Concert FM is to be stripped down in favour of a new station for youth, even as the government prepares bigger plans for restructure. Toby Manhire on the mood inside and outside the national broadcaster.
No one seriously thought things could stay as they were. RNZ’s music outputs had been subject to reviews, personnel changes, and plenty of outside speculation. Concert FM was beloved by classic music fans but an audience of 170,000 wasn’t enough. And while its reputation as elitist wasn’t entirely fair, there was no doubt that its audience skewed to a certain seniority and privilege. Something had to give. And yet, according to RNZ staffers spoken to by The Spinoff, the scale of the overhaul announced on Wednesday left those affected stunned, baffled, “shellshocked”.
The top lines were these: a new music station for young New Zealanders would spring up. RNZ Concert wouldn’t be killed, not quite. But it would be gutted. An early headline on RNZ used that word – “gutted” – only to be changed within hours to “cut back”. But it’s a gutting, no doubt. Concert is to become an automated round-the-clock station online and on AM – unless parliament is in session. Its FM stereo frequency is to be taken over by a new music station targeting younger, more diverse audiences.
The thinking, as explained by RNZ CEO Paul Thompson, is to “allocate the FM where the bigger opportunity is”; to be “thinking five, 10, 15 years ahead [so] we can connect with younger New Zealanders”.
For the RNZ music team, this looked like a bloodbath: 20 jobs erased, including just about everyone at Concert, and a welter of redundancies, with impacts beyond Concert and into the numerous music curation and storytelling elements that are part of RNZ National. They weren’t the only ones alarmed. The “youth music” concept got a thorough trashing online, and the disembowelment of Concert lit many a fuse.
What did the plans amount to, why were they needed, why now, and how come so many people – from staff, to musicians, all the way up to a former prime minister – were so furious?
The ‘youth radio network’ reborn
The idea of a youth music brand at RNZ is anything but young. It’s so old, in fact, that when a youth music network was first being talked about in the mid-90s, nobody would have thought to describe such a thing as a “brand”. In those days, a network for a younger audience was championed by cultural luminaries such as Neil Finn and Arthur Baysting primarily as a solution to the dearth of New Zealand music on New Zealand radio.
A youth-targeted music station in 2020 is articulated as a solution to a different problem. New Zealand music filled less than 3% of airtime on commercial radio in the early 90s. These days, thanks to everything from NZ on Air initiatives to Kiwi FM to shifting tastes and a diminishment of cringe, it’s dramatically higher. Uneven though it is, there are good number of stations who play, without any great patriotic fanfare, around 25% local.
RNZ hadn’t dropped the idea, however, and in its 2012 Statement of Intent announced that it would “Create a Youth Radio Network which will: be online only; be predominantly on-demand; have its own branding and identity; have full access to existing relevant Radio New Zealand content; and have new tailor-made content produced as resources allow.”
That materialised not as the internet radio station it might have sounded like, so much as an online magazine, called the Wireless, topped up with extra funding from NZ on Air for video content.
Introducing the new website in October 2013, Wireless editor Marcus Stickley wrote: “Our work was born out of idea of a youth radio network, which has been kicked around in New Zealand for the past 20 years. But the time for a radio network has passed. We live in an age where you can tell a story anyway you want on one platform – the internet.”
The Wireless was wound down in 2018 after struggling, despite some excellent journalism, to find an audience or a coherent identity. And the time for a youth radio network had ticked around again.
So what problem is it solving in 2020?
In its 2019 Statement of Intent, RNZ signalled an ambitious goal. Having achieved its earlier target of reaching an audience of a million New Zealanders per week, it now sought to expand that audience to half the population by 2023. “RNZ’s mission is to develop lifelong relationships with the all people of Aotearoa,” it said. “RNZ plans to grow both the size and diversity of its audiences to 1-in-2 (2.4m people) New Zealanders a week.”
The Spinoff understands that RNZ staff were told on Wednesday they needed to attract “completely new and different” New Zealand audiences in pursuit of that goal. Concert FM offered “little potential for meaningful growth with younger, or more diverse audiences”, staff were told. “We will not be able to connect with young, diverse audiences through our current live music brands.”
The answer was a “new RNZ music brand”, run out of Auckland.
Affected staff were told of the plans on Wednesday in what an RNZ Mediawatch report described as an “emotional, occasionally heated meeting”. A source who was present told The Spinoff they witnessed relatively little emotion, but “a lot of very direct questions”. Another source called the announcement “cold and brutal”.
While staff were presented with a “consultation document”, those spoken to by The Spinoff said it felt very much like a fait accompli. The plan is for RNZ Concert to go fully automated in two months, and disappear from FM in May. The “new brand” would launch in June on digital, and be fully operational by the end of August.
Twenty positions are to go as of March 25. They include 12 RNZ Concert roles and eight that span National or RNZ as a whole, including producers and librarians. There would be four redeployments among those, and a dozen new roles on the “new RNZ music brand”, all based in Auckland. While RNZ National programmes such as Music 101 will remain, executives say, these changes will have substantial impact across the board. It is hard to see how the existing slate of music features can survive given the roles being disestablished.
Staff were invited to offer any feedback before February 21.
One of those involved told The Spinoff that change in the music team was both expected and necessary, but that executives had not discussed the nature and scale of the restructure with them – nor sought input on what a “new music brand” might look like or the demands for staffing and production – in the leadup.
“I congratulate them for finally making a decision and ripping the plaster off,” said the employee.
“I just didn’t expect them to rip a limb off.”
‘A dumbing down of cultural life’
Helen Clark did not mince her words. The plan to whittle Concert back to an automated operation “equates to a dumbing down of cultural life in NZ”, wrote Clark, who as prime minister also took on the portfolio for arts, culture and heritage.
“Reasons given by RNZ management don’t stack up: one doesn’t have to destroy the Concert Programme to establish youth radio services and broaden audiences. This combined with demolition of overseas collection at the National Library NZ and cutbacks at Archives NZ represents significant cultural setback.”
For Thompson, however, it was a question of priorities. “RNZ can’t just sit here and age with our audience and disappear. We have to start to make some moves now that connect us with young people,” he told Mediawatch.
RNZ’s framing of the change as a trade-off between the youth brand and Concert was a “lazy, binary argument”, according to one RNZ employee spoken to by The Spinoff. It was not necessarily a case of one or the other; there was opportunity to evolve and augment the existing offering to reach younger audiences, they said.
There was plenty of room within a digital environment and on social media to try new music programming ideas, to test whether the audiences are there.
“It’s quite dramatic to experiment with a whole station.
“No one thought it should be business as usual. Everyone was ready and open for change,” but instead a “scorched earth” approach had been adopted.
BBC numbers reported overnight were inconveniently timed for RNZ, too, with Radio 3, Britain’s equivalent of Concert FM in New Zealand, registering its highest listenership for years. The Daily Telegraph reported yesterday: “Radio 3 has posted its highest audience ratings in three years as young people migrate to classical music.”
How do you do, fellow kids?
Is Radio New Zealand, wellspring of such glories as Aunt Daisy, even capable of reaching that young and diverse audience it seeks?
To read Twitter since the announcement, you’d think the whole thing was doomed to crumple like your uncle attempting a backspin. Yet examples such as Triple J in Australia and BBC Radio 1 and Radio 1Xtra suggest that’s not inevitable – youth audiences can be reached with innovative programming. It depends, in large part, on making the right appointments in producers and talent – and trusting them to get on with it.
Yet still nags that question: what gap exactly it is filling? After all, there’s no shortage of listening options, from ZM to The Edge, Mai FM to Flava. Do the young and diverse need RNZ or does RNZ just need to fill out its spreadsheet?
There are concerns, too that a new “brand” built with a focus on demographics and “market segmentation” would be as much an automaton as Concert FM’s pumped out playlist.
Sceptics within RNZ point to the commercial radio background of Willy Macalister, who as RNZ music content director is overseeing the new project. Two RNZ staffers and one contributor noted that he was the guy who brought Max Key to George FM. Their concern: that you risk becoming a commercial radio clone if the ambition is reaching an audience at the expense of public broadcasting principles.
Then there’s the matter of platform: streaming services such as Spotify are integral to the discovery and consumption of music in a way that was unimaginable when a youth radio network was first being talked about.
Let us be thankful at least of this: there is no sign yet of RNZ executives launching the new product via a dance challenge on Tik Tok.
RNZ in flux
Last night on Twitter, Grant Robertson – finance minister, associate minister of arts and culture and Flying Nun aficionado – responded to Helen Clark’s appeal.
“Hope ministers will take an interest in this very concerning @radionz decision,” she had said, tagging in her once-adviser Robertson and the broadcasting minister, Kris Faafoi.
Robertson responded: “We will Helen. I am advised it is still a consultation and we will be talking to RNZ about their options.”
Certainly it makes for interesting timing. Today Faafoi is expected to make an announcement regarding a merger of RNZ and TVNZ. Such a change would dwarf the import of plans to launch a music station at the expense of Concert. But such a reform has been publicly touted, including by deputy prime minister Winston Peters, for some months now. It’s puzzling that RNZ – an organisation for which the wheels of change never have turned smoothly – should look to undertake two major restructures simultaneously, to the point of revealing the plan just two days before a government announcement.
It’s fair to say that the arts and culture community in New Zealand is on the whole unimpressed with the Ardern government’s delivery for the sector in this term of government – “the cultural infrastructure is still waiting for its big investment”, in the words of one sector figure. It’s a fair bet that the current minister for arts, culture and heritage – one Jacinda Ardern – will be looking to repair some bridges in her election-year budget.
The question, Paul Thompson told Mediawatch, was this: “When we look at our limited resources, how do we deploy them?”
Another question may yet rear up: if the government were to boost those resources, to assist even with FM frequency, would they be willing to undo the gutting of Concert, or have they gone too far down that path?
RNZ executives have stressed that they should not be seen as a threat to the existing advertising funded operators, but commercial broadcasters are reserving judgment.
The two main operators, Mediaworks and NZME, are media organisations sailing on vomitously choppy seas, in which their radio properties are the most reliable and stable earners.
“If the public service media principle of delivering content to New Zealand audiences that are not currently catered for is applied to RNZ’s youth music strategy, this could deliver benefits for all sectors of our industry and for New Zealanders,” Jana Rangooni of the Radio Broadcasters Association told Stuff.
They would have “serious concerns”, however, were the new service to encroach on audiences “already well served by commercial radio broadcasters”.
“We note that there are already many networks operating in New Zealand that service youth music audiences. While it’s true RNZ is non-commercial, the networks it operates with taxpayer funding compete for audiences which has an impact on New Zealand’s commercial networks.”
Whatever emerges from the putative RNZ-TVNZ merger, it will have some major and uncertain impacts on commercial players. Mediaworks has been urging the government using every available means, including its primetime hosts, to make TVNZ commercial-free, given that it is no longer focused on delivering a dividend, and therefore arguably getting the best of both worlds.
It seems unlikely, however, that a New Zealand version of Britain’s BBC or Australia’s ABC would be commercial-free as they are, with the example of Ireland, RTÉ, which gains a portion of its income commercially, a more tenable template.
There’s another market that an RNZ youth radio station would unavoidably impact: the student radio network. From Radio One in Dunedin to bFM in Auckland, these stations have been incubators of talent, for musicians and producers and hosts. Many are run on the smell of an oily rag.
Would the millions of public dollars that RNZ is planning to invest in its “new media brand” be better distributed to stations that are already engaging the young and the diverse?
In the form of the Local Democracy Reporting pilot, supported by NZ on Air with a range of existing media outlets, taken together with what Paul Thompson calls its “radical sharing” mindset, RNZ has assumed the mantle of making New Zealand media as a whole better and more sustainable. It is hard to see how the “New Media Brand” fits within this philosophy. Here’s my worry: they’re unleashing a splendid and necessary idea, which is just what New Zealand needed, in 1996.
The article has been updated to correct the audience figure for Concert FM.
The Spinoff Daily gets you all the day's best reading in one handy package, fresh to your inbox Monday-Friday at 5pm.