The bank-roller of the fringe online radio station says in a recent meeting, NZME wanted to know their ‘secret sauce’.
Representatives from fringe online radio station The Platform met with the chief executive of NZME, the company that owns Newstalk ZB and the Herald, to discuss a possible undetermined “relationship”.
The Spinoff can reveal that Wayne Wright Jr, the bankroller of The Platform and a member of the rich-lister Wright family, along with broadcaster Sean Plunket, founder of the online radio network, met with NZME CEO Michael Boggs in late October.
The revelation that the meeting took place comes amid financial turmoil across the media landscape. Stuff recently introduced paywalls across its regional publications such as The Post, following on from NZME which launched NZ Herald Premium in 2016.
Earlier in the year, it was reported that the local owners of TV channel Three had lost more than $34 million for the second year in a row.
Wright told The Spinoff that the meeting, which he said was initiated by NZME, took place to discuss whether there could be “any sort of ongoing relationship” between the two brands.
“We struggled with that because a big component of The Platform is the independence that we have and the stickiness of our audience is really hinged on us being outside of the quote unquote mainstream media,” said Wright.
“So we left the meeting at that point basically shaking hands and saying it was nice to meet you, but at this point it’s difficult to see how there could be any sort of commercial relationship.”
There was no explicit discussion of NZME acquiring The Platform, and Wright Jr said the conversation was more about how the two companies could learn from one another. An outright acquisition of The Platform would be a significant move, though it’s not unusual for media outlets to enter into smaller financial partnerships around content sharing. For example, The Spinoff and the Herald have a deal that allows for the republication of select articles.
“As the meeting progressed, what they wanted from us was our secret sauce of how we have a loyal audience and how did we get there,” Wright told The Spinoff. In return, The Platform was seeking to learn how to improve its financial sustainability.
In short: “They were looking for product development and we were looking for commercial development.”
Wright confirmed the meeting was just between Boggs, Plunket and himself. At this stage, there has been no ongoing conversation between the two companies, though Wright said he was open to it.
The Spinoff approached a spokesperson for NZME via phone and email, but received no response. A text to Boggs directly was also left unanswered.
Wright said he had concerns about The Platform linking itself to a major media organisation. Largely, these centred around the risk of the network’s editorial independence being impinged on. “From Sean [Plunket]’s perspective, I’d be concerned that he would lose his editorial control. He’s had very broad, free-range editorial control of The Platform since the outset,” he said.
The Platform has developed a loyal audience since launching in early 2022. In part, that’s been through courting those who actively avoid mainstream media and by championing issues that can broadly be considered part of the “culture wars”, such as around transgender rights.
Plunket has interviewed, on multiple occasions, the anti-transgender campaigner Posie Parker, who has been openly critical of other local media outlets following her brief visit to New Zealand earlier this year. And in recent weeks, New Zealand First leader Winston Peters, who spent much of the election campaign embracing the fringe community, has opted to be interviewed almost exclusively on The Platform.
For a while, the outlet also appeared to be moving into the anti-vaccination space, providing room for appearances by parliament protest figureheads Chantelle Baker and Counterspin’s Kelvyn Alp.
“That was our deal,” Wright said of this approach to editorial independence. “I just don’t know how a large organisation could take on an organisation like The Platform and keep its very gritty, sometimes confronting but always honest approach to things. Our long-form interviews and the candid nature that we have with people.”
While NZME is beholden to standards set by the Media Council, The Platform is not a member. As such, any relationship with NZME could potentially see Plunket brought back into the mainstream media for the first time since his abrupt departure from the former Mediaworks radio station Magic Talk (which evolved into the short-lived Today FM) in early 2021.
That move came in the wake of an offensive interview conducted by Plunket’s then colleague John Banks, which prompted an advertiser backlash, though the exact circumstances of Plunket’s departure remain less clear.
Newstalk ZB recently launched an online paywall for a new subset of its website dubbed ZB Plus, which describes itself as offering “a new voice in New Zealand journalism”. It hasn’t openly embraced fringe issues in the manner of The Platform, but it has amassed a list of contributors almost exclusively from the right of politics.
ZB Plus is led by blogger Philip Crump, who built a brand online under the name Thomas Cranmer. Under this pseudonym, Crump developed a loyal audience for his critical and almost academic reports on subjects such as co-governance and Three Waters.
Wright acknowledged the recent launch of ZB Plus, telling The Spinoff it was in some ways “similar” to The Platform. He suggested that NZME wanted the two brands to be close in nature. “[NZME] were having a hard time cracking the shell of [ZB Plus] and could see that we had done a pretty good job [with The Platform],” he said.
“I applauded them on their marketing department and how they were able to commercialise the media space.”
The Platform was still not financially self-sustaining, said Wright, though he was happy with its performance. “I would like to see the revenue rate, the advertising rate, steadily notch up… it’s certainly undervalued at the moment compared to the rates the big players get, but that takes time,” he said.
In an extensive interview with The Spinoff’s Duncan Greive last year, Wright described the impetus behind bankrolling The Platform.
“That famous ‘Jessica, then Tova’,” recalled Wright of the daily 1pm Covid-19 press conferences. “For me, my family, and many of our friends, it kind of set us off. Because it indicated to us an all too cosy relationship between the government and the media.”
Additional reporting by Duncan Greive.