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Classic Blunder: The Sequel - Part 6

Radio New Zealand board chairman, Dr James Mather — “Chairman Jim” to his chief executive, Paul Thompson — didn’t volunteer any information about the public broadcaster’s exciting new youth music platform because there was no news to share.

Regular readers of this extraordinary saga of high-level duplicity and ineptitude will not be surprised to learn that, like the first rickety machines in the pioneer days of manned flight, RNZ’s ill-fated youth music platform crashed almost immediately after take-off. In fact, it never really got off the ground.

After RNZ abandoned its plan to replace its classical music radio network with a youth-oriented multi-media “platform”, the news that RNZ Concert could stay on its FM broadcast frequency was greeted with joy and relief. Applauding Cabinet’s decision on Monday 17 February 2020 “to look at freeing up an additional FM transmission frequency and to explore funding options for a multi-media music brand,” Chairman Jim said: “The news that the Government is looking at granting us a third FM network changes the playing field as we seek to do a better job of providing relevant content for younger audiences in particular.

“This is an excellent opportunity as it will allow RNZ to launch a multi-media music brand for younger people on multiple platforms including FM while continuing to provide a classical music service broadcast on FM and other platforms.”

Dr Jim, as he is referred on his Linked In page, is a professional director. He got his PhD in Maori Economic Development from the Auckland University of Technology (AUT) in 2014. Appointed in 2018 by Jacinda Ardern’s first Labour-led administration to take over the chair of RNZ’s board from National’s appointee, Richard Griffin, his three-year term expires in May. He will no doubt be hoping for re-appointment to be in with a shot at a place near the top of the “new media entity” of which, he told the Social Services and Community Select Committee on Wednesday 3 March, his board and executive leadership team are “strongly supportive.”

The Concert FM furore soon faded from view as the Government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic took over the headlines later in February last year. The impression, though, conveyed by Mather and others, was that funding for launching a youth music service on the 102 FM network was under active consideration by Cabinet. Just this Wednesday 3 February, on RNZ’s midweek Mediawatch programme, Hayden Donnell said the issue had been resolved “with Concert staying on the air and the Government promising RNZ the 102.2 (sic) frequency . . .” In fact, far from promising RNZ the use of that frequency, the Government had done nothing.

Wondering what had happened to RNZ’s youth music strategy, I submitted a request on Friday 5 February 2021 to the Minister of Broadcasting, Kris Faafoi, for copies of a Cabinet paper and any documents related to the Cabinet decision “to investigate the ‘freeing up’ of the 102 FM frequency for RNZ’s proposed youth music brand/platform/station including the funding required to start up and operate these frequencies.”

The minister’s response last Thursday 4 March was, to say the least, confusing. A letter, presumably written by an adviser in the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, was accompanied by a copy of an aide-memoire prepared by a senior policy adviser in the Ministry for Culture and Heritage (MCH). Arming Faafoi with “speaking points” on “spectrum allocation” for the Cabinet meeting on Monday 10 February, in the week after RNZ revealed its new music strategy to staff and two days before the proposal was withdrawn, the paper is titled: “RNZ is planning a Youth FM channel on the RNZ Concert spectrum.” Dated 3 February 2020, it records an event that did not occur until two days later.

“On 5 February, RNZ CE Paul Thompson unexpectedly indicated on an RNZ broadcast that he intended that RNZ Concert would be taken off FM radio on May 29, 2020, and the youth platform would be phased in ahead of its full launch on August 28.”

The ministry’s claim that Thompson’s announcement that Concert would be taken off FM Radio was “unexpected” is extraordinary. Taking RNZ Concert off-air was central to the whole plan; without it the new youth platform would require Cabinet approval to use another FM network. The aide-memoire actually acknowledges this by noting that “Following consultation with staff a final decision will be made however, RNZ has indicated a preference to re-purpose RNZ Concert for the FM transmission of the new youth service.”

In his letter accompanying the ministry’s aide memoire, Faafoi says: “You will be aware that this document was released proactively on the Ministry for Culture and Heritage website.” If the document is on the website it is extremely well hidden and does not come up in response to search engine requests using its exact title.

Faafoi adds: “The Ministry for Culture and Heritage was undertaking work on a Cabinet paper regarding availability of the 102 spectrum. It was expected that I would take this paper to Cabinet in March 2020. This paper was delayed to ensure the paper was consistent with legislation. Neither me (sic) nor my Office received a copy of this draft.”

Typical of the ministry’s predilection for vague and opaque language, which George Orwell believed was intended to hide the truth rather than express it, the need to ensure the paper was “consistent with legislation” could be explained by a couple of paragraphs that state: “Officials’ view is that no change can be made until RNZs funding agreement is amended or replaced . . . RNZ’s funding agreement includes a requirement to broadcast an FM Concert service.”

That funding agreement is with NZ on Air and can be changed by negotiation between the broadcaster, the funding agency and the Minister. The requirement that stipulates the frequencies on which RNZ must broadcast its National and Concert programmes is actually in the Radiocommunications Act 1989 and can only be altered by Cabinet and Parliament.

Like drunks in a three-legged race at a brewery workers picnic, the ministry, RNZ and the Minister trip over each other as they try to deflect blame for their failure to grasp the implication of removing RNZ Concert from the airwaves. In the end, though, the minister admits in his letter: “Work has not resumed on the allocation of the 102 spectrum.

“Any decisions on its allocation will now likely be considered within the broader context of the work the Government is doing on considering the viability of a new single public media entity (the Strong Public Media programme).”

The danger for Concert is now greater than ever. From being the guinea pig in an ideologically driven scheme, devised six or seven years ago, to shift free-to-air broadcast radio and television onto the internet, to be consumed via phones and computers, RNZ’s classical music network is being tipped into a policy swamp in the Ministry for Culture and Heritage where “work” on developing the “new media” entity has been in progress now for over two years.

If the plan is to force us to listen to Beethoven on a phone and watch the Black Caps and the All Blacks on an iPad, they should save themselves from a world of pain and come clean now rather than “consult” us later.

© Scoop Media

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