Missing The Point: RNZ Concert Petition Rejected By MPs
A call for RNZ’s board and management to be sacked for their botched attempt to use Concert FM’s funding and broadcast frequency for a youth music station has been rejected by Parliament’s Economic Development, Science and Innovation Select Committee.
The call came from a Concert FM fan of some 60 years, Rutherford Ward. Outraged by RNZ’s plan, revealed on Wednesday 5 February when the classical music station’s 18 presenters and staff were told they would soon be surplus to requirements, Mr Ward launched an electronic petition asking Parliament to “urge the Government to dismiss Radio New Zealand’s entire Board from their positions.” Opened for signatures on Thursday 13 February, the day after RNZ hurriedly abandoned their still-born plan, the petition gathered 450 names in support before it closed on 10 March. It was formally presented to Parliament by ACT leader, David Seymour, on 28 April and referred to the EDSI committee which reported on it this Monday 3 August.
“We are pleased to see Radio New Zealand’s decision to continue broadcasting the programme (RNZ Concert) in its existing format,” the committee reported, revealing it had totally failed to comprehend the central issue raised by the petition — the action of RNZ’s politically-appointed board and its management to re-purpose a broadcast radio frequency specifically reserved by an Act of Parliament for the Concert FM programme.
The petition did not question RNZ’s decision to withdraw its proposal within a week of torrid public backlash including an electronic petition that attracted more than 30,000 signatures in a few days. The petition sought public scrutiny of the process leading up to the proposal. How was it allowed to happen?
With his request for a public inquiry into the actions of RNZ’s board, Rutherford Ward wanted Parliament to expose the processes, procedures and board oversight of management decisions which he believed were inadequate.
Although scrutiny of this kind is the select committee’s responsibility and function, it decided to slip out a side door. “As the proposal will not be continued,” the committee’s response to the petition concluded, “we do not feel it is necessary to look into this matter further.”
Obviously the committee didn’t read the submission from RNZ’s chief executive, Paul Thompson, in response to the petition. Noting that the petition “only addresses the impact of the proposed changes on the RNZ Concert service,” Thompson wrote that “RNZ’s planned changes for RNZ Concert were not a stand-alone initiative and were one part of a wider plan to better deploy its finite resources to reach more New Zealanders and better reflect the diversity of all the communities we were established to serve.”
Elsewhere he said: “The new planned service which was based on a multi-media, multi-platform approach, rather than just a radio station, would have greatly enhanced RNZ’s Charter performance in this regard.
“While the initial proposal will not proceed, RNZ is committed to continuing to improve its delivery of the Charter, both through new content for younger audiences and an enhanced RNZ Concert service.” Not giving up on that one.
It’s unlikely that RNZ will “enhance” its classical music programme by following the lead of its BBC model, Radio 3, which is enjoying a ratings boom among young listeners by promoting its on-air talent, the presenters that RNZ was planning to fire. Instead, Thompson’s plan relies on finding uses for all the digital technology, including a video-distribution platform, that RNZ has acquired over the past three years. Having predicted that radio is a medium in decline, Thompson assumes that audiences will want to be receiving everything — audio, video and text — via the internet on their phones, tablets and laptops.
While moving the Concert Programme to an automated format on the internet would have destroyed its relationship with its audience, National Radio listeners are facing a similar threat on RNZ’s other reserved national broadcast frequency.
Defending the absence since March of the long-running, award-winning current affairs show, Insight, RNZ spokesman John Barr acknowledged that it had been “a valued programme at RNZ over many years, producing high-quality, in-depth journalism for a loyal RNZ audience.”
That audience is one of RNZ’s largest. At just over 300,000 on Sunday mornings, it comprises listeners seeking informed and intelligent perspectives, insights and current affairs backgrounders uninterrupted by commercials and inane blather. Insight was named best factual weekly programme at the 2019 and 2020 NZ Radio Awards. The sort of programme that a public broadcaster would be proud to promote as part of its quality brand.
“RNZ’s strategic direction has shifted however,” Barr explained, “with the priorities now on digital content and growing new audiences, and RNZ will be looking at how best to serve those audiences.”
Defending his board and management against the criticism implicit in Rutherford Ward’s petition, Thompson says:”While some people disagree with the decisions made, the people who developed the plans, made the decisions and signed off on the proposal were some of the most experienced media people in the country, with great depth of knowledge and understanding of the business, backed up with lots of research.” Conspicuous by its absence from all their professional qualifications is any prior experience with public radio broadcasting.
Thompson also reports that RNZ spends more than $400,000 pa on audience surveys and research “to get detailed insights into audiences, their behaviours and preferences”. As that research failed to reveal the preference that classical music buffs have for listening to their music on Concert FM’s superior FM broadcast network, it may also have missed the reason that 300,000 people prefer to tune into National radio on a Sunday morning rather than hunt around on the internet for podcasts.
RNZ’s change in “strategic direction” to prioritise “digital content and growing new audiences” would have got the scrutiny it urgently needs had the select committee agreed to Rutherford Ward’s request for a public inquiry. Also regrettable is the lost opportunity to examine a comprehensive failure of a 30-year-old broadcasting system at all levels, starting with Broadcasting Minister, Kris Faafoi, including his officials in the Ministry of Culture and Heritage, and ending with this woeful committee decision.
In a minority opinion tagged on to the committee’s report, the National Party says it believes it is important for RNZ’s board “to have a mix of music, professional, community and cultural backgrounds”. There is some irony in the fact that most board members including Bill Francis, the former chief executive of the country’s main commercial radio network, were National appointees.
Nevertheless, National says that if they form the next government one of the first official acts for their broadcasting minister will be drafting revised Letters for Radio New Zealand and other relevant Crown agencies as “a matter of priority for the cultural sector.”
It’s not even a start. A much more radical approach is needed to wrest control of the two state-owned broadcasters, RNZ and TVNZ, out of the hands of politicians and vested interests.