Brian Edwards Media

Why should we care about Radio New Zealand?

Ross Giblin/The Dominion Post

Ross Giblin/The Dominion Post

 Why should we care about Radio New Zealand?

Because it is the only broadcast medium in the country that takes the time to examine issues of consequence to New Zealanders at length and in depth. It can do so because, and only because it is a non-commercial radio network. It is not beholden to advertisers, does not need to concern itself with ratings – though many of its programmes outrate its commercial competitors – and its programmes are not interrupted or abbreviated by the irritating presence of advertisements.

Radio New Zealand’s success in commanding a large and loyal audience with programmes such as Morning Report, Nine to Noon, Checkpoint, Afternoons, Kim Hill’s (and formerly my own) Saturday morning show, gives the lie to the proposition that the public are not interested in social and political debate or intelligent conversation. They are.

In contrast the free-to-air commercial television channels offer us quasi ‘current affairs’ programmes such as Close Up and Campbell Live whose function is less to inform than to entertain and whose mandate is to retain the ratings momentum generated by the channels’ preceding news, sport and weather packages.

The entertainment ethos that drives these programmes – and the channels’ network news bulletins as well – is that the viewer has a limited attention span, requires constant stimulation and novelty, and has little appetite for the serious examination of social and political issues. To be palatable, what information the programmes offer must be served up in tasty, bite-sized chunks. Nothing too long, nothing too tough, nothing requiring chewing. The viewer must be given no excuse to reach for the remote to change the channel.

This explains why the commonest thing said on either Close Up or Campbell Live is, ‘I’m sorry, we’ve run out of time.’ Of course the programme hasn’t ‘run out of time’ at all, it simply hasn’t allocated enough time. As a matter of policy these programmes try to run at least three items in the less than 22 minutes  of airtime allocated to them each weeknight. Can you deal effectively with a complex social or political issue in seven minutes? No you can’t. But that is the price the networks believe you have to pay if you are to satisfy your core commercial brief – to sell audiences to advertisers.

If this seems like a cynical view of the free-to-air channels, consider the placement of Q&A, the only network television programme worthy of being called ‘current affairs’. Why is it on on Sunday morning? Because the programmers believe that no one would watch it in peak or even off-peak time; because it’s about politics; because it has long interviews; because it has smart people discussing the week’s news; because – or so the programmers believe – it’s boring.  And Sunday morning is commercial free anyway and therefore worth – nothing.

Commercial radio does no better than commercial television and probably worse. The saturation level of advertising required to keep the stations viable makes any discursive examination of issues impossible. For a few months I worked as a morning host on Radio Pacific. I vividly recall an interview I did with Alex Haley, the author of Roots. Haley was speaking movingly about his slave ancestry.  Every four or five minutes I could hear my producer in my ear, telling me that we had to take a break to go to the commercials or to the next race at Trentham. ‘This time…’ It was embarrassing to me and demeaning to my guest. On National Radio’s Top of the Morning, a decade later, I could have devoted 40 uninterrupted minutes to that interview with a listenership of up to 340,000 people, outrating every other radio station in the country.  

Commercials and quality radio simply do not go together, which is the very best reason why RNZ should resist any attempt by the government to introduce sponsorship into its programmes. Sponsorship is simply the thin edge of the wedge that will lead to the full commercialisation of the only worthwhile radio network in the country – the destruction, in other words, of public radio in New Zealand.

Why should we care about Radio New Zealand? Not least because democracy requires an informed populace that has access to disinterested news reporting and the discursive and probing analysis of social and political issues and is beholden to no-one other than its listeners – not to government, not to political parties, not to power elites, not to commerce, not to the hawkers of goods and services.

That is why we should care about Radio New Zealand.

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35 Comments:

  1. Disliked by Labour which chronically underfunded it,
    hated by National which want to get rid of it…there really is only one option in light of the politicans rancor. It has to stay.

  2. I think the suggestion is that RNZ should seek some form of commercial sponsorship, not that it should seek adverisements breaking up programmes. Done tastefully, with a sponsor’s name at the beginning and end of a programme RNZ could be improved immeasurably. Perhaps commercial funding could be found for more drama (of which there is precious little) and more documentary programmes rather than interviews by the same presenter. Perhpas the gaps on the NP that are currently filed with the most appalling ‘muzak’, presumably to save the presenter’s voice, could be eliminated. I see no problem with commercial sponsership of the Concert Programme as long as we do not have the tenor singing ‘la Donna e mobile; go to Vodaphone for the best deals in mobile phones’. Every week CFM broadcasts an opera from the Met which is sponsored heavily by compaies in the USA. It carries the name of one of the major sponsors, Toll Brohers. RNZ evidently finds no irony in this.

    I go regularly to theatre, concerts and opera all of which are subject to commercial sponsorship. The performances are not ‘dumbed down’ and the sponsorship does not in the least spoil my enjoyment.

    We are never going to have a radio service like BBC 3 or 4; we are too small. But done tastefully (and that is the operative word) RNZ could be so much better than it is now, especially in terms of breadth of content. It would be attractive to sponsors in that they would know the type of audience (mainly middle aged and precious). I have nothing against Jim Mora, Kim Hill, etc, but I do not want to be listening to them hour after hour, day after day.

    Incidentally have you ever listend to National Programme between midnight and 6am? The kindest thing that could be said is that it is an excellent cure for insomnia.

    The reaction to the Minister’s remarks were entirely predictable. I have never forgotten the outrage when the former RNZ house was demolished. Talk about misplaced hysteria. We are witnessing a repetition.

    • I think the suggestion is that RNZ should seek some form of commercial sponsorship, not that it should seek adverisements breaking up programmes. Done tastefully, with a sponsor’s name at the beginning and end of a programme RNZ could be improved immeasurably

      “Done tastefully”? How do you do it tastefully? Let’s say you go for a really respectable product, Mercedes Benz for example. “Mercedes Morning Report“? “Checkpoint comes to you courtesy of Mercedes Benz?” And what happens when Mercedes Benz has a Toyota moment? Can these programmes tear into the company that is sponsoring their programme? And doesn’t even the fact of having a commercial product associated with the programme undermine its authority and credibility? It does.

      This applies with equal or even greater force to documentaries which you suggest as a suitable vehicle for sponsorship. The potential for conflict of interest is huge.

      Well, I don’t want to listen to Jim Mora or Kim Hill hour after hour or day after day either. But who is suggesting that? And yes there are dreary periods on RNZ, just as there are dreary periods on commercial talk stations – hours and hours of them, I would suggest.

      Advertising is a voracious beast. Give it a finger and it will soon take the whole body. And, if Christine Grice’s weak response at the Select Committee is anything to go by, that is precisely what may happen. Maybe it is time to sack the current Board.

  3. If this seems like a cynical view of the free-to-air channels, consider the placement of Q&A, the only network television programme worthy of being called ‘current affairs’. Why is it on on Sunday morning? Because the programmers believe that no one would watch it in peak or even off-peak time; because it’s about politics; because it has long interviews; because it has smart people discussing the week’s news; because – or so the programmers believe – it’s boring. And Sunday morning is commercial free anyway and therefore worth – nothing.

    It’s not that nobody watches Q & A and other such programs, the problem is that the people who do watch it aren’t demographics that are attractive to advertisers. Older, educated people don’t switch brands and don’t make large purchases based on ad campaigns so they’re not worth selling to, and thus not worth manufacturing programs for.

    • Older, educated people don’t switch brands and don’t make large purchases based on ad campaigns so they’re not worth selling to, and thus not worth manufacturing programs for.

      That argument always amazes me, as it does all of my friends who are in the same demographic as me – wrinklies or near wrinklies. We’re all huge consumers relative to our children and grandchildren. We have disposable income. Maybe it’s a chicken and egg problem. We don’t change brands because advertisers think we don’t change brands so they don’t pitch their products to us.

  4. Such a sad thing that we do not value those very good things in our society that reflect us to ourselves.

  5. And PS…(caught up in emotion) …a very excellent post Brian :-)

  6. “Well, I don’t want to listen to Jim Mora or Kim Hill hour after hour or day after day either. But who is suggesting that?”

    That is the present reality.

    With some imagination (probably lacking in the current managment structure) a commercial sponsorship structure could be established that 1. maintains editorial independence and control 2. Provides sponsors with a return for their investment. If necessary news programmes could be excluded from such sponsorships.

    The concept should not be dismised out of hand. Even the Beeb is now in bed with commercial organisations when it comes to things like flagship drama although it is not highlighted in the credits. For RNZ there are three choices:
    1. Increased taxpayer funding and given the pressures on areas such as healthcare/education this might not be the best option

    2. A slow death, and that is what is happening at the moment.

    3 Getting rid of this mindset that RNZ is in someway sacrosanct and finding other ways of funding that do not affect the public broadcasting ethos.

    I am all in favour of the third option but on this blog at least I know I shall be outnumbered and have scorn heaped upon me.

    • Getting rid of this mindset that RNZ is in someway sacrosanct and finding other ways of funding that do not affect the public broadcasting ethos. I am all in favour of the third option but on this blog at least I know I shall be outnumbered and have scorn heaped upon me.

      Well Ben, I don’t think RNZ is sacrosanct, but I do think it is a public good and should be supported out of the public purse. And by the way, they aren’t asking for more money and they’re willing to continue within their present budget. They just don’t want it pared back any more.

  7. Many moons ago… I was once the largest buyer of commercial radio in New Zealand… so I guess I was once one of those for whom broadcasters delivered audiences… that said… I have to agree with Brian…not everything has to be commercial and neither should it be…there are however ways to get a non intrusive mix…again, that said…it ain’t easy… and once you go down that road… unless you have some damn courageous custodians and moderators (and they are few and far between)…it’s a slow certain “death by a thousand cuts” as you slide towards oblivion… and while I don’t necessarily agree with everything Brian says..on this one I gotta say…there is considerable substance to his argument…well done Brian Edwards

  8. Thank you for the clarity of your summation, Brian.

    What I found particularly chilling was the Minister’s “play ball or go home” attitude towards the RNZ board. A threat partially covered by the thinnest of veils.

    Sadly, I think the Minister for Broadcasting has demonstrated in the past, and continues to demonstrate a profound misunderstanding of the electorate’s feelings towards public broadcasting.

    Radio NZ is considered, I suspect, a soft target, a throwback to the ‘Gliding On’ era public service. Mr. Coleman may well be surprised at just how rapid, vociferous and widespread the negative reaction to his announcement has been.

    All public sector organisations, just like their private sector equivalents, must regularly self-audit to reduce inefficiency and ensure value for money in their operations. However the push towards restructuring here, rationalised by the ‘Current Financial Situation’, is somethng else entirely. In my opinion nothing more nor less than an ideologically motivated attack.

    But then, I suppose we must ensure there’s money in the budget to fund those underresourced private schools…

    Apologies for the rant, thankyou again for your post.

    AJA

    • What I found particularly chilling was the Minister’s “play ball or go home” attitude towards the RNZ board. A threat partially covered by the thinnest of veils.

      Yes, our Jonathan is turning into a right royal bully.

  9. Ongoing RNZ sponsorship won’t add –nor subtract –to the number of listeners currently tuned-in.

    Labour wanted RNZ modelled along the lines of a quasi-SOE. National wants it to be more self-supporting. You have a CEO who seems impervious to the growing groundswell of pressure, for reform, by a disgruntled Government, no longer willing to see Radio NZ bleed so much red ink. This won’t be an agonising case of “death by a thousand cuts” when Justin Coleman is moving to cauterise the wounds, already.

    Danyl Lauchlan spells out the reality of the situation: The majority of the listeners aren’t in the demographic, where commercial advertisers are actively pursuing to sell their wares; being, neither, from Gen-X nor Gen-Y.

    More tellingly, there aren’t that many who would be regular listeners anyway, who are interested in critical analysis and debate, over politics etc. Seriously, the numbers are few and far between.

    In an era of Government belt-tightening, Radio NZ falls somewhere between an Indulgence and a Luxury, which the country can’t afford — especially, when tax-cuts are being promised. And while there appears to be a rallying cry to preserve the status quo, the cause célèbre will reveal itself to be little more than “flavour of the month”. The Government knows that.

    • Ongoing RNZ sponsorship won’t add –nor subtract –to the number of listeners currently tuned-in.

      Hard really to respond to this level of cynicism. But a couple of points are worth repeating.

      Radio New Zealand has a huge audience for programmes such as Morning Report, Nine to Noon and Kim Hill. During my five years on Top of the Morning I was an avid follower of the ratings. That audience is not merely large, it contains a disproportionate number of opinion shapers and power brokers. It has a level of influence shared by few if any commercial broadcasters. And the notion that there are few spenders or people with disposable income in that audience has just got to be nonsense. I have no doubt at all that this is an audience that would be attractive to advertisers, particularly those promoting top-end products and services.

      Any sponsorship or advertising content will undermine RNZ’s image and reputation as a public service broadcaster. Advertising does that, both to the programmes in which it appears and to the people who appear in the ads. I had some experience of this myself in the early 70’s when I fronted an advertising campaign for an entirely respectable product. I was constantly approached by people in the street to tell me how disappointed they were that I had “sold out” like this. I would never front an ad again and I would advise any seriousl broadcaster of the dangers to your reputation and image of doing so.

      Finally, if you want evidence of ‘advertising creep’, all you have to do is look at the history of television advertising in this country – from almost nothing at the start in the early/mid sixties, to three days a week to the saturation levels we have now. And all of that by government regulation. Trust National not to try to turn RNZ into a fully commercial network – Yeah right!

  10. I find it interesting that of all the things this National Government has done so far – ACC, beneficiary bashing, destruction of community education – it is this that seems to have provoked the greatest outrage.

    I realise I am going to be accused of trying to monopolise the discussion, and I apologise, although I do find the topic interesting.

    We at least agree RNZ is a public good. There are however many other ‘public goods’ in this country that would not survive but for commercial help including, NZSO, NZ Opera, Air Rescue, all the major museums and art galleries. PBS in the USA has shown that the public good can coexist with commerce.

    Just out of interest your entire focus so far has been on the National Programme. Do you have the same objection to the Concert Programme being tainted by commerce or don’t you care because you don’t listen to it?

    And I shall now shut up; or at least try.

    • Just out of interest your entire focus so far has been on the National Programme. Do you have the same objection to the Concert Programme being tainted by commerce or don’t you care because you don’t listen to it?

      I do listen to the Concert Programme. I’m a fan of classical music. My car radio, on the other hand, is normally tuned to Radio Hauraki. I’m a fan of rock music and there are fewer commercials. And I listen to National Radio, normally through their ‘on demand’ service.

  11. Introducing a commercial entity into RNZ is only a step away from privatisation. I listened bemused with the ACT broadcasting spokesperson who didnt mention once the need for privatisation but agreed to the monetary structures required by the Government.
    With regards to the late night broadcast structure ,Im always impressed by Lloyd and co whose somewhat unusual humour a great panacea for that hour of night. Reruns of programmes I have missed allow me the luxury of catching up with them .As for the music, I challenge any station (excluding the internet)to broadcast such a wide ranging selection.Its sucess is possibly because it doesnt chase advertisers demographics.

    • Introducing a commercial entity into RNZ is only a step away from privatisation. I listened bemused with the ACT broadcasting spokesperson who didnt mention once the need for privatisation but agreed to the monetary structures required by the Government.

      It’s also worth remembering what we’re talking about here in terms of money. The government bulk funds Radio New Zealand to the tune of $38 million a year. For that you get a 24 hour service, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year on both National Radio and the Concert Programme, plus Radio New Zealand International. It would be hard to define this as spendthrift or as a significant impost on the country’s finances.

      Since I wrote this reply, Russell Brown has pointed out that RNZ’s bulk funding from the government is actually only $32 million. The remaining $6 million comes for other sources.

  12. The barbarians are knocking at the door. Rnz is not an optional extra, it is an inalienable right of a civiised democracy in a world under stress, and on the cusp of transformation that you cannot imagine….

  13. Mourning Report.

    The National Programme was my daily tonic for the better part of my 60+ years.
    I well remember Muldoon being charmed by Sharon Crosbie, unaware he was being skewered.
    What a wonderful cavalcade of intelligent and informed presenters followed:
    Maggie Barry, Kim Hill, Brian Edwards, Linda Clarke and Wayne Mowatt dominate my memory of those enlightened times.

    Politicians insist that Chinese walls can be constructed to insulate their investments from the insider knowledge they gain from their position of privilege…..yet they cannot believe that a public broadcaster can be insulated from partisanship by a properly constructed charter.

    The proof is in the pudding.

    During the tenure of the broadcasters listed above, we have elected Governments from the full spectrum of left and right.

    I have already done my grieving for what used to be. These days I rarely listen beyond Morning Report.

    Perhaps it is an honest (but in my view, misguided) effort at non-partisanship that has turned National Radio into a saccharine-sweet purveyor of pop culture. Perhaps ratings provided the impetus for hours of programming time devoted to kid-music and pop-art.
    In my view a mistake. Lowest-common-denominator is well served by commercial radio and the “installations” of adolescent “artists” are not of sufficient maturity or interest to warrant national exposure.

    Should the market dictate the culture? Those who hold this opinion are much-loved by the marketing people at Sony.
    The commercial success of many of our musicians and film-makers is a direct result of Radio New Zealand and the Film Commission, institutions that mitigate, in some small way, against corporations whose interests are antithetical to our society’s health. This invisible profit is rarely credited to RNZ’s account.

    So, for my two cents, RNZ needs tightening up but commercialization is quite the wrong direction.

  14. Can I just put my hand up and say I am never happier than when listening to Jim Mora and Kim Hill, preferably for hour after hour ? In particular the Saturday morning program presented by Kim Hill stands out like a beacon. Science, politics, literature, technology, sport, music, any kind of worthwhile endeavour you can name; Kim will find and interview interesting illumni in the field and bring astonishing knowledge, good humour and a challenging point of view to the job. As a magazine program I dare say it compares favourably to anything produced anywhere. If someone can name something downloadable from the internnet from somewhere else in the world that’s even close to it they’ll make my day.

    And while I’m on the subject, immediately after Kim Hill comes the new kid on the block Simon Morton, who just might be a worthy successor one day.

    The all night program isn’t getting a lot of love here, and I don’t understand that either. Lloyd Scott is an absolute national treasure, listening to him introduce nuggets of the best in popular culture is like bathing in honey, to me anyway.

    I love the free market as much as the next man, probably more so, and I vote National more often than not. But my message to the government is to leave Radio NZ alone. I expect a conservative government to keep the barbarians from the gate, not usher them in.

  15. And Rnz is not even elitist, contrary to a view.
    It is even the farmers choice.
    For some it is their ‘broadband’.

  16. 16

    Still, 38 mill is a fearful lot of money to prop up a few radio stations. The govt. shouldn’t be in the business of radio and TV stations anyway, which should be absolutly free of political taint. They all should be left to the entrepreneurs of this world — the Rupert Murdochs and the John Malones etc .

    • Still, 38 mill is a fearful lot of money to prop up a few radio stations. The govt. shouldn’t be in the business of radio and TV stations anyway, which should be absolutly free of political taint. They all should be left to the entrepreneurs of this world — the Rupert Murdochs and the John Malones etc .

      Well, you can’t have public radio without the government being in it. But that’s very different from the government interfering in the programming or editorial side of public broadcasting. In New Zealand, as in other countries with a public broadcasting service, the Minister of Broadcasting is prevented by law from giving instructions on programme or editorial matters to the organisation. Funding is of course a separate issue. Without public broadcasting we would never have had the BBC. And as for Murdoch and co’s contribution to broadcasting, I can only quote John McEnroe – you have to be joking!

  17. Sorry, Brian. Danyl Mclauchlan is right. Whatever we might think of advertisers, they aren’t stoopid. People who listen to RNZ aren’t affected by advertising. Sure, we may have a few dollars and spend on ourselves and our grandchildren. But that spending isn’t determined by advertising on radio and television! As a group we are far too discriminative and analytical. If we weren’t we would be listening to Rock FM.

  18. If we lose National Radio we have those who voted NATIONAL to blame. You know who you are! You care for no one but your own property tax-free properties.

  19. Can I take another tack and ask why the Government doesn’t force Government Departments across the board into Commercial imperitives.
    Can I suggest ad breaks in Parliament to pay for the MP’s? This Question time is brought to you by “Carefree Tampons”. Or maybe ad breaks in Afghanistan to pay for the medicine and ammunition. Or ten second ad breaks in public toilets after every third sheet? ( Can’t make them too long )Or ad breaks during operations in public hospitals to pay for the surgeons and nurses.( We could make them public ) Maybe the police could all break into song and dance periodically at protests or at rugby tests….”We are the blokes from down on the farm, we really like our cheese, theres no better taste than Chesdale, it never fails to please”. Nothing like a good “advertisment”in the middle of a riot to change the toneof proceedings.
    Or the creme de la creme, ad breaks in the High Court to help pay for their huge budget.
    Todays Judge and Counsel are brought to you by Faye Richwright and Blue Chip Investments.
    I think it’s quite an interesting idea when you think about it and maybe even a valid one for a Government dedicated to everyone paying their way.

    • Can I take another tack and ask why the Government doesn’t force Government Departments across the board into Commercial imperitives.

      Excellent idea. And to prevent people missing the ad breaks, why not ad breaks to advertise the upcoming ad breaks.

  20. That argument always amazes me, as it does all of my friends who are in the same demographic as me – wrinklies or near wrinklies. We’re all huge consumers relative to our children and grandchildren. We have disposable income. Maybe it’s a chicken and egg problem. We don’t change brands because advertisers think we don’t change brands so they don’t pitch their products to us.

    In the past ad companies have spent a lot of money trying to sell products to older & wealthier demographics. But they now have access to real-time purchasing data from companies like Fly-Buys, they know that trying to market to those people is basically a waste of money. They just don’t make purchasing decisions based on marketing campaigns.

    Consider car ads: ten years ago the typical car ad showed an older couple driving the car through a forest listening to classical music. Now they show young people driving to the beach listening to pop. 50+ people still buy about 99% of new cars in this country, but they aren’t influenced by television ads and young people are.

    • In the past ad companies have spent a lot of money trying to sell products to older & wealthier demographics. But they now have access to real-time purchasing data from companies like Fly-Buys, they know that trying to market to those people is basically a waste of money. They just don’t make purchasing decisions based on marketing campaigns.

      OK, I’ll take your word for it.

  21. Lloyd Scott and Vickie McKay are in fact national treasures. It is the best of national radio in my opinion. Concert FM is the easiest political target Jonathon Coleman or his string puller Stephen Joyce will ever find. Any token of sponosrship or advertising there will kill it eventually. I’m having a classical music education there, in fact as someone told me, anyone who listens to Classical FM is in fact a student of music.