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Q+A 30/3/14: RNZ CEO Paul Thompson

Q + A
Episode 3
Interviewed by SUSAN WOOD

SUSAN Radio New Zealand undergoing its biggest shakeup in years. This week it will launch two new presenters on its flagship news programme Morning Report, after the retirement of long time presenter Jeff Robinson. Its Chief Executive Paul Thompson was brought in to make the changes and he's wasted no time in doing it. Very good morning to you. A big week for you, new programme Wednesday morning, Morning Report.

PAUL THOMPSON – RNZ Chief Executive
Yes absolutely, we've got a new programme today as well, Wallace Chapman with his new five hour Sunday Morning show.

SUSAN They can listen to it after they’ve watched Q + A. How different is it gonna be, especially Morning Report because that's really a significant programme for you.

PAUL Well you’ve moved Jeff and Simon out of the equation and you bring Suzie Ferguson and Guy Espiner in, and it's going to sound different. It'll have a new theme which is exciting for the team. News bulletins will be slightly shorter, there’ll be more emphasis on live interviewing, and a stronger emphasis on us breaking and developing our own stories. In saying all of that a lot of it will be familiar and the changes won’t be radical, but I think there will be a noticeable difference.

SUSAN With the greatest respect to those who work there and I have a lot of respect for many of the people there though, people are saying a lot of these changes should have happened years ago. Some of the programmes honestly sound a bit like they’ve been handed down on tablets from Moses.

PAUL I suppose that flows from how successful those programmes have remained, the ratings are still incredible, and the audiences are still very loyal, so I guess there has been an attitude if it's not broken don’t do anything with it.

SUSAN By way of declaration here I work on Newstalk ZB as you will know I fill in for Mike in the mornings and Larry in the afternoons when they're not there. I'll be away for six weeks or eight weeks and go in and things will have changed. There's a constant tweaking and evolution of programmes, happens on this programme, it's subtle. It hasn’t happened so much on National Radio so that’s why you're making this massive change?

PAUL Absolutely things are going well and I guess you can get to a point where you're reluctant to tweak things, but my view, and this is from my background in publishing as well, is that you should continue to refresh things relentlessly, there's always things that you can improve. So what you're seeing at the moment is that mindset coming in. We're looking to improve everything we can, not in a way where we shock our very loyal listeners but in a way where we really provide some vibrancy into our programming. So yeah it is time we got underway and got some of this stuff done.

SUSAN So there was lacking vibrancy your programming before?

PAUL Well again it was very successful and I guess when things are successful the temptation is to leave it as it is.

SUSAN How do you know it was successful?

PAUL You look at the audience figures are the biggest sign, I mean the tracking of the audiences has been incredibly stable at a time when the overall radio market is declining, National in particular has held its audience levels at a very good level. But you know I'm not arguing Susan that it was time for a refresh, and it's really exciting because the team at Radio New Zealand are up for that as well, and people are challenged at the moment because I'm pushing quite hard, but you can feel the energy in the sense that there's excitement in the air which I think is long overdue.

SUSAN What about some of the ones who've been there longer, are you getting some resistance? I mean it's always hard with big changes?

PAUL Look there's always a temptation for some people to feel that it's not the right thing to do, and to push back, but I'm certainly not hitting any roadblocks. I think it's more around fear and uncertainty, whenever a new CEO comes in with some new ideas, people can feel a bit nervous. For the vast majority of staff they're saying this is overdue and they're working with me on it, and as I said you can really feel the energy and I think the audiences are going to start to sense that change over the next few weeks as we start to do these things.

SUSAN Do you think you're under pressure from the government, they’ve made it very clear, actually the Minister said on this programme, no more money for you.

PAUL Yeah that’s the reality, and you know we get about 38-39 million dollars a year from government funding and from the revenue that we generate from our assets, and we spend nearly every cent of it, and the organisation's done a great job over the last five or six years despite frozen funding, in terms of maintaining standards …gets harder every year and I think my biggest job over the next year, year and a half is to figure out about how we can fund our growth. We've got very exciting plans to do lots of things for New Zealanders, more content, new content.

SUSAN So what are you considering?

PAUL I think there are three areas to look at. One is obviously to look at whether we can move resource within our current structures so we can do some new things and stop doing some things that we're doing at the moment, and they're always value judgements, they're not easy, but that’s something we need to be doing as a matter of course. Clearly we want to have a very strong argument with our stakeholders and our funders around the kind of value that we bring to New Zealand, and the fact that we can provide more value and great programming in new ways, and hopefully in time win an argument with our funders. And also we need to look at whether there are any other ways that we can tap into some new commercial revenue.

SUSAN New commercial revenue sponsorship for example?

PAUL Certainly not on our traditional platforms. My position is that our ad free status on National are concert and rinsy and on our website is there to stay. We think that’s an integral part of why our audiences like us and trust us.

SUSAN But if you're still going ….public broadcasting you know and fine public broadcasting brought to you by whatever, something like that possible?

PAUL But you know my sense of that is that that’s not something that the audience would like, but as we do new things particularly on the web and with social media and mobile, there may be new products and new services and new programming that we can bring to New Zealand where there may be an opportunity for some commercial revenue to be brought in. I don’t think it's going to be a big part of the picture. I don’t want to overemphasise it because I don’t think that’s the solution.

SUSAN Parliament TV, one of those perhaps, get you into screens?

PAUL Perhaps, who knows, I mean very much…

SUSAN I mean you probably know. I don’t, you don’t, do you like the idea of parliament TV?

PAUL Last year we put up a bit to be able to run this station, we missed out on it, but there still is an opportunity there for us to do some programming which would push us into that televisual area. That’s something which we're open to but that would need to be funded, we don’t have any money to do that under current resources, but it's an example….

SUSAN You could save some money with Concert FM couldn’t you, 5 million a year and you could probably buy your listeners a pack of CDs each and save a lot of money, cos there's not very many listeners are there?

PAUL Well there's a substantial audience, about 122,000 people.

SUSAN Okay, is that 5 million well spent on that…

PAUL I think it's extremely well spent. Not only does it provide a good experience for those listeners but Concert records more music, musicians and music than any other organisation in New Zealand.

SUSAN It's safe.

PAUL It is safe, is it going to change in future? Are there new things that we can do, we can continue to evolve? Absolutely, that’s the point you made, you need to keep evolving everything in media. So it is safe and it isn't just about the size of the audience as well.

SUSAN Redundancies, how many?

PAUL None that I'm aware of at the moment. None that are on the books. The staff have asked me, because the organisation in the past have made commitments around no redundancies and I've said no I'm not going to say there won’t be any, because I want to keep every option at my disposal as we make these changes.

SUSAN Quick last question. Do you fancy, or would you be in favour of a joint newsroom with TVNZ?


SUSAN That was a good answer.

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