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RNZ And Concert FM: Still More Bum Notes

Days after RNZ’s chief executive Paul Thompson wrote to the Ministry for Culture and Heritage’s chief executive Bernadette Cavanagh inquiring about access to the 102FM network for a proposed multimedia youth music platform, his senior management were already looking at “future users” for Concert FM’s dedicated frequency.

The absence from all the documents so far released of a response — if any — to Thompson’s letter on May 29 2019 raises questions about the degree that the ministry, and by extension its associate minister, Broadcasting Minister Kris Faafoi, were complicit in a plan to remove Concert FM from its legislated radio network to make way for its proposed youth music station.

Fronting up at Parliament this Wednesday (24 June) to defend his ministry’s spending plans for the year ahead, Faafoi told the Social Services and Community Committee that RNZ’s youth music project had been “put on ice”.

Responding to questions from National’s broadcasting spokeswoman Melissa Lee, the minister said RNZ had “decided to change their tack” after the public outcry at their plan to drop take Concert FM off its broadcast radio networks.

“I think what we can say is that, because RNZ is in the position most media companies are in, they decided during the Covid experience to put to one side their plans around a youth music network to focus on their core business of news and current affairs.

“So that’s where that’s at. There was obviously some misunderstandings and difficulties at the beginning of the year but I believe we’ve worked through those.”

Like a parody of Donald Trump parroting soundbites from half-remembered briefing notes, Faafoi’s version of the political omnishambles caused by RNZ’s plan to replace Concert FM with a youth music station would be laugh-out-loud funny — if it wasn’t so sad.

Like Trump, Faafoi talks a big picture that leaves no room for inconvenient details, such as the fact that Radio New Zealand is not just another media company. Fully-funded by the taxpayer it is immune to any decline in advertising caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Its “core business” is outlined in its Charter which requires a great deal more from it than news and current affairs. Finally, the decision to put the youth music project “on one side” was made a week after it was announced on February 5, well over a month before the government put the country into lockdown. Obviously, the decision to abandon the youth music project had nothing to do with Covid-19.

Despite Stuff’s claim of publishing “trustworthy, accurate and reliable news stories”, its Wellington daily, the Dominion-Post, accepted the minister’s word without question, reporting the next morning that “RNZ has put the development of its planned new youth music radio station ‘to one side’ because of the coronavirus crisis.”

Later that morning, on Thursday 25 June, Faafoi was back in one of Parliament’s committee rooms, this time in front of the Economic Development, Science and Innovation committee, defending expenditure over the next financial year in his broadcasting portfolio which includes RNZ.

In the face of persistent questioning by Ms Lee, he repeatedly insisted that the first time he’d heard of RNZ’s intention to take Concert FM’s broadcast frequency for its youth music platform was at the meeting with its chief executive, Paul Thompson, chairman Jim Mather and board member, Peter Parussini, on Monday 27 January this year.

But the minister had known about the youth music project for at least four months, since attending RNZ’s board meeting 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 selective release of documents, some heavily redacted, make it impossible to say with certainty that the PowerPoint highlighted the impact on Concert FM, or if it did, that the minister grasped its implications.

The documents released by RNZ, however, indicate that the raid on Concert FM’s frequency and funding was on the drawing board in the same week that Thompson wrote his letter inquiring about gaining access to the 102FM frequency for the youth station.

The heavily-redacted minutes of RNZ’s Leadership Group meeting, dated (Saturday) 8 June, record: “7. Concert is steady, work needed to ensure viable 8. FM Frequency and expenses for current users being considered against future users.”

Two months later, in another heavily-redacted document, the ministry’s fortnightly status report for its associate minister on August 5 reports that RNZ “has recently informed the ministry that it is developing a proposal for a new service for young New Zealanders that would play a large proportion (approximately 40%) of New Zealand music.

“RNZ is interested in obtaining access to the 102FM network frequencies that has been reserved by Cabinet since 1999 for a youth radio service.”

The next paragraph has been redacted “to maintain the current constitutional conventions protecting the confidentiality of advice tendered by Ministers and officials.” The same reason is stated for redactions to other references to the 102FM network in all the documents released by the ministry. Obviously a touchy subject, probably politically sensitive, and almost certainly connected to RNZ’s claim that it had been informed by the ministry that gaining access to the 102FM network would be “incredibly difficult.”

The ministry’s status report adds that “RNZ is also considering how it can create more audience and Charter value from its investment in RNZ Concert. Officials will keep you updated as the proposal develops.”

But the minister would be updated directly by RNZ’s board and management on Tuesday 1 October. Minutes of their meeting record that the chief executive thanked his executives for their presentation and said they were trying to make the changes from “a budget neutral position” — ie, not requiring extra funding for additional frequencies and new staff. The music strategy’s reliance on the plan to “repurpose” Concert FM was even more clearly apparent in the timeline developed at an executives’ meeting the day after the board meeting: “Mar –Jul: build ‘new thing’/new multimedia brand. Turn off Concert on FM and start the new thing.”

If the minister didn’t know about the plan to “turn off Concert FM”, or comprehend its implications, before the end of January, he can blame his officials in the Ministry for Culture and Heritage. More likely, though, the minister himself created the need for RNZ’s youth music project to be “budget neutral” by making it plain right at the start that there would be no extra money available for using the 102FM block of frequencies.

The cost of firing up the vacant 102FM network was belatedly (on 10 February 2020) estimated at $12m capital costs + $2m operating costs for full national coverage and $3.9m + $490,000 for urban only. There was never going to be political support for that, particularly given the dismal history of previous attempts to set up youth music radio stations. This is presumably why RNZ was told it would be "incredibly difficult" to gain access to the 102FM network. That advice, conveyed informally by the ministry, had to come from the minister or the finance minister. The decision to abandon the youth music plan had nothing to do with the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. The minister’s claim to the select committee that it did only increases the need for a parliamentary inquiry to establish responsibility for the debacle, if only to avoid a repeat.

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