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A Classic Blunder: The Sequel. The Malady Lingers On

With apologies to Irving Berlin — the song is ended but the malady lingers on.

It’s been a year since Radio New Zealand suddenly stopped singing the praises for its proposed new youth music multi-media brand/platform. But uncertainty and disquiet, heightened by the broadcaster’s duplicity and secrecy in developing and announcing its proposal, continues to unsettle both Concert FM’s staff and audience.

Attempts by RNZ’s chief executive, Paul Thompson, to allay their concerns about the station’s future only confirm that their doubts and fears are valid.

“I’m pleased to bring you an update on work we have been doing to secure the future of RNZ Concert,” he said in a presentation to “stakeholders” and “partners” on 3 December.

“The future of RNZ Concert is assured.”

In fact, he is not in a position to give that assurance. The future of Concert FM is not within the control of its management and board. Their extraordinary presumption that it is led to their ill-conceived move on Concert FM.

It began late in 2018 according to a confidential RNZ consultation document when the head of radio and music, David Allan, “talked about the need to conduct a full review of all RNZ Music outputs”. A new management team was established to develop a “New Music Strategy implementation proposal”. Its key component, according to the document, written by RNZ’s new Music Content Director, Willy Macalister, hired from dance and electronic music station George FM, was: “The creation of the new music brand with multi-platform outputs including RNZ Concert’s existing FM frequencies.”

That document is dated 5 February, the day that Macalister called Concert FM’s staff into RNZ’s boardroom to “consult” them about how his new music strategy was going to work without them. Rumours that had been circulating for some months were confirmed. The details, tightly held by a secretive board and management, leaked almost with minutes. Public reaction the plan to scrap Concert FM was like poking a knife into a toaster.

Fast-forward 11 months and Thompson is back on RNZ’s spin machine telling stakeholders and partners that Concert FM’s future is “assured” and “secured”.

“We have listened to the outpouring of public support and feedback and we want to harness this to strengthen RNZ Concert as a network.”

Plucking another bloom from his lush and fragrant garden of choice marketing slogans, Thompson said “our aspiration is to ’Share the love of the greatest music ever made with all the people of Aotearoa’.”

In similar vein, his chairman, Jim Mather, also acknowledging the heat in the public response back on 17 February 2020, had said, improbably: “As we expected, recent feedback has shown there is strong support for Concert and look forward to completing the consultation process to consider other possible improvements to that service now have been given the potential of additional FM capacity.”

No doubt Intended to promote the chairman’s powers of foresight and helmsmanship skills after a dozen years as a public service chief executive, his claim that the public response had been “expected” had the opposite effect with its implication of shockingly bad political judgment.

If true, it meant RNZ’s board and management actually went ahead with their plan knowing it would attract a rapid fire on-line petition, which gathered 26,000 signatures in a few days along with protests around the country, with the largest one at Parliament, as well as raising the ire and a humiliating reprimand from their political masters and mistresses.

Simultaneously distancing herself from RNZ and its new music strategy, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, threw protective arm around her broadcasting minister, Kris Faafoi.

"He explicitly asked for time so that we could see if whether or not there was something we could do to prevent the loss of the FM frequency for Concert,” she said on the morning of Monday 10 February before her weekly Cabinet meeting. “RNZ went ahead and announced this regardless."

Her Labour predecessor, Helen Clark, was even quicker off the mark, taking to Twitter on Friday 7 February calling for ministers to intervene. "Hope ministers will take an interest in this very concerning @radionz decision," Clark said in a tweet. She said it equated to a dumbing down of cultural life in New Zealand.”

In another, Tweet she wrote: "This decision appears to have been taken without public consultation. Who's in charge?”

Finance Minister, Grant Robertson, hastened to reassure her that Labour’s top ministers were on top of it, responding to her call for them to take action: "We will Helen. I am advised it is still a consultation and we will be talking to RNZ about their options.”

Also on Friday 7 February, a couple of emails. recently released by Faafoi’s office along with material originally requested under the Official Information Act on 5 February 2020., were forwarded to RNZ.

One of them, addressed to Faafoi and copied to Robertson and State Services minister, Chris Hipkins, begins: “Tena Koe Ministers, I doubt whether you actually realise how much political damage your decision on RNZ’s Concert programme has already caused for the NZLP (New Zealand Labour Party) and this government.

“For thousands of older people, typically the most dutiful and reliable voters, this radio programme is not just a source of entertainment. It is a lifesaving source of companionship and an escape from the relentless incursion of trashy American culture and commercially-inspired musical junk.”

The email’s author, whose name has been redacted, described the plan to replace Concert FM with a youth music staton as “a cultural disaster” which needed to be “reviewed, revised, overturned and an apology issued”, adding: “And they better not touch other morning RNZ national programmes!”

The other email, also dated 7 February and addressed to RNZ and copied to the same Ministers, said: “The RNZ board and senior management and consultations advisers may well have carried out a protracted review and consulted staff about to be dismissed. But your interpretation of whatever you found has left you in the position of seriously jeopardising one of the truly iconic New Zealand institutions.”

The emailer described him/herself as “a professional evaluator with long Public Service experience, as well as extensive media experience.”

There was also the letter from three Queen’s Counsels: media and defamation specialist, Julian Miles; former attorney-general, Chris Finlayson; and Auckland barrister, Adam Ross, said to have been engaged by “major orchestras” to challenge the RNZ decision in the High Court. They were reported to be drafting a letter on Monday 10 February threatening to start legal action if the RNZ decision was not reversed — which it was later that day.

Their leading argument would be that TNZ was in breach of the Radiocommunications Act 1989 which, in sections 174 and 175, reserves specific nationally networked frequencies for Concert FM and National Radio. Section 176 says RNZ’s rights to the frequencies can only lapse if funding ceases, which must be the result of a political decision, beyond the competence of the broadcaster’s board and management.

The morning of Monday 10 February was a busy one for all concerned. Amongst the frantic email traffic flying round Wellington was one from Bernadette Cavanagh, chief executive of the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, reporting to Faafoi’s office on her talks that morning with Paul Thompson.

“Paul and I discussed the potential changes to Concert and the implications for RNZ’s funding agreement with NZ on Air and the Radiocommuncations Act. Paul clarified that RNZ would not take any actions that would see them breach their agreements or be unlawful.”

Treading water while waiting for news from the Cabinet meeting, Cavanagh warns that there could be an impact on the timeframe for any changes.

“Paul has requested further legal advice on the Radiocommunications Act 1989,” she reports in what appears to be the first reference to it. “The SPE process would enable any proposed changes (or not) to be worked through with the government as shareholder.”

The SPE (Statement of Performance Expectations) process is the annual negotiation with the Government’s broadcast funding agency, NZ on Air, that ultimately determines the amount that RNZ gets from the Budget.

It’s the process that RNZ should have followed all along to get funding for its youth music station. But Chairman Mather had said RNZ was told that would be “incredibly difficult”. The resulting decision to kill two birds with one stone — replacing the Concert Programme with a youth music station on its FM frequency — turned into a disaster which Thompson immediately converted into yet another triumph

“Things have changed” he emailed staff on Wednesday 12 February, two days after the Cabinet meeting. Announcing the withdrawal of “the restructuring proposal” unveiled the previous Wednesday, the chief executive said: ”Things have changed since we announced the proposal with the Government now indicating it will support the new music service for young New Zealanders.”

Actually, the Cabinet had only agreed to look into what would be involved in freeing up the vacant FM network. But for Thompson’s spin machine “That is good news and provides an opportunity to re-set our thinking.”

A Classic Blunder: A Year On — Part 3 coming soon

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