Concert FM - Timeline Of A Blunder
The controversy over RNZ’s plan to replace its Concert FM classical music network with a new youth-oriented multi-media music brand looks set to head back to Parliament.
A petition seeking the sacking of RNZ’s board is under consideration by Parliament’s Economic Development, Science and Innovation (EDSI) committee which has the power to hold a public inquiry. Meanwhile, National’s broadcasting spokeswoman and committee member, Melissa Lee, is calling for RNZ’s chief executive, Paul Thompson, and board chairman, Jim Mather, to be recalled to clarify statements they made during the committee’s hearing of RNZ’s annual review on Thursday 13 February.
Normally a routine annual fixture, the 30-minute review hearing was taken up by the committee’s attempts to probe RNZ’s decision to swap its Concert Programme for a new multi-media youth music brand. The plan, revealed the previous week on Wednesday 5 February when RNZ’s management began “consulting” Concert FM’s 18 staff members, had been abandoned the day before RNZ’s date with the committee for its annual review after a week of high-profile protest action including marches and an electronic petition which attracted 30,000 supporters,
Addressing the key question of the need to use Concert FM’s frequency for the youth music station and not another FM network, RNZ’s chairman said the advice from the Ministry for Culture and Heritage (MCH) was that it would be “incredibly difficult” for the broadcaster to get access to the 102 FM network “and also to the required funding.”
Mather also told the committee: “The 102 FM network has been set aside for youth radio for more than 20 years and no Government, until now, has shown an appetite to take it off the shelf and allow us to provide that public service to New Zealand.”
A week in politics can be short or long depending on your perspective. Just two days after the lid blew off RNZ’s Concert FM plan in a blast of hostile and politically embarrassing headlines there was, on Friday 7 February according to the timeline that RNZ supplied to the committee, a “Brief conversation between the Minister and RNZ CE, where the music plans were discussed.” (“RNZ CE” is, of course, Paul Thompson. The Minister is Kris Faafoi who, as an Associate Minister for Culture and Heritage, relies on the ministry for policy advice in support of his main Broadcasting, Communications and Digital Media portfolio.)
Back at work on Monday, according to the timeline, RNZ and MCH exchanged emails “on transmission costings of a new network.”
Next day, Tuesday 11 February, RNZ issued a statement welcoming “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.”
It had taken less than a week for Faafoi to overcome hurdles that had defeated previous broadcasting ministers for more than two decades.
In another timeframe, a year in politics can be about as long as it is anywhere and it’s coming up to a year since RNZ’s CEO wrote on May 29 2019 to his opposite number at MCH, Bernadette Cavanagh, a former senior diplomat who had taken over from Paul James just a couple of months earlier.
“Dear Bernadette,” his letter begins, “I am writing to express RNZ’s interest in retaining the 102 FM radio band for public broadcasting use.”
The pile of documents released by RNZ this week do not include a response to the letter. Six months later, however, in an email to Thompson, MCH’s deputy chief executive, policy and sector performance (acting), Colin Holden, recalls a meeting in July “to discuss RNZ’s initial thinking about developing a music and youth focused station.”
Following up that meeting in an email on Thursday 7 November, Holden writes: “I’m interested in whether RNZ has progressed its thinking about this, and in particular whether you are still interested in exploring the use of the spectrum at 102FM that was reserved many years ago for a youth radio service.
“If you’re intending to push ahead, we’ll need to do some thinking about a process for allocating this spectrum, and engage with the Minister etc. If the proposal is on hold, I won’t allocate any resource to this.
“Happy to chat!”
So, not “incredibly difficult” then?
Thomson’s response pings into Holden’s inbox six minutes later. “Thanks Colin — our planning is progressing and we intend to launch the new brand in mid-2020 (subject to board approval of the business case in December).
“The plan does not require the new spectrum but if that is an option we would like to explore it with you.
“Should we have a chat about this? Cheers.”
Crucially, there is no clue in any of the documents released so far as to when and how MCH told RNZ that accessing and funding the 102FM frequency would be “incredibly difficult”.
But RNZ had obviously lost interest anyway— probably because they had been told, days after sending the May 29 letter, that there would be no political backing for funding a youth music network. Work on Plan B must have begun straight away. The minutes of RNZ’s Leadership Group Meeting on 8 June records: “FM Frequency and expenses for current users being considered against future users.” (Transition: “current users” = older listeners; “future users” = 20-39-year-olds).
In three months, a plan to set up a new youth music multi-media service using Concert FM’s network and funding was ready to present to the board. The minutes of its meeting on Tuesday 1 October record the Minister and his officials being welcomed to the meeting by the chairman who described the new music strategy as “an exciting and innovating plan.”The minutes also record that the chief executive talked about the plans being “fiscally neutral” — no extra funding required, minister — before giving a brief PowerPoint presentation to the minister about RNZ’s plans “including the new music strategy.”
The next day, RNZ’s executive team met and, according to the minutes, developed a timeline for the project which included: “Mar –Jul: build ‘new thing’/new multimedia brand. Turn off Concert on FM and start the new thing.”
So they all knew about it back in October which is a problem for MCH’s chief executive who appeared before Parliament’s Social Services and Community (SSC) committee for her ministry’s annual review on Wednesday 12 February, the day before RNZ’s review by the EDSI committee.
The SSC’s report of the hearing states: “The ministry said it had not been aware of the decision taken by the RNZ board and management before it was announced” and that “RNZ had not officially requested to use this (the 102 FM) frequency.”
Noting that RNZ had claimed to have been told by MCH that it would be “incredibly difficult” to access the 102 FM frequency, the committee requested a “full and comprehensive timeline of communications to/from RNZ, MCH, Ministers 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.”
MCH said a “comprehensive answer” was not immediately possible but had intended to respond to similar requests for related information by Tuesday 28 April and would be “happy to share a copy of these responses with the committee once they are complete.”
The committee regarded the ministry’s response as “less than satisfactory”. It is unlikely to have changed that view as it continues to wait for the information it requested, now about two weeks overdue.
While adding some missing pieces to the puzzle, ministry’s timeline is unlikely to reveal the full extent of this fascinating high-level bungle that would be exposed in a public hearing at a select committee inquiry.