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ABC’s Classic FM faces cuts: it’s time to change the tune

ABC Radio plans to cut back on the number of concerts recorded on Classic FM. Ryan Egan/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Today, in a statement to his staff, ABC Managing Director Mark Scott said:

ABC Radio plans to cut back on the number of concerts recorded on Classic FM. This is a prudent efficiency measure that still ensures a quality service for the Classic audience.

Classic FM currently broadcasts around 17 hours of “live” classical music a week, in addition to delayed broadcasts; and the fact it’s facing cuts in this area comes as no surprise.

In September this year, TV presenter and Former Staff Director at the ABC Quentin Dempster warned the station was under particular threat. In a post on the Friends of the ABC website he wrote, “Big concerns in Classic FM about the future of the network,” noting that “ABC Classic FM’s [audience] is greater than that for News Radio”.

Given today’s news, it seems timely to ask what the purpose of a publicly-funded classical music radio station is, in particular what that might be in relation to the grander purpose of public broadcasting more generally. Answering that question is no simple task, for it ultimately demands we consider aesthetic and philosophical questions, like what exactly we mean by “classical” music.

That we may not have a clear sense of an answer is not a problem unique to Australia. In The Envy of the World, radio broadcaster Humphrey Carter’s 1996 hymn to the British equivalent of Classic FM, BBC Radio 3, the author noted that:

The BBC has never sat down to define ‘culture’ or what a ‘cultural network’ should be doing. Nor has it ever really faced up to the fact that if such a network is to do its job properly it will only have a very small audience …

The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s free concerts at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl have been broadcast on Classic FM. Kieran Krud

In anticipation of the cuts to Classic FM, Limelight Magazine argued last week that live broadcasting was not just about:

delivering content as it happens. For many who cannot afford the time and cost of travelling interstate to hear major musical events, these programs represent the only way they can hear the orchestras and ensembles … It’s also the only way for regional festivals and arts organisations to get their message out to a wider public.

This is true, though I would suggest we would need also to include the work in this area undertaken by the network of community classical music broadcasters as well.

And, as I have suggested elsewhere on The Conversation in relation to the so-called “heritage arts” more generally, the ultimate reasons for preserving classical music broadcasting is not so we can simply better promote classical music because that helps classically trained musicians, but because such music ultimately asks us to listen differently to our world.

It forms a part of what we should call, without embarrassment, “aspirational culture”, one means by which we can explore what kind of culture we might like to have, as much as the one we find surrounds us already.

We also need to recognise the underlying threat to Classic FM is not just political-philosophical, or indeed ratings-based, it is also technological. In a recent, and otherwise thoughtful and though-provoking essay on the matter, director of The Music Trust Richard Letts stated that:

The easiest access to classical music is via ABC Classic FM.

But that’s simply not the case. Internet music streaming services such as Spotify and YouTube have transformed our ability to access any music we like. When I was young, I would scour the published radio listings in magazines like Limelight looking for music that I could not otherwise access. Now, I can simply Google it.

But the technological threat also returns us to political-philosophical ones. As The New Yorker’s Alex Ross recently observed:

The Internet threatens final confirmation of Adorno and Horkheimer’s dictum that the culture industry allows the ‘freedom to choose what is always the same.’ Champions of online life promised a utopia of infinite availability: a ‘long tail’ of perpetually in-stock products would revive interest in non-mainstream culture.

And yet, as he continued, the result is that culture appears:

… more monolithic than ever, with a few gigantic corporations – Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon — presiding over unprecedented monopolies. Internet discourse has become tighter, more coercive. Search engines guide you away from peculiar words. (‘Did you mean …?’)

Headlines have an authoritarian bark (“This Map of Planes in the Air Right Now Will Blow Your Mind”). ‘Most Read’ lists at the top of Web sites imply that you should read the same stories everyone else is reading. Technology conspires with populism to create an ideologically vacant dictatorship of likes.

I suspect it is not, and never has been, to the Australian public’s taste to be preached to in matters of culture. But our public broadcasters, like our other publicly-funded arts institutions, ought nevertheless to be funded in part to provide an alternative to this rising “dictatorship of likes”. They should actively mitigate against the danger of us simply wanting more of what we know and like already.

There is, indeed, an inherent sense of the “public” that will be lost once we are all reduced to googling our culture, as much as our news.

As one web commentator recently noted in response to Letts’ essay, that’s a risk stations like Classic FM must themselves struggle to avoid:

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 Classic FM 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 …

However it is expressed in programming, the case for public support requires Classic FM to continue to articulate an underlying commitment not simply to support a niche musical interest but to support a broader ideal of public service in public broadcasting. In turn, governments, and the electorates that vote for them, need to remember that the responsibility to preserve and enhance the ABC’s capacity to do so lies ultimately with them.

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