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“Think of Us as Yeast” – An Interview with Paul Thompson, Head of RNZ

In the latest in a series of interviews with key media personalities, Duncan Greive sits down with the head of the station known until recently as Radio New Zealand for a full and frank discussion about its place in our media.

For most of the 2000s Radio New Zealand felt unmoored from the rest of the New Zealand media, and you got the feeling both parties liked it that way. The organisation felt serious, rigourous, definitely a little dry. It felt in some ways like a time capsule, so little did it seem to change.

Outside, things were going mad. There was an Internet! No one really knew what it meant, but it was a big bloody deal. There was also competition, which meant newspapers, TV and radio were all racing each other somewhere. To the bottom, Radio New Zealand listeners probably thought.

For a while that unbending nature felt like an asset – keeping their heads while all around were losing their shirts. Until it felt like an affront. Like laziness, or arrogance.

I used to get pretty steamed about it, to be honest. I’d listen to MediaWatch – a show I loved then as now – and the irony would seem unbearable: here was this organisation calling out everyone else’s missteps, while it refused to even engage with the modern world that was wreaking havoc on the media, and fairly directly causing a lot of the terrible stuff they were diagnosing.

Then Paul Thompson was appointed. I didn’t know a lot about him. But he came from the private sector, which I thought was a good thing. And he got to work quickly. In just two years he’s done all this: new presenters on every weekday daylight hours show save the rightly untouchable Nine to Noon. Launched youth-targeted website The Wireless. Lead a refocussing on digital. Moved to call the organisation RNZ – a bigger deal than it sounds.

It hasn’t all been well-received. Rachel Smalley spoke out about the dudiness of their hires, which was fair. She got slammed for it, which was not. Just this week an anonymous caller told me to look into what they claimed was a proposal to mess with the beloved Bryan Crump from Nights. This provoked a strong reaction – though the organisation says the show is going to change, not be cut.

But on the whole I admired the guy a lot. You can’t stay still in this era. You will die. And we desperately need a healthy, vibrant RNZ (I’m a convert). The station today sounds punchier, more vibrant, less stiff. I met with Thompson at the Auckland HQ. We sat in a meeting room and spoke for over an hour about all that he has been through since moving in from Fairfax in 2013. The following is a (slightly) edited version of that conversation.

What was your pitch to the Board when you went for the job?

It was about, I guess, having an openness to change. I’m not a radical person; I’m not someone who would take a huge amount of risk on something which might not work, and probably wouldn’t work; what would be fun to do. So I like change, I like leading change, I kind of understand how to do it and I understand that all media organisations need to be much more focused around having a clear audience strategy.

I kind of had done a bit of that, and I could see a way that RNZ could build on what it has done so successfully, and also add some real new and exciting dimension. So it really was a mix of continuity I could provide whilst also developing a new strategy. And I think the fact that I had done some really quite hard yards around organisational change; it’s tough, and I’d kind of been there and done that. It seemed to work.

Describe the organisation as you found it when you came into the role.

In some ways it reminded me of when I arrived at the Press as a very young editor in 2001. An organisation that was immensely successful within a core audience that watched us very closely, understood what we did, was very sensitive around change But there was a great deal of connection with that core audience, and a sense of confidence that comes from knowing what you do, and having quite a stable business model and it being successful. So it reminded me a little bit of how newspapers were 10 or 15 years ago – probably more like 15 years ago to be frank.

And I thought there was a lot of strength in that because you didn’t have to come into RNZ and worry about teaching people what a decent story was, or the importance of accurate journalism, or the importance of quality and consistency. On top of that I found a lot of flair and raw talent, and some of it really developed – some of the best broadcasters, some of the best journalists in New Zealand. So they were really good bones if you like.

And what I saw was that the organisation had a period where it had hunkered down and stuck to its knitting. It had been a really successful strategy – it had really focused on continuing to maintain the strength of its radio output. It had started to develop a new level of expertise around digital engagement with audiences but hadn’t really ramped it up yet.

You say that the previous strategy had been successful, but there was a perception – probably one that I held – that it wasn’t moving fast enough. That under Cavanagh it had done 10 years of essentially staying the same during an era where everything else was changing very rapidly. There was also a sense that it was a company that had elements that were quite resistant to the coming era. I wondered did you encounter resistance from the people who were quite comfortable with it being what it was?

The status quo strategies in media worked for decades; the kind of idea that you dominated the distribution of your content. You had your mast and your frequencies and your brand, and you just kind of kept it going, and it worked. And I think the problem with those strategies is they work until they don’t, and then it can be quite quick.

So I definitely think the organisation was at that tipping point. In terms of resistance, I think conceptually most staff were excited about working in an organisation that was going to have a crack at building a more modern and audience-focused future, and one that was less reliant on radio to be its sole means of being relevant to people. So conceptually there was a really good buy-in.

The management team that were here when I arrived were fantastic. I had to come in and make a case for change but it actually wasn’t that difficult to make it. But inevitably as you start to make some decisions and staffing changes – I brought in a new management team and developed a new strategy – the reality is always harder than the abstract idea of change.

But we’ve managed to get through that. It’s been quite a tough year; we’ve got stuff happening in every part of the organisation. And any organisation going through this level of change is going to have the odd wobble; you’re going to hit a bit of resistance. But we are getting through it.

It’s a really confronting process no matter how well it’s run. What I think RNZ has in spades is a kind of commitment to the organisation, what it stands for. So what I’ve tried to do is harness that, because that’s the kind of wind in your sails.

One thing I suppose is a challenge for you and for the whole organisation is how to deal with an ageing listenernship. Part of the justification for public funding has to be that it delivers something for all New Zealand. And yet if your audience ages up to the point where there are whole generations that are largely missed, to a certain extent you’re not fulfilling the mandate.

Yet in this era it’s very difficult to do all that stuff, to reach new audiences, especially with the diversity of their behaviours I suppose. Where does that sit in your to-do list?

That’s at the heart of everything we’re wrestling with. One thing that I’ve done is just get it out on the table, so we talk all the while about how important our current audiences are. But the fact that they do skew older, that they do skew to Wellington, they skew more Pākehā. And yet I compare that back with our public role – which is set out in the Charter – which is to provide something unique and valuable, and something which builds cohesion in New Zealand society and is relevant to people from all walks of life.

I kind of go ‘that’s what we’re here to do and this is where we are’. So part of it has just been talking about it. And in starting to talk about audience growth, but not in terms of getting more of the people who listen now doing more with us. I mean, that’s nice and it’s great if we do it, and we’re probably doing a little bit of that – but actually talking about being more relevant to new groups.

We’re doing that in a couple of key ways. One is to make sure every brand and service that we have, whether it’s the website or the mothership, RNZ National, or The Wireless, or Radio New Zealand International, or Concert – making sure it’s as good as it can be, and that we’re continuing to evolve and freshen it and sharpen it. So part of it is just doing the best job we can.

The second part is thinking a little differently about how we can connect with people’s lives, maybe outside our own arena. And that’s where the idea of partnership and the idea of sharing our content comes in; and that’s really the two-pronged strategy.

We’re just so lucky to have this democratic mandate through our Charter and our Act of Parliament to serve the public good. And I think the core of what we do as public broadcaster is actually be a force of cohesion in the country; provide people with reliable information and help to make sense of being a New Zealander in a geographically remote tolerant democracy.

We can do that to an extent with our brands and services – long may they continue – we just have got to get our stuff in front of people. So when we think about some product development around Checkpoint and John Campbell, it’s going to be a fantastic radio show. It’s going to be available visually – we’re not quite sure on which platforms yet – and it will be available socially on demand, and Ondemand as well. And a lot of new people might just come to that on Youtube, and we think that’s fantastic.

We just want to be where New Zealanders want us to be, rather than thinking in an old media way – where you need to bring them all home to your own brands, own them, grow them and monetise them; we’re just so different from that.

I think about some metaphors for that; well one is we are an oasis. We provide some distinct, credible journalism and current affairs in quite a challenged marketplace. But I think the better metaphor is to think of ourselves as yeast – we kind of make the whole loaf rise, but we don’t have to do it all, we’re just a really good ingredient.

Saturday morning icon Kim Hill

Saturday morning icon Kim Hill

With what you acknowledged about the older Pākehā element of your audience, how has the attempt to reach out to different audiences been received by them? That’s always a danger, that you lose numbers even if you’re doing the right thing, and don’t gain enough of them at the other end.

I think it’s an ongoing exercise. Our radio ratings took a bit hit at the end of last year, and I think that was off the back of the way we covered an election campaign that people just didn’t really tune into, certainly the way we covered it.

I think also we’d introduced quite a lot of change quite quickly; it was like a domino effect. Geoff Robinson retired after such an outstanding career; we brought new presenters in; we moved the programme forward because Geoff wasn’t there any longer as the anchor. And there were other programme changes which flowed from that. And so we kind of had a bit of a shocker at the end of last year around our ratings.

So we’re just coming out of that now, and we’re slowly getting back. I think the message there was that the audiences are really sensitive around change they don’t understand, and the election campaign was a bit of a turnoff.

What was it about your coverage of the campaign that turned people off?

I think it was relentless, and it was negative; it was all the Dirty Politics stuff. I’m not saying it wasn’t right for us to cover it in that way but I think that we definitely got a bit of a signal. And we can look at that two ways: we can go, ‘oh well next time we won’t cover the elections at all or we won’t go there’. Actually that’s not the right answer.

But we do need to ask whether all of the journalism that we did on the campaign, did it get to many people? Did it resonate with them? Was it relevant? So I think we can learn from it. But we’re never going to move away from hard-hitting election coverage; that’s not on the agenda.

I think there have been a few bumps in the road. And we’re seeing the radio audience come back; and we’ll see when we get the latest figures. Which has been a bit sobering for us, and we’ve had to learn from that, and we’ve tried to do some really good things with what we’re doing with Morning Report at the moment, freshening and improving and warming up the programme. People have noticed that. What we’re doing with Checkpoint. Kathryn [Ryan]’s in her absolute prime, so no problems there; Jesse’s really come in and made that afternoon his own and putting his stamp on it; got really strong programming on the weekends.

I think the audience is starting to see that gel, which is fantastic. The other side of it is we started to take the aonline udience a bit more seriously and we’ve just seen that boom, both in terms of people coming to our website. It is different to other news websites in New Zealand, probably because of a different mix of content, different types of journalism, but also on demand audio, all of that.

Radio is still a fantastic medium; it’s standing up better to the disruptions than other forms of media, and we see it being a crucial part of our future. But in terms of your question – it’s no different from when I was a newspaper editor. You have your really core audience and you have to look after them and really understand them, but they aren’t going to necessarily be around in 10 or 15 years, and you can’t not replenish and bring new people in. It’s always a balancing act and it’s quite delicate.

You referred in passing there to the current chaos of journalism at the moment. How does that change or impact on the work you’re doing?

The challenge for all of those organisations is that they’re doing a hell of a lot of work, some of them further ahead than others. But where does it end? Because the business models are just under such pressure; it’s not like they get to a bit of clear space in the jungle and they can have a breather; they’ve got to keep going. And there is a thinning out of journalists, you can see happening. Some fantastic work still being done by all of the commercial players I have to say, but they’re under a lot of pressure.

So when we think about that it makes us feel lucky that what our job is is to provide a real public service and a point of difference, and that fixed funding is tough for an organisation, particularly after eight or nine years. But it’s not a bad place to be given the kind of cost cutting that’s having to be imposed by all those organisations, and the disruption to their commercial model.

So that’s one thing – to do the best job we can, because we understand that journalism is being thinned out, as you’ve said.

I think the other message from it for us is that we should look to help the media eco-system in New Zealand evolve; because it will evolve and innovate, and journalism will find a way of getting through this dilemma and we’ve got to be part of that. We can’t sit there being isolated; we’ve got to be part of what’s going on, and we want to help the commercial guy where we can. An obvious example of that is just getting ourselves on the iHeart platform, a really simple one. But I’m hoping some of those discussions bear fruit.


Click here to read Duncan Greive’s exit interview with Simon Wilson, former editor of Metro


Do you ever encounter resistance? I was talking with Toby Manhire before I came up about the BBC when it really ramped up its online presence, it infuriated all of the UK newspapers. Now, through convergence we’re all meeting in the same place. And there is a danger to NZ media, to Fairfax and so on, who rightfully see the internet as their best shot. But if you get really good at delivering news online, that that could be an existential threat to them. Have you receive much pushback on that line?

I haven’t. I think it’s obviously there as a consideration, but RNZ is growing its online audience but it’s still from quite a low base. It’s growing quickly, it’s getting to a point where it’s a credible and relevant audience, which is fantastic. But from what I can see it’s not as if people come to our website and don’t go anywhere else; people are ranging right across.

I think it’s about choice. So what I want RNZ to provide is a distinct choice, that if there was a gap it complements whatever else people are doing. If you want to relax and read some really good entertainment news in your lunch break on your mobile, you’re probably not going to come to us, you’re probably going to go to Stuff or NZME. If you want to get a really good piece of reporting on a big rural story you might come to RNZ because we’ll probably have lots on that. So I think we see ourselves providing a choice, and that hasn’t really reared its head in terms of, don’t let RNZ do well online yet, and I think that’s because we’re not the BBC; that’s a massive organisation with such great resources.

And what’s happening there and with the ABC in Australia, it’s just in a different league in terms of, they’re fully vertically-integrated public media organisations, where we’re radio and we’re growing online, and we’re much smaller in a smaller market. And I would hate to see us get into that position where a successful RNZ is seen as a negative for the country. Part of it is making sure we’re not a little fortress; just doing our thing without actually being part of a wider industry; we’re trying to be part of that wider industry.

Morning Report's Susie Ferguson

Morning Report’s Susie Ferguson

Guyon and Susie have both appeared on The Nation lately, whereas in the past Radio New Zealand presenters you used to basically just find purely on Radio in New Zealand; now they are starting to appear on other media. And you guys don’t really do any traditional marketing. I don’t know whether that’s a budgetary thing or a philosophical thing, or a détente with the other media organisations – it might be all three – but is letting presenters out into other media part of a strategy to kind soft-market in a way?

My view is that we’ve got really talented people, and we want the best people that we can get, and we want them focusing on their day jobs of course, the work that they do with us. But it’s good for them and I think good for RNZ that they get out there and do new things, and raise their profile and raise our profile. So I’m really open to that, and probably more open than was previously the case at RNZ. We can’t sacrifice our impartiality or our independence or our standards as we do that, so that’s a little bit interesting for all of us; we feel a bit discomforted by that. But again, I don’t want us sitting just in the fortress delivering this content out to the either; I want us to be part of the media scene in New Zealand and part of New Zealanders’ lives, and one of the ways we do that is getting on those programmes.

And I also think because we’re such a different media organisation with very strong core values around accuracy and fairness and independence, we can actually add something positive into that political debate as well.

I guess a corollary to that is looking at the recruiting you’ve done over the past 18 months, but particularly the past year – I’m thinking of Jesse Mulligan, John Campbell and Mihingarangi Forbes, all of whom are quite high profile broadcasters who’d come from fairly prominent positions within other organisations. Was part of that driven by the idea that they would bring an audience with them across to Radio New Zealand?

Part of it. They are fantastic broadcasters with public profiles, so that’s an element which is attractive. I’m more interested in how they work with us and what they create; bring all that skill and that profile and then create something new by cross-pollinating it with all the stuff that we do. If you look at Jesse’s programme it’s such an energized three hours of radio, and he’s ranging across lighter topics, more serious topics, he’s bringing news in; so he’s growing with it as well. And I think that’s the really exciting thing.

I think it does change perception in a useful way with audiences. And they’re just excellent at what they do. Probably what’s been more interesting for me, and probably more important, is the kind of younger talent we’ve been able to bring in, particularly with the younger journalists; and we’re putting a lot of effort into now being a great place for a young journalist to come in and be nurtured and coached, and get to do good stories. I really like to think we’re doing both of those things.

The change to RNZ versus Radio New Zealand notwithstanding, and all the digital expansion effort, the fact that there remains a core emphasis on audio essentially – this is to certain extent a pet hobby horse of mine – but it’s just one way of delivering journalism. It seems odd that audio is privileged above video and above text when it comes to creating and delivering information for the public good. Because people behave differently; some people love it, some people absolutely don’t use it at all. Aside from things elements of The Wireless, or Toby and Toby is that something that you have concerns about, or think about in terms of evolving it, Charter notwithstanding?

I think you have to look at what the audience needs, rather than what we’ve traditionally done. Firstly, how do you tell the story best, then what does the audience want and need; and I guess those two things go together.

Audio has gone through a bit of a boom, audio storytelling. Just look at what’s happening with podcasting; it’s not something we’ve started to do in any kind of really intensive way but we have the First Person podcast and some other stuff we’re starting to commission, which is kind of a unique audio storytelling outside of radio. I think that will be a growing theme of what we do; we want to see how that goes.

I think it’s a huge advantage that we’ve got the strength in audio storytelling because you can’t really multi-task if you’re watching a video or reading a piece of text, or looking at a Pencil Sword cartoon. But the opportunity for us to provide a great experience for people as they drive their car or cook dinner, or they’re commuting in the train; I think that’s a real strength for us and we’d be really foolish to think that that’s a bad thing.

The trick is not to just be confined by it; so we’re starting to push out into text, into cartoons, into photography. Obviously visual journalism in all its forms is going to become important, and we know video, socially-delivered video in particular, is going to become a mainstay for all media organisations in the next few years, so we don’t want to be behind there.

But your general point around thinking more flexibly about how to tell stories is really sound, and we’re starting to do it. I don’t know if I grasped your question there – is it more that you think we’re too constrained round the audio stuff?

I wondered whether you felt whether that was a constraint, but you answered that in the sense that you don’t feel like that you have to stay on that. I wondered if you could talk about Concert, which I think is kind of indefensible – privileging this one style of music, deciding that that has to be publicly funded when other styles of music which are equally absent from airways, especially given the older skew of it. Justify its existence.

It’s part of our output. Although the Charter is quite flexible in terms of the wording, but I think it’s something which is a brand and a service which has an audience and no-one else is doing it. So that’s part of it. We think the whole area of music and thinking more laterally and creatively about music is pivotal to RNZ. On one side we’ve got this pillar around news and current affairs and talk programming, it’s a real strength, it’s our bread and butter, but we think this is an emerging pillar around music; and we have created a new music brand and we’re bringing together all of those music producers and writers, and broadcasters and sound engineers, into one team called RNZ Music. We’re going through a bit of a restructure at the moment, and Concert now sits within a music strategy, and we think it should remain a classically focused station.

Why?

Partly because that’s where the gap is in the market; no-one else is doing it. And it has got an audience of 120,000 – 130,000 people a week, which isn’t a large audience but it’s not to be sniffed at. Part of it is around the continuity of the services that we’ve provided. We’re a key player in that eco-system around classical music and the orchestra scene. We record their performances and then we amplify them, which kind of makes that whole sector work well. So that’s kind of our sense that there’s something there for us to develop, but we know it needs to change.

I think it would be a real shame for us to move too quickly, to jump to the conclusion that that audience who’s passionate about classical isn’t important any more. But we are thinking that we have to be far more strategic and thoughtful around how that whole music offering develops in our online offering of music content, whether it’s a piece of writing on a composer, a NZ live video, or a classical concert that we’ve recorded.

I feel quite comfortable defending the importance and role of Concert; but it has to evolve and change, and we need to make sure it’s a modern and progressive network. It’s been the same for about 20 years with very little change; we’re now starting to freshen it.

You talked about the music space, and there’s long been this idea of looking at Triple J and Radio One, these big publicly funded stations in other countries that explicitly target a youthful audience and could potentially funnel them into Radio New Zealand. Is that something that you have any interest in?

I look at Radio One and Triple j, and you think what fantastic brands, providing something really distinct and powerful to younger audiences. I’d love to have that within our stable but that horse has long bolted in New Zealand. It would be very hard to recreate that, particularly given the limited funding that we have. So I think history has spoken to that, really.

Well has it? The Kiwi frequency that was given to MediaWorks – what is the status of that frequency at the moment?

Isn’t it set aside for public broadcasting? It’s kind of in abeyance at the moment I think.

So there’s no interest in going to that. You’ve got this music team; it wouldn’t be all that difficult to put them onto that. Have you had any discussions?

No, I haven’t. I’m not ruling anything out, I’d be foolish to – but at the moment we’re very focused on our current funding and working around our priorities as they stand at the moment. And that’s not something which is on the radar screen so to speak. I also wonder whether we should be, if we’re starting to invest and explore that, it should be more delivered digitally.

A couple of thoughts on that: one, it would be a more cost-effective way of doing it; two, that might be where the targeted audiences are spending their time now; and three, music radio, there are quite a few options provided by the commercial market at the moment in terms of music radio. None of them perfectly fit the Triple J model admittedly, but it’s not as if there’s no choice. And again, going back to what RNZ’s role is, to complement and do different things rather than trying to go head to head with the commercial market, and I think there’s a whole lot of reasons why that would be a step too far at the moment. But I wouldn’t rule anything out if there was an appetite or an opportunity, but it’s not a priority at the moment.

Just changing tack a little, the persistent complaint of, is that Radio New Zealand is that Khandallah talking to itself cliché, and even the panel discussion – the other night Jim Mora essentially admitted it was a left-wing station, I don’t know if that was a slip or if it came out as he intended – but there is a strong perception by half of the country to a certain extent that this is an organisation that leans a particular way. Do you think that was fair, or is still, and if so is it something that you’re constantly trying to correct?

I think one of the positive things of me being at the organisation is I have a completely different background, coming from commercial media, so I’ve been able to look at things afresh and bring in a new management team, and start talking about journalism in a new way. And the idea is you make those new ideas mix with the good things that are already here, and you create something that’s improved in the future.

I don’t sense that strong bias. And I actually don’t even get that criticism directly from many people. I don’t know whether that’s because I’m not listening. It’s kind of a thing that you hear about but I look at our complaints and I listen to our programming, and we have a certain perspective on the world, but there is a whole range of voices within that perspective as well. And I don’t think any Government of whatever colour is going to be particularly happy with what we do, and you will always be biting the hand that feeds and that kind of simmers away.

I was giving a breakfast talk this morning across on the North Shore, I was sitting at the table with a former ACT MP, and the former MP’s partner; philosophically so opposed from any kind of leftwing conspiracy perspective. But they engage with the content that we do because it’s intelligent and thoughtful, and I think in the end good material cuts across all of that.

I’m probably more worried about the bias which means that we’re not relevant to some ethnicities, some ages, and some people from walks of life who are not relevant. I think that’s where the real bias is. We’re never going to touch everyone but I think we can be… there are some inherent things that we do that’s not particularly relevant to those people, so that’s what keeps me awake at night; that’s the bit that worries me.

I wondered about that. This doesn’t speak directly to it, but I would argue that sport is bigger culturally for New Zealand than music. I think it plays a bigger role in people’s lives, they think about it more, they’re more passionate about it. Yet sport is a tiny portion of what you do, and music is hours of radio every week. Do you think about the privileging of the arts over more popular forms of entertainment, is that something that you’re conscious of?

I am. And look, part of it is Charter-driven; we have some obligations around music and the arts, which are clearly part of the Charter. And the thinking behind that is if the public broadcaster doesn’t do it probably no-one is going to do it to the same level. And I guess if you think about the wall-to-wall coverage that we’ve just had around the All Blacks, there’s a lot of sports content out there.

I think your criticism is valid; sport’s a big part of New Zealand life and if we’re a truly public service organisation we can kind of get that and reflect it, as against our limited resources and the fact we’ve got a whole lot of stuff that we currently do which we don’t want to throw away. So I’d love to grow it but I’m not really in a position to do it at the moment. That sounds like a bit of a cop-out but it’s just not a priority.


Click here to read Duncan Greive’s interview with Steve Braunias


That is kind of one of the core things about public broadcasting – I’m surely you’re familiar with the Reithian idea – are you creating what people want, reflecting their interests, or are you shaping them? And I feel like the shaping them was the old model and nowadays people can pick and choose and they very quickly tell you with their attention whether you’re doing the right thing. Where do you sit on that spectrum?

I think that’s the creative tension at the heart of RNZ. We’re an organisation that exists to serve the public interest, but we also need to be interesting to the public, and I am trying to move us where we feel more comfortable with that second piece without sacrificing the first.

I think it’s a really creative sweet spot if we can get it right, but there’s no point in producing a piece of content and seeing it as valuable because we’ve created it and made it available forever – broadcast and then made it available forever – if it’s not relevant and impactful, and actually valuable.

I don’t think there’s any virtue in us being seen as valuable because we do something that people think is important but they wouldn’t spend any time reading or listening to. And that’s been an interesting discussion; we just talk about it all the time.

Yeah, if it’s great and no-one listens to it then…

Is it great? I really think we’ve got to keep talking about that.

I think for the most part your changes have been applauded by the media watchers amongst us, but one big point was raised by Rachel Smalley about the male Pākehā of a particular generation skew; do you think she had a point?

Yes, I do. I think she expressed it forcefully, and she’s entitled to make that point; I think it should make people think. This isn’t about media organisations; certainly not just about RNZ, this is about society. We’ve got a major problem around gender inequality, and inequality doesn’t end there in our society.

So RNZ is part of the New Zealand society and we definitely have that issue. In terms of the big end of town with the big broadcasters, we’re really proud of our leading female broadcasters – people like Kim Hill and Kathryn and Susie. But equally we want the best people and we’re not going to make a selection based on gender when someone like John Campbell’s around.

Again, I think the headlines tend to be around the big names. What’s more interesting is what’s happening in the grassroots of the organisation. I know that RNZ needs to become more reflective of New Zealand society in all sorts of ways, not just on the gender front – age and ethnicity as well. If we’re really going to be able to a great job for all New Zealanders we’ve got to deal with that.

Kathryn-Ryan-RNZ

Nine to Noon’s Kathryn Ryan

Just returning to the John Campbell recruitment, how did that come about and what were your thoughts and feelings on watching what happened to Campbell Live earlier this year?

It’s always sad to see a really successful current affairs show come to the end of its run, and it was quite traumatic I think for TV3 and MediaWorks, and for the audience. And the pragmatist in me says that nothing lasts forever, particularly in the media world at the moment.

I think that could have been better handled for all concerned; I think everyone would admit that. It was fascinating to watch it unfold; a morbid fascination I guess. But things do come to an end and things do run their course; maybe that’s what happened there, I’m not sure.

Clearly we had some interest in seeing whether John was interested in coming back to RNZ but he quite rightly took his time and talked to everyone, and spent a bit of time licking his wounds no doubt as well. So we were just talking to him as everyone else was talking to him about what he wanted to do. We never thought this was an opportunity to bring him in and recreate Campbell Live; we always thought it was about bringing in a really credible and talented broadcaster, and getting him to work how we work, and to bring all his skills but to be kind of part of what we do.

A similar question with Mihingarangi. What happened at Native Affairs, even though it wasn’t so prominent was arguably as brutal and maybe even more troubling – because of where it happened and why. How satisfying for you was it to be able to recruit someone like that out of such a troublesome situation?

Look, people will fall into and out of organisations all the time. I must admit I didn’t worry too much about the ins-and-outs of what had happened around Native Affairs. But I think she is an outstanding journalist who brings something new in terms of her knowledge of the Maori world, and her contacts and her hard-hitting journalism. And again, I just felt she was someone who could come into RNZ and make a bit of a difference, so I was really pleased.

I think she already has made her mark in a positive way. We’re always wanting the best people when we can afford them and when they’re available. There’s a whole lot of people who would like to come in we just don’t have room for – so you only see the ones where it does work. And we also want to develop our own people as well. You see for example how Susie Ferguson is really flourishing and growing into her role on Report; she’s been at RNZ for a number of years and has really come through. That to me is as satisfying, if not more satisfying than signing a big name from outside.


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Update 1.06pm Friday 27 November 2015: this story has been updated to reflect RNZ’s position on Crump’s nights show.

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