A comprehensive update on the Concert FM crisis; courtesy New Zealand Opera News

The following is an article from the February-March issue of New Zealand Opera News

The Plight and Future of RNZ Concert

A report and comment on what were the proposed changes to this important Public Service Radio Broadcast Medium

RNZ Concert to be Gutted
On 5 February 2020 this announcement hit the headlines immediately before the Waitangi Day Holiday period on 6 February 2020. This announcement was not signalled in advance and we believe was not sanctioned by the Broadcasting Minister, Kris Faafoi who was blindsided by RNZ CEO Paul Thompson’s announcement, as discussions and decisions were pending about the way forward for public service broadcasting’s planned merging of Radio New Zealand and TVNZ to form a new public broadcasting entity.

We believe that this was possibly a determined political stance by Thompson, although we hesitate to suggest that it might have been a ploy, to angle for increased funding from government, although the resultant outrage was possibly not expected by RNZ Management.

Out with Classical; in with “youth platform”
In the biggest overhaul of its music services in years, Radio New Zealand (RNZ) is planning to cut back its classical music station RNZ Concert and replace it on their FM radio frequency with music for a younger audience as part of a new multimedia music brand. Mediawatch asks RNZ Chief Executive (CEO) Paul Thompson and music content director Willy Macalister to explain the move.

The broadcaster was proposing to remove RNZ Concert from its FM frequencies and transform it into an automated non-stop music station which will stream online and play on AM radio.

It was to be replaced on FM by a service aimed at a younger, more diverse audience as part of a new multimedia “music brand”. RNZ Concert would be taken of FM radio on May 29 and the youth platform would be phased in ahead of its full launch on August 28. RNZ’s music staff were informed about the proposed changes on 5 February 2020 in an emotional, occasionally heated meeting with the RNZ music content director Willy Macalister, head of radio and music David Allan, and chief executive Paul Thompson.

According to documents for staff, the move would eliminate 17 jobs at RNZ Music, including all RNZ Concert presenter roles, from late March. Those would be replaced with 13 jobs at the new youth platform, while four remain in the downsized RNZ Concert service and RNZ Music in Wellington.

The documents for staff say the proposed changes are aimed at securing new audiences for RNZ. While its listenership is predominantly Pākehā and skewed towards older people, the new music brand would target people aged 18 to 34, including Māori and Pasifka audiences, the proposal says.

“RNZ has strong audiences but they skew older. We are thinking five and ten years ahead. We need to start to connect with younger New Zealanders,” RNZ chief executive Paul Thompson told Mediawatch. He said RNZ Concert’s classical music focus has prevented RNZ from fulfilling its Charter’s requirement to broadcast a range of music and performances.

“We are expanding our services off our current resources. There are some tough choices in that but this is a really good story of RNZ getting to more New Zealanders,” he said.

But it’s not a good story for those accustomed to a repertoire of classical music on FM radio for many years. AM transmission is sub-optimal for live concerts and it would be interrupted when Parliament sessions are broadcast on the AM network.

‘Consume’ your classics off ‘Freeview’, says Macalister
“It is still available on Freeview and listening to RNZ Concert is mostly in the home so the ability to consume it in stereo is still there,” said Willy Macalister. The scaled-back Concert will offer recorded music round the clock, but few of the RNZ Concert programmes currently on air will be made after the new music brand is established.

“We are in consultation over that but are going to pull back on some of it,” said Macalister. “We will continue to record and air concerts and support orchestras where we can,” said Paul Thompson. Mediawatch understands the new youth platform would have a playlist spanning multiple musical genres with a heavy focus on New Zealand music. It would be active on social media.

“Genre is no longer relevant to the audience,” the proposal document says. “We intend to be a broad proposition for everyone … but it’s got to have relevance for 18 – 35 year old audience,” Macalister told Mediawatch. “One of the things that streaming services have taught us is that when you look at the top playlists, they’re not necessarily talking about genres of music. They’re talking about emotional state and activities. We’re not the only country that has this kind of brand. Australia, the UK and other countries have vibrant radio returning profits.”

“We’re not chasing dollars. We are commercial-free, and we will play more New Zealand music than any commercial format would sustain” said Paul Thompson, adding that the new RNZ Music would feature news content tailored to the younger audience it hopes to attract.

This all began in 2015
RNZ has been looking at drawing younger audiences with music since 2015 when an internal review concluded its “approach to the delivery of music content remains in a time warp.” A year later – with little fanfare – the ‘RNZ Music’ brand was launched as part of a strategy to bring in new listeners.

At the time, Thompson told Mediawatch he wasn’t interested in duplicating commercial broadcasting on the air or online. “Why would we provide anything the commercial broadcasters are quite happily doing?” he said. “I hope what we do will pull in more people – especially online – but I don’t see it as a massive New Zealand Opera News 34 audience growth initiative,” he said in 2015.

The station also launched youth-focused digital platform The Wireless – which had some music content – in 2014. But the Wireless was closed down and folded into the rest of rnz.co.nz in 2018. “That didn’t have the broadcast component in it and that’s what will make this proposal far more effective,” said Paul Thompson.

Editorial Comment:
It was the arrogance of CEO Thompson, Macalister and Allan in totally misunderstanding the strong audience support for RNZ Concert, combined with the complicit full support of the Board, as stated by Board chair Dr Jim Mather and the total ineptitude in their handing of this issue that really disappointed and angered faithful listeners.

It beggars belief that they were ignorant of how RNZ Concert listeners would respond to this sacrilege in dismantling an iconic treasure, a taonga, of an artist entity, and they did so, scathingly and swiftly and with real passion. Critical comments about the RNZ management’s handling of the announcement of their proposed plans, that would decimate RNZ Concert and actions came thick and fast from previous Prime Minster, Helen Clark, Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, ministers, ex-ministers, parliamentarians, of all stripes to high profile performers for example, such as Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and outraged listeners of all ages including from the so-called “18 – 34 years old young demographic” alike.

Clearly the CEO and Chairman of the Board hadn’t anticipated such a powerful reaction, and initially foolishly attempted to defend their actions, complaining about funding levels. To alienate the demographic of their listeners arguably including the most highly qualified intellectuals, and not expect pushback seems folly by Thompson and his managers.

All of that added to the ire of listeners as numerous letters to the editor published in newspapers attest along with petitions attracting thousands of signatures and a #Save RNZ Concert campaign was launched. Thankfully in appeasement, eventually a change-of-heart back-down from Thompson emerged with the plan shelved as proposed for now, with a reprieve for those threatened presenter and music staff positions.

Thompson finally is in discussion possibilities and options with the music staff, but why wasn’t careful and informed discussion held before this, and why should the music staff be presented with the challenge?

Where are the so-called management staff in all of this?
Willy’s previous experience and position at George FM prior to this suggests that the implied “youth platform” was intended as a replacement for RNZ Concert all along, not a coexisting of both genres. So why is one genre to be sacrificed for another, alienating the known 173,000 RNZ Concert Listeners?

And with little or no interest in classical music and the proper future of RNZ Concert how could or would he understand or have knowledge in what he was doing.
Why was he appointed to this position in the first place?

Tacit in this messy fiasco is a mostly silent board, February – March 2020 35 apart from unconvincing and unsatisfactory words from the Chair Dr Jim Mather.

There is so much that is unsatisfactory in this badly managed and organised proposed plan that for any proper lasting resolution there really needs to be a complete cleanout of all of that management team and board for anyone to have any confidence in them, or that they will do the job properly. Where was the proper governance and control that we should and would expect from highly paid people such as these?

Faafoi’s major quandary
The Broadcasting Minister, Kris Faafoi now has a major quandary to resolve, if he can, and the RNZ Management needs to be swept clean and a new and different set of qualified board members and management needs to be put in place. Surely that can happen?

We await with huge interest and hope that a sensible resolution will emerge with RNZ Concert and its talented, expert presenters and music staff essentially remain intact, while any “youth platform” is carefully and thoughtfully considered for Radio New Zealand, now offered a separate FM bandwidth, option so that they can co-exist, on an FM broadcast bandwidth, and most listeners to RNZ Concert can be satisfied with what is on offer.

But the fate of Concert FM is still far from being resolved. Coinciding with the 87th birthday of the original radio station that morphed into the current day RNZ Concert, a large rally with a variety of music, orchestral players, massed choir and opera chorus, and individual speakers addressing the crowd, presented, the musical pieces on the steps and the grass outside of Parliament.

A determined and strong throng of a few thousand made their thoughts on the future of RNZ Concert very obvious, egged on by the exuberant MCs, Linda & Jools Topp, and actor, Wellington Paranormal’s Karen O’Leary.

Hopes inspired by Grant Robertson
Associate Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage, Grant Robertson impressed with his eloquent, honest, genuine and impassioned support for public broadcasting and the future of RNZ Concert with a message to CEO Paul Thompson as to what he expected. Speaking to the crowd, he said.. “… the only proposals government were interested in were ones that built on the strengths of Concert FM (sic).”

Given the strength of the argument delivered with such intensity and passion by Robertson, Thompson would be foolish not to accommodate the sentiments and feelings of the vociferous crowd, the minister’s and government stance. The celebratory nature of the colourful, tuneful event was capped off by the singing of “Happy Birthday” and the shared cutting of the cake, by the youngest supporter at 2 years old and the oldest supporter at 89 years old!

We do feel hopeful and heartened by the response of all present and similar gatherings of support elsewhere and in the letters to the editors and editorials and look forward to a satisfying conclusion to this self-generated messy debacle created by the Board, the CEO and his management team at Radio New Zealand.

Originally published in the February – March 2020 issue of New Zealand Opera News; published here with permission from New Zealand Opera News Editor Garth Wilshere, it remains the intellectual property of the editor. 

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