|Comforting Generational Voice: The end of one era in New Zealand broadcasting, and the beginning of another, is being met with widespread public indifference.|
A SIGN OF THE TIMES every bit as telling as Paula Penfold’s shock at anti-vaxxers’ hatred for the mainstream media. That the folk who once cried “Hands off National Radio!” have greeted the imminent demise of Radio New Zealand with … silence. The folding of Radio New Zealand and Television New Zealand into “Aotearoa New Zealand Public Media” (ANZPM) an “autonomous Crown entity”, is supposed to be complete by 1 March 2023. This, the end of one era in New Zealand broadcasting, and the beginning of another, has so far been met with widespread public indifference.
Over the past five years, Radio New Zealand’s hitherto ferociously loyal listeners have lost almost all their passion for public radio. Some, aggrieved by the “Maorification” of National Radio, have simply stopped listening. Others, aware that there is nothing better on offer from the private stations, have continued to tune-in – albeit in a mood of sullen resignation. That the station’s programming is uninterrupted by advertisements offers some small consolation.
These listeners skew decisively towards well-educated members of the Pakeha middle-class, 55 years and over. Given the average New Zealander’s longevity, these listeners have another twenty years of “loyalty” in them before they, and Radio New Zealand’s core audience, give up the ghost. The key challenge facing ANZPM, therefore, is to formulate a schedule that will attract and hold the ears and eyes of the post-Baby Boomer generations.
This is not going to be easy. Historically-speaking, the whole point of public broadcasting – both here in New Zealand and across the Western World – has been to mold the political consciousness and cultural tastes of the middle-class in such a way that they become the state’s most reliable reservoir of “common sense”. Though values and tastes change, the existence of this group – the prime generators of reliable “public opinion” – has, until relatively recently, constituted public broadcasting’s greatest achievement.
At the heart of their success lies the public broadcasters’ preservation, and occasional renovation, of the nation’s core narrative. Or, to cast them in a slightly more heroic light, they have acted as “nation builders”. Their mission: to promote their country’s diversity without sacrificing its unity. Capturing many reflections, but all within a single mirror. Until recently, New Zealand public broadcasters were doing this pretty well.
Perhaps attributable to our post-modern era’s obsession with deconstruction: its determination to put an end to all “grand narratives” in favour of relativism and subjectivism; the West’s broadcasters’ drive for unity has, of late, appeared to weaken. In New Zealand, the post-modernists’ deconstructivist urges have gone hand-in-hand with the rise of Māori nationalism. The latter’s determination to “decolonise” the Pakeha settler state and “indigenise” New Zealand society, has seized at least some of our public broadcasters’ imaginations as a mission worthy of the new ANZPM.
Certainly, the ANZPM’s Charter will set down “clear expectations” for the new broadcaster’s relationship with tangata whenua. It will be te Tiriti affirming and at least two out of ANZPM’s nine-member board will have to be fully conversant with the language, values and practices of te Ao Māori. In light of the stipulations of New Zealand On Air’s Public Interest Journalism Fund, the new public broadcaster is likely to operate under an exhaustive set of “partnership” protocols.
One can only speculate as to how the initial radio broadcasts of ANZPM will strike the ears of Radio New Zealand’s present audience. If the enthusiasm of the current Broadcasting Minister, Willie Jackson, for enhancing the Māori and Pasifika output of the new public broadcaster and “combatting misinformation” is any indication of its future content, then further defections can be expected. Not all of those switching-off will do so sadly and privately. With ANZPM due to hit the airwaves at the beginning of March in an election year, it is hard to imagine the opposition parties not being invited to weaponise its allegedly “woke” programme schedule.
Regardless of partisan loyalties, there will be those who look at the new structure with a certain measure of apprehension. ANZPM is going to be a mighty big beast, with more than enough muscle to dominate New Zealand’s media space.
Relieved of the obligation to return a dividend to the state, the television arm of ANZPM will be able to sell advertising at cost – to the obvious disadvantage of its private sector competition. In its outreach to the young and the ethnically diverse, the new public media entity will find it hard not to step very heavily on the toes of private radio. While printing presses form no part of its remit, ANZPM will be up there online with NZME and Stuff.
Pledged to “meeting its audience where they are” the ANZPM board might think it wise to equip itself with a truly nationwide news-gathering service. With over $100 million for capital investment, how long will it be before ANZPM ’s newsrooms, video and radio production facilities, and live broadcasts become the “places to be” for every talented journalist in the country?
The problems confronting the private sector media would not be limited to ANZPM’s scale and scope, and the competitive challenges they represent. The long-term risk must surely be that ANZPM’s public status, its editorial independence, and the creative freedoms thus conferred, will eventually eclipse the efforts of all media operations encumbered with less generous shareholders. How long will it be before these profit-driven enterprises cry “foul”?
And they might not be the only ones with a grievance. At least some of the voters might come to look upon ANZPM as a state-owned media behemoth stuffed choc-full with left-wingers of all kinds, and sufficiently resourced to dictate the terms of, and easily dominate, the media’s political coverage.
Inevitably, ANZPM’s need for an audience to replace the dwindling eyes and ears of the Baby Boomers must lead it towards the younger generations of New Zealanders. It is to their values and tastes that the cultural production of the big public broadcaster will inevitably be attuned.
The political consequences of such an orientation are equally inevitable. The material aspirations of younger New Zealanders, their easy-going acceptance of co-governance and other Boomer bogeymen, plus their rock-solid determination to take climate change seriously, make it unlikely that the neoliberal economic and political axioms of their elders will be tolerated for very much longer.
The fear of those same elders is that the material broadcast by the new ANZPM will only hasten the day when their cherished values and tastes are rudely overwhelmed. A hard core of them are already convinced that Radio New Zealand has successfully unleashed its own version of the Cultural Revolution. Hence their unwillingness to get too excited about Radio New Zealand’s imminent demise.
No matter how unkind, it is tempting to further discombobulate these grumpy old-timers by shouting: “Comrades, you ain’t seen nothing yet!”
This essay was originally posted on the Interest.co.nz website on Monday, 5 September 2022.