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The miraculous longevity of Radio Rhema

Singer/songwriter Rebekah Walton records in the Rhema Media studio.

Radio Rhema at 40.

For an organisation whose raison d’être has a 2000-year-old pedigree, Rhema Media has been a remarkably early and successful adopter of broadcasting technology that many more secular media found challenging. You could call it a miracle.

Rhema turned 40 in late 2018, although it had an unusually long gestation period.

“It took 17 years from when we first started trying, to when we got our first licence, so you could say we’re 57 years old,” says CEO Andrew Fraser. The faith-based – Christian faith, that is – media company first broadcast officially on 11 November 1978.

While Radio Hauraki was out on the waves being a wild and crazy pirate broadcaster (1966-1970), the Rhema team were toiling in the vineyard of the paperwork.

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“The Broadcasting Tribunal started issuing licences for private radio,” explains Fraser, “but you had to put in a massive application. And you had to show support – go door-knocking and get signatures – to prove to the government you weren’t just fly-by-night.”

Radio Rhema became Rhema Broadcasting in 1997, when it added some stations, and then, in 2014, Rhema Media, “to better reflect the current market. We stream and podcast and so on, even though it’s essentially the same organisation.”

Fraser comes from down the technical end of radio, joining as general manager operations in 2002, although “my first involvement was in 1983, when the company established its radio station in Nelson. I was still at school but into technology and engineering. I ferreted out the office and rolled up to the manager in my shorts and said, ‘I want to do something for you.’”

Fraser says that’s less likely to work these days, but between broadcasting schools and do-it-yourself showcases like YouTube, the determined can always get a hearing.

Rhema is non-denominational and, like other religious organisations, survives by passing around the plate: “Eighty per cent of our income is through donations. We have about 25,000 supporters who fund the ministry.”

Which means finances are erratic, but in the end – there’s no way to avoid saying it – the Lord provides. “When you get up high enough and look at the whole history,” says Fraser, “you can see the plan, and God has supported us all the way through.”

But God has had plenty of help from a dedicated and innovative team. “In 1994, we were the first broadcaster to use satellite for distribution of our network. As far as I understand, we were one of the first to stream. We started in 2004, and we did that in conjunction with Citylink in Wellington, who had a fibre network established.”

It might sound easy, but adding new technologies to your existing media is hard work, because although there’s a never-ending supply of technologies to add, the human resources to maintain them are finite. The loaves and fishes model does not apply in this case.

“New technologies are ‘as well as’, not ‘instead of’,” says Fraser. “Our linear radio and TV still by far brings the biggest audience – 70% – but you have to have video on demand, podcasting, streaming, social media. From our point of view, though, it’s still radio with content done the same way – an announcer sitting in a studio, creating that relationship.”

Rhema tries very hard to maintain that connection by “being sensitive to society and societal attitudes. We believe what we believe. We don’t ram it down anyone’s throats or criticise anyone else for what they think. We just highlight the positives and what we believe are good values.”

This article was first published in the January 2019 issue of North & South.

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