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Classic Blunder: The Sequel - Part 8

If Radio New Zealand’s board and management had not been forced to withdraw their plan to replace RNZ’s classical music programme with content aimed at the 18-34-year-old demographic, Concert FM’s audience would now be using their television sets, mobile phones and iPads as radios.

The new music strategy, approved by the board in December 2019 and revealed to Concert FM’s staff in a “consultation document” on Wednesday 5 February 2020, had the classical music station becoming an automated service from early April 2020. But listeners would still be able to access the brand (sic) on Freeview’s channel 51, SKY’s channel 422 and “on their mobile through the RNZ app and our streaming partners like iHeart Radio, Rova & Spotify, and on the Parliamentary Network (when Parliament is not sitting).”

Classical music would still be broadcast via radio, but only on the AM mono network which Parliament used to share with commentary test match cricket. Jonathan Hunt, the broadcasting minister responsible for establishing Radio New Zealand and NZ on Air in 1989, could listen to himself and the cricket on AM and his beloved classical music on the state-of-the-art FM stereo network.

Among the 20 Concert staffers to be sent down the road were a dozen presenters and producers, their live presence in studios replaced by computers. Among the new roles created for the proposed new youth-oriented music brand were promotions/publicity, a video journalist, a digital journalist, a social media journalist.

As Radio New Zealand’s management were to explain in their answers to written questions from the Social Services and Community Select Committee, which conducted this year’s annual review of the broadcaster’s performance, young people today had multiple devices so any new service had to be on multiple platforms, the more the better and including the old steam wireless.

“It’s not enough to have great content, there needs to be a strong social media strategy, accompanied by supporting marketing, and brand ‘ambassadors’ or ‘influencers’.

“Music is a good way to attract younger audiences — and it needs to be much more than interviews with musicians.”

The approach of Radio New Zealand’s management, coming from commercial radio or, in the case of its chief executive, Paul Thompson, having no prior experience at all in broadcasting let alone public broadcasting, is in marked contrast to the strategy that their counterparts at the BBC’s Radio 3 — the model for Concert FM — employ to attract an audience.

“Audiences have many choices nowadays,” Radio 3’s controller, Alan Davey said shortly after his appointment in 2015, “so in presenting complex music we need to do so not only in brilliant sound, not only by giving the excitement of live concerts every day, but with clear and informed presentation and online resources that help deepen people's knowledge.”

A steady increase in the size of Radio 3’s audience in recent years is attributed, in part, to its use of young, intelligent, musically informed and talented presenters and producers. Their role is central to accommodating the differences in the extent of listeners’ knowledge about classical music.

“This means that we need sometimes to provide context to pieces,” Davey said, ”but being absolutely clear we do not dumb down or simplify the content. We need to give people the means to approach complex music for what it is. That's clearly part of our job as a network we want everyone to be able to experience the great things engagement with great musical and other works of art can bring.

“Classical music and its place in our culture is something I feel passionately about. We must be honest in identifying the challenges it faces and debate the issues with vigour.”

A world away from BBC House in London, the challenge for Radio 3’s colonial clone, Concert FM, has turned into an existential struggle to stay on air. The attempt by Radio New Zealand’s move to end its life as a radio network has eroded trust between management and staff and between the broadcaster and listeners. Speaking with forked tongue, the public radio company’s chief executive eulogised the “strong and loyal relationships between broadcaster and audiences” created by radio, a medium that he had previously believed to be in long-term decline. Cynical in their disregard for the “strong and loyal” relationship” between and Concert FM and its listeners, his senior managers were coldly callous in their shabby treatment of its staff.

An email from RNZ’s “head of people” (human resources) sent to other managers on Tuesday 11 February 2020, on the eve of the announcement of the withdrawal of the new music strategy, is revealing. It presents two options — ending the staff “consultation” to create a new strategy for Concert including format and ultimately structural/staff changes, or getting staff to “refocus on the consultation document (rather than the public protest).

“Tell them that some of the changes still make sense due to duplication with other functions and the fact we will just stop doing some things . . . Presenter roles will stay at this stage . . . but we imagine 6-7 will still want to disestablish in this phase . . . We plan to come back to them by the end of March . . . We know this keeps people under a cloud of change so we will accept any voluntary redundancies . . . We won’t say this bit to staff but we think the next phase would involve a new leadership role for Concert (focus on change leadership and channel growth).”

Fast-forward 13 months to Thursday 12 March 2021 and, incredibly, that “cloud of change” continues to hang over Concert’s staff. in an email to 15 of them, wanting to know if management still believes that six or seven positions need to be disestablished, the head of radio and music, David Allan, replies that there are currently (sic) no plans to disestablish any positions.

Applications for the new Concert manager job closed that same Thursday but almost everything else remained up in the air. The new Concert manager — stepping into “an exciting and rare opportunity for a proven industry professional to lead and support the on-going development of RNZ’s iconic classical music station” — will report to the Music Content Director, Willy Macalister who reports to the head of radio and music who reports to the chief executive. From four levels down in middle management, the appointee will be expected to “champion RNZ Concert internally and externally and to lead and support the ongoing development and implementation of RNZ Concert’s strategy.”

That strategy will of course involve more group strategy discussions while Macalister finishes developing his Rangitahi (fleeting or brief) or, more likely, Rangatahi (youth culture) project.

The most likely explanation for the lack of urgency is the hope that the classical music station and its FM frequency will be subsumed into Labour’s “new media entity”. Probably the plan all along, the prospect of a new legislative structure to replace the existing laws governing broadcasters would explain the apparent indifference at breaking the law binding RNZ Concert to its dedicated FM frequency.

But, while seemingly ignorant of the special provisions relating to Radio New Zealand Ltd in sections 174-178 of the Radiocommunications Act 1989, RNZ’s management along with Broadcasting Minister Kris Faafoi and his advisers in the Ministry for Culture and Heritage are well-acquainted with the letter of the law when it comes to section 8(c) of the Radio New Zealand Amendment Act 2016.

Incorporating Radio New Zealand’s charter, finally reviewed after a decade’s prevarication by both Labour and National governments, the Act’s section 8(c) stipulates that the next review must be undertaken and completed as soon as practicable after 5 years after the commencement of the Act which was on Saturday 2 April 2016.

Responding to a written question from National’s broadcasting spokesperson, Melissa Lee, inquiring if there had been any requests to delay the review due to start any time after Thursday 2 April next week, the Minister for Broadcasting and Media replied: “I plan to report to Cabinet in October this year with advice on the viability of establishing a new public media entity. Therefore, I have written to the Speaker of the House advising that I do not think that it is ‘practicable’ to undertake a review of the current Charter of RNZ until Cabinet has made final decisions on creating a new entity. This is not a delay as there is no specific date for review of the Charter, rather I have advised that I think the review is not practicable at this time.”

Faafoi said there had been no requests from Radio New Zealand or other Ministers for a delay. This leaves only the Ministry for Culture and Heritage which administers the Radio New Zealand Amendment Act and is the policy swamp in which the “new media entity” has been festering now for more than three years.

Meanwhile, Radio New Zealand’s communications contractor, John Barr, says “RNZ understands that the existing RNZ Charter would likely be replaced by the Charter of a new entity should the proposal to establish a new entity progress.”

To find out why that’s a silly idea — Stay tuned

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