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Thompson: Public Service Broadcasters in the Digital Age

COMMONWEALTH BROADCASTING ASSOCIATION CONFERENCE
GLASGOW
12th MAY 2014
PAUL THOMPSON
CHIEF EXECUTIVE & EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
RADIO NEW ZEALAND

“POSITIONING PUBLIC SERVICE BROADCASTERS IN THE DIGITAL AGE”

The evidence is clear that traditional media are in decline.

Radio, television and newspapers are merging into digital devices that are always switched on.

The future of content delivery is multi-media, multi-platform, personalised, mobile and social.

To stay relevant and continue our mission of serving the public, and to maintain and grow our audience, we must become and are becoming a multimedia organisation.

These four sentences have consumed my life over the past few months.

They were not written for this speech.

They are instead my “elevator pitch” – the succinct call to arms that I am using to galvanise 300 people around a vision for the future.

I recite those four sentences several times a day with slight variations of emphasis and tone, depending on the audience.

I didn’t write the words.

My earlier attempts to capture and convey the essence of our ambition for Radio New Zealand were deemed inadequate.

So I asked staff to come up with something better and one of them did.

This is Peter Fowler. In a past life he made his fortune from selling the on-line news service he created – these days he is one of our regional reporters - and he is very clear that the future is multimedia.

(A video clip was shown to the audience at this point) At Radio New Zealand we are embarking on the most significant change in a decade.

Our first challenge we face is figuring out how to deal with the problem of our success.

As New Zealand’s major radio broadcaster, and the sole commercial free public service media organisation, we are in a strong position.

Most of our programmes hold the No 1 ratings spot in their time slots. Our news is the most trusted in the country. We have major talent on our books.

We are a champion of New Zealand music – recording more than 200 concerts a year and ensuring those performances are heard and amplified throughout the country and, through partnerships with other broadcasters, in other parts of the world as well.

Our website has over 160,000 audio items on-demand – a rich legacy of our broadcasting excellence.

But these signs of robust health mask how vulnerable we are to the digital disruption transforming our world. I want to highlight three troubling facts:

- We are weak (almost irrelevant) on the web.

- As a radio broadcaster, we lack visual journalism and digital story-telling skills.

- Our preferred method of content delivery – radio – is in long-term decline When I was appointed as CEO in September last year, I quickly realised that some of the things that had made us successful and highly relevant to New Zealanders in the past decade were unlikely to work so well in future.

And I see the essence of my job as a duty to ensure we are as strong, if not stronger, in the future as we are now.

Today I want to talk to you about how we are confronting that challenge.

First, though, a confession.

I stand before you as a novice.

Until eight months ago I had no broadcast experience, and certainly no public service media experience.

The first 30 years of my career were spent in the gritty world of newspapers – starting as a cadet reporter at my hometown paper and ending as editor-in-chief of a large and increasingly multimedia publishing chain.

By the last few months in publishing I had no doubts that I was working on the proverbial burning platform and it was my job in part to fan the flames in the hope that we could persuade staff and print readers to make the leap to a new and profitable online world.

So today I will not presume to lecture you on your craft or attempt to provide advice or guidance about public service media.

Instead, I will talk specifically about Radio New Zealand and the unique ways in which we are responding to the disruption that is affecting every media organisation.

That disruption creates enormous challenges and obligations for public service media.

But I believe for Radio New Zealand it also generates once-in-a-generation opportunities to reach new audiences which have so far been untapped.

While I will speak from the experience of my work in the past eight months, I will also draw on the lessons about change that I learned in my earlier life in publishing.

What strikes me now is how difficult this all is for our journalistic colleagues in the newspaper industry.

No matter what they do or how hard they strive to fix things, their damaged business model means it will probably be a story of decline.

How could it be otherwise?

Newspapers thrived in times of information scarcity. They reaped their profits by exploiting the high costs of producing and distributing printed material.

We are now in a different age - one that is characterised by information abundance and the ease and affordability of its creation, distribution and access.

The linear world of information control and exchange has been replaced by a volatile mosaic of content and audience interaction.

It is tempting but wrong to believe that this disruption is not a significant threat to broadcasters – even those like Radio New Zealand who rely heavily if not exclusively on government funding.

The very term “broadcasting” hints at our vulnerability as it speaks of a time when our control of the means of distribution – through transmitters and masts and the like – gave us control of our audience’s attention.

But we are now in a new age in which the means of distribution will increasingly be dominated by the publicly-owned internet.

And none of us should think that in some way we are immune from this singular shift. As the novelist William Gibson warns, ‘The future is already here. It’s just unevenly distributed.’ This transformation means many profound things, as we all know.

But I want to highlight one of them: the death of mediocrity.

Our control of transmission in the past allowed us, the broadcasters, to largely set the standards of quality and relevance.

But in a world where the audience has more choice than ever before their attention will always shift to those media sources which best meet their needs.

In effect the audience will call the shots, not us, and the first thing they will shoot is any content which is sub-standard.

Meeting this challenge is difficult but is also likely to be a defining moment for our organisations, our staff, our careers, and for our audiences.

At Radio New Zealand we have set a new direction.

Before I get to that, here is some quick background on the organisation.

We are small with around 300 staff and $NZ38m in revenue a year, most of it from the Government.

We spend every cent and have had frozen funding for six years.

We run three networks:

Radio New Zealand National (news and current affairs and general interest programming - mostly talk).

Radio New Zealand Concert (fine music)
Radio New Zealand International (a news service broadcast to the Pacific).

We also broadcast Parliament.

We do not do television – this the legacy of a division of state broadcasting into separate television and radio entities in the 1970s.

This split has shaped the evolution of Radio New Zealand. It closed many doors to us but it did have the happy effect of making radio our sole concern and something we have had to be very good at.

Radio New Zealand holds a privileged position in New Zealand life.

In April this year, our Morning Report presenter, Geoff Robinson, retired after 39 years co-hosting New Zealand’s top breakfast news programme.

It was a big story. Geoff was the calm and measured voice of Radio New Zealand and the country stopped to listen as he announced his retirement on air.

( A video clip was shown to the audience at this point ) We have about 17% share of the radio market in New Zealand, which is deregulated and is one of the most competitive in the world.

There are just 4.5 million people living in New Zealand and they are served by more than 200 radio stations.

Radio New Zealand National is a powerhouse in this tightly-contested market and nationally is No 1 for market share and No 2 for cumulative audience.

Unfortunately, we underperform in the digital realm.

Our website is barely relevant as a news and information source and has a small audience.

The reason for this is simple: as an organisation we have valued our radio listeners far higher than we do our online audience.

Indeed, our approach until recently has been to constrain our website and keep it in check by insisting that it operate primarily as an online version of what we do on the radio.

I believe this puts Radio New Zealand in a vulnerable position. We barely have a seat at the table in what has been the fastest growing media platform in the past 15 years.

But, I’m happy to say, we are now making a move to address these issues.

I’d like you to meet Marcus Stickley and his team - we launched The Wireless website last October as a deliberate strategy to target an unmet audience need with content developed and delivered in the manner of the audience’s choosing.

( A video clip from The Wireless was shown to the audience at this point ) While it is still a small website, with just five staff, its audience is growing and is a new one to Radio New Zealand.

We also excel at music content which increasingly we are packaging for digital audiences.

This points to a new future for Radio New Zealand.

For the past six months I have been working with the staff and the board on what that the future looks like.

As a fresh CEO new to the sector I knew that I didn’t have all the answers – and I also understood that I didn’t need to have them.

My job has been to listen, ask questions, provide forums, be a catalyst for debate, and to constantly feed that information back to the organisation.

A big part of that has been my pledge to meet for an hour in person with every staff member, hearing first-hand about their experiences, frustrations, and hopes and ideas for the future.

We have also run a series of meetings to tackle the big questions together through free and frank discussion.

As part of this we have trained a group of influential staff to run strategy workshops for their colleagues – the idea is to encourage staff to help drive this critical process.

A story of our future has started to take shape and it is one that deliberately emphasises the risks of sticking to the status quo.

This is how I describe our current state:

While we remain strong at radio we are in in denial about the forces of change that are at work. We are missing out on the rise of digital because we are weak on the web – in terms of audience, expertise, growth potential and opportunity.

Currently, as New Zealand’s sole public service broadcaster, we reach only 10% of the total New Zealand audience, almost solely on radio. And the audiences we do have lack diversity.

Our revenue is static.

Our staff want to be part of an exciting future but are not yet convinced.

And this is how I describe how we want to be in the future:

As the sole public service broadcaster, we will live and breathe our duty to keep New Zealanders fully and impartially informed on the issues that matter.

We excel at multimedia and we tell our stories wherever, however and whenever the audiences demand.

We reach 20% of the total audience. That’s one million New Zealanders (including expats) a week from all walks of life.

We have growing revenue from a number of sustainable sources.

Our staff are high-performing and productive. We invest in them and we develop and reward them.

You will note that I do not use the word radio once when talking about what we will look like in future.

This raises a key question: By moving down this path are we at risk of losing the very thing that we excel at?

Or to put it another way: how do we balance the demands of the new with the proven success of our legacy broadcast output?

There is a trap in the thinking that lies behind this line of questioning.

If you place too much emphasis on the status quo – with all its inbuilt comfort and sense of security and certainty – then there is a danger that a mix of complacency, fear and ignorance will rob of us of the momentum needed to make the necessary transformation.

And of course, I am not for a moment arguing that we should in any way dilute our excellence at radio.

I’ve simply got a high level of confidence that we are not suddenly going to forget how to do it well.

In fact I want us to do radio better.

The point is this:

The disruption of digital compels Radio New Zealand to take the web seriously but, for the next few decades at least, we will continue to operate in part as a traditional broadcaster.

But I would argue it is the quality, depth, comprehensiveness, and trustworthiness of our content that shapes our future success, not the mechanism used to deliver it.

The transformation we are attempting will be incredibly hard work and will involve all sorts of tradeoffs and compromises.

It will be messy at times. We will make mistakes. We will have to excel at the old and the new at the same time.

So how will we do this?

We’ve identified six key areas of activity that will bring our new multimedia strategy to life over the next five years:

1. Being audience-led (improving our insights into audiences and potential audiences and making full use of that knowledge as we develop services and products).

2. Raising the status of our digital audiences and growing them through improved products and services, including personalised services.

3. Reinventing radio (continuing to refresh our current content and programmes AND create new content for new audiences).

4. Creating a nimble, responsive, unified, strongly-led organisation that is geared to deliver the strategy of audience growth across platforms.

5. Being the best media employer in New Zealand with high staff engagement and alignment (nurturing talent, rewarding performance, developing people’s skills, and providing an encouraging and affirming workplace).

6. With funding frozen (and declining in real terms) developing a sustainable financial plan that optimises efficiency, leverages our balance sheet effectively, creates new revenue initiatives and allows us to fund our growth.

And how will we judge whether or not we’ve succeeded?

We’ve set out a new purpose:

Radio New Zealand exists to create intimate relationships with New Zealanders who trust, value and enjoy our unique multimedia content.

And ambition: To grow our diverse audiences to one million a week by 2024 by delivering our high quality multimedia journalism and programming in the form required by the audience …that everyone on staff can get behind and help deliver.

It is a public commitment that we are making to New Zealand citizens: we are not standing still. We believe in the value of what we do. And we want to reach those New Zealanders who at present are untouched by our content.

And, finally, a word or two about the change process itself.

It is hard. But as leaders we have to front it and make difficult but necessary things happen because our sacred duty is to ensure that our organisations are as strong in future as we have been in the past.

And, however secure and confident we feel with our current performance, reputation and market position, the change that we are in the middle of will be all consuming.

While this turmoil is painful and disruptive, it also creates an array of opportunities for those media organisations which seize the day.

To give one example, the new digital era offers opportunity to unite public broadcasters worldwide in a new unprecedented global digital news and information service.

It is relatively cheap and easy to develop because each broadcaster is already producing the content and all we have to do is send it automatically to a designated platform which could quickly become an incredibly rich source of trusted information and insight for our editors and journalists – and our audiences.

Such a service – let’s call it the Public Service Media Alliance - would give national broadcasters a global reach, allow global perspectives on common issues (e.g. poverty, inequality, disease outbreaks, education, health, and science) give quick and easy access to news about citizens abroad, provide comprehensive coverage of global breaking news in one place (think MH370), and potentially save money in coverage of global events. It’s hard to think of any major downsides to such a proposition – at least from a New Zealand perspective.

And what a powerful way to signal our desire to work together to fully exploit the digital world for the benefit of the societies we serve.

I will end where I began:

The evidence is clear that traditional media are in decline.

Radio, television and newspapers are merging into digital devices that are always switched on.

The future of content delivery is multi-media, multi-platform, personalised, mobile and social.

To stay relevant and continue our mission of serving the public, and to maintain and grow our audience, we must become and are becoming a multimedia organisation.

ENDS

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