Hard News by Russell Brown


Rage and change: RNZ's music problem

There has long been a truism in public broadcasting: don't mess with Concert FM. The theory was that although the station has been in a long-term audience decline, and that audience is steadily ageing out, it has powerful establishment support – and any threat to it would provoke a fury.

As it happens, the plan announced this week – which would see RNZ Concert recast as an automated playout system in the deadlands of the AM band and its staff made redundant – has reaped a backlash well beyond the ranks of the great and good, and from people who are not Concert listeners.  Elements of that backlash have been intemperate, to put it mildly.

The decision to present Concert's relegation in the context of a planned new music station targeted at younger listeners has only aggravated the reaction. After all, people are saying, the youth are more than adequately served by commercial radio. We'll get to that, but let's just say it's debatable.

So why would RNZ management poke the bear? You could look at the speech CEO Paul Thompson made in 2014, eight months after he took the job, to the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association Conference in Glasgow. It's all about confronting change, and especially the implications of an audience shift to digital, non-linear channels:

I want to highlight three troubling facts:

- We are weak (almost irrelevant) on the web.

- As a radio broadcaster, we lack visual journalism and digital story-telling skills.

- Our preferred method of content delivery - radio - is in long-term decline.

When I was appointed as CEO in September last year, I quickly realised that some of the things that had made us successful and highly relevant to New Zealanders in the past decade were unlikely to work so well in future.

And I see the essence of my job as a duty to ensure we are as strong, if not stronger, in the future as we are now.

It's easy to lose sight of how strong RNZ's response to the challenges identified in the speech has been. We're so used to the accessibility and immediacy of RNZ's news online, the excellence of its podcasts, the unquestioned role of digital media in its operations, that it's easy to forget that it wasn't always thus.

In late 2014, Paul commissioned me to write a paper for internal use about RNZ's music content and programming. I titled the paper Taking Music Seriously, and urged RNZ to own its music content, acknowledge and value its internal expertise and explore new ways of delivering music to audiences. I pointed out that other public broadcasters, such as NPR and the BBC, had breathed new life into their operations by embracing music.

"In general" I wrote, "Radio New Zealand's approach to music should shift from passive to active. It can, and should, be part of music."

I can't necessarily claim credit – I gather there have been several of these internal documents – but a number of the changes I suggested have come to pass. On weekday afternoons in particular, music has become a really important factor in audience engagement. In the review of NZ On Air's music funding schemes I wrote last year, I observed that local artists and their labels and managers greatly value exposure on Afternoons. More so, to be frank, than they value a spot on Music 101 on Saturdays.

Why? Because although RNZ National's specialist music content is informed, passionate and frequently of high quality, it doesn't find its audience. Younger listeners, who might be most interested in the music featured, pretty much can't find 101 on the dial and the day-to-day audience basically goes off a cliff on Saturday afternoons. Music 101 presenter Alex Behan, who I thought was doing a tremendous job, couldn't meet the demands he was set and was dumped. Which makes it all the more remarkable that he wrote such a thoughtful and generous assessment of this week's changes, and the need for change in general.

In 2015, Concert FM had a strong and active relationship with the "fine music" community and its representative body Sounz – it was part of that musical community, and still is. In other areas, I wrote, it did less well. Its jazz programming had little to do with the quite vibrant community represented by the likes of the Creative Jazz Club in Auckland and Rattle in Wellington.

Remarkably, that has changed. Since Nick Tipping arrived in 2016, his show Inside Out, broadcast on Concert and RNZ National, has established  much stronger connection to contemporary local jazz. It's part of that community. Over that time, Concert's share has even ticked up a bit to 4% of the listening audience, which is still well short of the 6.7% of New Zealanders 15+ who listened in 2007.

It's not hard to imagine that (ideally in partnership with student and community radio) as a model for fostering other musical genres: blues, gospel, reggae, country, waiata Māori – and the music of our growing immigrant communities. There are brown kids in Auckland suburbs making cross-cultural popular music that you'll never hear. (Among my recommendations to NZ On Air last year was that it work on ways of surfacing this music.)

It would cause its own uprising – because, let's face, for a substantial part of its audience, Concert is essentially a chillout playlist – but it might be a model for a serious music station. I, personally, would love that.

But a serious music station doesn't address the future-proofing issue. It wouldn't necessarily find the RNZ listeners of tomorrow any more than Music 101 does on a Saturday. So what they're looking at – and what the head of music Willy McAllister was hired to devise – is an equivalent to the ABC's Triple J, which really does engage younger listeners, and which identifies and exposes talent for the Australian popular music industry as a whole.

But aren't young people already well-served by commercial radio? Sort of. But as Damian Christie pointed out, saying that is "a bit like scrapping RNZ National and claiming adults are well served by ZB and Magic Live."

New Zealand music's share on mainstream pop radio is actually at a historic high at the moment: 20-25% of airtime. But that's really maybe a dozen songs a year, by half a dozen artists, making A-rotate. And it's all contemporary pop, which we've got a lot better at making. And that's a ceiling. Commercial radio has room for very few winners, its needs are narrow and the unserviced market is vast.

My friend Andrew Dubber, who knows more about the way music and broadcast are changing than anyone I know, put it differently, asking:

" … does my right to listen to fine classical music presented intelligently by experts trump a 14 year-old’s right not to be forced into a situation where they are constantly sold to advertisers because of the music they and their friends happen to enjoy?"

When you consume commercial media, you are the product and we should be cautious about declaring that's all anyone under 30 should expect to be.

There are problems with creating our own Triple J, however. The most obvious one is that the commercial networks will go absolutely apeshit about it. Their perspective is that they've paid millions of dollars for their broadcast frequencies and they don't expect the taxpayer to use that money to turn around and compete with them. I saw that happen when I was involved in developing ideas for a Youth Radio Network around the turn of the millennium.

Contrary to claims on social media, young people do still listen to radio – The Edge vies with RNZ National as the most popular radio station in the country. There are money and jobs at stake here, and commercial radio, bankable for so long, is becoming subject to the same revenue pressures as other traditional media. They're entitled to feel uneasy.

We're not, of course, obliged to care about that. But it's impossible not to feel uneasy about the scope of these changes. As the music historian Aleisha Ward explains eloquently in this Twitter thread, the loss of RNZ's music librarians along with Concert FM is a profound one. I'm told there were people in tears when the news was broken to staff this week and I'm not surprised.

It's also unclear what will happen to the truly unique thing RNZ brings to radio in New Zealand – the skill and expertise of the engineers who record performances, both inside and outside the studios. One of the great things about music on Afternoons has been the live-to-air sessions that are subsequently made available online. They offer exposure to artists who might not get it any other way – and one clip from Avantdale Bowling Club's 2018 session with Jesse Mulligan has been viewed more than 60,000 times on YouTube.

Surely the proposed new station would continue to harness those skills – perhaps do even more of it, which would be great. But could a Concert programme without presenters and in-house experts credibly continue to capture important classical and jazz performances? Would those really fit in a Triple J format? And yet the loss of those recordings would leave a massive hole in our cultural life.

In the end, what we should be asking is not whether there would be value in creating something for audiences long ignored by public broadcasting (there would be), or whether there's value in what Concert FM does (there really is) – but why we're being presented with a zero-sum game.

The Labour-led government, which has properly allowed RNZ and its management and board to make strategic decisions, may yet need to say and do more here. And yes, I mean money.

EDIT: I left out one thing here: the reason Concert is being pushed onto the AM band. Which is that there aren't any more FM frequencies available. The frequencies that could have been used for a new venture, the ones that Kiwi FM broadcast on, have – in the case of Auckland's 102.2, anyway – been decomissioned. I don't know enough about spectrum management to say what might be done about that, but it seems a fairly key issue.

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