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.