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.