RNZ: We’ll never be a ‘one-note’ service again
This article was first published July 13, 2017.
RNZ executives say its strong survey results validate its new direction, though it hasn't been smooth sailing for staff getting used to the new way of doing things
The volatile state of the world may be boosting RNZ's ratings.
The second survey of the year for Radio New Zealand, released on July 12 shows the public broadcaster has continued to grow its audience.
According to RNZ’s CEO Paul Thompson the world is in a strong news cycle and this is likely to be driving the ratings.
“Serious news is back in favour, particularly with some of the election results we have seen overseas and that is good for us.”
The GfK radio survey for the 12-month period to June 2017 put RNZ National’s weekly cumulative audience at 619,000 listeners in the 10+ bracket.
This was up from 579,400 in the last survey - or nearly seven percent.
RNZ National maintained its place as the second most listened-to station in the country. The Edge, owned by MediaWorks, is number one with 650,000 listeners.
RNZ is well ahead of Newstalk ZB, the top non-music commercial station which had 502,000 listeners in a GfK survey released a week ago.
RNZ National’s flagship programme Morning Report continues to be the station’s powerhouse. The breakfast programme was up 8.6 percent to 467,000 listeners a week.
Thompson believes the show is attracting former listeners back and adding new ones. He partly attributes this to the less formal style RNZ has been developing across all its programmes.
“We are just a little bit more relaxed these days, less formal and that is working for Morning Report. We are having more fun but retaining that credibility news needs.”
There are signs that Morning Report might be benefitting from weaker performances by the commercial stations.
Radio Live’s AM show dropped 6,000 listeners in the latest survey, and ZB’s Mike Hosking is not the growth machine he once was.
The “looser” style that Thompson refers to may’ve driven up ratings on two other shows. The Panel with Jim Mora and Sunday Morning with Wallace Chapman had significant rises.
Mora’s revamped hour-long afternoon show has been a standout performer in the last two surveys.
The programme has increased the diversity of its daily panel of two guests and is the place where opinion is allowed off the hook at RNZ.
“The show is bringing us a different audience…they are looking for more opinionated views and Jim is a highly credible broadcaster who can handle this,” says Thompson.
"We are having more fun but retaining that credibility news needs.”
Hiring hosts with markedly different styles has been a key strategy for Thompson and his head of news, Carol Hirschfeld.
“We were a one-note news service but we will never be again,” says Hirschfeld.
The former TV3 producer and Māori TV executive has been a driving force behind RNZ’s multimedia strategy on programmes like Checkpoint with John Campbell.
Checkpoint increased its audience in the latest survey but not to the same extent as other programmes like Morning Report.
However, commercial radio bosses like MediaWorks’ Leon Wratt say Campbell has been a “game changer” in terms of RNZ’s image.
“I think he is attracting a newer, younger audience for them and has lifted their profile. He is a very good broadcaster.”
Hirschfeld has made the most of Campbell’s ability to engage an audience across the digital spectrum.
“Having Checkpoint go out on Facebook Live has been a tremendous plus for us. We also gave the show its own dedicated digital producer and that has made a big difference.”
Thompson says Campbell is getting “huge engagement on Facebook and social media is allowing him to bring into play all that connection and history he has with the audience.”
Thompson and Hirschfeld concede the cultural shift going on at RNZ comes with a degree of pain.
The public broadcaster recently made its long serving editorial development director Gael Woods redundant. This resulted in its respected news director and former political editor Brent Edwards quitting in protest.
And recently, Parliament’s commerce committee heard the contents of a leaked internal report where one staff member had submitted that “the culture being developed is one of fear, division, suspicion and mistrust.”
Another said a proposed investigative unit would be “yet another silo” and “every decision being taken by the senior management team is aimed at adding to these silos.”
Sources inside RNZ say the resource going behind the Auckland-based Campbell has upset staff in Wellington and not helped in breaking down the “silo” mentality.
Hirschfeld says part of the issue is that many staff have had a public service ethos that everything should be distributed equally, and struggle with the idea that somethings need to be prioritised.
“We have to make some selections and look at areas where we can make an impact, there is just no way round that in today’s media environment.”
For Thompson, the ratings figures are proof that RNZ is on the right track.
“The latest figures are good evidence to staff that we have all raised our game and it is working, they have had a galvanising effect.”