THE TRIPLE J WE HAVE TODAY

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By Lloyd Dewar

 

 

In the Australian last week, Peter Van Onselen lobbied for the privatization of the ABC primarily on the basis that the national broadcaster has “overstepped its raison d’etre” by becoming a multi-organ multi-media Goliath.  Mr Van Onselen’s piece was in reference to a motion proposed by the Warragul branch of Victoria’s Liberal Party to make privatisation of the ABC part of the federal Liberal Party’s platform.

 

Any attempts to de-fund ABC have been met by much public opposition in the past (faded “Friends of the ABC” bumper stickers are still prevalent).  But, in the age of the internet and the accompanying (mortal?) injury to once-powerful print and television empires, there is a growing number of people who think it may be time to revisit the conventional wisdom around government-owned broadcasting including the subject of this article, Triple J radio.

 

As far as music, it dubs itself a champion of Australian music, but, has come under recent criticism for its lack of commitment to the cause setting itself a modest target of 40% Australian music content.”

 

Triple J is for all intents and purposes a commercial broadcaster – and not a small one either.  It has a powerful national broadcast footprint, huge budget and consistently rates towards the top in youth (18-24) and young adult (25-39) demographics in Nielsen polls.  Triple J’s programming is reportedly largely management-controlled.  Its slick presenter and production style is virtually indistinguishable from its privately-owned FM counterparts.  Its music content is very similar to Nova FM and others.

 

Is the Triple J we have today what 2JJ’s architects intended?

 

Triple J previous iteration, 2JJ, was the brainchild of 1974’s Independent Inquiry into Broadcasting that took place during Gough Whitlam’s brief reign.  2JJ and its Melbourne sister station 3ZZ were supposed to be the first link in national youth radio network.  3ZZ soon folded and the expansion project was shelved under Malcolm Fraser, leaving 2JJ on its own. 2JJ morphed in Triple J and in the 1990s grew into a dominant force in Australia radio transmitting on the FM band into all the major cities and with a regional reach unrivalled by any of the commercial networks.

 

Unusually for a semi-autonomous government organisation, Triple J doesn’t seem to have any formal charter, which, may be part of the problem.  Double J/Triple J appears to have been established to provide a social good – bringing diverse, under-represented and Australian music and current affairs content to young Australians (including in rural Australia).

 

As far as diversity, Triple J has reserved the late-night ghetto for seemingly token hardcore, electronic and roots music programs. “

 

Triple J used to air more documentaries and comedy and have a greater emphasis on current affairs than it does now (which may be a blessing depending on your view).  As far as music, it dubs itself a champion of Australian music, but, has come under recent criticism for its lack of commitment to the cause setting itself a modest target of 40% Australian music content.  Some have posited that you are just as likely to hear Kanye West, Ben Folds or Red Hot Chilli Peppers than any Australian, under-represented or alternative music in any real sense.  Why Australian taxpayers should be funding free airplay and royalties for American millionaires is a vexing question.

 

As far as diversity, Triple J has reserved the late-night ghetto for seemingly token hardcore, electronic and roots music programs.  You should not expect to hear historic music on Triple J.  If all you ever listened to was Triple J you would have no knowledge of the existence of Ray Charles, Sun Ra, Fela Kuti or any of the other greats of other eras and cultures.  It follows that ambitious musicians would begin to supplant their own personal vision for something that they think will accord with the arbitrary and arguably narrow tastes of Triple J’s music guardians Kingsmill and Scaddan (music and program directors respectively).  A bit more Grinspoon.  A bit more Missy Higgins… and so the feedback loop of mediocrity begins.  As recently as this week in the Age, Hiatus Kaiyote parked some of the blame for the lack of opportunity for other forms of music in Australia squarely with Triple J.

 

The majority of Triple J’s announcers reside in Sydney giving it a distinctly harbour-side focus to the choice of music and other content – a fact that particularly riles many of the musicians and industry people in Australia’s arguable live music capital, Melbourne.  That is not to say that the announcer’s are not passionate or knowledgeable, but, a degree of homogeneity is inevitable when decision-makers reside in the same small community – which is fine, unless you purport to speak for a nation.

 

What would a privatised or, indeed, absent Triple J mean to music in Australia? Would Australia’s music industry wither on the vine?  I don’t think so.

 

As long as there have been humans there has been a love of music.  Young people especially will go to great lengths to find the music they enjoy (even to the extent of committing offences by illegally downloading).  The U.S. and U.K. music industries have had no problem producing and selling billions of dollars in music product of all kinds without the taxpayer’s generous assistance.  Indeed, America has no government-owned national TV or radio broadcasting whatsoever.  Anyone with access to the internet is able to access millions of new songs for free using Spotify, last.fm, Pandora, Youtube or any one of the tens of thousands of online radio stations and streams – a far superior service to city and rural youth than any terrestrial radio network can provide.

 

Each major Australian city has at least one established self-funded community radio station on its spectrum – Brisbane (ZZZ), Sydney (FBI), Melbourne (RRR, PBS, 3CR), Perth (RTR).  Many Melbourne bands have attained success via community radio with precious little attention from “the Js”, including The Bamboos, C.W. Stoneking, Melbourne Ska Orchestra and Saskwatch.  It is no coincidence that these artists do not fit the Oz-rock, Oz-pop, Oz-hop mould.

 

Last week, Clairy Browne & The Bangin Rackettes released their debut album, Baby Caught The Bus, on the prestigious U.S. label, Vanguard, a great achievement no doubt, however do not expect to hear them on high rotation at the end of the FM dial.  Admittedly, many independent bands have been helped by Triple J airplay, but, that does not mean that they would not have succeeded in any case.  Popular music will always out, its just that Triple J is the anointed path in our current time and place.  There was no Triple J for AC/DC, The Easybeats or Johnny O’Keefe.

 

Triple J is no longer just a radio station either – it is an internationally-recognised multi-media brand far exceeding its original mandate.  It has a franchise magazine, smart-phone app and television programs.  It has a spin-off digital radio station, Unearthed, which some have charged with attempting to create a virtual monopoly of new Australian music.  It makes a small fortune in merchandise in the form of t-shirts and CDs through ABC shops and online.

 

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It is something of a tribute to its management that Triple J has become the leviathan it is.  They have worked hard and cleverly to attain and maintain both government funding and youth audiences, even if at the cost of its original charter.  But, Triple J’s most serious harm maybe the unintentional consequence of this “success”.  Just as Van Onselen argues that the mere existence of the ABC in a weakened media landscape threatens the viability of truly-independent voices, so Triple J’s ubiquity crowds-out opportunities for other competitors – as is inevitable when a publicly-funded organisation competes in a market.

 

One example is Triple J’s sponsorship of music festivals.  What a government-funded broadcaster is doing involved in sponsoring private profit-making events is a mystery to me but, in any case, the effect is that Triple J’s activities denies much-needed revenue and publicity to commercial and independent radio stations.  Precisely, this happened in 2001 when Triple J insisted that it be made the exclusive radio sponsor of the St Kilda Festival, thus forcing the festival to sever its long-standing ties with RRR and PBS FM.  In 2012, Triple J were radio sponsors of many of the largest national music festivals including Splendour in the Grass, Laneway Festival, Big Day Out and Parklife amongst others.

 

Whether Triple J should be corporatised (a la Telstra), sold as a going concern or broken up is a question for others.  Certainly with such a strong brand and healthy ratings, it must have some value as business.  Regardless, the proceeds for any sale could be used to fund the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia to better deliver diverse music content to regional Australia via its under-utilised national radio network of over 270 stations.   There would also be plenty of money left over for the Commonwealth to honour its commitment to funding for community radio’s digital future.  Or the federal government could merely return the proceeds and the millions of dollars saved, estimated at $5 million per annum (Triple J’s financials are, remarkably, not made publicly available), back into the pockets of taxpayers to spend on things that they value enough to choose to pay for.

 

Most people agree that there is a role for government ownership of assets in order to provide “social goods” – that is to say goods or services that are deemed essential and which the market will not provide.  Law and order and defence are good examples.  Thanks to technological innovation and improvement in private sector capabilities, services that were once social goods are no longer.  Transport, water, power and telecommunications are largely no longer owned or run by the state in this country.

 

Melbourne is lucky.  Having PBS FM and RRR, it never needed Triple J.  With a strong national community radio sector and the advent of the internet, now no-one in Australia does.

 

 

Lloyd Dewar is an entertainment lawyer, current radio show host and former board member of PBS FM.  The views expressed are not necessarily the views of PBS FM.

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