RNZ management wants to grow a youth audience without having to build a costly new platform. Anna Dean offers a bunch – none of which involves scrapping RNZ Concert.
Over the next few weeks RNZ National Concert staff are set to take part in strategy workshops focused on “growth in audience reach, size, strength, diversity” with management. You can only imagine the hurt and resentment in those rooms.
After dropping such a huge amount of brand equity and trust from the top floor of 155 The Terrace, it looks alarmingly rushed (read: a soft way of asking people to come up with ideas to keep their jobs). And yes, while reaching younger audiences for the public broadcaster is good, here’s some starters for the workshopping table and board.
Pool your talent
Prior to the recent local body elections, RNZ launched the Local Democracy Reporting Project, a regionally-based news project that reports on public and community funded organisations. LDR currently has eight journalists working in provincial newsrooms. It’s a model that could be adapted for RNZ’s fountain of youth ambitions, rather than the Auckland-centricity of the proposed plan (which included four Wellington music staff being made redundant of the 18). RNZ could collaborate with the network of student radio stations already in existence around the country. Supporting regional and student radio internships through existing programmes like Smokefree Rockquest and Tangata Beats might help achieve its aims without spending an eye-watering sum of money launching a station that attempts to serve the whole country.
Ask the young
A youth consultation process of both the engaged and the unengaged is crucial for audience research and awareness raising, which then informs content (rather than the ‘build it and they will come’ mentality which is guesswork at best and showing your age, at worst).
A psychographic mix for targets, based on audience motivations (rather than age) has been the mode of choice for anyone serious about reaching people for at least the last five or six years thanks to the widespread use of social media. The lack of evidence of youth consultation, beyond stats from the Radio Bureau (the commercial industry yardstick) and some Colmar Brunton segmentation has been alarming. It’s interesting to note that RNZ Concert outperforms RNZ National in the 10-19 demographic (source: GFK New Zealand total 2019 survey). But the key is to actually ask them.
Find some serious marketing money
One of the simplest solutions is to market the existing offerings properly, with dedicated budget. With restricted budgets after nine years of a budget freeze under the National government (a few years ago I’d take guests in to Kim Hill sessions on Saturdays and see the locked fridge, as weekend staff weren’t allowed to access the milk), I’m well aware of the budget constraints. Symptoms of an understaffed, under-resourced public broadcaster, unable to actively campaign to convert new listeners, there have been many youth and youth adjacent offerings, such as the Eating Fried Chicken in the Shower podcast, which struggle to find audiences without dedicated spends, beyond the RNZ newsletter and unboosted social posts.
All media outlets face a huge battle to reach audiences in the digital landscape, so proper budgets need to be assigned to marketing before any conversations around content creation can be had.
Know where your audience is
I give occasional lectures to music, media and performing arts students at Massey and Victoria Universities and always ask where they get their news and information. I’m met with blank stares in response to The Spinoff, RNZ, newspapers (lol)… Instead these media students get their information from Instagram and YouTube. There have been ‘Spotify-style’ mentions of a new RNZ platform and it’s well documented that music listening habits have changed. Young people multi-task while engaging with content: watching a TV show online while texting, commenting and scrolling, is the new normal for audience participation. We’re also facing Generation Alpha coming through with 15-second TikTok style expectations for content. It’s a huge challenge for content creators, and while ‘meeting young people where they are’ is the aim of the new brand, I’d say the nuance and immense undertaking of this task is completely underestimated by the board.
Be dextrous with your content
There’s been an explosion in podcast listening around the world, including Aotearoa. RNZ hosts a wealth of podcast gold that languishes without leverage. The Secret Life of was a great music series, as is Stomping Grounds. The City Guides are perfect youth material already in existence. Leveraging content ideas that are already in play, helping it reach target audiences would be an easy way to start, rather than reinventing the wheel. There is already visual music content for Facebook and Instagram of live filmed sessions. This is something the new ‘brand’ would capitalise on that’s already in existence, it’s just not pushed in the right way.
Include more youth in RNZ in general
During the summer offering of Standing Room Only, produced and presented by Mark Amery, I was impressed to hear Tayi Tibble and the Spinoff’s own Sam Brooks included in a panel roundup of 2019. It was a great inclusion of young voices and with Sophie Hanford speaking on Nine to Noon about the ‘youthquake’ during the local elections last year, my immediate thought was – wouldn’t it be great if this content was reaching their peers? The first step is to include them.
Leverage other databases
Some of the best youth content being created at the moment in this country (apart from independent Insta-story creators) is happening on TVNZ’s RE: thanks to the talents of Frances Morton. Her time at Vice finished when the media company slipped off its perch as the international youth channel of the last decade. Morton has taken her nose for marginalised and diverse stories to RE: and has worked with RNZ’s Melody Thomas on the brilliant He Kākano Ahau podcast series (funded by the now defunct Joint Innovation Fund between NZ On Air and RNZ).
That fund was also responsible for bringing in and empowering outside talent to RNZ including He Kākano host Kahu Kutia, Saraid de Silva and Julie Zhu.
Record more live events
A great plan would be to record a wider range of music and live events outside RNZ’s studios (again, requiring investment). I’d suggest staff define the criteria for what you will record as “live performance” very carefully. I can already hear the jazz enthusiasts wailing about unfair treatment. This is such a gaping objective for a public broadcaster, the criteria for selection must be transparent and consulted on.
Recognise your bias
While everything music-related is on the table during this workshopping process (and in light of iwi radio stations being in trouble) we must ask why isn’t there a dedicated Māori music show on Concert FM. Taonga pūoro is a music tradition that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world, why wouldn’t we showcase that? Indigenous programmes are being shelved around the country at a time when the world is waking up to “the original storytellers” (thanks to one T. Waititi). Kapa haka high school competitions attract thousands of performers and supporters, and the stars of those groups go onto the Te Matatini stage where they are watched by literally a million people. It’s not just that our public broadcaster should be holding these needs front and centre as per Treaty and Charter obligations, the audience already exists and they’re grossly underserved.
Lest we forget: The Wireless*
Let’s not forget about this relatively recent foray by RNZ into presenting content for youth, by youth. The platform folded a couple of years ago and the original team has gone on to successful things: Elle Hunt now freelances around the world after working for The Guardian in both Australia and London, Megan Whelan is now head of digital at RNZ, Susan Strongman continues to do essential, agenda-setting reporting for RNZ, Tess McClure is blazing a trail as a brilliant feature writer for international platforms, and the original head, Marcus Stickley has returned to Stuff. However from the get go, the brand, the name and the execution felt like it was targeting 40-year-olds. The Wireless created a huge amount of fantastic content but never matched its presentation with its intended audience.
If RNZ is serious about reaching a younger market, it’s going to have to relinquish a lot of control around brand, content, look and feel – and seriously scout for exceptional young talent. There is plenty out there, but they’ll need to be given a lot of leeway to achieve the vision outlined by board chair Jim Mather: “It is our intent to provide an opportunity for young New Zealanders to build a community designed by them, produced for them, presented by them and in doing so, creating a lifelong connection with RNZ.”
It’s hard to imagine RNZ heads handing over the tools to a young Ra Pomare (as David Farrier and producers did on Newsworthy with his lo-fi greenscreen videos) or scheduling the new Tom Sainsbury-style Facebook video series a la Gingerbread.
One thing that’s certain is that a lot of very distrustful staff will be workshopping a range of ideas with management and consultants over the next three weeks. Active listening from those at the top is a beautiful thing. May the many and diverse wants and needs of all, be heard.
* Full disclosure. I was contracted to launch The Wireless for RNZ which I was delighted to do. This involved putting on a youth panel recorded for RNZ at Galatos in 2013 that morphed into a giant dance party.
Anna Dean is co-founder and co-director of Wellington agency Double Denim Ltd. She administrates the Save Radio New Zealand Facebook page (est 2010) and has worked in the past as a contractor for RNZ, for the launch of The Wireless.