Tuesday 11 February 2020

Both RNZ Concert and Youth Radio – Not Either/Or.

Under Attack: By sacking not only RNZ Concert’s presenters, but also its producers and librarians, and reducing the station to an automated purveyor of classical music in-between parliamentary broadcasts, RNZ’s CEO, Paul Thompson, wasn’t simply announcing an operational shake-up, he was declaring war on one of the most important guardians of New Zealand’s cultural traditions.

MARTYN BRADBURY believes in radio. He’s been an advocate of an FM frequency dedicated to 18-35-year-old New Zealanders since at least the 1990s. That he should welcome RNZ’s announcement that a new, state-funded, youth radio station has been green-lighted is only to be expected. Equally to be anticipated, however, is the outcry from listeners and supporters of RNZ Concert. What else did RNZ’s Paul Thompson expect when he rejected the ‘both/and’ approach in favour of ‘either/or’?

By sacking not only RNZ Concert’s presenters, but also its producers and librarians, and reducing the station to an automated purveyor of classical music in-between parliamentary broadcasts, RNZ’s CEO, Paul Thompson, wasn’t simply announcing an operational shake-up, he was declaring war on one of the most important guardians of New Zealand’s cultural traditions.

There can be no doubt that he knew what he was doing. The ice-cold way in which he and his co-conspirator, RNZ’s Music Content Director, Willy Macalister, are said to have delivered the news to the stunned staff of RNZ Concert, strongly suggests that they were all-too-aware of the serious consequences of their decision. That they would come under instantaneous and heavy fire from the artistic community and its political defenders must have been anticipated. Which suggests strongly that crossing swords with the likes of Helen Clark, Chris Finlayson, Sir Michael Cullen, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and Sam Neil had already been accepted as the necessary cost of doing business.

But, accepted by whom? The RNZ Board? The Minister of Broadcasting, Kris Faafoi? The Minister of Arts & Heritage – and Prime Minister – Jacinda Ardern? Were all of these people really on-board with Thompson’s and Macalister’s decision? Had they all been fully informed of RNZ’s senior managers’ intention to gut RNZ Concert? Were they all as keyed-up as the leading protagonists for the inevitable backlash? Were all of them truly willing accessories-before-the-fact to what Sir Michael Cullen described as  “cultural vandalism”?

It would seem not.

On this morning’s edition of RNZ’s Morning Report, the Prime Minister coolly set forth her understanding of what had taken place. It seems that her Broadcasting Minister, upon being informed of Thompson and Macalister’s plans, reacted unenthusiastically. All-too-aware of the likely consequences of establishing a youth-oriented station at RNZ Concert’s expense, he cautioned RNZ’s CEO against proceeding too hastily. He asked Thompson for time to come up with a ‘both/and’ solution – specifically, by sorting out an additional FM frequency. In her interview with Morning Report co-host Corin Dann (which Dann appeared to be doing his best to frame in terms of intergenerational warfare and cultural elitism) the Prime Minister made it icily clear that Thompson, by opting not to delay his announcement, had undermined Faafoi’s efforts to come up with an acceptable compromise.

Thompson must, surely, understand that, by setting forth the sequence of events in the way she did, the Prime Minister was telling him that he was now on his own. The Government had offered to help him craft a solution and he had denied them the time needed to make it happen. Is that really where Thompson intended to place himself? At odds with RNZ Concert’s listeners? At odds with the New Zealand artistic community? At odds with present and former Ministers of Arts & Heritage? (Jacinda made it very clear to RNZ’s listeners this morning that she, too, is looking for a ‘both/and’ resolution to this problem.) Does he really think that his position is strengthened by causing a former prime minister to get in the ear of a present prime minister? Did he not hear the implicit threat in Finance Minister Grant Robertson’s comment that he and his Cabinet colleagues would be investigating the matter further? Was he simply not aware that the Labour Party 2017 manifesto includes a rock-solid commitment to the preservation of RNZ Concert?

It certainly makes you wonder, doesn’t it? Why RNZ’s CEO would choose this precise moment to unleash such a shitstorm upon his own head? After all, the RNZ Concert announcement was made just 48 hours before the Broadcasting Minister formally announced his plans for a possible merger of RNZ and TVNZ into a single state-owned broadcasting entity. Pending the outcome of the necessarily lengthy feasibility study Faafoi has ordered, it would surely have made more sense to hold off on a decision as sensitive and consequential as gutting RNZ Concert?

Was Thompson fearful that in any future merger his position would disappear? (A virtual certainty now!) Was he hoping the proposed 18-35 youth station would serve as a lasting personal legacy, and the destruction of the Baby Boomer elite’s RNZ Concert (a feat which others have attempted, and failed, to accomplish) his greatest managerial triumph? It is to be hoped not.

Because how much more impressive it would have been for Thompson and Macalister to have set in motion a steady process of renovation and reconstruction in RNZ Concert, while simultaneously investigating the best way to attract a new and younger listenership to RNZ. The promoters of New Zealand popular music have been struggling for the best part of 30 years to expand the state broadcaster’s cultural horizons and thereby fulfil more generously the aims and objectives of its charter. Preserving both the invaluable contribution of RNZ Concert to New Zealand’s classical musical traditions, and developing a new and vibrant platform for this country’s young cultural producers: now that would have been a legacy worth having.

Indeed, the way the politics of this debacle are unfolding, something like the above will be its ultimate legacy. It just won’t be Paul Thompson’s or Willy Macalister’s legacy.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 11 February 2020.


Neville Lowry said...

Well said Chris and it occurs to me that the present CEO was a Nat appointee.....food fo thought maybe.....

Anonymous said...

A well laid out discussion. Thank you.

Odysseus said...

The attempt to destroy Radio NZ Concert is a politically driven decision whichever way you cut it. It is a direct assault on New Zealanders' European cultural heritage. So many classical composers were "pale, male and stale". Perhaps it's part of the "decolonization" agenda which gets a reboot every Waitangi Day? The Education system has succeeded brilliantly in rendering most young New Zealanders functionally illiterate and ignorant of the tremendous literary heritage they are heirs to: W Shakespeare, J Donne, J Milton, TS Eliot etc, even Enid Blyton for goodness' sake. Now it's the turn of Bach and Beethoven to be "disappeared". A thousand years of sublime musical tradition which continues to be extended by modern composers today will be replaced with yet another station pumping out kango-hammer imitations.

Left Thinking said...

Unless it is a cunning plan to get more money put into RNZ. Thompson and Macalister may be unlikely heroes; willing to sacrifice their careers to blackmail more money out of the tight fists of Grant Robertson.???

Michael Johnston said...

Quite apart from the accusations of philistinism that Paul Thompson has deservedly attracted, and his political stupidity - to which Chris has drawn attention above - this decision is also just plain dumb from a business perspective. RNZ are closing down a service beloved of a demographic still apt to listen to music on the radio, in favour of an attempt to appeal to a younger demographic, who actually much prefer to get their music from Spotify or ITunes. RNZ will suffer a substantial net loss of listeners as a result.

I agree with Odysseus that the real motive here is to destroy yet another connection to European cultural heritage. What a shame that we don't seem to be able to take a both/and approach to the dual cultures of Aotearoa/NZ, and celebrate a Maori renaissance at the same time as maintaining a sense of gratitude for, and reverence to, the art, literature, philosophy and science of old Europe.

greywarbler said...

Music and NZ. We worked hard from early colonial days to inform our lives with art and music. The Kokotahi Band might not have had much money but they wanted to make music, made their own instruments or adapted resources around them. The wish was there from the beginning. All that background of bringing and encouraging music in the wider population, plans formulated on ships of immigrants on the long voyage here, is to be down-graded by a couple of likely lads who have been listening to whom in the business world?

The Nelson School of Music (now Nelson Centre of Musical Arts) dates from 1842 – The first European settlers came to Nelson from countries rich in music, both folk and formal, sacred and secular.
1852 – Nelson Philharmonic Society
As routines became established, social music slowly came into its own. By 1852, the small Nelson community, then numbering more than 2000, had formed a short lived Philharmonic Institute. In the following year an Amateur Musical Society was formed and performed some concerts.
1890 – A flourishing music scene
By 1890, the city’s population was around 7000. The Harmonic Society had prospered and was able to support the appointment of a fulltime conductor.
After a two-year tenure by Herr von Zimmerman, Michael Balling, musician and friend of Brahms and Wagner, came across the world from Germany to Nelson.

Despite some apparently thinking there is a dearth of encouragement for young NZers and their music, we have had over past decades, a push to get NZ music on commercial radio stations. Now it receives much recognition and support. We have Che Fu - I like Chains hip hop Living in the City Ain't so Bad. There is Lorde a young success, there are old successes, Flying Nun and a rich tapestry of sound. Just so many - see Chris Bourke's researches in his book Blue Smoke: The Lost Dawn of New Zealand Popular Music 1918-1964 by Chris Bourke, from Pixie Williams and Ruru Karaitiana
to `964 when The Beatles came to NZ - what excitement: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/media/sound/paul-mccartney-and-john-lennon-interview-july-1964

I listen to a bit of everything but thrill to the factory floor of hard sawing violinists, and the trill and groan of the wind section; beauty in the music from these dedicated, trained musicians together. They are doing a job, but the doltish people running NZ into the ground with economy measures similar to the asset stripping of Sir Ron Brierley, are always looking overseas for their idea of the best.

But somehow it's off with the old and on with the new. And we must not look away from business; there has been an interest in government getting dividends, entities earning some of their operating expenses. I fear that this has taken precedence over the opportunity of learning skills and fine art that has taken people like Inia Te Wiata, Kiri Te Kawana and all on this link.
Musicians, orchestras - https://teara.govt.nz/en/orchestras/print
This from RadioNZ(9RNZ) - https://www.rnz.co.nz/concert/programmes/upbeat/audio/2018663178/ten-successful-young-kiwi-musicians

greywarbler said...

And further. This RadioNZ sacrilege has really got me exercised.
It emphasises to me that we must have a revolution, not in our public radio station, but the way we run our country.   This devolvement of decision making to functionaries supposedly working for the public, with no effective input from politicians, our elected representatives, is not fit for purpose.  

We are getting a plethora of mercenaries, people serving themselves and appearing to be to the vanguard of change, innovation, bright and ready to clear out the dusty cupboards and set us right for the challenge of the future.  They are brought in at great expense and set in like fat cuckoos in the nest, rolling out all the other policies that hatched our past achievements.  

We have had top scientists sacked by one personage who had taken the helm of one of our leading institutions.
For the third time in five years, Te Papa is looking for a new boss.
The critical questions for selectors haven't changed in a decade: should it be a Kiwi; should it be a businessperson or a museum person?
But in the wake of the museum's worst staff satisfaction results, there's a new question: will it be a person who can restore the national museum to a place where the country's finest want to work?

"The endless cycle of new CEO, massive restructure, total upheaval, chaos has to stop," says one museum sector source. "I talk to people in the sector and they go, 'God no, I'd never work there'. And that's really sad...

 While the museum's first three chief executives had museum backgrounds, the past two – former TVNZ boss Rick Ellis and former Counties Manukau District Health Board CEO Geraint Martin – came from the business world. Both served less than three years.

McCarthy says a philosophy spread globally that anyone who could manage a large organisation could run a museum. However, the museum world is now coming back to valuing expertise.

Further news report on that:  https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/national/398412/te-papa-s-controversial-ceo-quits-role

Changes needed in NZ public features management:  
No generic management approach, and stop giving absolute power to the CEO or other title, who is appointed to run the place using whatever methods they choose, or so it seems.  

It might be interesting as an opinion piece, to ask Ross Meurant about his disagreements while a Councillor with the organisational head. He comes out with strong opinions, and those based on experience might illustrate some problems inherent in the system.   Perhaps our elected reps might be like the Python Constitutional Peasants sketch where Eric Idle is manhandled by a 'superior force' and cries that he is being "oppressed".

pat said...

having followed and pondered upon this bizarre affair the thought crossed my mind that RNZ Concert has never been under threat of downgrading

Tiger Mountain said...

Well laid out Chris, a most plausible explanation for what happened re RNZ Concert.

Oh that such rigour could be applied to other saboteurs and underminers in the ranks of senior public servants. The likes of WINZ/MSD, ACC, Immigration NZ etc. are loaded to the gunwales with people that should be made to reapply for their jobs and not rehired. Some of them could be slapped with a restraint of trade to stop them ever working for the Govt. again such is their fervour for neo liberalism and disdain for the citizens they should be serving.

greywarbler said...

Michael Johnson at 11/2 14.05
Makes the point about it not being a good business decision as well as a slap in the face for admirers of beautifully played music.

We need to have left something we can do in NZ - the free market has closed down our soap factories (made in Australia (Sunlight laundry soap), our mass markets for clothes absolutely swamped by oversupply of foreign stuff and so on and on.

Things that are on NZ soil, special things we make - like fine music with perhaps locally made instruments, need to be encouraged, and they need to remain in NZ ownership and control. (State housing would be another great boon to our national identity and wealth). Making our own music, writing our own music, films too, hold onto those creatives who are in touch with their souls, the wonder of human sensitivity. There is money in that for those who pooh-pooh such sentiments.
Herbs and E Papa great NZ. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7wPLW7G1J_w
Some of the words: My job - Taku nei mahi.
It gives tears - He tuku roimata.

Herbs are telling us to stick with NZ, help it even though it gives tears!

Houses - another lovely song from overseas.
If only we all could have a house (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NZtJWJe_K_w

greywarbler said...

I have lifted a comment from Dennis Frank on TS. It makes good points:

Dennis Frank 8.1
10 February 2020 at 9:09 pm

I'm waiting to see what the coalition consensus process produces. Re dividend, in principle that's totally wrong! I have no problem with a business case that uses advertising to cover operating costs, but I would be suspicious that a CEO might use that to expand the ad revenue to do frivolous stuff, so I'd need to see charter clauses that ensured the board supervises the CEO!

I'd allow a third of the board, say, to have a business background. Then allocate a third to public service reps (incl. ngos, psa) and a third to operational staff. That's just off the top of my head. The main thing is to do something completely different (Monty Python). Preferably sensible, but definitely innovative.

The selection criteria for recruitment would be where the rubber meets the road, of course. I would require any consultancy to prove competence in selecting the right people. I would do that by not telling them the right people – but telling them the skills and character traits to identify and select, and judge them on the results.

Competing consultancies of course, to ensure optimal results. I'd ask them to rate their choices with the best applicants at the top of the list. Then I'd compose a selection panel to interview the top few recommended by each consultancy. A few nominees from political parties in parliament, a few broadcasting retirees, any relevant public service managers etc. Just a method to cut the crap you always get from establishment mainstream decision-makers. 🤬 😇

Trev1 said...

Aha! The old Marxist rallying cry when hoisted by the petard of their own ineptitude: Saboteurs! It must be Saboteurs! Usually followed by a show-trial and a few summary executions pour encourager les autres.