Review: The new RNZ news theme

A few weeks ago (June 2022) Radio New Zealand, or RNZ as they prefer to be known, replaced the themes on three news programmes – Morning Report, Midday Report, and Checkpoint. The aim of the change was to create a “cohesive sonic brand” for what are considered their three flagship news programmes. Here is my review, based on my time in the industry.*

The previous themes date back to 2014, c2010, and 2016.

The most recent Morning Report theme launched on April 2, 2014, and was composed by Plan 9 (David Donaldson, Steve Roche and Janet Roddick). They collaborated with taonga pūoro expert Richard Nunns.

The Midday Report theme dates from around 2010. It came off a commercial disc, and there was always a concern about the ‘clacking’ sound heard throughout the theme, but it continued to be used. I was responsible for some of the edits (shorter versions) of the theme that were used on air.

The Checkpoint theme was composed by James Milne, aka Lawrence Arabia, for the rebranding of the show under John Campbell.

The things I liked about the previous Morning Report and Checkpoint themes is they were both quintessentially Kiwi. They sounded like us.

Sonically speaking, they were well mixed, and worked very well as a ‘donut’. A donut is something with a distinctive top and tail, and a middle that can be talked over by the host while still being heard, but not intruding.

But there are problems with this new theme. It’s not outrightly bad, it’s just doesn’t quite reach the level it needs to given the quality of past themes, and the use on flagship programmes.

The first issue is that it lacks punch. This is always an issue with orchestrally based themes, and the solution comes down to careful orchestration and use of dynamics. Using dynamics (loud and soft) just isn’t enough to get that ‘sit up and listen’ sound.

Secondly, the mix sounds wooly. There is a lack of high frequency definition and over-abundance of low mids. It sounds a bit like it is coming through a wool blanket, hence the term wooly.

I am not sure if they used a real orchestra, but the style of recording (or mix) on the new theme sounds like something you’d do for Mozart symphony, not a leading edge commercial theme. It just lacks excitement.

Thirdly, anything that remotely ties it to New Zealand, in this case the use of taonga pūoro, is buried and too undefined. Plan 9 got around this by opening their theme with the kōauau ponga ihu.

In the case of the new theme, we do hear a little taonga pūoro early on, but to my ears (and I have recorded these instruments many times) what is played sounds a bit unnatural and like it’s being forced to fit.

Most of these things could probably all be fixed with a remix, and/or some tweaks to the orchestration.

There is a certain logic to changing to one theme for all three shows, although I wonder if this also signals future changes to align the style and sound of each to be more consistent too? The old themes did represent, to some extent, the differently flavour of each programme. I hope this move doesn’t signal the homogenisation of the actual content.

But I have a deeper and more important question. Why, in New Zealand Music Month, has RNZ outsourced this work to Australia? Polly McKinnon, co-chair of the Screen Music and Sound Guild of New Zealand expressed shock about this point on The Spinoff.

We have a long history of New Zealand composers writing themes for radio and TV, and doing an excellent job. The most famous is the Close to Home theme. I am left asking myself why someone like Gareth Farr (for example) could not have been commissioned to do this work?

While he (and most other NZ composers) don’t have an international track record creating themes for news programmes, they have a deep connection with the land and with us through their music. They are a versatile and innovative bunch, many of whom have sought to reflect our history (good and bad) and their growing connections with the tangata whenua of Aotearoa in their work.

This could have been an opportunity for RNZ to connect with its audience in a deeper way, while also promoting local talent. What a missed opportunity.

* I worked for 25 years as a sound engineer at RNZ, and have worked with dozens of NZ composers and artists.

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