Concert Bungle: The Sequel - Part 5
Hiring a programme director from a commercial dance and electronic music radio station to take charge of a public broadcaster’s classical music programme, with a view to getting rid of it, is a small but nevetheless typical instance of the shambles that is Labour’s broadcasting policy under its current Minister, Kris Faafoi.
After doing nothing to halt Radio New Zealand’s ill-conceived youth music plan despite knowing about it for at least six months, Faafoi is set to follow that meltdown with an even bigger catastrophe — merging Radio New Zealand and TVNZ into a new media entity.
Of more immediate interest to RNZ Concert’s audience, however, will be the inexplicable failure of MPs on Parliament’s Social Services and Community Select Committee to question Radio New Zealand’s board chairman and chief executive about last year’s botched attempt to replace their classical music station with a multi-media “platform” aimed at 18-34-year-olds.
The last time Jim Mather and Paul Thompson fronted up at Parliament for the annual review of their public broadcaster’s performance in the previous (2019-20) financial year, the whole session was devoted to their new music strategy, proposed and hastily withdrawn in the week before their appearance before the Economic Development, Science and Innovation committee.
This year’s review was with the Social Service and Community committee which is dealing with all the government’s broadcasting agencies covered by the Budget Vote for the Ministry for Culture and Heritage. The committee is chaired by Labour list MP, Angie Warren-Clark, beginning her second term in the House and her first in charge of a committee. Its nine members comprise five Labour MPs, two from National and one each from ACT and the Greens. The only MP with any broadcasting experience at Wednesday’s review was National’s Melissa Lee, a former television reporter and producer, subbed in as a replacement for her caucus colleague Maureen Pugh. Seven of the committee’s members are women. Their CVs mainly feature previous work experience in social services and the law.
Lee was the only committee member involved in last year’s financial review. Nevertheless, it was extraordinary that the furore over Concert FM, which totally dominated the review and dragged in prime ministers past and present, seemed to have been completely erased from Parliament’s institutional memory.
Select committees are supposed to be Parliament’s watchdogs, holding government agencies to account. By this measure alone, Wednesday’s meeting of the Social Services and Community committee was a complete and utter waste of time.
For instance, here’s what RNZ’s chairman told last year’s review.
“We are not proposing another youth music channel with commercial and revenue models supporting it; what we are talking about creating here is a multimedia platform that engages young New Zealanders and it provides them with a forum to listen to music, to produce music, to be part of a dedicated platform but also it’s a creation of a community whereby young people, who have a service designed by other young people, presented by other young people, and developed by other young people, get access to things like video content that’s associated with things of interest to them.”
Four days after speaking to the select committee on Thursday 13 February last year, RNZ published a media release, actually written two days before the committee met, welcoming “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. Mather said the decision would enable RNZ Concert to stay on the FM network and allow the creation of the multi-media music brand with “its exciting range of innovative offerings beyond simply music targeting young people.”
Back in the select committee room a year later, Mather should have been expecting questions like: “So, how did it go, Jim? That exciting new platform for young people — up and running yet?”
There was no mention, however, of the youth music platform or the Concert kerfuffle in Mather’s opening statement.
“The last financial year was an extraordinary year for Aotearoa's public media broadcaster,” he said. There had been “huge challenges which RNZ responded to in a highly credible manner.”
Performance against the Charter had been lifted “with record audiences, leading levels of trust, and increasingly diverse content creation.”
The Treaty of Waitangi had been embedded “in everything we do to ensure we meet our obligations to allow Maori stories, perspectives, knowledge and te reo are woven into our services, staffing, planning, and decision-making.“
“The highlight of the year,” Mather said, “has been the local democracy reporting service, which is a unique partnership that is addressing some of the longstanding gaps and local news coverage.”
(The Local Democracy Service, run by RNZ, NZ on Air and the newspapers’ News Publishers’ Association, employs 14 reporters scattered around the country on time-limited contracts. It mainly produces copy for RNZ’s website and provincial papers.)
While the annual parade of board chairmen and their chief executives through the select committees seldom yields information of any value, nuggets of truth lie buried in answers to written questions.
The first question for this year’s review of Radio New Zealand was, as it always is, about restructuring. RNZ reported that eight employees had received redundancy payments totalling $450,000. Six of the redundancies had been voluntary and two the result of shutting down the Insight programme, a weekly half-hour documentary that headlined National Radio’s Sunday morning magazine of spoken features, interviews and commentary. Presented and produced by Philippa Tolley with heavyweight contributors including investigative reporter Phil Pennington, Insight was judged best factual weekly programme at the 2019 and 2020 NZ Radio Awards.
The reason that RNZ gave the committee for cancelling the programme in March last year is chilling. “Whilst Insight had been a valued programme over many years, RNZ’s strategic direction meant prioritising digital content and growing new audiences.”
It is hard to fathom the thinking behind a “strategic direction” that deprived 313,000 listeners,RNZ’s fourth largest audience (after Morning Report, Checkpoint and Nine-to-Noon) of a long-standing, respected and award winning documentary.
If “prioritising digital content” means making content available via the internet but not over the radio, it can only be assumed that RNZ’s strategic direction is being driven by its chief executive’s 2014 prediction — that radio is a medium in long-term decline.
By co-incidence, the extent to how far RNZ’s board and management have been led astray by its chief executive’s digital dogma is revealed, indirectly, in the answer to the Select Committee’s Question 5, which discloses that RNZ pays an annual contribution of $14,241 to the international broadcasters lobby, the Public Media Alliance, of which Thompson is the president.
On the PMA’s website, in a blog published the day before the committee hearing and headlined “Insight: Radio’s Finest Hour,” Anders Held, co-founder of Radiodays Europe and Founder and Project Director of Radiodays Asia, reviewed the importance of radio as a medium during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“In times of crisis”, writes Held, “and without the normal social interaction at work and with friends, turning to your known and trusted local radio hosts is a comfort. With your local radio station, you are part of a shared community in real time, hearing voices and stories from people in similar situations, taking part in call-ins and discussions.
“Radio was extremely quick in adapting when countries went into lockdown. Radio technology is easy-to-use, which simplified working and broadcasting from home. What didn’t already exist was quickly developed and invented by radio technicians. Radio is very mobile and adaptive.
“Also, radio producers and hosts are adept at being able to quickly tune into the moods of their local communities. This makes their content relevant and useful in a time when it is needed the most.
“With the surge in rumours and misinformation on social media platforms, radio, as a trusted medium and one you spend hours listening to each day, is an important counter force.
“Although streaming music services are able to provide you with your favourite music, they cannot play the role of a friendly and well-informed companion as radio is so good at doing.”
As long as the current board and management of Radio New Zealand remain in place, its not just the Concert Programme at risk but the whole wireless. Stay tuned for the next episode of “Concert Bungle” to learn what really happened to the youth music brand and why Concert remains under threat.