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Maharey Speech: Supporting public service radio

Steve Maharey Speech: Supporting public service radio

Comments at a Radio New Zealand staff function. Radio New Zealand House, Wellington.

Introduction

Hello to you all. Thank you for the invitation Brian. I am very pleased to be here with you this evening and to have the opportunity to speak to you directly. You are the people whose work is critical to achieving the public service broadcasting goals of Radio New Zealand.

Funding Announcement

That is why I am especially pleased to be able to announce that as part of this year's Budget Radio New Zealand is to receive new funding worth $13.98 million over four years. The increase is to establish a nationwide FM service for National Radio and to meet the rising costs of core operations.

The funding package will enable Radio New Zealand to continue to meet its Charter obligations, cover operating cost increases, maintain quality programming and editorial services and address recruitment issues.

Radio New Zealand International receives an additional $600,000 over four years to enable it to increase its daily broadcasts of original programming and in particular Pacific current affairs. This also supports legislation currently before Parliament which amends RNZ's Charter to require it to provide an international radio service to the South Pacific.

Public Service Broadcasting

The new funding reflects this government's appreciation of what Radio New Zealand is about.

Our policies recognize that the role of the government includes providing for a range of broadcasting choice beyond what strictly commercial considerations will produce.

The public broadcaster is free of the constraints and pressures advertiser-driven broadcasters find harder to resist. Broadcasters motivated entirely by profit are susceptible to the business interests of their owners and advertisers.

The public broadcaster, as an independent entity with public funding, has a mandate to operate in the broad public interest. Public broadcasting is driven by the belief that broadcasting makes a difference to the health of a society or culture.

The work that you as broadcasters do every day bears out this principle. Some critics have argued that Radio New Zealand is too focused on politics and too Wellington-centred.

However Radio New Zealand provides an integrated service. News and current affairs hook listeners in and other shows induce them to stay. 40 percent of its music is home grown. Drama, features, talk, documentaries and Maori programmes speak to audiences far beyond Wellington's reach.

Your value and power as public broadcasters is in your capacity to be heard in nearly every kitchen in New Zealand.

National Radio currently reaches about 96 percent of the population. Some small communities like Twizel, Te Anau, Te Kuiti and the Chatham Islands which are outside the transmission range are so keen to get a signal they've raised money themselves to enter into a cost sharing scheme with Radio New Zealand for satellite reception.

The news, stories and programmes you produce connect New Zealanders with each other, offering loyal audiences throughout New Zealand a stimulating life-line.

Migration to FM band

That life-line will be technically enhanced by National Radio's move to FM transmission. The network will receive an additional $3.396 million to progressively establish FM services throughout New Zealand. Listeners in central Auckland, Taupo and Greymouth can already pick up National Radio on FM.

The service will be rolled out in stages, starting with the main centres by the end of next year. Around 93 percent of the population will be able to receive the service by 2006. The AM service will be retained, simulcasting for those listeners unable to tune into the FM band.

The move to a superior transmission service signals a great leap forward for Radio New Zealand. It is a demonstration of this government's commitment to RNZ's future and our expectation that the broadcaster will remain relevant and attract new audiences. FM transmission is clearly the preferred medium for younger radio listeners and without the migration National Radio risks a declining audience.

All radio competitors in New Zealand broadcast on FM and all major international public service broadcasters have FM transmission technology. Current AM broadcast is undoubtedly an inferior service and the move will ensure that RNZ can compete successfully in the national and international marketplace.

The sound quality is much better, the signal allows enhanced penetration into high-rise and built up areas and many new cars have radios capable only of FM .

The challenge for National Radio is to provide exciting, compulsive programming that attracts and holds listeners as they browse the FM band. New Zealand has the most deregulated radio industry in the world with the greatest number of stations per capita. However, Radio New Zealand is distinctive and that point of difference can be turned to competitive advantage.

It is my hope that a new range of FM listeners will want to add National Radio to their regular diet of radio stations; that they will dip into National Radio for a particular feature, New Zealand music show, or in-depth examination of a complex issue.

Increase in funding for core services

New Zealanders' thirst for innovative, informative, companionable radio should not be underestimated. Increased funding of $2.646 million a year for core operations will allow Radio New Zealand to better deliver its services and programmes. This will take RNZ's ongoing baseline funding from the previous amount of $22.4 million to the new amount of $25.046 million.

Radio New Zealand's operating costs have progressively increased for a number of years. Until recently these costs have been absorbed within the company. However more recent rises in operating costs have eroded the ability of the company to absorb them while maintaining service levels.

Radio New Zealand services are characterised by a high level of local content in news, current affairs, features and music. National Radio has 90 percent local content and Concert FM has 15 percent. Local content is costly. But RNZ is a proven performer in contributing to the social and cultural wealth of the nation and has, since it was established in 1925, played a significant role in developing New Zealanders' sense of identity.

New Zealanders are also global citizens and, as a particularly mobile population, are very much in touch with world events. Radio New Zealand consistently provides not only comprehensive, impartial news coverage of international stories but features, documentaries and interviews that take listeners to every corner of the planet.

Through its Charter Radio New Zealand is geared towards serving special needs and yet, ultimately, providing something for almost everyone. Its value is in its ability to explore every aspect of human activity from analysis of the Iraqi war on Morning Report and Checkpoint to Monica Lewinsky's revelations on Kim Hill to the Karaka yearling sales on Country Life to Dale Husband chatting with a kaumatua on Mana Tangata.

Listeners are informed and entertained. No other broadcaster approaches the same range and depth of programming mix, led by a flagship news and current affairs platform.

The government is providing the increased funding to safeguard RNZ's critically important role. It recognises there have been substantial cost pressures in providing a service that reflects and explains New Zealand issues, and broadcasts the best international programming, 24 hours a day.

Increase for Radio New Zealand International

Radio New Zealand International is receiving an increase in its baseline funding of $150,000 a year, bringing its total annual funding to $1.716 million, to offer more programming for Pacific audiences.

The new money will enable RNZI to increase targeted programming from four hours to ten hours each day. It will strengthen the service's ability to provide a comprehensive, reliable and independent source of Pacific regional and New Zealand information to a region which has been markedly more volatile in recent years.

More Pacific language programming will enhance the respect and partnership that exists between RNZI and its listeners and boost New Zealand's standing in the Pacific.

The goodwill that is generated by the broadcasts plays an important role in maintaining close relations between this country and its Pacific neighbours.

Looking back

I take personal pleasure in making these announcements to you this evening. My own political involvement in broadcasting began a decade ago, spurred on by my firm commitment to ensuring a future for public radio.

In 1993, as opposition spokesperson for broadcasting, I introduced the New Zealand Public Radio Charter Bill to give expression to the principles of public broadcasting. The National government introduced the Radio New Zealand Bill in 1995.

During select committee hearings the charter, developed from my private member's bill, was included. The Charter has given Radio New Zealand distinct goals and a legitimate place in the life of the nation.

I recall, at that time, the way in which the company staunchly endured more than a decade of turmoil and change as the lone voice of public broadcasting.

During the late 1980s and early 1990s New Zealand moved towards becoming one of the most deregulated broadcasting systems in the world. Government decisions were effectively relegated to deciding who should be allocated television and radio licences.

RNZ was the last bastion of public service broadcasting to survive. The company sought to maintain a strong public service focus in a hostile environment in which commercial goals were paramount. Then, it had every reason to feel nervous, bullied and uncertain.

Under the National government Radio New Zealand struggled against political reluctance to maintain its funding and, through public pressure and its own lobbying, managed to secure the continuing existence of two networks, National Radio and Concert FM.

Many of you here will have been taken part in those battles because you know that public radio is worth fighting for.

New challenges

There is no that doubt Radio New Zealand, through its people, has the determination, creativity and flair to prosper in its public service role. It is a place where broadcasters pursue excellence in their craft.

The latest list of Qantas Media Award finalists confirms, once again, that you are a highly talented group.

But there are challenges ahead.

The time is right to capitalize on the synergy of news, current affairs, features, drama and music – all generated by the one broadcaster with an ethos of public service and social and cultural commitment.

It is time to stand up to challenge and overcome the predictable, tired accusations that Radio New Zealand is dull and boring.

All of us in this room know better than that.

We know that telling real stories with the depth and texture that your Charter allows, playing music that is the heart of this nation, and celebrating the drama that is its soul is the most exciting opportunity radio can offer anyone, anywhere.

I know that Radio New Zealand can grasp this opportunity.

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