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A Classic Blunder - The Sequel (Part One)

It’s not an anniversary that Radio New Zealand’s board and management will want to celebrate but it was a year ago to the day that they unveiled their new youth music strategy — only to see it crash and burn within a week.

Like the proverbial canary down the mine, the embarrassing high-level political implosion after RNZ’s grand new music strategy was revealed at a staff meeting on 5 February 2020 contains warnings of what lies ahead if Labour persists with its proposal to merge RNZ and TVNZ into some as-yet undefined new media entity. Many of the same individuals are involved and the issue is buried deep by the same obsessive secrecy, misleading public statements and muddled thinking.

The anniversary of the great Concert FM bungle offers an opportunity to explore what really went wrong when RNZ comes up before Parliament’s Community and Social Services Select Committee for its annual review later this month. A string of emails and documents, some officially released, others obtained under the Official Information Act and some leaked internal memos, reveal panicked exchanges as RNZ’s management, Broadcasting Minister, Kris Faafoi, and his officials in the Ministry for Culture and Heritage (MCH), tried to get their stories straight and draw a cloak of euphemism and marketing gibber over the facts.

In his opening statement to the Economic Development, Science and Innovation committee, which conducted the review last year, RNZ board chairman, Jim Mather, said the ministry had been asked about the possibility of using the vacant 102FM frequencies for the new service and their “advice was that it would be incredibly difficult for RNZ to get access to them with the required funding.”

The key word is “funding”. Incredibly, the funding required to fire up the 102FM frequencies had not been calculated — indicating RNZ’s intention all along was to use Concert FM’s frequencies at no extra cost. An eight-page cost estimate “prepared in a matter of a few days” and published secretly on 10 February 2020 — five days after the issue erupted in controversy — looked at two options: full FM coverage for $14 million or “metro-urban” only for $3 million.

Added to the inevitable opposition from commercial radio and the fact that there had been no political support for youth radio in the more than 20 years since it had been in the wings, the cost alone would have made starting up the new network “incredibly difficult”. But even when public outcry put paid to the no-cost option of using Concert FM’s network, the charade carried on with RNZ saying it was all about the youth network.

In a press release dated 11 February, two days before RNZ’s appointment with the select committee, but not published until 17 February, RNZ’s board “welcomed the Government’s decision to look at setting up an additional FM transmission frequency” — the one that had been lying idle for almost two decades — “and to explore funding options for a multi-media music brand.”

Chairman 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.”

As with virtually all official statements on this subject, that wasn’t the whole story. Now a very hot political potato, the future of Concert FM was discussed by the Cabinet on 10 February, the day before RNZ’s statement was written. An email sent out that day by Faafoi’s press secretary, Peter Stevens, reported that “Work will get underway on freeing up the 102FM frequency for RNZ’s youth strategy so RNZ Concert can remain on its FM frequency.

“Cabinet today decided to look at what would be involved in doing that.

“What happens now is a Cabinet paper will be prepared which lays out what would be involved in freeing up that 102FM spectrum.

“Issues of what funding would be required to make this happen will now be worked through.”

(The next paragraph has been redacted. The Chief Ombudsman has been asked to investigate that and many other redactions in material, some of which was first requested under the Official Information Act on 5 February and released exactly one year later.)

The email continues: “So far, I’ve ascertained it looks to have first come up in broad terms in October that RNZ was looking at shifting Concert of (sic) its FM Frequency.

“Minister Faafoi’s clear expression of concern about the plan and possible backlash, together with discussion about working on the other option of finding a way to use the 102FM frequency took place at a meeting with RNZ management rep’s (sic), including Paul Thompson, two weeks ago on 29 January.

“Paul Thompson advised Minister Faafoi that RNZ would be notifying affected staff next Wednesday (5 February) about the plan to start a new youth channel targeted at 18-34 year olds on RNZ Concert’s FM frequency and to provide Concert online as a streamed service, via SKY and Freeview, and on the AM Parliamentary radio broadcast frequency when Parliament wasn’t sitting.

“Minister Faafoi and Paul Thompson discussed what additional operational transmission costs would be involved if 102FM could be made available for RNZ’s youth channel.

“Paul Thomson estimated that it would involve around $1 million in operational costs, but indicated more analysis of the costings would be needed.”

Minister Faafoi indicated that he saw value in doing more work on what options might exist to explore ways of seeing Concert broadcasting on FM, while supporting RNZ’s aim of broadening audience to the 18-34 year olds demographic

“Paul Thompson confirmed with the Minister that conversations around the proposed changes to RNZ would be at an internal staffing level with those who would be impacted.

“Minister Faafoi reiterated concerns and possible push-back over taking RNZ Concert of (sic) its FM frequency and indicated he wanted more time to work on the options to maintain delivery of RNZ Concert on FM.”

Three days later, however, RNZ’s Chairman told the select committee “The Minister was briefed on our new strategy and the potential impact upon RNZ Concert in August 2019, October 2019 and most recently on January 29 of this year.”

Mather strongly rejected the suggestion that RNZ hadn’t taken on board the Minister’s desire for a delay. “We definitely did not ignore the request,” he told the select committee. “We believed that the Minister had agreed to RNZ not delaying our internal staff consultation on potential changes to RNZ Concert whilst MCH explored the option of reviewing the FM frequency previously reserved for youth music.

“There was clearly a misunderstanding as the Minister thought that our consultation process would be halted whilst MCH looked into the FM frequency availability (as they were tasked to do at that meeting).”

Duck shoving and buck passing aside, it’s clear that the Minister needed to do more than express “concern” to deter RNZ from implementing a plan that would have taken the Classical music station off its FM network by 29 May, followed by the full launch of the new music brand on 28 August.

And whatever happened to that new RNZ Music brand targeting under-served young New Zealanders (18-34) including, of course, Maori and Pacific Peoples. Lack of any further announcement would tend to indicate that the promised Cabinet paper either never got delivered or was rejected. There is no mention of a new youth music strategy in RNZ’s annual report or its 2020-21 Statement of Performance Expectations.

The annual report, however, reveals that the number of RNZ employees on annual salaries of $100,000-plus increased last year from 37 to 55 while the chief executive’s salary entered the $500,000 -$510,000 band, up $10,000 on top of his $50,000 raise the previous year.

And what about Concert FM? Stay tuned for the next episode of A Classic Blunder: A Year On.

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