Jennifer Byrne recently filmed the first episode of The Book Club for 2015 at the Perth Writers’ Festival. Across the 9 years of the show, she has travelled around the country recording episodes, meeting writers and audience members.
But while it was a memorable experience, this time there was a reminder of the harsh realities for ABC crew in this show business.
“We got to the end of our filming in Perth and one of the staff said to me, ‘This is probably the last show that we’ll film here,'” she recalls.
“All of a sudden I just got a shock. ‘My god that’s you.’ And I thought, ‘What good people. You didn’t say it before the show.’
“He waited until after. That’s really tough.”
Byrne is a survivor and, by her own admission, an adaptor in the media business. A journalist by trade, she happily juggles writing and presenting duties on television, radio and print, including The Book Club, The Project, The Drum, ABC 702, ABC 774, Radio National, Classic FM and more.
“In terms of principles, I trust Mark Scott.”
As ABC undergoes funding cuts she is grateful there is still a place for her monthly chat about all things literary with Jason Steger and Marieke Hardy.
“We lost the (Book Club) Specials, which was a budgeting decision, primarily. Of course that’s really sad, but it’s deeply sad that people have lost their jobs. I was very fortunate in that I have a small group of people I work with and they’ve all survived,” she says.
“In terms of principles, I trust Mark Scott. I think it’s really terrible he’s had to do this, but he’s not doing it because he wants to.
“It’s a tough industry, but are we any tougher than Print? I don’t know. There’s a lot of change going on. Journalism never was safe and things are less safe now.
“You have to keep changing, broadening, spreading across media and hope like hell you’ll keep the job if you run fast enough.”
“It is a better timeslot for the majority of our viewers”
The Book Club does have some changes, however, migrating to a new timeslot of 6pm Sundays at the top of each month.
“We are upgrading our real estate!” she quips.
“It is a better timeslot for the majority of our viewers. The reality is, which most people don’t understand, is that a once a month show is really difficult to program.
“They talked to me about it last year and they’ve always been really open. So I thought about it and said, ‘Let’s make it at the start of the year so we can maybe help people move from Tuesdays to Sundays.
“There’s a bigger available audience, so I think that’s great. And I accept it’s difficult to program. What do you do on the other three weeks of the month? So it’s not been imposed on me and not been something I asked for, but I’m genuinely happy about it.”
Hopefully it is a move that pleases most of the show’s audience, too. She is frequently asked ‘Why is it on so late?’ or ‘Couldn’t you have it more than once a month?’ Yet while she presumes the audience is mostly older women, Byrne concedes she doesn’t have any data on who watches.
“You know the extent of ABC’s market research… I don’t know, exactly! But I think it skews old because it’s books. Probably 50 up. And there are a whole lot of people who watch it on iview,” she suggests.
“I’ve never actually seen a breakdown of who it is.
“You can make all sorts of assumptions about who reads a book, but the only place in the world that’s as big as Michael Jackson is in the book shop!”
Guests on the first episode include authors Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love; The Signature of All Things) and John Lanchester (How to Speak About Money; Capital; The Debt to Pleasure).
“We’ve also set up various spots within the programme where we go out and talk to people, and we encourage people to send video responses to the Classic (of the Month). It’s mainly to get people’s ideas on what they are reading and their thoughts, so it’s not just us telling them.
“We also bring back News, with what’s happening in the literary world,” she continues.
“We used to do it but we stopped because we had 2 weeks between filming and going to air. But what’s great is that now we are on Sundays we are filming on Fridays or Thursdays. So we can be much more responsive.”
“Most of my buddies are journalists, or they used to be.”
Byrne admits she doesn’t miss the heady days of 60 Minutes and Television journalism, even if it is just beyond her reach. She is still communicating, discussing ideas and remains both relevant and challenged.
“I live in a nice world now, because people do recognise you but all they want to say is to quibble with you or talk about a book; tell you what they’ve been reading; ask you ‘What did you really think of this book?’” she says.
“I feel happy. I could (go back to journalism) and I’m still a consumer. Most of my buddies are journalists, or they used to be. Not so much anymore.
“I started journalism literally the year that Whitlam came to power. So I’ve seen a lot of cycles and been to a lot of places and I still travel. I’m going to Africa to write a travel piece. So I do it but I just don’t do the edgy stuff.
“I do stuff that makes for a great life!”
The Book Club returns 6pm Sunday on ABC.