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RNZ And Concert FM: More Bum Notes

Glaring in its absence from the Ministry for Culture and Heritage’s 46-page document dump on Tuesday, flowing from RNZ’s disastrous decision to replace Concert FM with a multi-media youth music platform, is the ministry’s response — if it exists — to RNZ’s letter on May 29 2019 asking about access to the vacant 102FM network for its new service.

The 102FM national network, actually set aside more than 20 years ago for a youth-oriented radio station but only briefly used for that purpose, would have enabled RNZ to add the new platform without sacrificing its classical music programming. But simply getting rid of Concert FM seems to have been a key part of the plan all along.

Among the documents released this week is an aide memoire that the ministry drafted for Broadcasting Minister Kris Faafoi’s meeting with RNZ’s chief executive, Paul Thompson, board chairman, Jim Mather, and board member, Peter Parussini, on Monday 27 January, 10 days before RNZ was to tell its Concert FM staff on Wednesday 5 February that they would soon be surplus to requirements.

Informing the minister of RNZ’s plan to attract younger listeners, the aide memoire quotes from an internal memo from Thompson to staff: “The objective of the strategy is for RNZ to become as successful with young audiences through music as we are with older audiences through news and current affairs.”

The ministry then notes that “RNZ’s proposed approach reflects comments made to previous Ministers by Mr Thompson in which he has expressed discontent at RNZ’s commitment to broadcast concerts by New Zealand classical musicians and orchestras and at the use of the asset of an FM network to focus on classical and other non-pop forms of music.”

Then, after establishing a strong case in support of Concert FM’s programming and its wider role in relation to musicians and orchestras, the ministry recommends: “At this meeting it is suggested that you ask the RNZ representatives, not only about the objectives of the youth music strategy, but its likely impact on the wider sphere of musical activity.”

The die, however, had been cast. The next aide memoire for the minister on the following Monday 3 February, from another of the ministry’s senior policy advisers, briefs him on what to tell Cabinet next Monday 10 February.

Reminding him that he had met with RNZ’s top brass the previous week, it said: “During the meeting RNZ outlined its intention to develop a new music brand aimed at at young people to engage with younger and more diverse audiences in line with RNZ’s charter obligations. The intent would be for the brand to be available online, on-demand, on streaming platforms and on FM nationwide.”

The minister liked that idea, although it wasn’t the first time he’d heard it. After taking over the broadcasting portfolio from Clare Curran in September 2018, Faafoi was invited to a “get-to-know-you” meeting with the board and senior management at RNZ’s offices on The Terrace on Tuesday 1 October. The minutes of the meeting record that “The CEO gave a brief PowerPoint presentation to the Minister about our plans including the new music strategy.”

The minutes also state that “The CEO reminded that we want these plans to be fiscally neutral and therefore implementation timing is crucial.” No need, therefore, to seek the extra funding required — originally estimated to be $1 million, later raised on second thoughts to around $8 million — to fire up the vacant 102FM network.

Thanking Thompson’s team for their presentation, board chairman Mather described it as “an exciting and innovative plan.”

Everybody agreed, until they all had to scramble for cover after the plan became public on Wednesday 5 February when Thompson finally got round to informing — “consulting” — his employees, about 20 presenters and producers destined to be replaced by a slightly smaller team with talents more suited for RNZ’s new “overarching mission to form lifelong relationships with ALL the people of Aotearoa.”

With the Minister’s briefing for his Cabinet colleagues due the following Monday, and RNZ and the Ministry for Culture and Heritage booked in with Parliament select committees for their annual financial reviews later that week, there was little time for getting everyone’s backstory on the same page.

Wheels spinning as he franticly back-pedalled in the face of a furious protest that included his prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, and her Labour Party’s predecessor, Helen Clark, Faafoi admitted that RNZ had indeed told him about their new music strategy and said: "There are aspects of the proposal that we can do something about - possibly - and we are currently looking into that. We might be able to mitigate some of the concerns that we made clear to the board," he told RNZ ’s Mediawatch.

"I’m not going to get into the detail now ... because it’s not been finalised," he said.

The “concerns” that the minister believed might be mitigated must have been about trading in Concert FM and its network for a youth music platform. But if he made them clear at his January 27 meeting with RNZ, they didn’t register with RNZ’s chief executive and board members, just as he failed to get his head around the inevitable consequences of RNZ’s management finally informing their employees about their exciting and innovative plan on Wednesday 5 February.

As part of RNZ’s efforts to get its story straight, board chairman Mather had board member Parussini take another look at his meeting notes and send him this email on February 10.

“On the music strategy the Minister said he was supportive of RNZ chasing a younger audience.

“He said he’d been told by officials that there was an available FM frequency that had been set aside some years ago for a youth station but that it had never been used.

“He asked how much that was likely to cost. We said it might be about $1m a year.

“He asked officials to come back to him on costs and timings.

“We specifically asked if he was telling us to not go ahead with the staff consultation until that work had been done. He said no. We asked if he was saying we could continue work on the project in parallel to the work officials would do at looking at the alternative FM frequency. He said yes.

“We said that once we started staff consultation that the issue would be come public. He said he understood that.”

What he didn’t understand, however, and was obviously not prepared for, was the public’s reaction to the exciting and innovative plan when they realised it would be the end of classical music on New Zealand radio.

The potential scenario of an audience backlash forcing a politically embarrassing u-turn was conspicuous by its absence from the briefings of his ministry officials, the clarity of their communications further muddied by their reliance on euphemism and the naive pretence that “consultation” could have any meaning or consequence other than dismissal.

“Following consultation with staff a final decision will be made,” wrote the ministry’s director of arts and media policy, as if there was a possibility that the on-air talent and their colleagues would welcome the opportunity to be made redundant, “however, RNZ has indicated a preference to re-purpose RNZ Concert for the FM transmission of the new youth service.”

The minister is then reminded that he’d asked officials to look into the possibility of the 102 block of FM frequencies to be used for RNZ’s youth brand. Noting that this would require Cabinet approval, the briefing states that “The Ministry believes this is a feasible option” directly contradicting the RNZ chairman’s assertion to the Economic Development, Science and Innovation Select Committee on February 13 that the ministry had told RNZ it would be “incredibly difficult”. Also unresolved is the discrepancy between RNZ’s May 29 2019 letter to the ministry’s chief executive, Bernadette Cavanagh, inquiring about access to the 102FM network, and her assurance to the Social Services and Community Select Committee the previous day that RNZ had never made an application or a bid for the 102FM frequency.

Stay tuned - more to come.

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