Putting Us In Our Place: RNZ management seems to glory in “disrupting” the expectations of its core audience. Those expectations, based on the “inform, educate, entertain” formula laid down by the first Director General of the BBC, John Reith, in the 1920s, and adopted without demur by New Zealand’s public broadcasting services ever since, are clearly out of favour with RNZ’s new breed of cultural commissars.
EVERYONE HAS HAD a good laugh at RNZ’s “Music Strategy” featuring “The Ten New Zealanders”. The idiocy of modern marketing is always good for a chuckle or two, and these crude stereotypes have certainly provoked a lot more than that. Less amusing, however, is the sheer vapidity of an in-house culture willing to lay such inanity before its governing body. That the RNZ Board of Governors accepted such a presentation, rather than throwing it back in the faces of its supposedly professional authors, is way beyond unfunny – it’s just bloody sad.
Reading the material, one is shocked by the authors’ disdain for making any kind of case more sophisticated than. “This is what we want, can we have it please?”
Take, for example, RNZ’s supposed “goal” of expanding the public broadcaster’s reach to encompass half the New Zealand population by 2022. This sort of “planning” is nothing short of Stalinist in its towering ambition. It seems inconceivable that there was no one in RNZ who, when presented with their bosses’ “Two Year Plan”, didn’t object that the achievement of such a goal would require the setting aside of all professional broadcasting standards. If such objections were made, however, then it is equally clear that the answer from above was “So?”
Professionalism is not highly valued in these presentations. Rather, it is not-so-subtly suggested that such considerations might actually be part of the problem with RNZ. Certainly, there is a fairly obvious prejudice against the high-culture featured on RNZ Concert. Such programming seems to be regarded as evidence of Pakeha elitism at work. In the material presented to the board, this is framed as being, if not a “bad thing”, then most certainly as “something to be avoided”.
Permeating the whole “Music Strategy” is a level of anti-intellectualism that, once again, would not be out of place at a Soviet-era exhibition of “socialist-realist” art. Just as the Communist party of the Soviet Union commissioned the production of endless paeans to the heroic qualities of Soviet workers and peasants, RNZ’s “strategists” make plain their urgent desire to cram the public broadcaster’s schedule with the heroic cultural production of Aotearoa’s shamelessly neglected “youth”.
Indeed, it is clear from the material released by RNZ Management, after multiple Official Information Act requests, that what was being contemplated in the rolling-out of its “Music Strategy” was something between an old-fashioned Soviet purge and an old-fashioned Bolshevik coup. The quiet and deeply knowledgeable professionals at RNZ Concert headquarters in Wellington were to receive the career equivalent of a bullet in the back of the head, while the Auckland studios of RNZ were to be taken over by the woke graduates of the nation’s “communication studies” courses – along with the cream of the student radio stations RNZ’s strategists are clearly intending to replace with “RNZ Music”.
In their own words, RNZ Music (Version 2.0) is “an entirely new brand for young NZ (all 18–35). RNZ Music v 2.0 utilises traditional broadcast and new digital technologies to generate and share content. Content that is curated by influencer talent that RNZ will source from within the diverse target audience. This will foster a sense of strong national identity and will promote NZ culture to a young Aotearoa.”
If that isn’t a clear enough statement of intent, then try the following description of the “talent” the new entity is looking to recruit:
• The new team will be Gen Z and Millennials.
• They will have social clout within the new audience
• They live the life and reflect the audience’s lifestyle back upon itself
RNZ’s strategists even offered up an example of “Best Practice” who can serve as a role model for their talent. Ebro Darden, of Hot 97 (New York) Beats 1 Radio, points the way forward for a public broadcaster whose staff will no longer be “just radio announcers” (like those awful cardigan-wearing old reactionaries at RNZ Concert!) but “musicians, comedians and social media content creators.” They will use their “influence within the community to spread the message far and wide to RNZ’s new social audience”. Naturally, RNZ content will integrate “seamlessly within their personal feeds.”
There’s plenty of examples of Ebro Darden’s “best practice” on YouTube. If RNZ’s management is serious about adopting Hot 97 (New York) as a template, then they should lay in a good supply of flak-jackets – they will need them!
But, maybe that’s the idea. RNZ management seems to glory in “disrupting” the expectations of its core audience. Those expectations, based on the “inform, educate, entertain” formula laid down by the first Director General of the BBC, John Reith, in the 1920s, and adopted without demur by New Zealand’s public broadcasting services ever since, are clearly out of favour with RNZ’s new breed of cultural commissars.
Fuelling their contempt is an ageism so intense that, if women, LGBTQI+, or people of colour were its targets, then the jobs of RNZ’s bosses would be forfeit. They appear to hate their most loyal listeners with a passion as odd and inexplicable as it is self-defeating. How else to explain the unmistakeable decline in RNZ’s professionalism? As if the exercise of sound editorial judgement and a strict adherence to the taxpayers’ expectations of fairness and balance are yet more manifestations of white colonialist privilege to be swept away.
The banality on display in “The Ten New Zealanders” section of RNZ’s “Music Strategy” is emblematic of the organisation’s fundamental misunderstanding of the public broadcaster’s role. RNZ’s job is not to swallow up the entire radio audience by pandering to the lowest common denominator and surrendering the professional broadcasting standards developed over decades to a crass format designed to “integrate seamlessly” with the personal feeds of 18-25 year-olds.
The purpose of a public broadcaster is to set the bar so high that its private sector competitors are dissuaded from letting it sink too low. It is about letting people find that one place on the dial where commercial considerations are absent; preconceptions are challenged; and the imaginations of people from all cultures and classes are given wings. Like the public libraries they so perfectly complement, public broadcasters are refuges for the mind; places in the heart; tonics for the soul.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 13 March 2020.