How ABC’s regional and local head Judith Whelan and the team cover Australia

Judith Whelan

Capital city radio stations, 48 rural and regional bureaus, podcasts and specialist TV

Judith Whelan easily qualified for a place in the Mediaweek 100. As the director of ABC’s regional and local services, she oversees a massive radio and TV audience.

The total ABC Radio weekly audience is over 8m. Some of those people consume via the ABC Listen app which delivers nearly 4m weekly streams to over 400,000 people. That programming ranges from live radio, podcasts to radio on demand. One of the specialist TV shows under her remit, Gardening Australia, has a weekly Total TV audience close to 1m.

After years with Fairfax Media including time as editor of The Sydney Morning Herald and Good Weekend, ABC’s former head of radio Michael Mason brought Judith Whelan into the organisation originally as head of spoken word networks.

Speaking to Mediaweek about the change of sectors, Judith Whelan admitted she started “on a steep learning curve”.

Michelle Guthrie was ABC managing director at the time and shortly after Whelan arrived the broadcaster was restructured from platforms into genres. Whelan was given a role as head of specialist which included Radio National (RN) and TV and radio programming covering arts, science, health & technology, religion, education, and included podcasting which grew significantly under Whelan.

Judith Whelan

Judith Whelan

After Michael Mason left the ABC, Whelan was first appointed acting head of regional and local, before being appointed permanently. That role oversees the eight ABC capital city flagship radio stations, 48 rural and regional bureaus plus regional and local TV content. The role also includes sport across all platforms and live events like ABC’s highest-rating TV program, the New Year’s Eve celebrations and fireworks coverage.

Whelan has nothing but praise for Mason. “He’s fantastic. I absolutely loved him. I learned a lot from him. He’s one of the cleverest and funniest men I’ve ever worked with. He was a great boss, he was completely involved in what he was doing, cared about it enormously, had a great vision, and could see where audio was going. We spent a lot of time investing in digital audio and he had a clear path for how we’d achieve that.”

The TV programs that fall under Whelan’s role include some ABC staples like Landline and Gardening Australia. More recent successes include Movin’ to the Country. When we noted more episodes would have been good, Whelan replied, “Stay tuned.”

movin' to the country

Movin’ to the Country

She added: “What I loved so much about that program was how engaging it was and how moving it was. There were very few of them when I didn’t get tears in my eyes. As people were telling their stories, and they were really honest, you felt as though you were finding out so much about the lives of others. They were very positive stories, but they didn’t shy away from the difficulties that were involved in setting up those businesses.”

Whelan revealed that one of the new shows coming for 2022 is Muster Dogs which has been in production for some time. “The series follows the progress of Kelpie pups who are given to different farmers around the country who use different training methods and we see how effective they are. You get the stories of those trainers. You see the puppies and you see how they work. You also learn about the iconic Australian working dog, some of whom sell for more than $40,000. They are major parts of the infrastructure of agriculture.”

The series has been produced for ABC by Ambience Entertainment.

Changes in Metro Radio

Although the ABC has many tentacles to its audio arm, it’s the five main metro stations that attract the biggest audiences, with the stations all performing well in the ratings.

There was much sadness following the sudden death of Perth breakfast presenter Russell Woolf earlier this year. The broadcaster has yet to reveal a replacement for 2022.

There is change coming to Sydney too where the audience will get a new breakfast show soon when Wendy Harmer and Robbie Buck hand over to James Valentine.

The Sydney duo helped the station to its biggest shares in a decade. Sammy J took Melbourne to its biggest reach in a decade with a show that is clear #2 in the market. Ali Clarke rules in Adelaide as #1 overall in the market. ABC Brisbane breakfast was a competitive third overall in the most recent survey with its show hosted by Loretta Ryan and Craig Zonca.

ABC Adelaide’s Ali Clarke

If you look at the trends over the past two years, the shows have been incredibly strong,” said Whelan.

“We brought in a few changes to the schedule a few years ago. In Sydney, we extended breakfast, made it a doubleheader.” That changes soon though with Valentine hosting solo.

Whelan noted not everything works the first time. “It can take the audience a little while to get used to change. When change doesn’t work well enough, we listen again to the local audience then make changes that suit the audience better.

When your audience is so invested in your existing product you’ve got to be careful with change.

Ending the iconic 7.45am news bulletin

One change that many resisted initially was dropping the iconic 15-minute 7.45am radio news bulletin.

Whelan said a lot of people were giving her feedback like, “What have you done.”

“One person said to me, ‘How am I got to know when to leave the house?’ I replied they could always set an alarm.”

Whelan admitted she liked that 7.45am bulletin too after growing up with it as part of her mornings.

“But think about the audience. The first thing many do now is pick up their phone and see what the news headlines are. They can call out to their smart speakers, ‘What’s the latest news’.”

Whelan noted the audience is changing and expecting their news on demand, instead of having to wait for a set broadcast time.

“The ABC News stream that gives you the latest news plus segments from regional areas every hour, is updated all the time. It is proving immensely popular.”

Whelan added people have adapted: “While the audience reaction was initially ‘Oh, how could you do this?’ Our ratings have not fallen in that time. In fact, they’ve gone up. And we now hear no complaints about it. People have got used to that very, very quickly.

“The ABC is so much about people’s lives, that they do hate change when it happens. That’s kind of a good thing in that they care enough about what we do to say, ‘I don’t like this.’

“We have seen people staying on and listening to their trusted presenters who are bringing them the news in a conversational way. There are now 15 minutes more [in breakfast shows] where our breakfast presenters can actually go into local news and explore it in more depth.”

Whelan has station managers in each of the metro markets who report to the head of the capital city network – Melbourne-based Warwick Tiernan.

National local reporter network

The ABC has star performers at all levels of the organisation right across Australia.

Just one of those is Nick Lowther who leads the team at ABC Western Plains in Dubbo as chief of staff and mornings presenter.

“Nick can do anything from presenting a radio show to a stand-up piece of reporting that can be the lead item on a 7pm bulletin, which he had to do recently when there was the Covid breakout in Dubbo.”

Whelan added that most reporters across Australia file news stories for the digital platforms, radio and TV.

The great thing about these reporters is they’re part of the community as well. They’re not coming in and trying to find out what’s going on. They’re right in the middle of it. Community members are able to walk into the office and tell them stories, and they’re part of that community life. That gives those stories a depth and authenticity that you wouldn’t get otherwise.”

The size of the regional bureaus ranges from the biggest in Newcastle, to smaller areas that can be covered by just one person.

How the audience takes control

Just how does Judith Whelan keep in touch with the output of those 50+ stations, live sport, podcasts and more? Via the ABC Listen app.

“This year we’ve seen massive growth in streaming and at one stage this year, capital city streams broke through the 1 million weekly streams.

“The app gives the listener control over what they want to listen to from the ABC.”

One of the highlights of the app is access to ABC’s broad range of podcasts. Whelan acknowledged that part of the success of some series is how they have brought new audiences into the ABC.

Ladies We Need to Talk is a very successful series. It was designed to be a podcast to be shared around within groups who don’t normally listen to the ABC. It’s proven a lot of people have come to the ABC through that podcast. It talks sometimes in quite graphic terms around women’s health issues that have often in the past been pushed under the carpet, and people don’t want to talk about in polite conversation.”

Read more about Judith Whelan and other Australian media executives in the Mediaweek 100.

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