A Classic Blunder: The Sequel - Part 3
“Things have changed,” Radio New Zealand’s chief executive, Paul Thompson, advised staff in an email on Wednesday 12 February last year, a week to the day after they were summoned to hear RNZ’s Music Content Director, Willy Macalister, “consult” them on how the new RNZ Music strategy would be going ahead without them.
In the realm of understatement, “things have changed” is on a par with the captain of the Titanic informing passengers after hitting the iceberg that the ship’s arrival in New York could be delayed.
What had changed in the week since RNZ’s management unveiled their strategy of using Concert FM’s network for a multi-media “platform” playing tunes for modern millennials aged between 18 and 34 years, was the nobbling of Broadcasting Minister, Kris Faafoi, who had failed to do more than express concern at the plan.
The iceberg that sank RNZ’s youth music strategy was its audience. The most dangerous part of an iceberg lies below the surface. Amongst Concert FM’s 172,600 listeners is Helen Clark. She rocketed to the surface like a Cruise missile within hours of the news of the demise of her favourite radio station leaking out of RNZ’s Wellington boardroom.
Clark was elected to Parliament as Labour’s Mt Albert MP in 1981. She rose to become a Cabinet minister in 1987 in the Lange-Douglas Labour government’s second term. Their Broadcasting Minister was Jonathan Hunt, Labour’s New Lynn MP since 1966 and an influential senior figure in the party’s Auckland caucus. Two of their colleagues, Roger Douglas, a broadcasting minister in the previous Kirk administration, held the powerful Finance portfolio, and Richard Prebble was given ministerial responsibility for state-owned enterprises. While Prebble fronted the Treasury’s plan to confine commercial-free television to Sunday mornings and religious holidays, Hunt retained control of radio and the new funding agency, NZ on Air. A cricket fan and classical music buff, Hunt was in a position to ensure airtime for test commentaries on the AM Parliament network and make sure that Concert FM had the very best stereo broadcast and recording equipment for his music, at the same time cementing RNZ’s dedicated frequencies into the Radiocommunications Act 1989.
RNZ’s reasons for pirating Concert FM’s broadcast frequencies for its multi-platform youth music station are not clear. An aide-memoire for Faafoi from the Ministry of Culture and Heritage’s deputy chief executive, Colin Holden, for the minister’s meeting with Thompson, his board chairman, Jim Mather, and board member, Peter Parussini, on Wednesday 29 January 2020, includes this question from Treasury: “Given the youth audience is best able to access content via online platforms, which could include internet radio, why does RNZ need an FM frequency for the youth audience?”
There is no evidence that this extremely germane question was ever asked let alone answered. By that time, Faafoi had known about the plan to end Concert FM’s life as a broadcast radio station for several months. A diary entry he wrote on 20 August 2019, when RNZ told him of their youth music strategy, notes that “. . . Concert will still exist just not on FM.”
His advisers in the Ministry for Culture and Heritage briefed him before the last people to be informed about the secret plan — the staff — were “consulted”. An email from the minister’s office on Friday 31 January 2020 marked “CONFIDENTIAL heads up re RNZ Concert” carried attachments of “material relating to RNZ letting us know that probably around the next week they are likely to let affected staff know about plans over the coming months to shift RNZ Concert to an online platform and switch RNZ Concert’s FM frequency to a new youth-focussed music channel.
“Chances are that once affected staff know, word will get out and there will be complaints from loyal Concert listeners (which number about 170,00 a/c latest audience research).
“Attached is the briefing that went to Minister Faafoi about this for his meeting with RNZ management earlier this week, plus further emailed MCH advice, plus suggested reactive lines if needed, plus an NZ Herald (article) a couple of weeks ago on the subject.”
(“Lines” are short statements for ministers to feed to the media. The Herald article, “RNZ shakeup: Is it curtains for Concert?” by business reporter Daniel Venuto was published in the newspaper on January 16 and on-line behind the paywall. The MCH briefing and “lines” have not been released and are being sought under the Official Information Act.)
Another email from his office on 10 February revealed that although the Minister had been warned about the likelihood of Concert FM’s demise leaking from the 5 February “consultation” with staff, he merely repeated his “concerns and possible push-back” in his meeting with RNZ on 29 January. Faafoi’s failure to comprehend the potential for damage to the public broadcaster and the political risks involved resulted in the need for a hasty patch-up job by Cabinet on 10 February.
Its decision to investigate putting RNZ’s new youth music station on the 102FM network, reserved for it all along, was greeted with cries of relief by RNZ, grateful for having the media spotlight moved away from Concert FM.
RNZ published a statement on its webpage: “The Board of RNZ today welcomed the Government’s decision to look at freeing up an additional FM transmission frequency and to explore funding options for a multi-media music brand.” The board’s chairman 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.
But the minister’s diary reveals that RNZ had not really wanted to use the 102FM network for its youth music station. In notes on his late January meeting with RNZ, Faafoi writes that firing up the 102FM frequency would need extra funding. Thompson had told him that it would cost “at least $1 mill” . . . “haven’t put any thought into this”.
That $1 million estimate was only for operational costs. RNZ had not bothered calculating any capital costs. Total capital and operational costs of using the 102FM network were later hurriedly estimated to be up to $12 million.
Another extensively redacted email on 29 January from MCH’s senior policy adviser, Martin Durrant, reports on the 29 January meeting with RNZ’s chief executive.
“First he (Thompson) confirmed that the (new music) strategy involves a reduction in platforms for Concert: its FM frequencies would be transferred to the youth service; Concert would be restricted to its current Freeview and SKY television channels and online, although the AM network, when not broadcasting Parliament, would also be used . . .(redacted)
“RNZ would still be open to using the reserved youth radio block (102FM) for its new service instead of Concert’s frequencies. . .(redacted) He said it would cost about an extra $1 million to use the youth block.
“He sees the strategies better meeting aspects of the Charter — especially in relation to reflecting the breadth of the performing arts and ‘taking advantage of the most effective means of delivery’.” . . . (redacted).
“He says that they are retaining their sound engineers and will continue recording NZ classical music ensembles and orchestras … (redacted). . . He thinks that RNZ will still be playing a role in extending the audience for NZ classical musicians and composers, but acknowledged that it will be a diminished version of Concert, especially in informing audiences about classical music activity and events — ie, mostly an “automated” flow of music without information.
“He thinks that about half of Concert’s audience will be retained . . . (redacted) More immediately it would halve the collateral benefits to other music funding through Vote ACH (Arts, Culture and Heritage) — the multiplication of the audience for concerts and the maintenance of an informed and receptive audience.”
I’m sorry, let me write that again. “He thinks that about half of Concert’s audience will be retained.” That means he was prepared to shed half his listeners to start up a youth music station that, over two decades, had never gain sufficient political support to warrant funding.
This is a senior policy adviser in the Ministry of Arts Culture and Heritage reporting statements made by the chief executive of the country’s only public broadcaster to the Minister of Broadcasting who sat on his hands.
Rutherford Ward’s petition calling for the sacking of RNZ’s management and board could have triggered an investigation into this high-level act of cultural vandalism, had it not been rejected by a select committee. The Social Services and Communities Select Committee has the opportunity to revisit this issue when it conducts RNZ’s annual review next month.
Meantime, stay tuned for the next instalment to learn why Concert FM’s audience still have good reason to be very afraid.