RNZ: ‘Every ice age ends’

When Finance Minister Steven Joyce delivers his Budget in Parliament this week, a short distance away at RNZ's headquarters on the Terrace, Paul Thompson will have the volume on his radio turned up a notch.

RNZ’s CEO will want to hear that his own budget is being boosted, even if it is just by a modest amount. 

“Every ice age ends" says Thompson, referring to the decade-long freeze on RNZ’s funding.

“We feel we have built a compelling case [for an increase] and we will wait with bated breath.”

RNZ’s $35 million budget hasn’t changed much since 2007 when a KPMG report found the state-owned broadcaster was underfunded by $6m to $7m.

Dr Peter Thompson, senior lecturer in media studies at Victoria University, recently calculated that if inflation were included it would mean RNZ is now underfunded by $14m a year.

If the Government has wanted to see better bang for its buck then Paul Thompson has met his side of the bargain. He has done more with less.

Despite a lack of money, RNZ has revitalised its news and current affairs programmes and vastly expanded the content available online.

Thompson, a former group executive editor at Fairfax NZ, has seriously shaken up the slumbering behemoth that was Radio New Zealand (It was renamed RNZ this year) since he took over in late 2013. 

Deadwood has been pruned, but Thompson wisely left the chainsaw in the shed. Instead, a delicate surgical operation has seen much of the best talent, like Morning Report’s executive producer Martin Gibson, former political editor Brent Edwards and others, remain.

Three years ago, Thompson went hunting in television land and hired Guyon Espiner. He paired the former TV1 and TV3 reporter with Wellington-based, Scottish-born, Susie Ferguson in a refreshed Morning Report

RNZ’s listeners didn’t necessarily embrace the change, but the reality was they had few alternatives. Switching to a ranting Mike Hosking on Newstalk ZB or a pontificating Sean Plunket on Radio Live was never going to happen.

The early days of the Espiner/Ferguson combo were rocky. Morning Report’s ratings were in the doldrums after RNZ misjudged its coverage of the 2014 Election campaign. 

Espiner concedes his tone was a problem: “I think too often I was too aggressive and that turned people off. I was striving for accountability but that turned into ugly exchanges.”

“I got quite a lot of feedback that it was terrible to listen to. Paul [Thompson] and Martin [Gibson] spoke to us about it, there were conversations but they let us work this stuff out on our own.”

The change in style hasn’t been dramatic but much of the bluntness and haranguing has gone. The show is a smooth and comprehensive three hours of news and current affairs, unrivalled by any competitor.

Espiner says he and Ferguson have tried to use more “humour and humanity” when eliciting information.

Perceptions that the programme and RNZ as an organisation are left-wing have also faded away.

Politicians from the left, Labour leader Andrew Little being a case in point, seem to get a tougher time than Government ministers.

Espiner says:

“There is no bias, I challenge anyone to come up with real evidence. I think sometimes people confuse worthiness with left-wing."

Espiner’s recent video series The 9th Floor is another example of the revolution going on at RNZ.  

He was encouraged to leave the studio and carry out the multi-media interviews with former prime ministers by RNZ’s head of content Carol Hirschfeld.

While it is not new for RNZ presenters to make the occasional foray into the field, what is new is the way the series has turned up on other platforms. 

Audio and video podcasts sit on RNZ’s own website and The Spinoff. TVNZ turned down the chance to broadcast it but TV3 picked it up and will screen the series later in the year.

This would never have happened under the Radio New Zealand’s previous CEO, Australian Peter Cavanagh - who had a fortress-like mentality and never cooperated with other media.

The idea of sharing or making RNZ material freely available to other media is a smart strategic move by Thompson.  

He has broadened the state broadcaster's reach and in many ways changed its image from dull and isolationist to innovative and interesting.

“I realised our audience was not large enough or diverse enough and we had no money for marketing," says Thompson.

RNZ now has deals with some of the country’s biggest media players Stuff and NZ Herald to run its audio on their digital platforms and get a small revenue return as well as increased profile.

“It has allowed us to piggyback on their reach. I thought hey, we have some great material here – let’s get it to more people.’

“It shows the community and the stakeholders [read: the Government and the taxpayers] the public value of RNZ.”

Thompson agrees that this “non-exclusive strategy” is also designed to win some love from the rest of the media.

“It’s no secret that there have been times when we have been lobbied against by the commercial media. If we can show that we are good partners it helps position us as a true public broadcaster and not Wellington folk making life harder for the commercial players.”

Thompson’s ability to carefully manoeuver around other media will be tested though by RNZ’s push into video and, in effect, television.

Hirschfeld, the former TV3 producer and Maori TV programming head has ambitious plans including an election night programme to rival TV1 and Three. Hirschfeld has the vastly experienced John Campbell (he has anchored the last six election night programmes for TV3) and Espiner (former TV1 political editor) in her arsenal of talent.

Campbell’s Checkpoint programme already streams video online and screens on Freeview and Sky TV channels.

But Thompson is quick to scotch suggestions that RNZ could become the “Uber” public broadcaster, taking over and running TV1 as part of a restructure of Government-owned media assets.

“The last thing you want is a monolithic BBC type organisation in New Zealand, we need diversity of voices in this country.”

Equally, the idea of the Government giving TVNZ money to run pubilc service channels like it did in the past with TVNZ 6 and TVNZ 7 is not a scenario Thompson has any time for.

“How galling if would be to see more investment in that outfit when others have done the hard work.”

Having repositioned news and current affairs, Thompson and Hirschfeld are likely to turn their attention to music radio.  

“I’d like to add another component and another direction to our music programming over the next 12 months.  There is great New Zealand music out there and I don’t think the commercial stations, for economic reasons, are playing enough New Zealand content”

Does this mean Concert FM is in for a shake up?  Thompson’s answer will make the Beethoven brigade a touch nervous.

“Classical music is pivotal to what RNZ does but I have an open mind – there are no sacred cows in RNZ.”

Further change is coming to RNZ, the speed of that change will depend on how much Joyce decides to dole out on Thursday. Stay tuned.

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