Crisis in public radio

Most of our readers will be aware of the announcement a week ago by the Minister of Broadcasting, Dr Jonathan Coleman, that Radio New Zealand would have to sustain cuts; and he eyed especially RNZ Concert.

This alert was first posted on 8 March: it is now updated in order to be visible.

In case the message was not clear enough, please write letters to the Minister of Broadcasting, Dr Jonathan Coleman saying whatever you feel about this move to barbarity. There is a splendid blogsite called Savepublicradio with some 20,000 names subscribed to it. That is great, but individual letters, by the thousand, are also needed.

It is also to be noted that the arguments in support of Public radio in general are not entirely congruent with the more particular arguments in defence of Radio NZ Concert.

Look at the way the Government back-tracked on the Goldcard public transport issue when there was a great protest.

We must do the same. Use the thoughts in the article below and/or add your own.

The threat is extremely serious, and urgent.

But the first thing to consider is the legitimacy of the minister’s action. Radio New Zealand is funded through New Zealand on Air which was set up to be an arms-length body that distributes funds to TVNZ and Radio New Zealand. How it allocates its money is not a matter for Government control – that was the reason for establishing an independent authority.

The $38 million that RNZ gets from NZ on Air is divided between the National and the Concert networks, with the great majority going to National. Some $5 million goes to Concert; smaller sums go to Radio New Zealand International and the archiving of programmes.

Because the board of Radio New Zealand is also an independent body, insulated from political interference, it too should not have to base its financial decisions on instructions from above.

So what Dr Coleman is doing is simply attempting to influence the functioning of two independent state authorities; the Radio New Zealand Act specifically forbids the minister’s interference in operational matters.

It is also worth asking why in its effort to cut spending the Government is unable to distinguish between areas where cuts might be tolerable, and would yield significant savings, and areas such as broadcasting where cuts would be crippling and the savings in dollar terms negligible.

Dr Coleman proposes the introduction of advertising and commercial sponsorship. They were the proposals made by his predecessors in the early 1980s which were eventually set aside, mainly by as a result of a change of government. Commercial intrusion into a national radio system at once raises the risk of interference, and of an inexorable pursuit of ratings, pressure to popularize and to dumb-down, pressures that would harass and ultimately sideline the most precious element of Radio New Zealand’s work, the Concert network.

In any case, the additional cost of an advertising department, which would be necessary, would undoubtedly outweigh the revenue it would be able to attract, at least as far as Concert is concerned.

There would hardly be an audience that would respond more negatively to the advertisers during its broadcasts than those of RNZ. Advertisers would know that.

Radio New Zealand is already labouring under severe budget cuts imposed over the past two decades, including staff cuts. It is dishonest to point to slightly increased staff numbers over recent years as bureaucratic growth: a small recovery has been made but numbers are still far below those of two decades ago. Staff simply do a great deal of unpaid, voluntary overtime.

Ratings are not at all relevant (though RNZ Concert’s ratings are remarkably high by international measures; contrary to Michael Law’s remark in his scurrilous Sunday Star Times article, the ratings are published on the RNZ website). The role of RNZ Concert is comparable to that of a national library, a national art museum: a storehouse of material that is available for all, at any time people want or need it.

RNZ Concert offers great music of all ages, that has stood the test of time, and new or neglected music that deserves to be given a hearing. Terms such as ‘elitist’, ‘pointy-headed’, ‘minority interest’ are no doubt applicable also to classic works of art and literature from Botticelli and Michelangelo to Monet, Homer to Shakespeare and Tolstoi…

Just as a national library’s role is not to be measured by the frequency of borrowings or visitors through the doors, the importance of a ‘fine music’ or ‘classical’ broadcaster is not to be measured by ratings.

Civilisation survives through the care taken by those in charge of cultural things to preserve artifacts from the past, and the present.

The Radio New Zealand Charter starts by calling for: ‘Programmes which contribute towards intellectual, scientific, cultural, spiritual and ethical development, promote informed debate, and stimulate critical thought…..programmes which encourage and promote the musical, dramatic, and other performing arts, including programmes featuring New Zealand and international composers, performers and artists.’

One of the areas that would suffer with cuts would be the ability to record concerts for later broadcast from around the country. Already these are severely reduced from the level a few years ago. For many concert promoters, broadcast fees make the difference between viability and no performance at all.

Polls show that 84% of those polled agree that it s important for New Zealand to have a national broadcaster. Over 90% think it provides fair and balanced information. Even more believe that it contributes to the development of an informed society, and nearly 90% think it provides programmes not generally found on other radio stations.

Those figures would suggest that the great majority of New Zealanders would reject the barbaric statements by Michael Laws in the Sunday Star Times on 21 February, claiming, unbelievably, that commercial radio can do the job as well! Laws hosts a talk-back on commercial radio and so his backing of Coleman’s idea of privatizing the national news service is predictable.

One might have criticisms of the range of news gathering and the obsession with crime, violence and sport – even on RNZ Concert, when what is wanted is less tabloid reporting which commercial news services would be bound to provide even more of – pandering to the lowest common denominator, and instead, more solid political, economic, arts news, both domestic and international, which would be highly improbable from a commercial service.

RNZ Concert plays a huge role in enabling classical music to be heard, especially New Zealand music – mainly classical of course (as popular New Zealand music can be expected to find the support it deserves from commercial radio). Its role in making direct broadcasts of major concerts is what the radio service in all civilized nations is expected to do; and it is the recording of concerts for later broadcast that is even more important for the international dissemination of New Zealand music.

Radio has become almost the sole vehicle by which the broad public can become familiar with the entire field of classical music, now that exposure to it has been largely deleted from school syllabuses.

Some of the world’s greatest tragedies have been the loss of great libraries and art collections – such as that of Alexandria in the late Roman era; the rich collections destroyed by conquering religions like Christians at various periods who destroyed huge quantities of classical literature and art; the Nazi’s destroying thousands of works of ‘degenerate’ art; the loss of great libraries and museums in recent decades through insurgency or religious extremism, in Bucharest and Baghdad, and the Taliban’s destruction of Buddhist religious sculpture in Afghanistan; and a few years ago an accidental fire in a princely library in Weimar rich in manuscripts, early printed books and music.

A national radio network might not deal in the same kinds of physical artifacts (apart from the scores and the recordings) but its role is of comparable importance to a country’s level of civilisation and culture.

Let not New Zealand, recently faced with threats to its National Library, and now once more to its public radio system, join Romania, Nazi Germany, Iraq and Afghanistan.