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Concert FM: Yes/No/Maybe Minister

One of the first things that Parliament did when MPs returned to the House on Tuesday was accept a petition calling for the sacking of Radio New Zealand’s board of governors.

From long-time Concert FM listener, Rutherford Ward, and carrying 450 signatures, the petition was presented by ACT leader and Epsom MP, David Seymour, and was referred to the Economic Development, Science and Innovation (EDSI) Committee. This is the committee that heard RNZ’s chairman, Jim Mather, and chief executive, Paul Thompson, attempt to explain their decision to replace Concert FM with a new youth-oriented “music brand” back on Thursday 13 February — the day after RNZ abandoned its plan, revealed just a week earlier and igniting a ferocious listener revolt backed by senior political figures including former Labour prime minister, Helen Clark.

Her present-day successor, Jacinda Ardern, was one of several recipients of angry letters that retired Thames lawyer, Rutherford Ward, 75, penned on Wednesday 5 February after hearing about RNZ’s decision that day on the news. A music lover and chorister since primary school, he had been a Concert FM listener for about 55 years, from before it was Concert FM and was called 2YC.

“I was really pissed off by this appalling hijack,” he recalled, “and wrote protesting to Ministers and the PM.” In writing to the prime minister, he was also writing to the Minister for Culture and Heritage, another cabinet portfolio which Jacinda Ardern had added to her ministerial responsibilities as Helen Clark had done before her. The Ministry of Culture and Heritage, which advises on the allocation of radio frequencies for non-commercial purposes, had been scheduled to appear before another select committee, Social Services and Community, on Tuesday 12 February, the day before RNZ’s annual review by the EDSI committee.

RNZ’s proposed changes to Concert FM were raised early in the committee’s hearing, at which the ministry was represented by its chief executive, Bernadette Cavanagh. The committee’s report on the ministry’s review, published on Wednesday 25 March as the country went into Covid-19 Epidemic Response Level 4 lockdown, records that: “The ministry said it had not been aware of the decision taken by the RNZ board and management before it was announced.”

And so began a spate of enough high-level duck shoving to fill an entire series of Yes, Minister — or as it would be called in this case, Yes/No/Maybe Minister — as everyone involved hurriedly tiptoed away from RNZ’s decision and took shelter behind the Official Information Act’s Section 9 delete, redact and delay clauses.

The ministry did admit that it knew something. “However,” the committee’s report says, “we were told that the ministry had known that RNZ was undertaking a review of its music strategy and was aware of RNZ’s plans to provide youth radio.”

The obvious unanswered questions about the ministry’s prior knowledge of changes to Concert FM arising from RNZ’s review of its music strategy and plans to provide youth radio prompted the committee to request “a full and comprehensive timeline of communications to/from RNZ, MCH, Minister of the Crown, and/or any other Government Agency and/or Crown Entity in regards to the RNZ Music Strategy and any information prepared surrounding the reserved Maori and Youth FM Spectrum (102 & 103 FMs) since 26 October 2017.”

The ministry replied that a “comprehensive answer in the timeframe asked for by the Committee is not possible due to the substantial collation and research required.

“However, the Ministry notes that it is currently responding to requests under the Official Information Act that capture more recent material on this topic. Due to the need for consultation and collation, a response to these requests will be provided to the requestors no later than 28 April, earlier if possible.”

It will be small comfort to people who have made similar requests, some dating back to 5 February, and have been advised recently that the 28 April deadline will not be met, that the ministry has no qualms about dishing out the same treatment to Parliament.

The ministry told the committee it “would be happy to share a copy of these responses with the Committee once they are complete.”

The committee was not pleased. “We find this less than satisfactory considering the committee is required to report back to Parliament on the Annual Review of the Ministry of Culture and Heritage by 31 March 2020.”

Meantime, MPs on that committee can read the report of their EDSI committee colleagues which, published on Friday 27 March, two days into the Level 4 lockdown, contains a timeline which begins in October 2017 with RNZ first briefing the (then) Minister of Broadcasting, Clare Curran, and identifying “improving RNZ Music” services as one of six priorities.

“To achieve our audience targets and optimise charter performance we need to optimise the mix of (music) services and use these cost-effectively to deliver different services to different sectors of the population” RNZ briefs the minister, essentially giving her a long-winded description of what every broadcaster does every day.

As for Concert FM, specifically? RNZ’s timeline entry for 7 July 2019 records that: “RNZ briefs Ministry for Culture and Heritage about the new Music Strategy, including the potential implications for RNZ Concert and the question of “whether we could access the 102FM frequencies for a new service for young New Zealanders that would play a large proportion (say, 40%) of NZ music.”

On 20 August, RNZ’s chairman and chief executive meet the minister (Clare Curran). “Music plans discussed.”

1 October: Broadcasting Minister, now Kris Faafoi, attends RNZ board meeting “and is informed at a high level about the new Music Strategy.” At a high level? Were they sitting on bar stools?

7 November: Updating the ministry on its youth music plan RNZ says “the plan did not require new spectrum but if that was an option we wanted to explore it.”

13 November: “After a discussion with MCH about the practicalities of accessing the spectrum, RNZ decided to progress a plan that would not require it.”

On Monday 17 February, RNZ published this statement on its website: “RNZ Board Welcomes FM Frequency Opportunity.

“The Board of RNZ today welcomed the Government’s decision to look at freeing up an additional FM transmission frequency and to explore funding options for a multi-media music brand.

“RNZ Chair Dr Jim Mather said the Government’s decision would enable RNZ Concert to stay on the FM network and allow the creation of the multi-media music brand.”

No wonder it’s taking them so long to get their stories straight. A select committee inquiry prompted by Rutherford Ward’s petition could provide the ideal opportunity for them to come clean on what they were really thinking.

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