushel’.

    What you advocate is worthwhile. Don’t mistake the nature of these comments. But credit where credit is due.

    Instead of waiting for the ABC which is suffering under a hostile government, wouldn’t it be great if there was some overarching music industry body with support from the industry that could implement what you are advocating. Wouldn’t that be something?

  5. Mmmm, create a whole new repertoire of serious modern Australian music that all Australians will like to hear. What a good idea! I wonder why the ABC hasn’t thought of it already.

  6. Sounds good to me! NB “popular musics” are not necessarily short – I like to think of a good album as like a symphony, only with 8 or 9 movements instead of 3 or 4.

    Music for film and TV (and games) is one classically-influenced area that seems to be popular across different age brackets – e.g. Bear McCreary’s music for Battlestar Galactica. And artists like Bjork and Damon Albarn mix things across genres (though I am positive my Dad would turn off the radio if either of those artists came on).

    Given radio stations that play rock/pop keep becoming increasingly stratified (even Triple J has started Double J for all of us nostalgic GenXers) it’s pretty impressive classical music has hung on as is for this long (and points to the enormity of the challenge)

  7. Richard, I agree with your article, and can’t support Classic FM enough – but I must note that ABC FM already does much of what you suggest – maybe they just need to be able to tell their story more – the programs are listened on-line to all over the world, as they are some of the very best, most vibrant, and eclectic available. While now in their main audience bracket, I have listened to Classic FM from my mid-twenties, and have found it a way to stay in touch with new music, new musicians, and most of all, Australian music – where else can it be heard? For example, there is really nothing so powerful as William Barton’s didgeridoo – but where else do you hear his music? Particularly if you don’t live in a capital city, or you can’t get to concerts. To lose this stream of music would be a devastating loss…

  8. Excellent article! Yes, of course the ABC should be engaging with young artists, producers, entrepreneurs, to glean their ideas about revitalising art music in all its guises.

  9. I couldn’t agree more with this article Classical music needs to move into this century but ABC needs to bring the audience along A vexed problem but surely one that can be addressed by employing someone like Richard Letts as one of the programming advisors


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