Week in Review

Concert FM’s lesson in realpolitik

The revival of Concert FM's future after just a couple of days of protest by its well-connected listeners tells us two things about New Zealand today: rich, old voters matter most, and public media is underfunded by at least $50m, writes Bernard Hickey.

There is the 'No Surprises' policy. And then there is the 'don't-surprise-Helen-Clark-by-turning-off-Concert-FM' policy.

Former Labour Prime Minister Helen Clark became famously responsible in and around Wellington's wind tunnels for what is now known by every senior public servant as the 'No Surprises' policy. It emerged before Clark and her enforcer Helen 'H2' Simpson took up residence in the ninth floor of the Beehive in 1999, but they turned it into a weaponised method of mass bureaucratic control. It is so embedded in public life that it is a named thing with a capital 'N' and a capital 'S', as explained here in August 2017 by State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes.

It means that any departmental official or Crown Entity offficial with knowledge of any proposal or event that might embarrass the Government politically should tell the minister involved as fast as they can, and in private. That minister is then expected to sprint to the ninth floor and tell the Prime Minister before the media finds out so they can either reverse the policy or dream up some talking points to explain or blame away the issue. A text message is sometimes acceptable.

RNZ CEO Paul Thompson and his board must be wishing now he had been better schooled in the policy, and had known about a special version of the policy that applies to a very special part of the electorate. This version applies to taking away publicly-funded things that former Cabinet ministers, Prime Ministers, retired high court judges, retired opera singers and other dames love a lot. This is the Concert FM version of the policy.

Many will hope Thompson will be forgiven for not knowing the nuances, given his history as an editor and media executive in the private sector trying to get around and under and over the policy to report what Governments of all flavours were doing.

He seemed to be learning in real time this week after Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern used an interview on RNZ's Morning Report on Monday to express "frustration" that the planned "gutting" and relegation of Concert FM to a robo-station on AM had been announced before the Government had had to chance to come up with an alternative FM channel. It's still unclear if the staff losses have also been reversed. It wouldn't surprise me if they are reversed within days too.

'A miscommunication surprise'

Thompson told RNZ's Checkpoint on Tuesday there had been a "miscommunication" over one key point in the plan.

"I think we obviously didn't explain it clearly enough, and when we were talking about our plan, there was an assumption that it wouldn't be obvious initially that the FM transmission would be affected, and I think that was just a glitch in the communications," he said.

"We did believe that we had carefully briefed everyone we needed to about our plans, but there was miscommunication over one key point. And that key point [was] over whether we would be talking publicly about the loss of Concert on FM, and I think that's where there was a miscommunication, and look, it's unfortunate.

"How we got there was very bumpy and rocky, but we do think that it's really affirming that the Government has endorsed our strategy, that RNZ needs to become more relevant to younger people, and a new music service is a great way of doing that."

The story so far

It's worth rewinding the tape to see how this story blew up in everyone's faces.

It began with RNZ announcing last Wednesday a proposal to make 17 staff redundant, including all Concert FM presenters, by the end of next month. They would be replaced by 13 new people in Auckland who would launch a youth station on Concert FM's frequencies. Concert would then become a 'robo-station' broadcasting classical music on RNZ's AM frequencies, in between Parliamentary broadcasts.

It all seemed sensible enough at the time, particularly in the context of over a decade of under-funding from 2008 to 2018 and RNZ's statutory requirement to serve all audiences, including the younger ones who don't get dressed up to go to the opera.

“RNZ can’t just sit here and age with our audience and disappear," Thompson said last week. "We have to start to make some moves now that connect us with young people,” he told Mediawatch.

"RNZ has strong audiences but they skew older. We are thinking five and ten years ahead. We need to start to connect with younger New Zealanders," he said.

“We are expanding our services off our current resources. There are some tough choices in that but this is a really good story of RNZ getting to more New Zealanders."

This idea of a youth station has been around for more than 20 years, but RNZ has never had the funding to do both, especially since that funding was frozen around $35m in 2007 for a decade, including $5m for Concert FM. That funding started increasing again in the last year of the Key-English Government and has been lifted to $40m in 2018/19, but remains well behind the growth in the rest of the economy. If RNZ's funding had kept up with the pace of nominal GDP growth over that time, it would be $59m now.

After years of frustration, Thompson and his board decided now was the time to make that hard choice about using its limited resources to try to reach that younger audience.

"When we look at our limited resources, how do we deploy them?" he asked last week.

He and they may not have expected the speed and the intensity of the backlash to this redeployment. 

It came via twitter

Former Prime Minister Helen Clark was both surprised and not amused.

She tweeted last Thursday: "Concerned to see marginalisation of ⁦@RNZConcert programme: it’s due to be taken off FM frequency w/ major staff cuts & w/ little programming as it is moved to AM & an online automated service. This equates to a dumbing down of cultural life in NZ.

“Reasons given by RNZ management don’t stack up: one doesn’t have to destroy the Concert Programme to establish youth radio services and broaden audiences. This combined with demolition of overseas collection at the National Library NZ and cutbacks at Archives NZ represents significant cultural setback.”

Her followers quickly jumped on to support her, and she responded: "Hope ministers will take an interest in this very concerning @radionz decision." But most importantly she then tagged in Broadcasting Minister Kris Faafoi (@KrisinMana) and Finance Minister Grant Robertson (@grantrobertson1).

If Thompson's blood didn't run cold upon reading that, it would have seven hours later when Robertson replied: "We will Helen. I am advised it is still a consultation and we will be talking to RNZ about their options."

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa thundered in with her support for Clark's campaign, along with former National cabinet minister Chris Finlayson. Then there was a petition with more than 10,000 (virtual) signatures.

"I understand why [RNZ board chair] Mr Mather and Mr Thompson have run for the hills because they should front up to explain their lousy process," Finlayson said.

"The second thing they need to do is to explain why it is that a public service broadcasting organisation is going to have some kind of ZM-type channel... it's pretty dopey," he said.

"It's a fundamental flaw to think that young people are only interested in the music of Amy Winehouse rather than the music of Brahms."

Within days, the issue was discussed in cabinet on Monday and the Prime Minister announced the Government would ensure there was a new frequency for the youth channel so Concert could keep its FM frequency.

The numbers that matter

This real-time exercise in realpolitik for RNZ's board and the Government illustrates where power lies in New Zealand.

They only needed to look at the number and demographics of the Concert FM fans. It has a weekly cumulative audience 173,300 or 4.0 percent of the 10+ population. The share would be at least ten times that for the 60+ population.

This chart from the Electoral Commission shows why the Government needs to take seriously the views of 173,300 mostly elderly voters: close to 100 percent of them are enrolled to vote, and almost all of them do. Meanwhile, about 400,000 of the 1.4 million people aged 18-39 are not enrolled to vote and are not expected to vote.

The real issue

The wider issue though is the under-funding of public media.

A cabinet paper released with Faafoi's proposal to merge TVNZ and RNZ shows how low New Zealand funding is in GDP and population adjusted terms. It should be at least $50m higher if New Zealand was in line with its peers.


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