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RNZ is endangering its most precious commodity: public respect

Radio New Zealand must be feeling like a pet cat that was adored until it unexpectedly peed on the best couch and was chased under the house by an irate family. Now, it sits in the dark, occasionally stabbing at its fur with its tongue and glaring at its appalled family peering at it from a distance asking, “How could you have done that to us?”

RNZ Concert listeners, and the station’s staff, were shocked by the company’s initial proposals to replace Concert’s presenters with a fully automated service, broadcast on the AM network. The move, had it gone ahead as proposed, would have freed up most of Concert’s budget, allowing RNZ to apply it to a new multimedia brand targeting a younger and more ethnically diverse audience.

It is clear from confidential documents obtained by the Listener that RNZ was satisfied with that quid pro quo as part of the music strategy that was agreed by its board in early December. RNZ appears not to have expected any pushback from Broadcasting Minister Kris Faafoi who, the Listener has been told, has never championed Concert. Perhaps Faafoi’s indifference, if indeed that is what it was, encouraged RNZ in thinking that it would have to manage only the response of the station’s staff, and its relatively small audience. And so it peed on the couch and was wholly unprepared for what followed.

It transpired that whatever Faafoi’s own views of classical music, those of former Labour prime minister Helen Clark, expressed on Twitter, mattered more. RNZ was shocked to find that, suddenly, the Government cared deeply about Concert. It cared enough to dig up another FM frequency for the new youth station so Concert could retain its existing frequency. The Government also cared deeply enough to be willing to talk about extra funding. As an aside, the public can only wonder at how often Clark’s views are imparted to reluctant ministers on other matters. Surely the offer of a busy job far, far away will be coming her way soon.

Concert listeners have proved themselves passionate devotees of classical music, and effective campaigners who are unafraid to use their names and positions for the station’s cause. Their furious response has preserved the station’s FM transmission and, as the Listener went to press, it appeared the presenters had been saved too, with staff being told the initial proposal for redundancies had been withdrawn.

But in the reaction of Concert devotees, there is also a sense of entitlement. Radio New Zealand is state funded and there are other demands on state money. Māori Television, for example, has just highlighted that it has not had an increase in funding for a decade. Within RNZ, the funding must be contestable, too. RNZ operates under a public charter requiring it to “stimulate, support, and reflect a wide range of music, including New Zealand composition and performance”. Concert does some of that, but not much.

RNZ National also has an audience that is predominantly Pākehā, older and skewed towards Wellington. RNZ is probably correct in thinking that music offers the best chance for the company to broaden its audience.

The public slapping down that Concert’s proposals received has been salutary. Key to whether it can offer a third station will be the amount of money that the Government is willing to provide.

No public broadcaster in a democratic country finds its role easy. Endless upheaval and infighting at and about the BBC illustrates that. But no commercial broadcaster is finding its role easy either, especially as advertising revenue dwindles and people’s preferred media choices have been disrupted by technological change. No station, not even Concert, is ring-fenced from these pressures.

To retain its taxpayer-guaranteed revenue, RNZ must also retain its most precious commodity: public respect and support. That can be imperilled by poorly thought out judgments, including assuming that it should set the political climate. Another may turn out to be that young people can be induced into being RNZ’s customers.

In deciding to set up a youth station, RNZ is taking a risk, and that risk is funded by the public. Its first steps have not been reassuring. The cat won’t be leaping back in the lap any time soon.

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

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