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Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo/Getty Images

Bill Ralston: Was the RNZ Concert proposal just a ploy?

Radio New Zealand played a risky game with its proposed changes to Concert FM.

Jacinda Ardern, apparently, is more than “a little bit miffed”. She is, in fact, “pretty frustrated”. As Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage, she is grumpy at RNZ for flying a kite suggesting Concert FM would become Concert AM later this year to make room for a youth-oriented radio station.

Although the outcome was unclear at press time, the original proposal was dumb on many levels. Concert plays orchestral music and opera, which really do require the stereo audio quality that FM provides, rather than the tinny mono output from AM.

A swap to AM would have resulted in Concert’s already relatively small audience shrinking further as listeners choose instead to tune in to their own music on better-quality devices. The cumulative audience for Concert is about 173,000 listeners a week, with 77,500 listening during the breakfast slot. They’re not huge numbers compared with commercial radio stations.

Because Concert FM records a lot of its own music, a shift to AM and the resulting loss of audience would also have affected the country’s musicians and their income from producing that music, and Concert’s headcount would shrink dramatically.

The idea of a new youth-oriented station is also flawed. The last time I rotated my radio dial there appeared to be a plethora of similar programming blaring out. Why create more?

Ardern has suggested that the shelved 102 FM frequency, last used by youth-oriented station Kiwi FM, could be freed up to keep Concert on the FM dial. In the meantime, the classical station’s supporters have rushed to its defence. Former Prime Minister Helen Clark voiced her outrage at the suggestion Concert should shift, as have a large number of arts commentators and classical musicians. Three prominent lawyers, including former arts minister Chris Finlayson, immediately threatened legal action to “save” Concert FM.

The meanest intelligence in RNZ management would have known any suggestion of messing with Concert would bring down the wrath of God or, in this case, Clark, Ardern and the lawyers. It had to be a ploy designed to achieve a different objective – perhaps to extract more money from the Government to fund its new youth station while keeping Concert FM.

If so, it was still a dumb move. RNZ executives will have noticed that Broadcasting Minister Kris Faafoi is wrestling with a plan to ensure the future of public broadcasting that would see a merger of RNZ and TVNZ, a pooling of resources and a new emphasis for TVNZ on public-interest programming, funded by a mix of advertising revenue from TVNZ and Government cash.

In short, the plan seems to be to create something like the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, albeit with a few Warehouse ads and the like on telly.

It’s a good idea that would assure the future of TVNZ, which is forecast to plunge deeper into loss territory, and it would bolster the increasingly unaffordable newsroom of RNZ. It will just require a couple of hundred million bucks or so of public money, hence Faafoi has been sent off to come up with a business case as to how it will all work.

I am not a regular Concert FM listener, but nor am I always heading off to Te Papa or the art gallery. But I still believe, like the galleries and the museums, RNZ is essential to the health of our country and it must survive and prosper. RNZ just needs to stop playing silly mind games.

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

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