Hard News by Russell Brown

679

"Creative" and "Flexible"

I expect to be taking a closer look at the Radio New Zealand funding controversy as the week goes on, but now is probably a good time to note a widespread error in reports on the story: the claim that the government funds Radio New Zealand to the tune of $38 million annually.

This minister has said it, and the Dom Post and NZPA and TVNZ have reported it.

The truth – available in the broadcaster's annual report, on the website of its funding agency NZ ON Air, and in the 2009 Budget estimates – is about four million dollars short of that.

Radio New Zealand's core funding for 2009/10 is $31,816,000, up from $31,718,000 in the previous year. A small amount of additional funding and $1.9 million from the Ministry of Culture and Heritage to run Radio New Zealand International brings to total to $34,236,000.

The rest of the broadcaster's revenue, $3,818,000, is earned from interest, fees for co-location on its transmission high-sites and other sources. It's a small but significant point, because it dispels the idea that Radio New Zealand is some passive funding sink that wouldn't know how to earn a dollar if it tried. It generates millions of dollars in earned revenue a year and has done for a long time.

The Save Radio New Zealand Facebook group hit 10,000 members this morning, and that fact may have the government just a little bit concerned (but looking at the polls, only a little for now). Bill English had a slap back at Radio New Zealand in his Q&A interview with Guyon Espiner yesterday:

GUYON We saw a couple of examples this week that flared up in the media, Radio New Zealand and DOC, both of which were being asked to do some more creative things, or earn some more money, or cut costs in ways that may annoy some people. You went through the 1990s where National lopped pieces off here and there and it upset a lot of people and not always for a lot of gain, I mean do you wonder whether it might be better actually taking if not a big bang approach, then actually trying to make some substantial savings and actually just taking the hit from there?

BILL Well I think what you saw last week was a bit of old style civil service politics where they wheel out something unacceptable and try and get pressure back on the members of parliament, and I was pretty disappointed in those organisations.

GUYON Do you think that's what Radio New Zealand did?

BILL I think that's what both of those organisations were doing, and my advice to them is they can't wait this out, they are capable of being creative and flexible, and providing better value for money, and if they focused a bit more on the services and a bit less on the politics I'm sure they'd get ahead.

GUYON So they were playing politics, wheeling out something that's unacceptable hoping it's knocked down and to try and create some public sympathy?

BILL Well it's an old trick isn't it? But I have to say the majority of the civil service can see their obligation to the public and there is professionalism, I mean they are rethinking how they do business because in two or three years time things in the public sector will be just as tight as they are now.

English is right in one sense: the preposterous idea of abandoning the FM band did not come from Jonathan Coleman, but was suggested by the board in documents obtained by TVNZ. The idea may well have been floated in the full knowledge that it was unacceptable.

But the board has a credible answer to English's injunction that Radio NZ focus on being "creative and flexible, and providing better value for money," from its current operation. To wit: it is, and has been doing that, according to the KPMG review of its baseline funding in 2007, which found no fat to trim at the broadcaster. Indeed, the review found that Radio New Zealand was underfunded and understaffed and did not pay its existing staff enough. In the coming budget year, the shortfall, according to KPMG, will reach about $10 million.

In this light, it's not credible for Coleman and English to claim that Radio New Zealand can bridge the gap simply by being "creative" and "flexible". Perhaps some short-term actions can be taken – selling the Auckland building and leasing back Radio NZ's floor – and perhaps a little more value could be squeezed out of the transmission sites. Sponsorship on Concert FM might bring in a few hundred thousand. but in the long term it's reasonable to wonder what value will be lost to New Zealanders through effective funding cuts for the next five years.

It's also reasonable to wonder whether a more experienced minister than Coleman might have defended his turf more effectively. There's little to be gained from presiding over a shrinking portfolio – your mana shrinks along with the brief, and people hate you for doing it. I'm not sure Coleman has the political skills to turn that around.

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It was probably no coincidence that some of the loudest cheering at Friday night's inaugural ONYA Awards was for the two awards won by Radio New Zealand's website. What Richard Hulse has achieved there on very modest resources is simply tremendous. Congratultions also to the developers of this site, CactusLab, who won the Best Mobile Application category.

The awards themselves are what the web (and mobile) development industry has been waiting for, and I think they have real credibility. And, of course, the closing spectacle from The Darkroom and Module was extraordinary.

Here's an edit of the closing show. That's me testifying at the beginning:

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