RNZ bosses face crescendo of criticism over Concert plans

RNZ’s bosses have faced the heat at Parliament over the Concert FM debacle, pressed by MPs on their discussions about an alternative frequency and their ministerial 'miscommunication'

RNZ never formally requested a new frequency for its proposed youth station before announcing plans to take RNZ Concert off FM radio, its chief executive Paul Thompson has revealed.

Instead, the organisation pursued its controversial shake-up after it was “given a steer” by government officials that it was unlikely to open up the 102FM frequency reserved for a youth network.

Thompson and RNZ chairman Jim Mather were grilled by a parliamentary select committee on Thursday morning, after being forced into an embarrassing U-turn in the wake of public outcry and an intervention by Cabinet.

Mather started on the defensive, saying the organisation had a responsibility to balance its special interest offerings with its mandate to deliver content that was relevant to all New Zealanders regardless of age.

“We as a board could quite simply have sailed along comfortably over the tenure of our three-year terms and accepted the status quo or, as we have done, chosen to make some unpopular but ultimately appropriate decisions about the future of RNZ.”

RNZ had approached officials at the Ministry of Culture and Heritage in mid-2019 about its youth station plans, including the possibility of an FM frequency, but was told it would be difficult for the organisation to gain access to, and the funding for, the decommissioned 102FM band.

However, in response to questioning from National MP Melissa Lee, Thompson said RNZ had not officially asked the ministry or the Government to be given access to the frequency.

“It wasn't a formal request in terms of a document, it was a discussion and advice ... we explained our strategy and looked at a range of options, but we were clearly given a steer that it was going to be unlikely to be achieved.”

Asked by media after the hearing whether RNZ should have pushed harder to secure the frequency before turning to its fallback option, Thompson said: “Potentially, but I was concerned about it getting stuck for years.”

“Those frequencies have been set aside for youth radio, and have never been used for youth radio. And I think I made a realistic assessment that if we went down that path, it would bog down our plans for five years and nothing would happen.”

'A significant misunderstanding'

Mather and Thompson also addressed Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s claim that the Government had asked RNZ to hold off on making any announcements about the move away from an FM frequency until alternative approaches could be assessed.

Mather said RNZ had briefed Broadcasting, Communications and Digital Minister Kris Faafoi about its Concert and youth radio plans in August and October of 2019, and again on January 29 this year.

At the January 29 meeting, which Thompson and RNZ board member Peter Parussini attended and Mather dialled into, Parussini asked Faafoi whether the organisation was required to halt its consultation process and believed he had been told it was acceptable to proceed.

“There is absolutely no logical reason why RNZ would purposely ignore such a request from the minister, aside from the fact that there was a significant misunderstanding," Mather said.

Speaking about the proposal for a youth-oriented platform, he said it would not be “simply another youth music station” but a mixture of broadcast and digital content, with an “unrivalled” level of locally-produced music and programming for young people on issues like finance, lifestyle, civics and wellbeing.

The organisation would work with “specific young influencers” on developing the new platform, he said.

Asked about similarities with The Wireless, an RNZ-operated website launched for young New Zealanders in 2013 which was folded back into RNZ in 2018, Thompson said that initiative had been online-only and funded internally from “very scant resources”.

RNZ chairman Paul Thompson says he will speak to Concert staff about how to improve the station's audience numbers. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

“What we're proposing now is a much more comprehensive service, and it will succeed in part because while it will be fully multimedia, focusing very much on being staffed by young people who represent all of New Zealand, focusing on New Zealand music and content, it will have both a broadcast and a multimedia aspect and that’s where we will get the audience engagement.”

While RNZ’s audiences were big and growing, “they do tend to be older people” and the organisation needed to try harder to connect with younger audiences.

“We've got very strong audiences, but they are 50-plus, and that's a good thing, and we don't think that's something which is not important and something that we don't value.

“But if you look at our obligation to be a public broadcaster for all the community, at what point do we start to look to provide the unique thing that we do to younger age groups?”

The intention was not to create “a massive brand”, Thompson said, but a station that could attract an audience of 100,000 to 200,000 listeners within the first few years.

He confirmed RNZ’s wider restructuring plans for Concert, including job cuts, had been put on hold following the Government's announcement, and would spend the next month working with staff on a new strategy to improve the station’s numbers “because it does need to improve its audience performance”.

“That strategy, informed by staff feedback, will lead to the future shape of that station, but that’s going to take months to determine.”

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