An extraordinary week at the national broadcaster ends with a complete backdown on plans to downgrade RNZ Concert and make music staff redundant. Toby Manhire speaks to staff and Helen Clark, and asks: has RNZ’s embarrassment translated into RNZ getting a budget boost?
Last Wednesday RNZ music staff were summoned to a meeting to hear the news. The long talked-about youth radio network was to become a reality, in the form of a “new music brand”, run out of Auckland. It came at a cost, however: RNZ Concert would be shunted off the FM band. It would be “automated”. Concert and much of RNZ’s Wellington music operation would be hollowed out, in weeks. Twenty positions would be scrapped, with at least a dozen staff likely to be made redundant. One of those present told The Spinoff they were left “shellshocked”.
Almost exactly a week later, in a U-turn more dramatic and helter-skelter than the most elaborate of commercial radio pranks, the plan was abandoned.
At about 2pm this afternoon, RNZ CEO Paul Thompson had been expected to accept a 26,000-signature strong petition demanding the Concert changes be abandoned. Shortly beforehand he cancelled that engagement. Instead he was with music content director Willy Macalister and head of radio and music David Allan, standing before affected staff in the Wellington office. The executives told employees their jobs were safe: the restructure had been torn up.
The mood among staff at the meeting – many of whom had gone through the most upsetting, yet strangely buoying week of their careers – was more of relief than delight. It would take time to rebuild trust, staff told the management trio.
In a memo to staff this afternoon, Thompson wrote:
Today I met with RNZ Music and RNZ Concert staff to withdraw the restructuring proposal we initiated last week.
Things have changed since we announced the proposal with the government now indicating it will support the new music service for young New Zealanders.
That is good news and provides an opportunity to re-set our thinking.
Over the next month we will develop a new strategy for RNZ Concert aimed at improving its audience performance. Staff will have input into that plan.
Meanwhile, RNZ will also work with the government on the proposal for the new service for young people.
The volte-face followed a week-long outcry from supporters of Concert, including dozens of high-profile, well-connected individuals, most notably and vocally former prime minister Helen Clark, who publicly admonished RNZ, its board and the broadcasting minister Kris Faafoi, as well as her former protégés, finance minister Grant Robertson and the prime minister, Jacinda Ardern.
You would be hard pressed to find a more immediate and effective lobbying effort.
Robertson was quick to assure Clark – on her second home, Twitter – that ministers would be “talking to RNZ about their options”. After announcing another broadcasting overhaul, the proposed merger of RNZ and TVNZ, Faafoi said they were “working on a plan to mitigate some of the issues”. Having expressed her “frustration” over the RNZ changes, Ardern announced that another FM frequency could be freed up, and Concert could live on in stereo after all.
This afternoon’s announcement was of an altogether greater magnitude, however. Not only would Concert remain on FM, but its staff would keep their jobs. The restructure plan had been scrapped, and a new strategy for Concert would be drafted.
Clark told The Spinoff that the reversal of the restructure was a victory for the “passionate audience” that RNZ Concert had built. The broadcaster, she said, had become “obsessed with ‘brand’”.
“I do not agree,” Thompson said. “RNZ’s audiences and levels of trust are at record levels and we continue to provide a unique, high quality service to the public,” said the RNZ boss in an email to The Spinoff.
Asked why she had chosen to expend political capital on salvaging a classical music station, Clark – who is currently in Europe on speaking engagements – said she was reluctant to get involved in domestic politics, but this “went to the heart of a value system about public broadcasting … Why on earth was so something so fundamental being attacked without consultation?”
There had been an “outpouring from people of all backgrounds”, said Clark. “It touched something very deeply within people.”
She said RNZ Concert staff “should feel incredibly affirmed by the amazing public support that they have had – an audience that really passionately believes in what they do”. Their challenge now, she said, was to “take that audience, and build on the engagement, audience and discussion”.
Shortly after 4pm this afternoon, Wallace Chapman broke the news to RNZ listeners. The Panel host said the restructuring proposal had been scrapped.
Meanwhile, Kris Faafoi was taking to his feet in parliament.
He steered away from discussing the fate of Concert, and distanced the government from RNZ’s decision making. Asked about Clark’s remarks, he said: “It’s very important that governments keep away from operational decisions that public broadcasters make, and the decision to run a consultation with their staff around a youth network strategy was theirs. They have subsequently taken action to keep Concert FM where it is. The former prime minister is entitled to her opinion.”
Yesterday, Paul Thompson told RNZ Checkpoint that the government’s announcement that it would free up an FM frequency was a “very positive outcome”, but acknowledged there had been a “miscommunication” about public discussion around the removal of Concert FM. He said the government move suggested it “endorsed our strategy”, and that he was grateful for the “intense feedback” from Concert listeners.
He stressed that RNZ needed to make changes to reach a wider, younger and more diverse audience. RNZ has signalled its goal to reach 50% of New Zealanders by 2023, “creating a lifelong relationship with all the people of Aotearoa”.
Thompson added that there was no decision, however, on whether the staff restructure would change. “We’re just thinking about things at the moment … We do have a consultation under way with staff and any communication and decision about that needs to be done with staff.”
In a statement yesterday, the RNZ board “welcomed the government’s decision to look at freeing up an additional FM transmission frequency and to explore funding options for a multi-media music brand” – a possible hint that a budget boost may be imminent.
The chair of the RNZ board, Jim Mather, said: “We hear that passion for Concert and look forward to completing the consultation process to consider other possible improvements to that service now we have been given the potential of additional FM capacity”.
Helen Clark this morning told RNZ that she was unimpressed by Thompson’s “market-speak” in his interview – the “constant references to brands and selling things”.
The process had been “disastrously handled”, she said.
“For an organisation that seems now to think ‘brand’ is incredibly important , you couldn’t have done more brand destruction than has been done by the way this has been handled. I think there’s one saving grace, and that’s that Radio New Zealand’s own news and current affairs [staff] have had the courage to pick up this issue and ask some very hard questions.”
Among numerous RNZ staff spoken to by The Spinoff, a major concern was the framing of the issue as Concert v Youth. Last week’s confidential restructure document, viewed by The Spinoff, is clear that the planned Concert cutbacks were cost neutral, to be “implemented from within current budgets”.
Thompson told The Spinoff the plan for the new youth-focused music brand remained intact. It had been “strengthened by the government’s enthusiasm for the initiative”, he said.
As to where the dollars would come from, he said, “It will require new funding.”
Had the government indicated a budget boost was imminent? “The signs are positive and any new funding will require a robust proposal,” he said.
And yet the board’s statement, and that Thompson’s confidence that it the trade-off presented a week ago no longer applies, together suggest something has changed: that the government has indicated not just that a frequency will be freed up, but that fresh funding will make both the youth project and the existing operation viable.
If so, it may be that RNZ has gone full jazz, and improvised its way into a very effective, serendipitous budget bid.
Grant Robertson told the Spinoff via a spokesperson: “Budget 2020 funding decisions are yet to be finalised so it’s not possible to make any comment about RNZ’s funding as yet.”
And Thompson’s message to staff who have been through a hellish week? “Things have changed for the better,” he said. “Therefore we need to re-set our plans. Please work with us on this.”
This post was updated to incorporate comment from Paul Thompson and Grant Robertson.