Broadcasting

Saving Public Broadcasting

RNZ is under-funded and under-appreciated and has been for years. I worked there for 35 years, and I have many friends who still work there. While the following is a fairly bleak read, I will say that RNZ was a fantastic and fun place to work, and was and is full of passionate and wonderful people who do great and important work.

It pains me to write this, but this is one of those ‘we need to talk’ moments. 

While my position was disestablished late 2016, and I left to pursue other opportunities, I have remained very interested in the media, and I think my 35 years experience, some of it at the forefront of change and innovation, and the last three years working with Paul Thompson, gives me a unique perspective.

I am not going to say that RNZ didn’t need to change, or that any public broadcaster doesn’t need to change with the times. I am also not going to say that production of content that is no longer relevant shouldn’t be dropped. I led two projects that brought about massive change – the first to digitise documentary and music production, and the second to bring the website into the modern age. Both we badly needed; some change is necessary, and good. The opposite can also be true. 

What a mess

A proposal to move RNZ Concert off its FM frequency and convert it to an automated jukebox has gone sour for RNZ. The replacement, a youth music and news station for 18-35 year olds, has been variously described as not needed or misplaced. 

There has been a miscommunication with the minister of broadcasting, a Facebook group set up by fans of Concert to save it, and an open letter to the minster by a staffer. Even Helen Clark weighed in. What part the Culture and Heritage ministry had to play in this debacle is still not clear.

It’s quite a tale of intrigue by any account, but what is really going on here? What has brought our only public broadcaster to this point?

Rather than focusing on this single event, I think it helps to look at this in context – the history of RNZ and its funding, the gradual reduction in services, its relationship with its funders, and the frequent restructurings.

The Early Years

The 1980s and 90s was a tumultuous time for RNZ. A couple of major restructurings left their mark.

Project Aurora was probably the most memorable. We were told that we had to do this to ourselves before the government moved in to control spending. The cuts were deep, both in terms of programming and staff, and many of those that remained would get angry at the mention of it, even decades later.

Staff contracts also saw big changes off the back of more than 20 million dollars in red ink. Some of the projects – the purchase of a commercial station in the Auckland market, an in-store radio station for supermarkets, and a computer controlled acoustic studio (The Helen Young Studio was the prototype), to name a few – all resulted in large losses for RNZ. Penal rates and overtime for shift-workers were cut, and everyone was asked to agree to a 10% pay cut. 

Sadly, this was a common theme at RNZ – staff usually end up paying for the sins of management.

An underground magazine started up where staff vented their frustrations. It satirised the management ruthlessly, and CEO at the time, Nigel Milan, once said that he let it continue as it was an outlet for staff.

In one story from the magazine, the HR department had proposed the removal of all penal rates for shift work because we were a 24 hours operation. Someone had called them at different times of the day – 3am, Saturday morning, etc – and found no one there. The writer noted that we obviously weren’t a 24 hour operation after all!

It also described the “new wealth streams” which management had promoted as our future sources of revenue as “the toilet down which we flush our money”. 

Funding was seen to be a problem even back then, and commercial (and risky) activities undertaken by RNZ’s commercial division were seen as one way to bridge the gap.

The second big restructuring was the business mapping project. This was an attempt to apply business process reengineering (BPR) to RNZ and happened around the time the organisation moved out of Broadcasting House, Wellington. The outcome was a ham-fisted structure where no-one worked for a radio station directly – everyone worked for departments who had upstream stakeholders who were to be their only focus. We had what some called “indoctrination sessions” where we were told that we no longer worked for a radio station, that our customer was the ‘programme development unit’, or some other “upstream customer”.

This restructuring was an attempt to change the structure and the culture at the same time through a “greenfield event”. Organisation culture change is hard at any time and I think those who were there at the time will agree that this failed miserably. Within weeks of new managers being appointed staff starting working arounds the problems that had been created by the changes. 

The current problems today have their roots in that restructuring, which created no station leadership or station vision, just programmes, channels, and metrics. Not the best structure when you need focussed staff. I recall one of the consultants specifically referring to the need to break up Concert. “If we don’t do it now, no one will ever be able to do it”, he said. The very strong culture created by Helen Young and Elizabeth Kerr didn’t line up with their process-based view of the world. I think that Concert was also feared and envied.

For your amusement, one hare-brained scheme from that period was proposed by a commercial manager who’d recently arrived in the country. He came up with the idea to put advertising billboards on all our transmitter sites. He figured with that many sites, it would be a big income earner. The problem was that there were almost no people near the sites to see the billboards, and it prompted one staff member to create a brilliant cartoon – a sign “Eat at Joe’s” in the middle of a field surrounded by a few sheep. The manager lasted about a year, and soon left the country.

In 1996 the commercial stations were sold off, along with any property that the public broadcaster occupied. Broadcasting House in Wellington had been sold back to the government by then, some saying that the money was used to prop up the commercial network prior to its sale. The Auckland studios in Cook Street, including the Helen Young Studio, were leased back from the RNZ Commercial. RNZ was forced out of the building in the 2000s and had to remove the studios at their own cost. 

At that stage RNZ was fairly unique among public broadcasters in not having any dedicated music studios. They’ve made do with broadcast studios in Auckland and Wellington, NZ Live being a great example of how staff have adapted to a situation that’s far from ideal.

After the loss of Broadcasting House, RNZ Concert changed its focus from a mix of studio and live recordings, to largely live events. 

As well as documentary and programme making, news also had cutbacks over this time. It slowly reduced staffing and closed regional offices. In 1981 Broadcast House hosted head-office news, the regional newsroom for Wellington, and there was even a satellite office in Lower Hutt. By 2005 you could count the remaining regional newsrooms on two hands, with Auckland effectively a regional outpost.

The biggest criticism I have of RNZ over that period was the focus on cost-cutting. This usually meant jobs. We were asked to work smarter, not harder, but really that just meant work harder. There was little or any work done on trying to become more efficient. Any gains in productivity came because devoted staff just worked longer hours, and that has continued to this day.

There was a period of stability in the early 2000s under Peter Cavanagh. He famously said there would be no redundancies on his watch, something he stuck to. Peter took over from Sharon Crosbie and did so while I was working on the website project. He challenged me to expand the scope of the project to include news which had been excluded because of the complexity around copyrights associated with the many news supply contracts we had at the time. We navigated this, and launched with a basic news service.

Peter was a big supporter of digital, but everything had to be done within existing budgets. Peter also started The Wireless, which was merged into the main RNZ site in 2019. I’ll comment on that later.

During Peter’s tenure there was a ‘relevancy audit’ (or two, I cannot recall) to look at whether RNZ was providing the right mix of content. There were many discussions about content and what should or should not be made, and some programmes were dropped and new ones added.

One of those dropped was the excellent te reo Māori programme He Rourou. Its programme index page has been removed from the RNZ website, but you can still access individual items via a Google search. I don’t understand why the index page is gone – this content is already paid for, is reasonably evergreen, and surely has an audience still! 

I mention this show in particular because it’s a good example of how RNZ started to lose touch with its charter and Treaty obligations when ratings and money both started to get tight. (As I’ve said, broadcasters have to make choices, I am not saying choices cannot be made, or that some of them won’t require a lot of soul searching.)

[Technical note: The removal of the index page hurts website traffic. It is bad for SEO as Google can no longer work out the hierarchical context of the content, and what page to present first in search results. The RNZ CMS allows old shows to be delisted from programme listing pages, so my advice to RNZ would be to make He Rourou live again, but don’t show it on the programmes page. Google will thank you!]

In the early years of the site my team and I grew monthly page impressions from 100,000 in 2005 to over 2 million in 2014. A lot of radio staff had learned new digital skills and were posting their own content on-line either themselves, or with support from my team. Yes, it needed a little more polish, but something is better than nothing.

Funding

Anyone who listens to RNZ will know that it is “funded through New Zealand On Air” (NZOA). The exact amount is by directive of the government, and it is a bulk fund. In the early days there was some disquiet about this – there was not a high level of reporting at the time on what was being delivered, and NZOA was used to a more directive model with clear reporting of outcomes.

Attempts were made by RNZ to get increases over the years, a few of them successful. A major review of funding suggested RNZ was underfunded, but that came to nothing.

At one stage we were told that if we wanted to get more money we had to get our books in order. I think this was a reference to the lack of transparency on where each dollar was going and a small increase was agreed around 2004 – after substantial work on ‘the books’ – some of that targeted at a new website.

Even with the cost of power and rent going up, it was not possible to secure increases to cover even that, putting more pressure on programming.

Problems were also caused by lots of fully-depreciated technical equipment, much in need of replacement. RNZ was sometimes unable to replace items because even though it had capital reserves, it could not afford to pay the depreciation on the purchase.

Add to that the extra cost of covering large events like the Christchurch quakes.

The most recent increase in funding was the result of a Ministerial Advisory Group’s recommendations.

2013 –

Paul Thompson started at RNZ in 2013, and I worked closely with him on some broad strategy issues when he arrived. I found him very open to new ideas, supportive of my area (digital) and public radio in general. It’s fair to say that the market had changed in the previous 10 years, and that some things definitely needed to change, it just wasn’t clear what. He had his work cut out.

The company was reorganised multiple times before I left in 2016 to put more resources into Digital (web) and what has been called “multimedia journalism”. While there I hired RNZ’s first photographer, first developer, and first designer, but also saw my original team take redundancy or move on to other opportunities when Digital was restructured. 

As some experienced broadcasters left – they apparently did not have the multimedia skills to work in the new roles created by restructuring – they were replaced by newspaper/web journalists with the required skills.

In that period of high staff turnover I was party to a number of conversations about the purpose of public radio. It’s fair to say that things started to get a bit murky, and on occasion testy.

I observed a few interactions where existing staff were told by new staff that they were the problem, that the poor ratings were their fault, that they couldn’t write, that they weren’t journalists, that their work was irrelevant, and so on.

I was also told that radio audio on the website did not make sense, that it had no “news value”, that it wasn’t “multimedia content”. At one point a suggestion was even made to only publish the audio of ‘newsworthy’ content rather than everything possible. Fortunately, Paul Thompson quickly put paid to that idea and today the site has over 350,000 audio items available, most back to 2008, some beyond that.

I recall a particularly troubling conversation where two new staff members who told me that Concert should be shut down to fund news because news brought in website visitors, Concert did not.

In another instance an editor had been asked to run an Upbeat story on the home page (an interview with a famous conductor), but maintained that the content had no news value, and that no one would click on it. One of my team quickly found an angle and a great headline. It did very well on the home page.

I mention these incidents because they illustrate that there wasn’t complete alignment within RNZ about the purpose of a public broadcaster or what content was important, and indications are that this is still the case.

In times of change everyone needs to understand the purpose of the organisation. Also, the Board and the Minister need to understand the consequences of the choices being made – the Concert changes being an example of what can go wrong when everyone’s not in concert.

The Shift to Multimedia

One of the choices RNZ made was creating more content for the website and improving its journalism on that medium. This involved more images and video. Radio audio was also enhanced with images and more text, because on its own wasn’t considered ‘digital content’.

When we started doing video it wasn’t wildly successful. Early experiments in covering press conferences got low numbers of views – a John Key press conference got something like 30 views, even though it was embedded in the lead story on the website. A phone-shot video provided by a scientist for Our Changing World got several hundred views. The decision was made to be more selective.

My thoughts on the video content that RNZ produces today is that it is generally good, although it’s still very much styled after television. Pretty much all the large non-TV media companies have gone down that path; there isn’t really much innovation – either in shooting, or story telling – it is quality to be sure, but all a bit conservative.

That is, in my view, part of the problem. If you want to see what innovation looks like, have a look at this video, or pretty much anything produced by any of the independent content producers on YouTube before you read on. 

There is a belief out there that multimedia stories are more engaging, that people spend more time in the story, but I have yet to see evidence that this is actually true. A good image paired with the headline can improve click-through rates on a story, that much is true. But the time-on-page metrics I saw up to 2016 hardly changed over time, even with the addition of pictures or video. Perhaps RNZ could publish some stats on this if it has changed.

What we should see with an increase in investment in multimedia is web traffic increasing at a faster rate than other media organisations. Does it, when you focus on just core RNZ properties and not the content carried by other media? Is RNZ over-investing in this area for the stated returns? I don’t know, but the question is important, and one that the Board should be asking.

When I was there we were told that radio was dying, that we needed to focus more on digital. It looks like the pendulum has swung back the other way now, with this new push for a youth channel.

Youth Radio 

There has been talk about a youth network for decades. Neil Finn lobbied for it, and I was involved in thinking about proposals in the 2000s. Russell Brown wrote an excellent paper for RNZ on music strategy in 2014 (and blogged about it recently). 

In the case of the recent proposal, the thinking appears to be that RNZ National is not attracting a young audience. There was a joke at one time that the audience was dying off, so we better do something quick. 

This has been a problem for years. There once was significant children’s programming on RNZ, some of it in prime-time (e.g. the EARS show hosted by Dick Weir and Chrissie Locke). That was a victim of a restructuring in the 90s, another time when RNZ ‘had to make choices.’

Beyond that there was a big gap for people aged 18 to 35, at which point research suggested that they started to again listen to RNZ National.

That 18-35 years old is considered “youth” is a concern in itself. Perhaps if you are pushing 60 (don’t write and complain to me, I am heading that way) that is what youth looks like, but it suggests a bigger problem. Namely, that we, the older generation, know what’s needed and what’s best. Sure, hire ‘young people’ to run the thing, but they still have to operate inside our constraints. There have to be gatekeepers.

Bullshit.

A lot of commentators have cited The Wireless as proof that RNZ can’t do youth content. The issue wasn’t the content, and it certainly wasn’t under resourcing as has been suggested in reporting elsewhere. It did meet its targets, and it was generously resourced compared with other parts of RNZ at the time. The Wireless had three journalists and a coordinator, while the RNZ website had about 10 dedicated full time equivalent staff. 

The main issues were that the content just didn’t quite hit the demographic intended, and that it didn’t really catch on enough to grow significantly. Some of that is because boosted posts on social media is a very blunt tool when it comes to promoting anything, and the budget for promotions was very limited. It did help lower the average age of RNZ’s total web audience, but a large proportion of The Wireless’ traffic was coming via rnz.co.nz, which was probably the major factor in merging the two sites.

[Disclosure: I was on the panel that hired the foundation staff, and oversaw the design and build of the website.]

So, by all means run a youth network, but don’t model it on anything that’s been done before. Use automation most of the time to keep costs down. Use RNZ’s massive archive of music content and interviews. Create something that no other station in NZ currently offers or can offer, rather than trying to copy formats from elsewhere.

A youth network is a chance to innovate, but the big question is does the target audience really care? It’s very easy to create content for that audience, but reaching that audience is another problem entirely. They are largely impervious to the kind of advertising and promotional campaigns RNZ has run in the past. Sounds like us? Billboards? Yeah, nah.

Learn a lesson from Triple J – know your audience inside out, and optimise for that audience and continually evolve. Don’t try to copy what others do; almost nothing can be replicated from another market and succeed. Yes, the newstalk format was imported from overseas and has been very successful, but that argument fails because it was pre- the world wide web.

Triple J in Australia was established in 1975 and has become part of the youth ecosystem. Youth listen to it because their friends and their older siblings listen to it, and this has a reinforcing effect.

The Edge in New Zealand started in 1994 and has also been able to build enough critical mass to create its own network effect. They have about 7% market share. (RNZ National is 11%, Concert is 4%. Ref.)

The problem with starting any station today is that the market is so fragmented that network effects just can’t be easily achieved. The network currently seems to favour more transitory events (i.e. viral content). You rarely see viral content produced by the above stations because they are more focussed on content linked to a strong brand. 

It is now virtually impossible to build the critical mass to create the same kind of on-going network effect, especially in New Zealand which has one of the most deregulated TV/Radio markets in the world.

I was about to write some recommendations on how to better engage with youth, most of them focussed around NOT doing the kinds of engagement that RNZ has done in the past, and completely rethinking the kind of content that’s produced.

But Anna Dean beat me to it.

The only thing I’d add to her list is that the station needs a different governance model than the one it would inherit. It needs the freedom to do something different and experiment, to fail sometimes, and to evolve quickly.

Oh, and don’t fall into the trap of ‘hiring youth’. That was the aim with The Wireless, and I don’t think it’s a good basis for hiring choices. Yes, hire people for whom the station is intended, but don’t overlook talent who could bring experience, innovation, and a fresh view. 

For such any such venture to have any hope at all, it will need proper funding for transmitters and overheads costs, as well as for production staff. 

RNZ Concert

Over the last 15 or so years the roster of material played on Concert has progressively reduced. In the business this roster is known as the rotate. It’s the list of pieces that form the backbone of music programming. Some items come up more frequently in the schedule due to their popularity, some less frequently. You hear the same thing on commercial radio.

At times there was a push to remove less popular material – for example organ music which polarises people, and avant-garde repertoire. The theory was that the more ‘popular’ music you play the more people will listen. This strategy was driven by staff with a background in commercial radio, where the station is merely a delivery mechanism for advertising.

It does make for very boring radio for people who like to discover new and interesting music.

If you want the classics over and over, modern digital services can provide that for you. What they cannot provide is expert human curation of “discovery playlists”. Shows like New Horizons, Song Crush and The Sampler are some of the best examples of this on RNZ.

RNZ Concert has changed a great deal in the last 30 years. There is no longer a ‘concert pause’ before and after each piece. The style of presentation is now much more relaxed while maintaining standards of pronunciation. 

A former announcer, Brent Siddall, once accidentally asked listeners to send contest entries on the back of an elephant (instead of an envelope). Listeners did respond by sending postcards and hand drawn material with elephants on them to the station. Brent was a bit concerned about the mistake, that it might result in complaints, but it showed that a broadcaster’s assumptions about the audience are not always correct.

The standard of the music produced in any genre you name is on a par with that from anywhere else (and I know it’s done at a much lower cost).

But a lot has been cut over the years. When I was a music recording engineer there were two of us, working almost full time on material for RNZ Concert. In the days of Broadcasting House new recordings were produced most weeks.

The NZ International Festival and many local festivals were covered. RNZ Concert recorded almost every performance at the first Composing Womens’ Festival at Te Papa, for example.

The argument on cutting these services was that RNZ couldn’t afford it, and it is a testament to the inventiveness and commitment of staff that they have been able to hold something together in the face of further cuts.

Mile Rodgers (column in the Dom Post) and Charlotte Wilson (an open letter) both indicated that the money from these cuts has been diverted into other activities such as news.

More than just recording music, and interviewing artists, RNZ Concert is part of the NZ arts and culture ecosystem. The country as a whole would suffer if it were downgraded even further. Writer Elizabeth Kerr explained this in a recent piece in The Listener.

Rather than just stop the cuts to Concert it really needs an increase in funding, a new mandate and a new vision. The station really is run on the smell of an oily rag, and there’s not a lot of that left from the sound of it.

I’d like to see a real commitment from the government to directly fund Concert in recognition of its place in supporting and promoting cultural life in New Zealand. 

Funding for infrastructure like transmitters needs to be on an at-cost basis to ensure increases don’t force RNZ to cut programming. (Same for RNZ National too.)

Production costs need to be linked to the CPI to ensure, at the very least, that staff have the tenure they need to develop the skills for the job (it takes 5-10 years to train a good music engineer).

I can see that this suggestion is open to criticism. No state-funded entity gets this sort of treatment, some will say. In those cases, when there is no commercial market for something that is of benefit to society, the state has an obligation to ensure that that enterprise can survive and flourish.

With increased funding RNZ Concert can start to innovate and experiment to expand their audience. There are still untapped ears that aren’t ‘youth’, but why can’t Concert be an option for youth? Billboards and newspaper ads won’t do it. 

Getting close to your target audience will, and that’s not about getting a third party to do a study for you. That’s always a poor proxy for reality. 

Increased funding, though, is not enough. 

RNZ Concert also needs its own dedicated station manager and programme director who can oversee the growth and development of the network. Staff need to engage with key stakeholders to come up with a 10-year plan.

It needs to be able to promote its work in new ways. Much like the proposed youth network, it also needs to be released from the constraints the current structure imposes.

The station would still be part of RNZ, would still have content on the website, and would contribute to outcomes as part of a new group strategy.

Saving Public Broadcasting

Up to this point I have chronicled some of the history and forces that have brought us to today. I have done so because context is important. RNZ is what it is today because of the past – the gradual running down, the many restructurings, the cutting of services as fixed costs increased, and the culture of austerity.

Alongside this we’ve watched as funding for journalism has declined across the industry due to the way large internet monopolies have disrupted sources of revenue.

It’s a perfect storm.

To counter this I believe that RNZ has shifted resources into more news-like content and away from activities that sit at the core of public broadcasting.

I think we are at a watershed moment for public radio. RNZ has been pushed, over decades, into the position today where the public have finally said enough is enough.

To move forward we need a new vision and a new governance focus, backed with appropriate funding. The relationships between RNZ, New Zealand On Air, the Ministry of Culture and Heritage and the government also needs to be reviewed. Are things getting lost in translation with this model? Only a review can provide answers.

The charter needs to be better understood. Does it mean ‘be all things to all people’, or does it mean “do something that the market won’t provide that benefits society and still have reasonably wide appeal”. I think that is a question for us, the public.

The answer is not a merger between RNZ and TVNZ, or the creation of a new entity as it is being pitched. I will post on that subject soon.

What about the CEO and Board?

I’m not sure the recent criticism of Paul Thompson and the Board has been entirely fair. They are working within parameters set largely by others.

It seems to me that the insatiable pursuit of ratings, the increased focus on news, and the redistribution of resources to be more ‘equitable’ has ultimately ended in the proposal to reduce RNZ Concert to a jukebox service. Without an understanding of how thinly spread RNZ has actually become, perhaps there was a genuine belief that it could (again) give more, that more could be squeezed out.

Risking the Concert audience in pursuit of a more evenly spread audience demographic, especially when the returns of the new venture are unknown and possibly illusory, is ill-advised.

I’ve outlined the gradual retrenchment of RNZ over the last few decades, and I think we’ve now reached the end of the line in that regard. 

Grant Roberston, Minister of Finance, seemed to agree in his speech on the steps of Parliament where he said, “…the only proposals we are interested in as Ministers are ones that build on the strengths of RNZ Concert as it stands today.”

He talked about the importance of commercial free radio, and of rebuilding public broadcasting.

The big question is, will he and the Government put its money where its mouth is?

I hope so.

One thought on “Saving Public Broadcasting

  1. Good thinking, Richard.
    Concert has been suffering slow strangulation since at least the early 1990s. Appointing as RNZ’s CEO a print journalist with no experience of radio was really the last straw.
    As a life-long listener, a former presenter, and even (in the dim distant days when Concert actually paid) a former recording artist, I think I am justified in considering myself a stake-holder in the network’s future. And as long as RNZ puts its damned newsroom above all other considerations, that future will continue to be bleak.
    News is ubiquitous, with outlets available 24/7 to anyone who wants them, and RNZ’s tired boast about being first with the news is nonsense. Serious music has only one outlet in this country, and now that is in the hands of barbarians.

    Like

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