Friday 14 February 2020

The Strange Case of RNZ Concert.

What Were They Thinking? RNZ's CEO Paul Thompson (left) and Jim Mather, Chairman of the RNZ Board of Governors, attempt to justify the debacle arising out of their attempt to downgrade RNZ Concert to the Economic Development, Science and Innovation Select Committee at Parliament on Thursday, 13 February 2020.

WHAT IS RNZ trying to do? Across New Zealand, this is the question mystifying both its listeners and non-listeners. The follow-up question is no less perplexing: Why is it doing it now?

It is tempting to answer to both questions by observing that RNZ is doing its very best to annoy the Government.

First off, RNZ’s CEO, Paul Thompson, and its Board of Governors have launched a full scale assault on RNZ Concert, a radio station beloved by its 176,000 listeners. (That audience, by the way, represents 4 percent of New Zealanders over the age of 10 years – a metric most commercial radio stations would kill for!) No matter, Concert’s highly experienced staff are to be made redundant and the station transformed into a purveyor of pre-programmed elevator music.

To say that RNZ Concert’s listeners are outraged is to understate the case by several orders of magnitude. Alienating so many people so needlessly would be a bad idea regardless of who those people were. But, to do so when they include so many of “the Good and the Great” – people with the ear of the Prime Minister – moves this imbroglio way beyond the scope of a bad idea. Not to put too fine a point upon it, this is the sort of idea that gets people sacked!

Which brings us to the second question: Why is RNZ doing this now? Why announce a fundamental restructuring of the state’s radio network a mere 48 hours before the Minister of Broadcasting was set to announce an official feasibility study into the merger of RNZ and TVNZ? If ever there was a time to politely suggest to your CEO that it might be prudent to taihoa – at least until the future lie of the land becomes clearer – then this was it!

Is Paul Thompson really such a thrill-seeker as to set these changes in motion on his own initiative? Frankly, that seems unlikely. His plans for RNZ Concert, along with those for appropriating its FM frequency for a new radio station aimed at 18-35 year-olds, were almost certainly approved by RNZ’s Board of Governors before being conveyed to RNZ Concert’s stunned staff and an appalled New Zealand public.

But, if that’s true, then we are led to the highly disturbing conclusion that RNZ’s Board of Governors knowingly set itself on a collision course with Jacinda Ardern’s government. That, heedless of her Labour Party’s rock-solid commitment to RNZ Concert, the Board was willing to gut it in broad daylight, and embark upon a highly risky (and, presumably, highly expensive) quest for a whole new demographic of listeners.

What sort of board rolls those sort of dice?

The answer appears to be, a board stacked with a combination of determined bi-culturalists and risk-taking entrepreneurs. A board possessing only two individuals who could reliably be characterised as broadcasters. A board collectively inclined to make RNZ’s listenership less white, less old, and less middle-class. A board which, looking at itself, came to the not unreasonable conclusion that a browner, younger, poorer RNZ audience was precisely the objective which this government had appointed it to achieve.

If so, then the events of the past 10 days constitute a wonderful example of: “Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it!”

Except, to be fair to the Government, it’s unlikely that they intended their carefully selected board to build a new RNZ audience on the ruins of the old one! As Jacinda Ardern has made very clear over the past week, what she and her Broadcasting Minister, Kris Faafoi, are expecting is a solution based on “both/and” – not “either/or”.

It is also fair to speculate that this government was not anticipating any radical changes to RNZ’s organisational structure, or audience profile, before the shape and scope of the proposed new state broadcasting entity had been determined.

Perhaps, in the end, that’s what the RNZ Board and its CEO were doing. Perhaps they were seizing what could very easily be their final opportunity to reshape and repurpose RNZ before it is swallowed up by something much bigger and uglier in the public broadcasting space.

If that is the explanation, then the RNZ Board should resign. Living institutions, especially those dedicated to the public good, like RNZ, should be encouraged to grow and develop – not hacked to pieces.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 14 February 2020.

 POST-SCRIPT: Well, common-sense (or should that be the wrath of a government caught off-guard?) has prevailed, and a “both/and” solution accepted as the best outcome for the RNZ Concert debacle. The questions raised in this essay, however, remain unanswered. It is also important to note that the CEO, Paul Thompson, hasn’t entirely backed away from his plans for RNZ Concert. Neither has the RNZ Board of Governors backed away from their CEO. They have bowed to the force majeure of public opinion and their shareholder ministers – that is all. The bitch that bore this awful idea is still in heat. – C.T.


Deirdre said...

I take exception to the suggestion that RNZ Concert is a white, "Baby Boomer elite" station only. To accuse it of that is to show a distressing ignorance of classical music within the NZ context. As a small country, we punch well above our weight when it comes to producing opera singers and classical musicians who find their place on the world stage. Moreover, over the decades many of the recent "elite" musicians to come out of New Zealand have been of Maori or Pasifika origin or descent: think, Inia Te Wiata, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, more recently Jonathan Lemalu, violinist Wilma Smith, and the five most recent winners of the Lexus Song Quest, Philip Rhodes, Aivale Cole, Amitai Pati, Isabella Moore, and Benson Wilson. And who can overlook the international success of the three Samoan boys from South Auckland, Amitai and Pene Pati and their cousin, Moses Mckay, better known as Sol3 Mio? Their albums have spent so long at the top of the classical charts (featured on RNZ Concert every weekend, BTW), that I would be prepared to place bets that no other radio station has given this deservedly popular trio of NZ musicians anything like the same air time as they have had on RNZ Concert. And that is not including the occasions on which their recordings feature as part of the regular playlists as well. Anyone who knows anything about Pacific peoples would know how they support their own, and these guys' success makes them superstars for the Pacific population of New Zealand. But if RNZ Concert is dumbed down, where will they get their air time?? Moreover, they are all classically trained and able to perform across genres, so even if their albums are played elsewhere (as someone who never listens to commercial radio, I admit I can't be sure that they are not), where will their operatic careers receive airtime?
I could go on, and perhaps I will somewhere else (a letter to the Minister of Broadcasting for instance). However, before signing off this comment, I'd like to raise another flag. As someone of Pacific descent myself (several generations back, but hey, if I was of Maori descent I would be able to vote on the Maori roll), I find the lumping together of "youth" in the 18-34 age bracket with Maori and Pacific listeners patronising and condescending to all three groups (and that is overlooking the fact that "Pasifika" or Pacific peoples are actually comprised of distinct entities, and should possibly not be lumped together in the first place). Any plan to provide a radio station for these audiences should, IMHO, be considering three radio stations. Considering our obligations under Te Tiriti, I'm really surprised that there is not a national Maori radio station on public radio, and perhaps that needs addressing urgently?? In many respects, while RNZ Concert has been granted a reprieve, the current debacle has raised far more questions than it has answered.

PaulVD said...

Another theory, remembering that the Government budget round is in full swing: the RNZ Board was trying to heavy the Government to increase the budget. Saying "give us more money (to create an extra youth channel) or we'll gut Concert FM" may even have worked. They have already got an extra FM frequency. Whether they will get more money as well remains to be seen.
Perhaps your readers will think this too cynical, but a few decades ago "zero-based budgeting" was a fashionable way to try to cut waste in the public sector. Managers quickly learned to package pet projects with other activities that they knew were politically untouchable, thus blackmailing the politicians into funding the pet projects also. That is the main reason why zero-based budgeting did not achieve what was hoped for it, and why we never hear of it nowadays.
If the RNZ Board has tried (succeeded?) to blackmail the Government, that is a similar tactic. Of course, it is very high-risk: if I had been the Minister, I would first have fired the Board and then handed over the extra frequency.

David Stone said...

It seems from Chris's earlier blog on this issue that Fafoi's complaint about the announcement was that it should have been delayed; not that it should never have been made. To me this implies that he was not taken by surprise about the essential message , just about the timing.
Isn't it entirely likely that Thompson was simply doing his job in collaboration with his minister? And continued with his responsibility to take the fall when it turned out to be a dead rat.?


powderburns said...

Classical music is folk music for Europeans. In most decadent Western nations as the dead Muzak has become more and more intolerable, classical music has made somewhat a renaissance. Most though have discovered digital classical. Jacinda is just following soviet ideology, which is good for normal, central parties, people who still think beautiful music is possible. She has ostracized a bunch of loyal labour voters.

GEB said...

Agreed. We may yet see that Faafoi has been keeping his head down as far as possible because tacit approval was involved. He is a very inexperienced minister.

AlanD said...

The fundamental nature and purpose of 'good' music has been well defined many years ago:

“Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.” Plato

That under-sensitized empowered egos should think of denying human civilization (evolution) of such valuable 'expression' or 'consolation', and the potential sharing of understanding arising there from, is a naive crime that makes one wonder what other ineptitudes they have up their sleeves.

That such conduct has emanated under their governance is a matter for their appointees to address. Does the chain of authority have the integrity of a dedicated team in pursuit of public service encouraging the presentation and pursuit of musical excellence?

As I interpret Miles Rogers (a former CFM Manager) is implying… …separation and/or appropriate autonomy to circumvent naïve directives could restore and build the technical qualities and services nurtured by the “Concert-Programme” since its inception.

Pursuing this ethos into today’s multimedia-diversity is a challenge for the whole music industry… …enthusiasm and dedication to purpose (passion) are amongst the skills needed by all involved with good music’s dissemination.

IMHO: The mission statement for RNZ Board and CEO should be:

“To acknowledge and encourage all deserving people contributing to human evolution (embracing a purposeful wisdom as defined by a specific charter of appropriate terms and conditions)… …and ensure the provision of adequate funding… …and infrastructure any other appropriate resources…”

IMO: working upon this vision is what being a responsible human is about?

Economics and governance is just the provisioner of our social-evolution. Being able to choose (or not) amongst the musicology and benefit is the right of the individual.

greywarbler said...

It sounds as if you find wisdom at the bottom of a large glass. 'soviet ideology' indeed. Some of you [twits] commenters must have a list of emotionally and historically charged political terms that you throw into the stew for a taste 'burst', a bit like top-scoring chilli peppers.

Andrew Nichols said...

Utterly abysmal political management by the Govt. Clarke would have flattened this by lunchtime on the very first day. That it hasnt been put to rest might mean in protest some loyal Labour voters wont show up to vote.