Resilience and adaptability never ceased to impress me: Michael Mason's last day | radioinfo

Resilience and adaptability never ceased to impress me: Michael Mason's last day

Wednesday 12 December, 2018

The ABC’s Director of Regional & Local, Michael Mason, farewells the corporation after 34 years.  
Today is his last day.
During his career, Michael worked in Sydney, Canberra and Adelaide and managed the ABC’s Local Radio and Regional networks as well as ABC RN, before becoming Director of Radio in 2014 and then Director of R&L at the beginning of this year following the corporation’s internal restructure.  
Before he left the ABC’s Ultimo headquarters Steve Ahern chatted with Michael about his career and what challenges he sees coming for the radio industry in future, and the ABC in particular.
Michael, thank you for giving radioinfo an ‘exit interview.’  Thirty-four years is a long time to spend in one industry and one organisation.  What are the main themes to have emerged over those years?
MM: Thanks Steve.  Yes, 34 years is a lifetime and so much has changed in the media in that time.  Never more so than in the past few years.  
Technology has driven massive change in audience listening habits.  I think the biggest impact has been the emergence of digital radio and on-demand audio services.  I don’t think Radio and audio content has become less popular.  In fact it is as strong as ever.  The challenge for everyone in this industry is that there is far more choice and far more competition.
How have you met those challenges at the ABC?
MM:  I’ve been proud that the ABC has led the way in the on-demand and digital space.  Just like our TV colleagues achieved with the early launch of ABC’s iView service, we quickly established our presence on the DAB+ spectrum with a range of content aimed at our most popular niche audiences.  
We now have the country’s most popular digital channels in ABC Jazz, ABC Grandstand, Double J and Unearthed.  And recently we added another channel – ABC KIDS listen – which has already proved a hit with young parents. And ABC Listen is the number one radio app in the country. 
How has the emergence of podcasting changed the way you commission and produce audio content?
MM: The rising popularity of podcasting and on-demand audio has given us a wonderful opportunity to reach an entirely new audience through our ABC Listen app and on third party platforms such as itunes.  
Conversations, which is our one-hour long-form interview program on Local Radio, which I helped establish more than 20 years ago, has for the fourth year running remained Australia’s most popular podcast.  The podcast just continues to go from strength to strength, with 35 million downloads this year, up 30 per cent on last year.  
We also established ABC Audio Studios almost two years ago to manage this space and it has been hugely successful in commissioning and delivering new audiences for us through such podcasts as It’s Not A Race and Ladies We Need to Talk. 
Digital and podcasting often get a lot of attention, but what about your metropolitan radio service and traditional flow programming?  You’ve made a lot of changes this year.  How are you tracking?
MM:  Our network of eight capital city radio stations and 48 regional bureaus remain at the very heart of what we do.  We have put a tremendous amount of time and resources into making sure we are as relevant and as engaging as we can possibly can be in all the communities we serve.  And that has meant some major shake-ups in our programs and line-ups at the start of this year.  That was done to bring a wider range of voices and diversity to our programs and to make us more accessible to audiences in both metropolitan and regional areas.  
The changes also reflected the changing habits of listeners as more people move to digital and on-demand services and keep up-to-date with their local news across their day.  As with any change, it takes some time for audiences to get used something new and we suffered a little at the start of this year.  In recent surveys, however, we have started to see that change around and I’m confident our local and regional teams will be in a very strong position in the coming years.
You were also responsible for triple j, RN and Classic FM.  What were some of the challenges there?
MM:   Some of my happiest memories are from the time I managed RN.  It is one of the jewels in the ABC crown and is truly a world-class radio network.  But like all media, it has had to adapt to the times and that has been challenging.  I’m particularly proud of having been associated with a range of new RN shows such as RN Drive with Waleed Aly - and now with Patricia Karvelas,  Download this Show with Marc Fennell, as well as Sunday Extra and Off Track.  RN is as strong as it has ever been and has a bright future.
The resilience and adaptability of ABC Classic FM has never ceased to impress me.  The network’s ability to move with the times has ensured that the ABCClassic FM brand remains synonymous with the very highest quality in classical and fine music broadcasting - benchmarked against the very best in the world. The Classic 100 weekend and the network’s connection with new audiences via social and online has positioned it well for the future.  
I’ve also had enormous fun working with the all those involved with triple j over the years.  The station still delivers what are indisputably the best radio events in the country –Unearthed, One Night Stand and of course, the stand-out success that is The Hottest 100.  There has been some criticism about the change of date for the Hottest 100, but in doing so, I believe we have ensured the countdown will continue to be about the music and not about other issues around the celebration of our national day.  
AM and FM radio seem to be on divergent paths. AM is an old technology with a slow long term decline in listening, while FM remains in good health. What do you see as the future for AM?
MM:  The AM band has been losing audiences for some time now in the Capital City markets. Interestingly, it’s not just younger audiences that are deserting AM, although reach with the under 40s is very low. AM is losing audiences across all age groups, including the older demographics who have traditionally made up its audience. 
By contrast FM’s audience remains strong and is still growing, including in older demographics. 
Generally, AM is considered a talk platform with a very different feel to FM and we are finding that as choice increases, audiences are moving to other platforms and the AM band just isn't on their radar anymore. The poor sound quality of AM doesn’t help - as a technology AM is particularly unsuited to modern cities as its prone interference. 
And AM’s loss of relevance to contemporary audiences is starting to be reflected in the market too, with many radios now being sold without AM. So overall, I think that AM’s days are numbered as a broadcast technology in large cities. 
Of course, there is a different picture in regional Australia, where AM’s extensive broadcast footprint means it will continue to play an important role for some time in a country as large as ours. 
How do these challenges impact ABC Radio, particularly the services you broadcast on AM? 
MM: It’s something we have spent quite a lot of time grappling with. The steady decline in audience on the AM band is obviously of concern and makes it hard for our stations to reach new audiences, particularly considering AM now has extremely low reach with younger audiences.  
This feels particularly pressing for capital city radio, which, as our mainstream service, should reach all Australians. While you can always work to make your content the best it can be, broadcasting on AM creates a challenge for capital city radio to deliver on its remit. The reality is that we're broadcasting our mainstream service on a band which is on the way to being a niche platform. 
Until the newer ways of listening such as digital and streaming become mass reach technologies, how we broadcast on analogue is still critical to ensuring ABCRadio reaches Australians. Of course in an ideal world we would have all our services on FM in the capital cities. It has the mass reach across all demographics, much better sound quality and is cheaper to run. 
The ABC’s local radio services have a long tradition in regional Australia. How are technology changes influencing regional radio and your regional coverage more broadly? 

MMDigital technology has been transformative for the ABC in regional Australia. It has allowed us to bring more regional stories to national audiences and increase the content for local audiences in a way that simply wasn't possible 10 years ago. We have invested significant money over recent years in equipment and additional staff to take advantage of these developments, which have transformed our radio stations into bureaux that produce content for all platforms. 
Our regional bureaux now make radio content for local broadcast, produce digital stories and social content, and also file audio and video stories for broadcast on national platforms such as the 7pm News or radio current affairs programs. I think we are delivering more content and better content as a result of this, and we are seeing more stories from regional Australia reflected back into the national conversation. 
How do ensure Australians get value for money and relevance from the radio and audio services you have overseen?
MM:  Obviously there are a number of ways to gauge how successful you are.  The first – and obvious one – is through the GfK surveys.  As previously covered, we’ve seen a slow decline on the AM band but our FM stations are holding up strongly and we’re seeing a steady uptake for our digital channels and an enormous uptake for content on our digital and social media platforms.  
Another measure, and equally important, is that of quality and distinctiveness.  It’s a mark of difference from our competitors and is fundamental to our charter.  We don’t just serve Australians as consumers, we also serve them as citizens.  As far as value is concerned, we know, from research we’ve done, that we offer incredible value for money.  The cost of running our metropolitan stations is close to half that of an equivalent commercial operator and we deliver our regional network of 48 bureaus for just 60 cents per listener per week.  Our Local Radio metropolitan stations produce more than 600 hours of original content each week and our regional network more than 900 hours each week.  
Finally, what are you plans for the future after you leave the ABC?
MM:  I’m planning on dropping off the grid for a while and taking a complete break.  After that I hope to continue to have an association with Radio, probably through mentoring and talent management.
Best wishes in your retirement Michael.
Picture: Michael Mason’s farewell gathering.

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