Week in Review

Kathryn Ryan: Radio’s low-key star

While the Government mulls whether to create a new public service broadcaster in place of TVNZ and RNZ, the state-owned radio network continues to perform well. RNZ's consistent performance in the ratings owes much to the quality of seasoned operators like Kathryn Ryan.

If there were an award for being the country’s most self-effacing radio host, Kathryn Ryan would win in a canter.

In an industry where a healthy or over-sized ego is seen as an essential prerequisite for success, Ryan’s hallmark has been her unwavering humbleness.

RNZ’s Nine to Noon host dominates morning radio. In the fourth and final GFK survey of 2019 she added 10,000 listeners to her weekly cumulative reach for a total of 315,600. The Breeze (Alison Leonard takes over from the breakfast hosts at 10am) is second on 252,900.

Newstalk ZB’s Kerry McIvor is back in third place with 219,300.

Ryan has been in the morning slot for 13 years, before that she was RNZ’s political editor.

She attributes a lot of her success and longevity to the experience and ability of her producers. Two of the four - executive producer Clare Sziranyi and senior producer Glenda Wakeham - have been with her from the start.

This is not an attempt by Ryan to deflect praise or attention from herself. Top producers bring a consistency to programmes that often goes unnoticed until it is not there.

Ryan’s show has a day-to-day consistency that few others can match.

“This has been a long journey and a lot of lessons learned along the way. We have tried to build something together and we (team members) have a loyalty to each other,” says Ryan.

The “journey” has seen Ryan gradually change and evolve as a broadcaster.

“I’ve learned that on radio you can only be who you are, you can only work with your own strengths and you do not try to be anything you’re not.

“You develop a sense of who your audience are and we are always trying to look over the horizon at what is coming through, what’s changing and what matters to them.

“Like any broadcaster, I am always listening. I read a lot, widely but selectively. Your instinct about what the audience wants is honed over time. It (the job) takes tremendous energy but you learn to manage that and we don’t waste time on things that don’t matter.”

I put it to Ryan that her interviewing style had, over time, become less aggressive.

“I agree that it has changed and I am less aggressive. We used to put a lot of emphasis on aggression didn’t we? I think ‘gotcha’ interviews had their peak a few years ago, people have had enough of aggression. How many times do you point out that someone is not going to tell you something? The audience doesn’t need you to ask the same question 10 times, you can trust them to understand.”

Ryan also agrees that she has become a warmer on-air presence.

“I think I have become a warmer broadcaster and got better at building a mood. I find it so humbling the way people (guests) give what they give and I have found myself being changed by the experiences I have had.”

The changing patterns of news have played in Ryan’s favour. What was traditionally known as the “news cycle” has been disrupted by digital media. Previously, newspapers would set the agenda, which would be followed by breakfast radio. This agenda would be built on by the mid-morning shows and flow right through to the 6pm TV bulletins and then start over again.

“The death of the news cycle has been liberating. People have read two or three websites before they listen to radio in the morning and they are now looking for layers of information. This has allowed us to hook in behind the news and be a lot more flexible.”

The ability of the radio industry as a whole to adapt and change gears has made it far more resilient to the media woes that afflict print and television. The ratings show a remarkable stability.

Commercial radio (all stations) ended the year with exactly the same number of listeners as a year ago - 3.32 million.

RNZ National at 600,600 had just 2000 fewer listeners than last year - margin of error stuff.

There has been slight movement among the shows. On RNZ, Checkpoint is down along with its lead-in, The Panel. Jim Mora’s Sunday show is up, and Ryan’s Nine to Noon also increased.

In the commercial sector, Newstalk ZB has been stable despite changes in its hosting line-up, and finished the 12-month period up 5000. MediaWorks’ long-time stellar performer, The Edge, has not had a great year. It has dropped to a weekly cume of 566,000 from 613,700 in the same survey last year.

It’s unlikely we will see much change in commercial radio in the short term, as the duopoly players, MediaWorks and NZME, depend on the steady cashflow of their stations to keep their media businesses afloat.

Public radio may be a different scenario if cabinet adopts a plan to create a new entity that combines radio, TV and online operations currently provided by TVNZ and RNZ.

What does Ryan think of the idea?

“That’s not one for me to comment on but I am pleased people are putting their minds to it. There are some huge issues to be solved, somehow. What will unfold will unfold but I treasure every year that I have on Nine to Noon.”

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