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Classic Blunder; The Sequel - Part 4

The sheer folly of Radio New Zealand’s plan to sacrifice half the public broadcaster’s classical music listeners to attract a new audience to a multi-media youth music “brand” was obscured somewhat by the outraged protest after news of Concert FM’s proposed demise leaked out in the first week of February last year.

The seeds of what can best described as a deliberate act of cultural vandalism were sown late in 2018 when, according to a confidential consultation document, “RNZ’s Head of Radio and Music, David Allan, talked about the need to conduct a full review of all RNZ Music outputs.”

Allan, a radio journalist in New Zealand for over 20 years before crossing the Tasman in 1997 and working as a programme director for Australia National Radio (ARN), a commercial radio network. Hired by Radio New Zealand as an executive producer in 2003, he was promoted to programme manager in 2014 and head of Radio and Music in April 2018. Within a few months he identified a need for a review of RNZ’s music outputs, creating the need for a new management structure to conduct it under a Music Content Director and a National Content Director reporting to him. Their salaries were not disclosed but their appointments occurred in a year that saw the number of RNZ’s staff on salaries of $100,000-plus rise 48.6% from 37 to 55

Also coming from a career in commercial radio, in New Zealand and Australia, Willy Macalister came to RNZ after eight years as network content director for dance music station George FM in Auckland. Starting in February 2019, he spent a year developing the public broadcaster’s new music strategy, unveiling it at the fateful staff “consultation” meeting on Wednesday 5 February 2020.

Predictably, given their backgrounds in commercial radio, Allan and Macalister based RNZ’s “New Music Strategy” on increasing the size of its audience, the primal urge for all commercial broadcasting dependent on advertising for revenue.

With no advertisers on RNZ’s taxpayer-funded networks, Macalister and Allan had to come up with another reason for growing the audience. They did this the usual way, by setting a goal and making its achievement the purpose of their strategy. As it happened, the goal had already been set by their chief executive, Paul Thompson.

Macalister’s consultation document notes that in 2015, a little over a year after Thompson took over from Peter Cavanagh as RNZ’s chief executive, “RNZ set itself a target of doubling its total audience from 600,000 New Zealanders (14% of population) per week to 1,000,000 (28%) New Zealanders per week by 2020.”

As a general rule of thumb, public broadcasters should be aiming for an audience share somewhere between 12% and 20%. Below 12% they are under-performing and above 20% they’re starting to encroach into the audiences for the popular content that produces advertising revenue for commercial broadcasters.

Thompson’s target, though, combined numbers of radio listeners and times spent listening, measured by German market researcher GfK, and RNZ’s own “hybrid calculation” which, according to a 200-word footnote in the annual report, is an estimate of the total number of individuals “engaging with any RNZ service or platform.” It’s this total (actually 1,017,393) on which Macalister based his claim that RNZ hit their “one million” target in March 2019.

Listeners to RNZ’s two networks, National and Concert, totalled 694,000 in the first half of 2019. That means the balance of 322,693 “users” came off the internet.

A statistic of dubious value outside of being used to impress politicians and funding agencies, it nevertheless inspired Macalister to announce that RNZ had now set itself a new target of half the population using RNZ’s services by 2023, to be achieved by “creating a lifelong relationship with all the people of Aotearoa.”

A fascinating insight into the kind of thinking that informs programming strategy in commercial radio, it’s nevertheless reassuring to know that the Orwellian prospect of every second individual tuned into state radio was just a marketing fantasy.

“For RNZ to drive the next level of growth necessary to achieve this new goal,” Macalister continued, “it must attract completely new and different sectors of the New Zealand population.”

Leaving aside the obvious flaw in his “don’t raise the bridge, lower the river” argument that RNZ could not “fully meet its Charter obligations without broadening the diversity of its audience”, Macalister’s new strategy was doomed from the outset. Accepting that there was little potential for growth in numbers among RNZ’s older listeners, his Executive Team “developed a new strategy with the objective of creating a new RNZ Music brand targeting under-served young New Zealanders (18-34) including Maori and Pacific Peoples.”

It is difficult to comprehend how those targeted audiences could be described as “under-served”. Apart from Maori Television’s two channels, the national Maori and Pacific radio networks and the 22 iwi stations, the success of commercial radio stations in reaching the audience targeted by RNZ’s new music strategy was summed up in the headline on this media release from NZ on Air on Wednesday: “Local music on radio hits highest peak since records began.”

“For the first time since 2005,” NZ on Air reported, “commercial radio networks and stations playing contemporary New Zealand music collectively played more than 20% local music content in the calendar year.”

With local musicians producing 20.95% of music airplay on commercial radio in 2020, topping the 20.77% figure recorded in 2005, the domestic music business celebrated “the culmination of a steady trend of increasing local airplay since a low ebb in 2016/17.”

The absence of any involvement by NZ on Air in the development of RNZ’s new music strategy is a major mystery. The broadcast funding agency with over 30 years’ experience of investing in the local music business should have been the first port of call for Macalister’s executive team as they followed up their brief to seek out “opportunities for RNZ Music to play a lead role in RNZ’s pursuit of new, younger and diverse audiences.”

Another mystery is why it took RNZ a year before advertising for a station manager for Concert.

Hailing the Cabinet decision putting an end to RNZ’s hopes of using Concert FM’s broadcasting network on its new youth music platform as “good news”, the chief executive, Paul Thompson, said it provided “an opportunity to re-set our thinking.”

“Over the next month,” he wrote in his email to staff advising them that things had changed, “we will develop a new strategy for RNZ Concert aimed at improving its audience performance.”

That was on Wednesday 12 February last year. Ten months later, on Thursday 3 December, he reported in a briefing for “stakeholders and partners” that: “We have developed a new programming strategy to harness the momentum and look at ways to improve the station for the benefit of the public and grow RNZ Concert’s audience on-air and on-line.”

In the strategy’s implementation timeline, recruitment of a station manager was set to begin on 6 December 2020 with an appointment to be made in February 2021. In fact, a job description was not completed until mid-February and the position not advertised until Wednesday 26 February.

In the job description’s list of “position accountabilities”, the RNZ Concert Manager will be required to “Deliver compelling content that connects with our priority audience segments and achieves RNZ Concert’s audience targets.”

The primary audience is identified in the new strategy as being aged between 45 and 60. “Brand messaging and delivery will reflect this audiences (sic) values and entertainment needs.”

Oh dear.

As for those audience targets that the Station Manager will be required meet, the strategy calls for Concert to “engage with more New Zealanders more often” and grow the RNZ Concert radio audience to 200,000 in Year One, then by annual increments of 50,000 to 350,000 in Year Four. At the same, RNZ wants to achieve an increase in Concert’s digital audience to 350,000 a week “across all on-line platforms.”

About the only attribute or skill that the Concert Manager won’t require is the ability to read music or play an instrument. The successful applicant will report to the Music Content Director, Willy Macalister.

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