Geraldine Doogue: Engaging young Australians with their ABC

Jun 16, 2022
ABC logo 1974
It is implicit in their arguments that a strong ABC would foster cultural and social diversity while unifying the nation. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Another highly engaging Classic 100 music countdown came to a close at 4pm on Sunday, enthralling many thousands of Australians, linking them like maybe nothing else, to their ABC. Crucially, younger Australians engaged like never before with the Classic 100, according to the network’s website. Altogether, 215,486 listeners took action and voted—a record, with an increase in younger voters. Translate that via the multiplier effect to listeners and you scoop up huge numbers of Australians, clearly many converts for the first time, judging by the wonderful recorded feedback.

The ABC itself, in its 90th year, and its pay-masters in Parliament, ought to take big note. The ABC’s key role as the nation’s most significant cultural institution tends to get a bit lost amidst the information focus, particularly on news and current affairs.

Vital though that coverage is, News scratches (and must) all sorts of nerve endings between the Corporation and others. More, it can persuade its critics, let alone its own practitioners, especially given strong News traditions,  that this aspect of ABC life rides above all others.

Increasingly, I do not agree, even though I was partly formed there in my journalism….and I haven’t even touched on other creative output like ‘the cult of Bluey’ for instance, extending the Australian accent and values to diehard realms in the US.

In the UK similar arguments are being made by those keen to defend the BBC in its license controversies, conscious that its incredible reach into the nation’s life via music, the performing arts, literature, kids, is insufficiently weighed.

Crucially, younger Australians engaged like never before with the Classic 100, according to the network’s website. Altogether, 215,486 listeners took action and voted—a record, with an increase in younger voters. Translate that via the multiplier effect to listeners and you scoop up huge numbers of Australians, clearly many converts for the first time, judging by the wonderful recorded feedback.

Lots of dilemmas were on full display too with this musical poll. On the plus side, absolutely no other outlet in Australia offers anything like it. It is a complete vindication of a public broadcasting role: it introduced people to a range of cultural experiences, shoe-horned into a limited time amidst lots of choreographed curating. It was sheer fun. It offered unusual levels of knowledge from very skilful broadcasters (who knew Dan Golding had a doctorate in video games, clearly not Russell Torrance?) yet without any snobbery. It was, in other words, totally inviting to lots of different educational backgrounds.

The Star Wars series was the predictable winner—personally, I don’t wish to hear that theme again for a while. I did weary of it, I confess. It would not have been my choice.

But that’s the point. Nor would the Legend of Zelda, the action-adventure franchise that won the highest vote for the video game franchise, coming in at No 23. My votes (had I voted) would have gone to the unforgettable Morricone’s The Mission and the surprisingly moving Jurassic Park theme by John Williams, which came in at No 8.

That surely reflects my age. Older listeners, over 55, voted solidly for the Morricone (he had three entries). Mind you, 38% of the Jurassic vote from from Millennials…”John Williams’ epic soundtrack lay like an insect in amber, waiting for the children of the 90s to come of age”, as the Classic 100 website described it. In fact, more Millennials voted this year than Gen Xers.

Throughout the weekend the personal interaction between listeners and the on-air announcers—having such obvious fun—plus the incredible emotions expressed via the text-line and the recorded inserts, were simply radio gold: across so many ages and different groups.

People offered thoughtful responses to the differences between the stirring Tara’s Theme from Gone With The Wind and some of the disturbing elements of the movie itself. Kids and their parents were dancing around the kitchen, along with presenters in the studio, to Zorba The Greek with its visceral base guitar. Lord Of The Rings produced slavish devotion from its followers…which eludes me, I confess. And on and on throughout the weekend, offering a unique window into many Australian households.

I found myself driving further than my plan, just to stay in the car to hear more. I loved it. Generally I do. The Beethoven countdown for his 250th birthday in 2020 took me three days to recover from, such was the adrenalin rush!

But: this past emphasis on screen music did annoy some listeners, who told me quite volubly, why they’d turned off till it was all over. These people knew their music. They were older, more traditional listeners but the tone and sheer concentration of effort over the lead-up weeks, drove them a bit nuts.

You’ll just have to learn to share this asset, I advised them. And here’s the dilemma facing the ABC.

The Corporation needs to serve an increasingly wide audience, which is changing before our very eyes. It makes for a tricky balancing act.

It can’t assume people’s taste the way it once did. It has to explore with them and keep taking risks to both lead and follow. It needs to trouble its older audience a bit: aggravate not alienate though, has always been my mantra. It needs to be said that sometimes I am alienated as a dedicated ABC person.  But that can be rectified.

The complexity inside this big community of ours should not invite a dumbing-down—a clear and present seduction. It frustrates me that our critics simply choose to ignore the nature of this challenge and just hurl abuse.

In my view, the ABC should always aim to stretch itself and its audiences, should acknowledge that Australia’s becoming a very educated country especially among its younger consumers. It should step-up not step-down: be sparkling, edgy and expansive to serve this nation well.

And it needs the budget to do the job that no other outlet even aspires to, in its scope. Lose that aspiration and watch Australian shrink.

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