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What was the RNZ Concert fiasco really about?

Radio New Zealand is determined to pursue a younger, less Pākehā-centric audience and was willing to have its Concert station pay the price.

Radio New Zealand insists that pursuing a youth audience is essential for its future, despite the onslaught of criticism since news first broke that its classical music champion, RNZ Concert, could be downgraded to pay for a youth-focused brand.

The proposal to disestablish 18.8 full-time-equivalent roles and significantly reduce the way its music is presented took staff by surprise when it was put to them earlier this month. The station, with a strong emphasis on classical music and with its own presenters and prized FM frequency, would remain a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week programme, RNZ’s proposal said. However, Concert would become “an automated music service available for listeners on AM … with no regular full-time hosting”, confidential consultation documents obtained by the Listener show. The new iteration of RNZ Concert would be accessed on the parliamentary network when Parliament was not sitting, on RNZ’s app, a Freeview channel and on iHeartRadio and Spotify, among other digital platforms.

Acclaimed young composer Claire Cowan, speaking on RNZ National, likened the proposal to “a sort of jukebox-type system where they have a playlist and it’s streaming all the time with no presenters”.

Read more: Why RNZ Concert is a vital part of the music and arts ecosystem | RNZ is endangering its most precious commodity: public respect

The consultation documents show that RNZ may have been intending to phase out some of Concert’s presenters and introduce more automation by stealth, without announcing the changes to listeners. The “proposed transition timeline” shows that RNZ planned to continue with “reduced news bulletins and less talk” beyond the usual summer season and, from February 26, Concert would “drop many talk components”. A promotional campaign about the changes would have begun on March 30.

Instead, the proposal became public almost as soon as staff were told. Condemnation was swift and harsh as Concert’s listeners rallied and the arts community organised. An online petition gathered thousands of signatures in a few days.

As the Listener went to press, RNZ chief executive Paul Thompson called a meeting with RNZ Music and RNZ Concert staff and announced he was withdrawing the restructure and redundancy proposal that he had delivered to them a week earlier. “Things have changed since we announced the proposal, with the Government now indicating it will support the new music service for young New Zealanders,” he said in an email to staff afterwards. “That is good news and provides an opportunity to reset our thinking.”

Staff at the meeting say it was another tense affair. “No one was celebrating. A savage process that didn’t need to happen,” one told the Listener afterwards.

Refusing to apologise for the stresses of the past week, Thompson asked staff for suggestions for clear growth targets for Concert to be submitted by March 9.

“He now wants the staff to come up with exciting ideas to revitalise what we do,” said one in attendance. Another Concert staffer said he felt worried that this is just a postponement of a restructure and now felt they were being left in limbo.

RNZ’s chief executive Paul Thompson. Photo/Newspix

The age of miracles

“If the proposals went ahead, it’s likely that listenership of RNZ Concert would fall,” interim New Zealand Symphony Orchestra chief executive Peter Biggs told the Listener. It was also likely that it would become more difficult for RNZ Concert to attract new listeners, he said.

“If listener numbers fall, that’s fewer people hearing the NZSO and other professional orchestras, or discovering the NZSO and other orchestras for the first time via radio. That could have a flow-on effect of fewer people coming to classical music concerts. It’s also likely fewer people will be inspired from hearing classical music to pursue a career in the field.”

But flow-on effects in the classical-music community were not and are not RNZ’s prime concern. The reasons for the proposed changes, Concert staff were initially told, was that RNZ was, “underperforming with younger audiences and with non-Pākehā communities”. RNZ needed to attract younger and more ethnically diverse listeners both to fulfil its charter obligations and to secure its audience for the coming decades.

The concern about RNZ’s audience should be no surprise to the public, even if the way the company proposed addressing it was. As audiences, particularly a younger demographic, shift to social media, podcasts, streaming and on-demand services providing them with what they want whenever they want and wherever they are, they have left traditional media outlets including newspapers, magazines, TV channels and radio struggling to attract the next generation of readers, watchers and listeners.

“The truth is that 50 and above is essentially the age catchment for all of Radio New Zealand’s quality products,” says former RNZ board chair Richard Griffin, who left the role in mid-2018.

“It’s unusual to have an audience in the 20 to 30-year age bracket – in fact, not unusual, it’s something of a miracle. Radio New Zealand is simply not pulling that sort of audience and, dare I say it, most radio stations aren’t either.

“Young people don’t go to what used to be known as ‘the radio venue’ to get what they want these days. They don’t have to because there are other options available to them that give them far more choice and allow for them to pick out what they want at any time not just when the broadcasters decide to put it on air. That’s what Radio New Zealand has to face as an organisation, and a lot of broadcasters, too.”

Commercial stations are having exactly the same problems, Griffin says.

Richard Griffin. Photo/Newspix

“They’ll never acknowledge it, but most of their audiences are way past maturity. Most of their audience – even for the ones that run so-called young people’s channels – the people they attract are well over their thirties. They’re in their forties and fifties and are people who are used to listening to radio.”

The need to find a younger audience, says Thompson, is not only about “remaining relevant” in the next 10 to 20 years, but  also fulfilling the obligations of Radio New Zealand’s charter.

“About 50% of all [Radio New Zealand] National listeners are over 60, and two- thirds of Concert’s audience is over 65 with little potential for meaningful growth with younger or more diverse audiences,” the consultation documents say.

“We will not be able to connect with young, diverse audiences through our current live music brands.”

But RNZ’s problem in pursuing a youth-oriented brand, the consultation documents show, was that it had no new funding to launch a start-up, and no available FM frequency to do it with.

If it was to try to attract a younger audience, RNZ had to make it happen within its current budget and using its existing frequencies. Its plan, which critics say reflects a total lack of understanding about Concert by RNZ management, was to move Concert to AM and other platforms, and to slash its staffing.

“The creation of the new music brand will be done by redirecting funding and resources currently allocated to RNZ Concert, which shares 60% of its audience with RNZ National, to a completely new music service, targeted at completely new and different audiences,” say the consultation documents, in the name of RNZ Music content director Willy Macalister, whose background is in commercial radio.

The new brand will be based in Auckland where the target market – younger New Zealanders (18-35) and especially Māori and Pacific Islanders – are concentrated.

The backlash was immediate, widespread and furious. Most of it focused on the prospect of Concert losing its FM frequency and thereby downgrading its sound quality, and also losing its knowledgeable announcers. Additionally, reaction was uniformly belittling of the idea that a youth station would work.

Admitting that the past couple of weeks had been “bruising” for RNZ, Thompson told the Listener that at some stage the company would “do a good debrief and see whether we could and should have done something different” in explaining the Concert proposals. In the ferocious early reaction, they were often mischaracterised as Concert closing altogether.

Music content director Willy Macalister. Photo/RNZ

“But this became such a crescendo, frankly, that that [detail] was lost.

“Feedback’s been incredibly robust and illuminating, and coming at us from every angle, but we’ve certainly shown that for a group of New Zealanders RNZ Concert is really important,” Thompson says.

“We want to relate to younger audiences as well as more established, older audiences. We want to do classical music but we also want to provide a music service to younger New Zealanders, so it’s in trying to square all those things that we’ve really hit a nerve.”

He expected backlash, Thompson said, but not the ferocity at which it came, or that it would so quickly turn political. He confirms that RNZ had briefed Broadcasting Minister Kris Faafoi on the proposal before it became public. The fact that the Government was unprepared shows there was a miscommunication with Faafoi, Thompson says.

Whatever Faafoi was told, it was not until the public groundswell of opposition rapidly rose, and former Labour prime minister Helen Clark tweeted her horror at the proposal, that the Government realised it had to act.

In wording that can only have been designed to impel the Government to intervene, Clark tweeted, “This decision appears to have been taken without public consultation. Who’s in charge?” Perhaps answering her own question, ministers jumped. Finance Minister Grant Robertson replied on Twitter that ministers were on the case. “I am advised it is still a consultation and we will be talking to RNZ about their options.”

For Concert staff, the commentary from a number of prominent New Zealanders campaigning to preserve Concert’s staff and FM frequency was a mixed blessing.

“Helen Clark turning over tables is amazing. Just to know that there’s that level of support from across the spectrum and across young people and old people and across every demographic is really humbling and encouraging,” one Concert staff member told the Listener.

“[But] That comes with a two-edged sword in some ways, because … it’s like the elite coming out to support their older white community. So, when people like Helen Clark and Chris Finlayson step up, it’s great, but you do worry if it’s reinforcing people’s impression of where we are at.”

It’s not just elite commentators who give the impression that RNZ has a niche listenership. The evidence backs it and Thompson himself says RNZ thinks “it is very important that public broadcasting is not just for the privileged few”.

Helen Clark. Photo/Getty Images

The same, but different

For all the support in the past fortnight for Concert from Māori, Pacific and younger people, the statistics show that RNZ is right to be concerned that its charter obligations are not being met, and that its future listenership is not assured. The consultation documents reveal that RNZ has adopted a target of increasing its listeners from the one million per week (28% of the population) that it achieved last year, to 50% of the population by 2023. It will not reach that with RNZ National and Concert alone.

The Government’s intervention on February 11 to furnish RNZ with an FM network that is not currently available to it, but was set aside for youth broadcasting about 20 years ago, has thrown RNZ a lifeline to pursue what it calls its “music strategy” while retaining Concert. The Ministry of Culture and Heritage oversees non-commercial radio licensing and one of the terms and conditions of a new operation is that it “offers services that complement existing ‘for profit’ services rather than duplicate them”. This is likely to be a point of contention with commercial radio operators once RNZ’s plans are revealed.

The proposed youth brand, which seems to be particularly championed by Macalister, is likely to create more tension with commercial broadcasters. RNZ, with its taxpayer-funded support that both enables and requires it to offer commercial-free broadcasting, will be competing more deeply in the market in which commercial operators have to make their living every day.

Thompson says an RNZ youth station would be different to commercial offerings. He is dismayed that the reaction to an RNZ youth brand has been so negative.

That negativity is typified by Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation deputy chair Diana Fenwick. “The excuse from RNZ that the new FM youth station is the way of the future is laughable,” Fenwick said.

“Radio stations aimed at young people playing NZ content proliferate the length and breadth of New Zealand. Concert FM, however, is the only station of its kind. That said, increasing numbers of young people are not listening to the radio, may not even have one, and mostly listen to or download the content they prefer via devices such as smartphones, iPads and computers, or via sites such as Spotify and Apple Music.”

Griffin is also doubtful, but less scathing in his assessment.

“Quite honestly, I don’t know whether there’s any young catchment left for Radio New Zealand-type broadcasting, but if there is they’re doing their damnedest to try to reach it and this is an attempt to do just that.”

Thompson refuses to be defeated and thinks RNZ’s new brand will be a space to celebrate and showcase New Zealand artists and compositions.

“It has been quite difficult to get any informed or balanced discussion going on the gap as we see it. Australia has Triple J, which is a cultural force that has led to the growing popularity of Australian music among young audiences. Triple J is an amazing phenomenon, as is BBC Radio 1, which is a leading light for young audiences [in Britain]. So, what has been missing is any appreciation of the opportunity here. But I also understand that people will always focus on what is being lost and it is very hard to imagine the new thing until it is built.”

With the Government offering an FM transmission opportunity and now being willing to talk about funding, RNZ may be able to retain Concert as is and build the youth brand, though Thompson denies ever having tried to embarrass the Government into increasing RNZ’s budget. “That would be a helluva way to achieve an outcome,” he says.

“There was never any intention to force anyone’s hand, but I guess you don’t know what the conversation is going to be until you start the discussion.”

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa. Photo/Getty Images

Chorus of criticism

Two of our classical stars tell the Listener why RNZ Concert still matters.

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa has been vocal in her support of maintaining RNZ Concert saying the threat to it was “an inestimable blow to the arts in New Zealand”. Her career, she told the Listener, has benefitted from her exposure on radio.

“In 1963, RNZ recorded the Mobil Song Quest in Hamilton where I came runner up, aged 19. I remember being so excited at the thought of being heard throughout New Zealand. Then, in 1965, I won the competition. Sadly, my parents could not be present but they heard me on the radio at home; they were so happy for me.

“Many of my foundation students have been involved with RNZ and it has been pivotal to their career development.”

She remembers how exposure on radio in the US led to a career breakthrough. In 1974, she sang Desdemona in Otello at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, taking over from another singer due to illness. “So, I went on and sang the whole opera without any rehearsal – and then discovered it had been broadcast live on radio across the entire US. That one performance became the basis of my later career at the Metropolitan Opera.

Jonathan Lemalu. Photo/Supplied

“I see the role of RNZ in 2020 as being an ambassador for classical music, showcasing young New Zealand talent, nurturing and encouraging young voices. RNZ should be our voice and a reflection of our country.”

New Zealand-born Samoan international opera star Jonathan Lemalu also weighed in: “Seventy years of Radio New Zealand classical music traditions seemingly cast away to make way for a perceived ‘younger, more diverse audience’? What’s wrong with encouraging a younger more diverse classical music audience?

“They talk of diversity? Targeting Māori and Pasifika audiences? As one of the elder statesmen of the Kiwi Polynesian classical music community working nationally and globally, I know my achievements, success and story heard over RNZ airwaves have in some way inspired many multicultural Kiwi kids in the next generations, artists who could easily have had success in other genres, but who chose classical music.

“My role models, like Inia Te Wiata and Iosefa Enari, were passed to me via RNZ Concert and perhaps I was able to inspire in turn.”

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

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