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Image: Archi Banal
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MediaApril 22, 2023

The big dreams and cursed history of NZ’s abandoned youth media brands 

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

Despite a looming recession, both NZME and Stuff have just found the resources to launch new youth brands. Duncan Greive looks at the history of major New Zealand media companies saying ‘how do you do, fellow kids?’

It’s a freaky time in the news media. Forward ad bookings have fallen off a cliff, major international brands are laying off hundreds of staff, and Buzzfeed News just shut down completely. Yet there are bright spots locally – both Stuff and NZME have found the time and resources to launch new youth brands within weeks of one another. Stuff was first out the gate with Newsable, a podcast brand which also plays out across Instagram, TikTok and YouTube. Just yesterday NZME followed with What the Actual?!, a “social news brand for gen z”.

“The outlet will deliver easily consumable, video-led content covering the biggest breaking stories, current events, sports, entertainment, social justice and political news,” NZME says. If that sounds like a vaguely familiar proposition, that’s unsurprising. Both Newsable and What the Actual?! are clearly modelled on Shit You Should Care About (SYSCA), the enormously successful social news company founded by three friends from Blenheim and run by Lucy Blakiston.

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That the two biggest news media companies in the country have had the same idea at the same time is not unsurprising. SYSCA has achieved a fairly extraordinary level of profile locally in a very short space of time. While some might view this as big players cynically copying a beautiful independent media business – and the names and/or slogans of each are a bit too close for comfort – you could also argue that both have little choice. Short of buying SYSCA – and Blakiston isn’t eager to sell – they need some sort of plan for younger audiences, and aping something which clearly works is a logical play. 

Additionally, while the drive to create youth brands often strongly smells of the sales department, those hired to work on them deserve the chance to prove that these properties don’t just exist to compete with influencers and direct social media advertising, but that they can create something meaningful and find a real and sustainable audience.

Why youth brands are so hard to make

Historically media companies gave little thought to younger audiences. The whole concept of the “teenager” first took root in the 1950s and 60s as the baby boomers came of age, inducing the same combination of horror and curiosity as zoomers are thrilled to be experiencing today. Still, major media companies felt no great need to service that group. For starters, they had little money, and just as it is now, advertising was the main funder of media. More to the point, teenagers had little choice but to engage with whatever adult media existed, because media channels were limited and creating new ventures was very expensive and still highly regulated.

Still, there was a growing audience of people aged roughly 15-30, and as New Zealand became more culturally exposed to the world, so there was growing demand here for a more representative voice. Perhaps the first major youth-focused local brand to emerge in that era was Hauraki, a pirate radio station illegally broadcasting from a boat in the gulf.

Along with magazines, radio has been the most successful home of youth brands over the years. This is both because it’s relatively cheap to produce, and because the FM bandwidth allowed frequencies to be allocated to the likes of student and iwi radio, the origin story of the likes of bFM, Radio 1 and Mai FM. Student magazines like Craccum, Critic and Salient provided a vital voice for young perspectives and anti-establishment views, while eventually TV stations like Max TV, Cry and Alt TV created a renegade atmosphere and cult followings to go along with it.

What unites all those brands is that they were formed independent of major media or corporate interests. There is an inherent tension between the need for a true youth brand to have an edge and define itself in opposition to the values and vibe of the established media, and the need for major media companies to have a pliable product it can package up to sell to advertisers. Or to put it another way, it’s understandable that the majors would want to own something young and cool, but it requires soft hands and a high degree of trust, which are often incompatible with a large corporate structure.

The many youth brands buried at NZ’s major media companies

There is a further tension within major media companies about how to approach younger audiences. Do you try and create a place which feels built for them within your existing properties, or do you create something outside which can attract its own audience? Historically, the first approach has been taken more often. TV shows like Ready to Roll, Ice TV, Mai Time, Flipside and Squeeze, or newspaper inserts like TimeOut, existed within the mothership but had a different staff and design scheme, allowing some degree of tonal autonomy. 

Perhaps the peak of the build-it-and-they-will-come approach was the frothy late-90s/early-00s, a golden age for New Zealand pop culture and mass media, when big media companies took huge swings. Channels like C4 and two iterations of MTV emerged from major media companies, while TV2 and TV3 were much more explicitly youth-coded. The likes of Channel Z (here’s an excellent history of that station), George and Flava joined a vibrant radio market either from within or through acquisition.

Channel Z
Lightning in a bottle: Channel Z lasted from 1996 to 2005. (Image: Tina Tiller)

All that worked pre-internet, when boredom was a very present danger for young people. But as soon as the internet came along, and with it an ability to self-select or be algorithmically served niche content, the audience started to melt away very quickly. Most of those brands are now gone, either buried entirely or replaced with more middle-aged platforms. It didn’t stop attempts to make new youth brands in digital spaces, but there was a notably lower level of commitment, both in terms of the initial resourcing and ultimately how long they got to figure it out.

The Wireless from RNZ was briefly a shining light, touted in speeches as a major success, before being quietly shuttered a few years in. It has been spiritually replaced by Tahi, though there is very little promotion of its work, and when I asked RNZ whether Tahi would be dialled up in light of its recently-announced funding increase, its head of comms did not even reply. Which seems ominous. 

TVNZ made arguably the best corporate-created youth brand of the 2010s in TVNZ U, staffed by an outrageous roster of young comedic talent, including Rose Matafeo, Eli Mathewson and Guy Montgomery (here is an excellent history of that channel). It too was brutally shut down after a few years, despite its hybrid format being brilliantly conceived for porting to digital. Vice NZ did incredible things too, but shut down in one of many waves of layoffs at the troubled giant (though Vice NZ has recently re-emerged as a zombie brand, courtesy of the Ministry of Social Development).

The hosts of TVNZ U

Mediaworks largely confined itself to the Jono and Ben multiverse, along with its radio brands, while NZME launched and quietly abandoned Kick in 2021, perhaps due to the drama over it running “baseless lies” about Clark Gayford. As of now, the most long-running and successful youth brand birthed by a major media company in recent times is TVNZ’s Re:, which has smartly ridden a social-first approach to a large audience. 

Will this time be different?

This is the backdrop to Newsable and What the Actual?!. They’re coming on the heels of a multitude of youth brands which burned bright but ultimately struggled to retain the confidence and attention of their corporate parent. 

Both the newcomers have some clear advantages. Stuff has been revamped to be fresher and edgier over the past couple of years, meaning Newsable and its parent brand feel a lot more closely connected. Stuff’s content has moved noticeably toward younger, social media-informed values too. It feels very committed to Newsable, giving it regular homepage takeovers – a contrast with the soft launch for NZME’s What the Actual?!

NZME, on the other hand, has historically been much more successful than Stuff at creating a portfolio of interconnected brands. The Alternative Commentary Collective isn’t a youth brand by any means – it arose from test cricket loving 40-somethings who wanted to tell rude jokes. But it has attracted a younger audience, and become a phenomenon, largely due to NZME’s admirable ability to leave it the hell alone – “like a clandestine P lab in the newsroom”, as its founder Mike Lane told me. That level of trust and autonomy will be essential to making What the Actual?! stick where Kick did not. 

Even more crucial will be making money. Building an audience first and figuring out the funding later is a time-honoured tradition in media. It really works, if you stay committed long enough and get the right commercial people involved. What tends to happen much more often is that a CFO looks at the numbers after a few months and starts to ask hard questions, and one bad quarter leaves executives scrambling for a sacrificial lamb they can use to show how serious they are about preserving margin.

Let’s hope that’s not the case here. The talent on both sides is real and deserving of these shots, with NZME’s play rising out of its Te Rito cadetship programme, exactly as intended. Talent remains the core of this business – giving young people a shot and a platform, backing them to work it out, and being comfortable with the inevitable mistakes they’ll make and walls they’ll hit. 

It is existentially important for both companies to have a plan for younger audiences, so let’s hope they’re really here for the long haul this time. That these two brands get the kind of commitment Today FM was promised by Mediaworks, and not the kind of commitment it received in the end.

Disclosure: I regularly guest on Shit You Should Care About’s podcast The Shit Show, and informally advise the company.

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