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HARD NEWS 17/8/01 - Radio Ga Ga!

HARD NEWS is first broadcast in Auckland on 95bFM around 9.30am on Fridays and replayed around 5.15pm Friday and 10am Sunday on The Culture Bunker. You can listen to 95bFM live on the Internet. Point your web browser to http://www.95bfm.co.nz. You will need an MP3 player. Currently New Zealand is 12 hours ahead of GMT.

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GOOD DAY MEDIAPHILES ... does anybody get the feeling that after all those years of El Ninos and La Ninas we're getting back to just having weather? Big, cold, winter weather it was too: the biggest snowstorm in 10 years. But for all that, it wasn't as cold or as bitter or as nasty as the Herald's Thursday editorial.

The paper's leader writer - probably John Roughan, judging by the unpleasant tone of the prose - was responding to a proposal by the Minister of Broadcasting to help us hear more of ourselves on air with a quota scheme run by the radio industry itself.

You could some up his ideas thus: New Zealand music is the music of losers and quotas "are just a form of protection of those who cannot compete, at the expense of those who invest in radio and those who enjoy it." Yes, nobody could possibly enjoy music made in New Zealand. It is "less popular", "dire" and so on, and too much of it would "destroy" the value of radio investments. The writer could hear the sound, apparently, of "cultural jackboots".

Proceeding with its central theme - that New Zealand music is crap - the editorial sniffed that what Marian Hobbs really should be worrying about was that despite "generous" new subsidies from NZ On Air, the local recording industry had failed to produce more hits.

Those subsidies would be the Phase 4 scheme. It plainly did not occur to the Herald that the reason Phase 4 has procured no hits is that the albums it has funded haven't been released yet - the first one will be the Garageland record. It's a bit hard to have a string of hits from a record that isn't out yet, isn't it?

To be honest, I have some misgivings about Phase 4. It seems to channel money where money already is and it runs the risk of radio becoming the music industry's gatekeeper. But, unlike the New Zealand Herald, I have a least half a clue what I'm talking about.

What the Herald also neglected to tell us is that Ireland, Australia and Canada, countries whose policies the Herald has been fawning over for months, enjoy local content quotas and regard them as an essential constituent of national identity.

They take this politically incorrect but pragmatic step because they know that if they don't they'll just be washed over. They're not competing against quality, but against the relative handful of tunes picked up by the global culture machine. The ones that fill the magazines and papers, the ones with music videos that cost 200 times the standard New Zealand On Air video grant.

In Canada, the local music quota is set higher than the actual amount of music released by their industry. They see it as an incentive to produce more. In Australia, they have enough confidence in their own culture that they don't automatically assume it's worthless.

Not here. After hectoring us about our lack of confidence and self-belief, the Herald has used its editorial voice to say: don't bother.

Let's give radio its due: recognition of local artists has improved out of sight since the dark, stupid days when radio stations in Auckland wouldn't play Crowded House because its single didn't appear on the format sheets they'd bought from America. These days, across the commercial radio landscape, just over one song in 10 is by a New Zealand artist.

This is pretty lame compared to the b-net, where one song in three is local - and to the listener-voted bFM Top 10, which is frequently 100% paua-plated - but it's double what it was even three years ago. Indeed, the rate was stalled on 9% until the 1999 general election, and in the month the government changed it shot up a point and a half. What would you make of that?

It's an improvement not solely but largely down to the efforts of the people who back quotas - the wearers of those "cultural jackboots". They have wooed, they have wheedled and sometimes they have won.

Commercial radio programming, however much improved, is still frequently a robotic and risk-averse business. Research commonly consists of phoning people, playing them a bunch of songs and deleting the ones they don't immediately recognise. Without NZ On Air driving up to their doors and delivering, the nation's programmers wouldn't have made most of advances that they have.

Private radio, of course, doesn't like being told what to do. Which is why Hobbs has framed her quota proposal as an Industry Code of Practice, governed by radio itself and kicking off at 10%, rising to 25% over five years. That's quite clever. At some point radio might even recognise that it would actually be handy to have the people who make its hits on call for promotions and not on the other side of the world. It certainly works for the b, doesn't it?

Hobbs has, however, ducked another big broadcast initiative, sending the Youth Radio Network proposal back for more discussion with the industry. To be fair, the plan that big radio's getting all hyped about isn't her policy. Labour reserved frequencies and promised a YRN that was a mix of student and community stations with a bit of commercial on the side.

The Alliance, on the other hand, wants a stand-alone public network - a National Radio Doing It for the Kids modelled on Triple J in Australia. And that's what Youth Affairs minister Laila Harre likes too.

Unlike quotas, this one doesn't really have the support of the music industry. Indeed, Pagan, Antenna, Flying Nun and Wildside all oppose it. They worry about the impact on the b-Net, about losing the support of commercial radio and about scarce creative money going into running radio stations.

The proponents, including Neil Finn, say that young people deserve a place where they're not just fodder for advertisers - the middle-aged and older get National Radio and Concert FM, don't they? Having once written a Planet magazine editorial titled 'School Milk, Suicide and the Sponsor's product', I have some sympathy with that.

But it breaks down when you try to haul in Triple J. Triple J operates in a different market - more people, fewer radio stations, no one really in its niche. And it describes its own audience as from 15-24, with a strong following into the late 30s. I'm sorry, but that's not a youth crowd, that's a b-Net crowd.

If it rates, it threatens small independent stations; if it doesn't, how can it do its job? I'd like to see something emerge from this, but there are other good ideas being advanced - the KidsNet proposal, partnerships with local broadcasters - and it would be a shame if they were sacrificed to somebody's need for a policy win.

On other hand, I could have done without the "more radio choice" ads that have been airing all week. It sounds like some concerned young folk with a Hotmail address. It's actually a bunch of middle-aged suit from the Radio Broadcasters' Association. Kids, corporate radio is only your friend for so long as being your friend turns a buck.

And how amusing to see the Young Nationals' newsletter with an editorial headed 'Youth Radio is a Dumb-Arse Idea'. So dumb-arse, in fact that it was National Party policy at the last election.

In a desperate grab for the Nandor vote, the Nats promised an ad-free youth radio network contracted out to a private provider chosen by officials from the ministries of Culture & Heritage and Youth Affairs. They weren't going to pay for it, but they did promise it.

How could the Young Nats have forgotten something so important? Are they on drugs? Well of course they are, like all young people. They just have to lie about it at party conferences.

Speaking of which, does anybody know what they're on up at TV2? This week's drama out of Jonestown on Hobson Street was the mysterious decision to yank Havoc Luxury Suites and Conference Facility off air only hours before it was due to screen.

I did, by chance, see the episode of "New Zealand's favourite half hour of television" that the rest of you didn't. And frankly, I don't get it. Not the show, that is. The decision to pull it. Havoc's better some weeks than others, but here there's a good bit with a magician, a really funny appearance by "Weatherboy" and an eye-popping night-time break-in to a factory chicken farm.

The chicken farm is surreal and scary and will not make you want to eat factory chicken. There's also a quick social visit to a fast food chain that sells such factory chicken. Unidentified, but have a guess. There's no evidence that Havoc has been held back to avoid offending that franchise holder, which spends millions of dollars on TV advertising every year, but until TVNZ can explain itself a bit better, it will foster just that impression.

So anyway, we're stuck with Banzai for the next two weeks, whereupon Havoc will apparently be allowed back. Oh joy. And just imagine how you'd feel if you thought you'd paid good money to advertise in the high-rating Havoc show and you found yourself there.

The only advertiser even told of the switch was PlayStation, which has a $100,000 show sponsorship - TVNZ makes plenty money out of this show, you know. I checked with them and they said they were surprised and disappointed and very supportive of the show.

So anyway, Banzai is puerile and tasteless - and if that's the case, couldn't we just have Back of the Y? No, apparently. Having also been hauled off hours before it was to screen for a check-up, it is still drifting around in hyperspace and there is no news of it whatsoever.

To be fair, it's not just TVNZ. Without naming names, it seems that what local production will screen when is also a popular game of chance up at TV3. What on earth is wrong with them all? I'll tell you. They're nervous because they're not making money. No one is, apart from Triangle. That makes people so jumpy.

And it's not like you can go and lose yourself in the arena of the gladiators either. Not after last weekend's test match against Australia. As my good friend Doug Hood said to me, immediately post-match at the Alhambra: "Well, that's Wayne Smith's masterplan in tatters."

Indeed. Look, I hardly ever moan about team selections and strategies - I am not a talkback radio rugby fan. But I'm sick of it. Sick of the All Black coaches persisting with plodders in pursuit of a game plan that depends on defence and not much else. Sick of the All Blacks playing like they don't even have a game plan. It just sucks. Marshall, Cribb, Brown and Randell out; Kelleher, Collins, Mehrtens and Holah in. Fat chance, I'm afraid.

Anyway, by way of cheer, the new Pitch Black remix CD is fabulous - possibly the best thing they've put their names to. And I'm looking forward to Dimmer and friends at the Power Station, with Salmonella for afters - so to speak. The next night's even weirder. I'm sure there will be people who go from the test against the Boks at Eden Park to Phantomas and Concord Dawn. How weird is that? G'bye!


ENDS

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