MediaMarch 10, 2016

Opinion: Forget Max Key – there are much bigger problems at George FM


George FM’s latest celebrity signing has caused an uproar among dance music fans while garnering the station plenty of free publicity. But the Max Key fuss hides more serious issues at George, says DJ Tom McGuinness.

Unless you’ve been living under a Herald-less, Stuff-less, Scout-less rock, you’ll be aware that Max Key, son of the Prime Minister, now has a show on what has long been marketed as our quintessential dance and electronic music radio station, George FM.

You’ll know about the social media stir as well. Many in New Zealand’s dance music scene have railed against the appointment, while others have suggested some sort of conspiracy or Government-level nepotism – so much so that station heads sent out an all-staff email including a fairly tyrannical toe-the-line threat:

Max Key

Key’s new show is one part of a controversial new nighttime lineup, curated by dubstep and drum & bass artist Jay Bulletproof (who, it turns out, was also the author of the above email). Shows have been slashed to one hour, longstanding presenters shifted to later slots, and the shift towards ‘bass music’ (trap, dubstep and drum & bass) and a commercial pop style of dance music has accelerated.

A side note: It’s important to emphasise that this isn’t about individual presenters on the station. Bringing in young, fresh faces is to be encouraged – we all had to start somewhere.

It’s not the first time that major changes have caused controversy at George FM. I was a DJ there when MediaWorks purchased the station and remember being told nothing would change. Yet over time New Zealand electronic music royalty like Greg Churchill (now back on the George FM airwaves), Bevan Keys, and Recloose and Frank Booker’s globally recognised Hit It & Quit It show were off air – voluntarily in some cases, others not so much.

At George FM, as at every workplace, people come and people go. But Max Key’s arrival is effectively clouding what are real problems at the station – a set of issues that has a far more profound effect on listeners, presenters and the wider electronic music scene in this country.

MediaWorks, the media conglomerate that owns George FM, is a business. Anyone that sees through the conspiracy theory Facebook comments about some sort of politically-motivated desire to control what we see or hear knows this. They also know that all MediaWorks really cares about are ratings.

Despite what such extreme shifts in programming might imply, the reality is that George FM has been smashing the ratings since MediaWorks and station boss Willy Macalister took over in 2009 – something that was made known to the numerous DJs that have come and gone from the station in that time. Which begs the question, was the Max Key publicity-grab really necessary?

(Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)
(Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

The problem isn’t schedule or staffing changes. It’s that George FM is no longer representative of the dance / electronic / alternative music community it claims to champion. Not only that, but it actually seems to be at odds with what’s going on in the wider nightlife scene here. At the very least, it’s ignoring some of the more progressive and interesting stuff happening around the country.

In the past 12 months acts like Shigeto, Daedalus, Floating Points, A Guy Called Gerald and more have played sold out or near capacity shows in New Zealand with little, if any, support from George. Small collectives like the artspace-turned-ravespace Inky Waves – which started in the Inky Palms gallery on Auckland’s K’Road and has gone from 20 people, no alcohol and the most D.I.Y. sound-system I’ve ever played on, to sold out showcases in Wellington and curating art and music festival Chronophonium’s first ever ‘dance stage’ – again, with no support from George FM. Vancouver-based New Zealander Richard McFarlane, who runs the record label 1080p, has been releasing electronic music by a number of New Zealanders and the label was included in Resident Advisor’s, Juno Records’, and XLR8R’s ‘top labels of 2015’ lists.

Yet you’d be hard pressed to hear any mention of this on this country’s supposed ‘dance and electronic’ music radio station.

Women are nowhere to be found on the night lineup.

There’s another issue here, one that only a few people have actually brought up. The all new George FM night lineup is 100% male – a full-on boys club. With equality for women in electronic music a hot topic at the moment, it’s a surprisingly tone deaf approach. It also doesn’t need to be this way. There are a number of local female artists and DJ’s that could have filled a slot – not least Red Bull Music Academy 2015 attendee Katherine Anderson, aka K2K.

The problems at George FM have become self-perpetuating – they tout their creative clean outs and change ups, yet the decisions seem to come straight from the boardroom. But as a friend said to me recently, “It’s mainstream commercial media, can you expect them to know what’s really up?”

But why can’t we? George FM markets itself as our ‘dance and electronic music station’ but they’ve completely missed an entire culture of electronic music that is thriving in this country.

The solution: George FM should either stand up and accept what they have become; a commercial, mainstream, pop-dance radio station – and stop marketing themselves as anything other than that – or re-think their programming. Even with MediaWorks’ quest for ratings, it’s not as if there is zero audience for non-mainstream electronic music here, something that is proven almost weekly in our clubs and venues. They might even be surprised with the results. If not, then surely it must be the perfect opportunity for another radio station to seize that market?

Image: Tina Tiller

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