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Claire Cowan. Photo/Supplied

Why RNZ Concert is a vital part of the music and arts ecosystem

Classical-music stations are increasing audiences overseas, so why does RNZ see so little value in its Concert network?

Internal threats to the country’s sole classical music network are not new, but this version loomed as the most catastrophic. The international award-winning Concert network has faced numerous restructurings and downsizings over several decades.

RNZ management has made no genuine attempt to understand Concert and its offerings, or, shamefully, the interests and opinions of its substantial audience. Recent audience-survey findings that listeners prefer music to lengthy talk shows, for instance, have been misinterpreted disingenuously to imply no on-air presenters are needed.

The reaction was loud and clear. A Facebook group called Save RNZ Concert gained more than 10,000 members. Prominent New Zealand musicians, composers, arts professionals and politicians at home and overseas weighed in online and in traditional media.

Perhaps the most damaging aspect of the proposed evisceration of this cultural gem would have been the effect on the wider arts ecology. RNZ Concert is a multiplier of arts funding and a vital hub for music and arts organisations; its team of skilled staff records concerts, champions musicians through interviews and broadcasts, and has contributed to the international careers of many of our shining stars. The Mobil (now Lexus) Song Quest was originally a Concert project, managed by Concert staff and is still broadcast on the network.

Read more: What was the RNZ Concert fiasco really about? | Why RNZ Concert is a vital part of the music and arts ecosystem

And what of the NZSO, Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra (APO), regional orchestras, Chamber Music NZ, Adam Chamber Music Festival, major city choirs, arts festivals? The list goes on. Concert has recorded and broadcast their work in high-quality stereo, taking it to New Zealanders in all regions, providing access to those unable to attend concerts through geography, age or disability. It has interviewed their conductors, performers and guest artists and reviewed their concerts, promoting their work and contributing to their viability.

New Zealand composers are one group that would have potentially been hugely disadvantaged. Concert’s recordings of new works have demonstrably advanced careers. John Psathas tells the story of a recording of his fanfare for the opening of Te Papa leading to his commission to provide opening music for the 2004 Athens Olympics. This country took enormous pride in his international achievements. Rising composer stars such as Claire Cowan and Salina Fisher talk about the exposure and validation Concert provided early in their careers.

SOUNZ, Centre for New Zealand Music, has partnered with Concert to produce films of new New Zealand music. High-quality, Concert-recorded sound is an essential feature of these works, which are promotional tools for composers, audience multipliers and a major source of international interest. This video partnership and another with the APO would have ended if the staffing reduction proposal had gone ahead.

Ironically, in the UK, the BBC proudly announced new audience figures the day after RNZ’s destructive proposal became public. Radio 3 (Concert’s equivalent), posted its highest audience ratings in years, in part because young people have migrated to classical music. The UK’s Classic FM also reports increased audiences for the same reason, supported by energetic social-media campaigns. Radio 1, the BBC’s flagship youth station, slumped for the first time, demonstrating the challenges in reaching listeners under 35. Is RNZ looking at international trends?

How do Concert’s audience figures compare? The cumulative weekly total for Concert is 173,300, about 4% of the New Zealand population aged 10 or above. This is an excellent figure for a specialised radio network. Radio 3 is celebrating having reached about 3.55% on a per capita basis.

And staff numbers? Radio 3 has more than 100 staff; Concert fewer than 20. In terms of Government expenditure, Concert’s approximately $3 million annual budget, about half of which is the cost of the FM transmission network, seems ridiculously small.

Concert’s music content director, Willy Macalister, “hopes to appeal” to a new youth audience. Macalister came to RNZ a year ago from commercial radio and has not consulted the experienced Concert team nor arts organisations and others about his youth-network plans. His risky proposal takes a punt on a potential new audience, one already well-served with radio and digital offerings, while sacrificing a loyal existing one. RNZ does not have a good history with the younger demographic – its online youth project The Wireless, from 2013, folded after five years having failed to meet objectives.

Labour promised to protect Concert in its 2017. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, also Minister for the Arts, has expressed a view that a youth network should not mean the loss of Concert. Additional FM transmission capacity has been found, but the real issues are still the Concert personnel and operational budget – until these are protected, the protests will continue.

Elizabeth Kerr is a former manager of RNZ Concert, chief executive of Creative New Zealand and chair of SOUNZ. She is a Listener writer and freelance arts commentator.

This article was first published in the February 22, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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