The rise and rise of Radio New Zealand

This article was first published May 11, 2017. 

The rude health of radio as a medium has been reinforced with the release of RNZ’s audience ratings figures.

National Radio added 44,200 listeners in the 12-month period to April 8, 2017.

That is an increase of 8 percent, giving National radio a weekly cumulative audience of 579,400 listeners, making it the second most listened to station after The Edge according to the GfK survey.

The survey of commercial radio stations was released a week ago and had the MediaWorks’ station on top with a cumulative reach of 662,300 listeners.

The surveys showed radio – public and commercial – is growing at a time when audiences for “print” and “Free to Air” television are falling.

Radio people like to refer to their medium as the “cockroach” of the industry. The latest survey shows not only are more people listening to radio but they are listening longer.

The average time per week a National radio listener spent tuned into the station went up from 12 hours 28 minutes a week to 12 hours 45 minutes.

RNZ CEO Paul Thompson gives some of the credit to technology.

“We’re in an age where everyone has a radio in their pocket these days in the form of a smart phone. You can also do other things while you are listening to the radio, this ability to multi-task means you can still have radio in the mix, that’s not the case for other media. They are not weathering the storm in the same way as us.”

The latest results are a vindication of Thompson’s strategy of introducing new blood to RNZ and keeping a focus on the quality of news and current affairs.

RNZ's flagship programme, Morning Report, had a standout survey, lifting its audience by 11.6 percent from 379,800 to 430,300.

Thompson said the programme had benefited from the big news stories that had broken during the survey period.

“There’s been Trump, earthquakes, floods and fires here and the show has covered those stories very well.”

Audience growth for the shows hosted by Kathryn Ryan and Jesse Mulligan was less spectacular with increases of 4.3 and 6 percent respectively.

Thompson describe Mulligan’s time slot of 1-4pm as a tough one.

“This is the time of day that people go to music stations – and we have designed Jesse’s show to be quite different to the shows other stations do.

"We need to have a bit of cut through and we are trying different things. The last few years have taught us to try things and then stick with them.”

The Panel with Jim Mora went up 7 percent but the result that would have pleased Thompson and his board the most was the 11 percent jump – 239,100 increasing to 265,800 – for Checkpoint hosted by John Campbell.

It confirmed that Campbell’s somewhat idiosyncratic style (especially compared to his predecessor Mary Wilson’s no frills approach) is growing on RNZ listeners.

Checkpoint, under executive producer Pip Keane is also the edgiest of RNZ’s mainstream news programmes. It is very active on social media and is also the canary in the mine for RNZ’s push into video.

The architect of the multi-media strategy is Campbell’s old boss at MediaWorks, Carol Hirschfeld, who is now Head of Content at RNZ.

“We are not trying to be a television station. What we are doing is much rawer than that. Our reporters don’t operate like TV reporters but the pictures they get from the field add an extra dimension to their radio stories,” says Hirschfeld.

Asked by Newsroom to describe the video part of Checkpoint, CEO Thompson laughed.

“Lord knows what it is – it’s not television, its televisual I guess; but it is working. The great thing is that Checkpoint is reaching new people, it has been a great shot in the arm for us and the show has an impact far beyond its time slot. John is such a talented broadcaster.”

RNZ’s board, its management and staff will be hoping the broadcasters’ performances are being noticed in the Beehive. The latest results are impressive when you consider the organisation’s funding has been effectively frozen for close on a decade.

When asked about the chances of an overdue increase in his budget, Thompson was cautious.

“We have a strategy that is working, I’d like to think we would get more, but either way we are in a sound position – I guess we will know in a couple of weeks.”

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