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"Death by a thousand cuts": Eastward drift of ABC jobs puts heritage in limbo

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The ABC quietly closed its Adelaide sound library days before the March state election, with new revelations that the drift of jobs away from South Australia over several years played a part in the decision to axe the facility.

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Answers to questions on notice provided to South Australian Labor Senator Penny Wong reveal that the library was closed despite it being moved from one floor of the ABC’s Collinswood headquarters to another just last September at a cost of at least $20,000.

The closure led to two staff members losing their jobs – a bitter pill for the local ABC, which is also facing the loss of two or three senior staff over the coming months.

The answers from the ABC also show the loss of jobs connected with Classic FM late last year – beginning in September – and changes to the station’s programming resulted in reduced demand for the Adelaide sound library.

InDaily reported in January that the Adelaide sound library was slated to be shut down, with digital sound archives to be consolidated interstate due to relatively low demand for the library’s local services.

At the time the ABC described it as a proposal only that was subject to consultation. Just over a month later – just days before the state election – the library was closed for good with thousands of items to be shipped to Melbourne and duplicates disposed of.

However, an enormous collection of vinyl recordings – about 150,00o of them, including many believed to be of historic value – remains in Adelaide, along with a range of other significant artefacts such as orchestral scores, music charts and the like.

The ABC says there are no plans to do anything with its vinyl collection, which numbers about 373,000 across Australia, and there are no longer any library staff in Adelaide to oversee the collection.

Former ABC Adelaide sound librarian Andy McCarthy said today he believed the collection would now just sit in its current repository – the one-time staff canteen out the back of the Collinswood studios – until the building reaches the end of its useful life.

McCarthy, who worked at the ABC for 33 years including 12 years in the sound library, told InDaily his image of the historic archive’s future was like the final scenes of Raiders of the Lost Ark, when the artefact that gives the film its title is hidden away in a warehouse, never to be opened again.

“It’s a bit of a tragedy,” he said. “To call the thing a ‘digital strategy’ is a joke – it’s a saving money strategy.”

McCarthy attended a morning tea a few weeks ago to mark the library’s closing, with the one remaining librarian – soon to be made redundant – packing up CDs for shipping to the ABC’s offices in Melbourne and Sydney.

“It was depressing… like having to make preparations for your own funeral.”

He agreed that the slow loss of Classic FM jobs from Adelaide, once the headquarters of the station, meant that the library’s closure was inevitable.

“It was a death of a thousand cuts, slowing moving Classic FM away from Adelaide. That (Classic FM) was basically the work of the sound library – you could see the writing was on the wall.”

McCarthy said the collection included recordings of historic interest as well as other artefacts of South Australia’s musical history.

“They will just exist in a warehouse somewhere,” he said.

Without librarians to act as custodians and guides, it won’t be obvious to any interested parties what is in the collection.

McCarthy says there is an archaic and difficult to use card catalogue system. However, in an ABC document provided in response to questions from Wong at a recent Estimates Committee, the ABC says only about half of the corporation’s vinyl record collection – most of which are located in Adelaide and Sydney – are catalogued.

While the ABC says its staff will still be able to access the records, it adds: “The future of the vinyl collection will be subject to a separate project.”

InDaily understands the move of the digital sound archive to Melbourne is already causing frustration for local staff, who also question the ABC’s assertion that the relocation of the library last September cost $20,000.

In answers to questions from South Australian Centre Alliance Senator Stirling Griff, the ABC said the “relocation and redesign of the library workspace was incorporated as part of the broader project total costs”.

“The specific costs required for the library relocation was $19,556,” the ABC said.

Given the library had to be rebuilt in a large space previously used for set construction, local staff believe head office has underestimated the cost – by a substantial amount.

The ABC told Griff that the sound library was relocated as part of a broader local project to consolidate ABC employees on three floors of the Collinswood building.

“A decision on the future of the sound library was not pending at the time of the move,” the ABC insisted.

Separate answers to Wong show that the sound library’s future was dented in September 2017 – around the same time as the relocation – due to another round of cuts to Adelaide’s contribution to Classic FM’s programming.

New cuts are on the way at Collinswood.

In echoes of the so-called “Hunger Games” job cuts under previous managing director Mark Scott, a cohort of 13 senior staff have been told that two or three positions in their group will be cut.

While the ABC has been hiring journalists locally in recent weeks – including three former media advisers to the Weatherill Government – InDaily understands some of the ABC’s most familiar faces are in the group slated for the chop.

The group includes senior journalists of long standing, producers and at least one radio newsreader. The job cuts are meant to help the ABC refocus resources on digital platforms.

The process for deciding which staff lose their jobs, which InDaily understands is rather opaque to the staff in question, won’t help morale at the ABC in Adelaide which has seen its functions gutted over the past few years.

As part of its response to Wong’s questions at the Estimates Committee, the ABC provided a rundown of all of the services and facilities closed down at Collinswood over the past few years.

The list, which doesn’t include the closure of the ABC’s television production facilities in 2014-15 with the loss of dozens of jobs, begins in March 2016 with the loss of a Classic FM evening presenter’s job, and was followed in December that year with a decision to network the Friday evenings program on ABC Radio Adelaide out of Sydney.

Then, in September last year – just as the sound library was being moved from the fifth floor to the ground floor location – “changes to ABC Classic FM programming resulted in reduced demand for the Adelaide Sound Library, leading to one redundancy”.

In December, Classic FM’s “Keys to Music” program was scrapped, leading to one redundancy in Adelaide and, the same month, the station’s “Sunday Opera & Evenings” program was relocated to Adelaide, resulting in another staff member losing their jobs.

The gutting of Classic FM’s Adelaide presence is now all but complete.

In 2015, much-loved Classic FM Drive presenter Julia Lester, based in Adelaide, retired with her job going interstate.

“It was the ABC’s choice to deliver the cuts to Classic FM the way that it happened, not the Federal Government’s,” she said at the time.

“I think it’s an expression of a lack of interest in classical music by the ABC. There are people who think that the last composer died in 1745.”

An ABC spokesperson said there would not be a reduction in the number of news jobs at the ABC in Collinswood.

She said the process for identifying positions to be cut had been agreed between the unions and the ABC.

New roles in Adelaide, however, were “aimed at refocusing on local journalism and enhancing the number of distinctive and high quality stories our audiences say they want across TV, radio and online”.

“Almost 100 per cent of editorial employees at ABC Adelaide have attended eight briefing sessions on the Local Journalism Initiative over the past week to explain the reasons for change and allow people to get all the detail,” the spokesperson said. “The response to the aims of the project and what we seek to achieve for local journalism has been overwhelmingly positive. We all also recognise that we all feel for those who will be directly impacted this is a difficult time.”

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