Ahead of the RNZ/TVNZ merger, which would see advertising stretch across RNZ digital and commercial disciplines extended, it’s time for New Zealanders to start robust discussion about what public broadcasting is and who exactly it should be entrusted to, writes an RNZ  insider

Last year, RNZ National became the first New Zealand radio station to record more than 700,000 listeners each week, according to the GFK survey results in October.

When Paul Thompson took over as chief executive at the end of 2013, staff were warned that the end was nigh for media as we knew it. Radio was in big trouble and Radio New Zealand (before the word radio was deleted altogether in place of the acronym ‘RNZ’) had to get its online and multimedia act together.

But after the stellar survey results of October 2020, Paul Thompson had changed his tune.

“It is clear that radio as a medium is thriving and continues to play an essential role in the lives of New Zealanders”.

Yes. But why?

I would hazard a guess and say that whatever level of trust the public has in RNZ is mostly due to its reputation of nearly 100 years of public broadcasting… combined with commercial media’s decline. In effect, the listenership numbers are up because, for many New Zealanders experiencing anxiety in an age of misinformation and exhausted by the hype of commercial self-promoters, RNZ is their last hope.

But at a time when the country is ripe for building on the foundations of public broadcasting and strengthening it, we get a proposed merger with that well-known pillar of public broadcasting values, TVNZ.

As a wise man once said: “There are no such things as mergers, only takeovers.”

Television is expensive to make and attracts expensive people. Many at RNZ fear the radio entity will be subsumed by the larger, hungrier entity of television.

Already there is some concern in the announcement of the Strong Public Media Business Case Governance Board on Wednesday. Helmed by former NZ First MP Tracey Martin, the board will oversee the completion of a business case into forming the entity.

The board itself includes John Quirk, the chair of telecommunications company Kordia and former RNZ Head of Online Content Glen Scanlon as well as Media Studies lecturer Dr Trisha Dunleavy. The rest are television people.

None of these members have an interest in public radio or in radio at all – unless you count Michael Anderson, former Mediaworks CEO, but it is questionable how much public broadcasting guidance he will bring to the table. 

Broadcasting and Media Minister Kris Faafoi said the business case would look at how public media could “meet the changing expectations of New Zealand audiences and support a strong, vibrant media sector”.

What are the “changing expectations of New Zealand audiences?”

As the numbers (for those who like using numbers to measure things) show, radio is the strongest medium. It has sailed through this period and remains an essential part of the lives of New Zealanders.

Faafoi goes on to say “[The] government is committed to ensuring public media is fit for the future and able to thrive and adapt amid the changing media landscape.”

All I hear from that statement is that free-to-air public radio could quietly become a thing of the past and be nicely sidelined into the cheaper format of online streaming.

These are just some of the concerns of those working within radio.

Sadly, for them, the axis of power at RNZ hails from the now crumbling commercial sector. The present stewards, (some for whom public broadcasting is now a safe haven, away from the cliff edge of commercial broadcasting) persist in using this same broken model.

At RNZ, it often appears those in charge are either unaware of what public broadcasting is, or they have very little respect for its values.

It is all about growth. Even when it is clear that more and more people want and need a reliable, trustworthy public broadcaster on free-to-air radio, the ultimate aim for RNZ is about boosting numbers.

Sometimes this “growth fanaticism” is presented cleverly. It has been described as a ‘moral obligation’ for RNZ ‘to build lifelong relationships with all New Zealanders’.

But ultimately it is the same ethos as listening to ambitious sales people talk about their targets.

We are so used to ambition being lorded as a positive thing in our neatly competitive world. It’s considered admirable in young people. And it’s often used to inspire awe or fear:

“His colleagues have described him as ‘very ambitious’.”

Remember that when one is ‘very ambitious’, it puts them in the same category as Sir Edmund Hillary, Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, but also as Pol Pot, Stalin and Tonya Harding.

Most people who work for RNZ (although an ever-decreasing number) do so for vocational reasons.

While the word ‘vocational’ conjures up images of selfless aid workers and nuns, that is not the case in public broadcasting.

The vocational people at RNZ are not saint-like. Many of them are difficult perfectionists. Some of them are pathologically resistant to change – holding onto the same coffee mug for decades – but they are part of public broadcasting because of a compulsion that is bigger than the self. There is something else at work here.

These people are essentially tradespeople. Producing, researching, editing, technology operating, writing and on-air broadcasting are their crafts and public broadcasting is the home of their craft. It’s their building site, so to speak.

You only have to look at some of the very old (and yet nowhere near Classic) cars in the RNZ carpark to know that many people who work there, do not do it for the money or the glory. For many it is because they believe whole heartedly in the ethos of public broadcasting – to educate, inform and entertain. And that public broadcasting is for the greater good (meaning not just your own career).

However, there has been a shedding of some of these key, long-serving staff already this year. There have been too many farewells to mention and at least one walkout. It is abundantly clear that vocational work, while relied upon, is one of the few things not measured by those in charge. And that those carrying out this work are increasingly asked to do more with less.

On the other hand, middle management is thriving. In fact, (excuse the simile) it’s like an epidemic of managers. These people are often appointed internally, with little or no previous management experience and elevated to a usually impotent position, where their primary purpose seems to unquestioningly impose the will of senior management.

The move to shut down RNZ Concert last year is a good example of why self-interested commercial people do not belong in charge of public broadcasting. They do not see the point of Concert. How could they? RNZ Concert doesn’t sell anything.

On an average day, RNZ National can sell you political ideologies, lifestyles and a book on parenting advice, or wellness but Concert sells nothing at all. It is more akin to a public library or a park. You are invited to just be there. And that is exactly the point of Concert. Whether you know your classical music or not, it is a refuge from relentless marketing and from socio-political anxiety (which funnily enough always makes us buy more). This is why Concert having its own guaranteed frequency has made the overlords just the tiniest bit crazy.

Concert staff are currently attending ‘strategy workshops’ to ‘build on Concert’s strengths’. Ultimately it is all about ‘getting the numbers up’. It is about growth. After everything that has happened, after all the outrage and widespread public support, Concert must still prove to its superiors that it has the right to exist.

Self-interested ambition does not tend to think much about the public or the greater good – unless it’s what content they might consume. Despite protestations, serving up content to be consumed is not a public service. That’s commercial radio’s job. Commercial Radio has consumers. Public Radio has listeners.

The Strong Public Media Business Case Governance Board is due to lead work on public consultation . Now is the time for New Zealanders to reflect on the future of their public broadcaster.

RNZ is a taonga. A totara in a forest that is being decimated. New Zealanders must ensure it stands firm in the care of those who are qualified to protect it.

*Newsroom has agreed to author anonymity in this case to not put the person’s current employment at risk

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