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Is Video Killing The Public Radio Star?

The next government’s broadcasting and media minister, if this outmoded cabinet portfolio survives the election, will face the challenge of untangling the unholy mess that Labour’s three broadcasting ministers have made of state-owned television and radio over the last six years.

TVNZ, which is supposed to make a profit and pay dividends, is forecasting a loss of $15 million next year and is making extensive cuts to its operation. RNZ, which is fully-funded and therefore not expected to be profitable, is wondering how to spend a surplus of $8 million.

Although the three ministers — Clare Curran, Kris Faafoi and Willie Jackson — must shoulder the blame for allowing this situation to develop, its root cause lies in their reliance on the broadcasters’ politically-appointed boards and their chief executives to make strategic decisions about using the internet to replace broadcasting for transmission of television and radio programmes to the home.

Joining the news and entertainment media’s headlong rush into a low-cost digital future, the state broadcasters are leaving their audiences behind and gradually relinquishing their critical fourth-estate role as a strong and independent voice, free of political or commercial influence.

The media are said to be powerful. But the power resides in the audience; the larger it is the greater is its power to cause embarrassment and, thereby, prompt action by politicians.

New Zealand’s biggest audiences are the approximately 800,000 viewers of the two evening television news bulletins and a similar number of listeners to talk radio in the morning. Television audience numbers are compiled by Nielsen, an American information, data and market measurement firm, and published weekly. Measurement of radio audiences is done three times a year by GfK, a German market research company, under contract to the Radio Broadcasters Association (RBA) representing commercial radio stations. The ratings for commercial radio, important for establishing advertising rates and marketing, are published by the RBA.

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Publication of the audience figures for RNZ’s two networks, National and Concert, are compiled at the same time as commercial radio but, based on a national survey, are not directly comparable. Nevertheless, the potential for comparing the audiences for the breakfast and drivetime shows has been stymied since 2022 when RNZ stopped publishing the figures for individual shows, called day parts.

While the Australian-owned NewstalkZB radio network can claim top spot for their breakfast show with a 24.2% audience share and 17.7% in drivetime, no similar figures are available for the taxpayer-funded public radio’s Morning Report and Checkpoint programmes.

The last time that RNZ published audience figures for those two programmes was in May 2022 after the first of GfK’s four surveys that year. The audience for Morning Report was 429,100 and 265,700 for Checkpoint. Two programmes recording the biggest growth in listeners were Sunday Morning with Jim Mora (331,600, up by 5.3% on the previous survey) and Saturday Morning with Kim Hill (311,800, also up by 5.3%).

Overall, the combined audience levels for RNZ National and Concert showed “solid growth”, according to RNZ’s media statement. In a typical week 745,600 New Zealanders aged 10+ listened to RNZ radio stations: 633,700 to news and talk on National (up 1.1% on the previous survey in the fourth quarter of 2021) and 236,600 to music on Concert (up 0.5%).

But here endeth the good news. Faced with a steep decline in audience numbers in the following year, RNZ adopted the approach taken by China’s National Bureau of Statistics which ceased publication of youth unemployment data this August when numbers out of work hit a record high.

Results of the second of GfK’s three surveys this year reveal that RNZ’s two networks lost over 100,000 listeners in 15 months. The combined audience for National and Concert plummeted by 96,900 from 745,600 in May 2022 to 648,700 in August this year. National took by far the biggest hit, down by 101,300 listeners in a typical week to 532,400 while Concert’s audience declined by 44,000 to 192,000 over the same period.

A decline in audience that would be catastrophic for a commercial radio station reliant on advertising for revenue barely rated a passing mention in NZ on Air’s biennial “Where are the audiences 2023?” survey, published in September.

The caption on page 74 (of 107), comparing the daily reach of radio stations over time, notes that all radio stations showed audience declines since 2021 although “RNZ National in particular is significantly down from the more than one in ten (12%) in 2021.”

The 12% daily reach figure, based on answers from around 400 respondents aged 15+, is not far off the 12.8% share of all radio audiences reported by GfK and well down on the 16.2% combined station share for RNZ’s two networks in the final quarter of 2021.

Listeners to National and Concert are funded through — not by — NZ on Air which acts as a funnel for pouring cash into RNZ in amounts set in negotiations between themselves, the Ministry for Culture and Heritage (MCH), and the Treasury. Despite its nominal role of being the broadcaster’s funder, NZ on Air takes no interest in how the money is spent or the value taxpayers are getting from it. The “significant” decline in audience does not rate a mention in the “Where are the audiences?” summary of seven “key insights” which are mostly about growth in use of digital media.

A similar emphasis on RNZ’s use of digital technology to add video and text to its audio content is apparent in its media release reporting the bare bones of GfK’s second survey this year.

Headlined “Outstanding public media that matters” and published on its website on Friday 25 August, RNZ reports that its managers have been “busy planning for the future in the wake of its funding increase and decision to keep it as the standalone independent, non-commercial public media organisation for Aotearoa.”

A windfall increase of $25.7 million, taking RNZ’s total annual funding to $76.1 million, was announced by Broadcasting and Media Minister, Willie Jackson, on Thursday 6 April. Clearly taking RNZ by surprise, the increase came from the budget for establishing a new “public media” loosely based on merging the Government’s non-commercial radio networks with its rampantly commercial television channels.

RNZ had already done handsomely under Labour. From its establishment as a stand-alone taxpayer funded public radio broadcaster in 1996, Radio New Zealand’s annual funding rose steadily from $20 million to reach $35 million a year until 2011 when National imposed a seven-year funding freeze. The election of the Labour-NZ First coalition government in 2017 saw funding rise again, to $43 million in 2018, $47 million in 2019 and $48 million in 2020. Another $10-12 million was promised following the abandonment of the media merger that never was.

Money is not the problem but rather the use to which it has been put since 2013 when Paul Thompson took over as chief executive. Declaring radio to be a dying medium, he has diverted funding and other resources into creating video and text for RNZ’s website which, lacking click bait and compelling headlines, now languishes a distant third in visits per month behind the news websites of Stuff and NZME.

His attempt to move Concert on-line, freeing up its national broadcast frequencies for a youth-orientated programme, was a political disaster. That was quickly followed by a decision to abandon the plan to run a non-commercial television channel in favour of making video for RNZ’s website. Most recently, his handling of the “inappropriate” editing of Reuters and BBC copy by one website journalist , dubbed “Russiagate” internally, came in for criticism in an independent report from lawyers paid $480 an hour. Their report revealed management failures in organising the digital side of RNZ’s editorial output going back to 2016.

Thompson completed 10 years in the job in September and is a permanent employee of RNZ. 

“The very nature of being a permanent employee is that there is no expiry date to such a contract,” according to George Bignell, RNZ’s legal adviser and procurement manager, responding to a request lodged under the Official Information Act for the termination date on the chief executive’s employment contract. Meanwhile, RNZ’s failure to publish ratings for individual programmes, first requested under the OIA in July last year, remains under investigation by the Ombudsman’s office.

A chief executive on an employment contract with no termination date is extremely rare, if not unique, in the public sector. A decision on whether Thompson has passed his use-by date is just one of many awaiting the attention of the next broadcasting and media minister. Factors that the minister needs to take into account are Thompson’s assertion, a few months after starting work, that radio as a medium was on its last legs.

“Radio, television and newspapers are merging into digital devices that are always switched on,” he wrote in his notes for a speech to the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association Conference in Glasgow on Monday 12 May 2014.

“The future of content delivery is multi-media, multi-platform, personalised, mobile and social. 

“To stay relevant and continue our mission of serving the public, and to maintain and grow our audience, we must become and are becoming a multi-media organisation.”

A decade later, his prediction that radio is a dying medium is refuted by the audience figures for commercial radio which remain at pre-covid levels.

“New Zealand’s commercial radio industry remains exceptionally strong with growth to over 3.41 million Kiwis tuning in every week,” according to the media statement accompanying the results of GfK’s second Radio Audience Survey in 2023, published on Friday 25 August.

Alistair Jamison, the RBA’s chief executive, said: “Today's data shows that radio continues to provide Kiwis with the information, entertainment and content they want and as a result we connect with 75% of NZ each week.”

The contrast with RNZ’s performance cannot be ignored. Rather than remaining relevant and growing its audience RNZ has lost around 20% of listeners to its National programme.

The question that the next broadcasting and media minister must answer is:

How much has RNZ’s role as the country’s public broadcaster been damaged by trying to turn it into a “multi-media organisation”?

The minister, whoever he or she is, must keep in mind that the answer is of greatest interest to one group — taxpayers. Are they getting value for money?

© Scoop Media

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