Radio New Zealand: a matter of urgency?

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RADIO NEW ZEALAND (RNZ) comes in for some criticism, but it has a solid following among sections of the New Zealand public, and has a significant impact beyond the people who regularly listen to it live. With so much digital content available across online platforms, public media services, such as those of RNZ, need to be innovative and continually undergoing development. The current government has been rather sluggish in the way it has fulfilled its statutory role as owners of RNZ. This is the only New Zealand government owned broadcaster with a public service remit: one that is essential to a well-functioning democracy [ Briefing for the Incoming Minister of Broadcasting: October 2014: p5].

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Radio NZ building, Auckland: Photo Carolyn Skelton

The New Zealand Government has frozen the level of funding for RNZ since 2008. The required 5 yearly review of the RNZ charter was begun in 2006.  The RNZ Amendment Bill, which will finalise the outcomes of the review, is only now coming up for its second reading in Parliament. In this context, it is worrying that RNZ has recently seen a drop off in the number of listeners.

It is essential to a democracy that the public have access to media services that operate in the public interest, enable critique and debate of significant issues, and are free from commercial or state influence.  It is a healthy sign is that RNZ content is used in online debates, as for instance, in responses to programmes like Morning Report.

RNZ National’s flagship programme, Morning Report

In the political arena fair amount of attention is paid to Radio New Zealand Nationals’ flagship programme, Morning Report.  For instance, some of Guyon Espiner and Susie Ferguson’s interviews come in for much debate on blogs and social media.

Keith Ng blogged, in Sept 2014

“Asking the hard questions” is a means, not an end. People hold up Guyon Espiner’s interview with Key as a fantastic piece of political journalism. It was certainly engaging. But (to borrow a phrase) at the end of the day, it was just Espiner yelling at Key for not answering any goddamn questions. And while Key sounded like a dick, he won – no amount of yelling could make Key say anything apart from his scripted lines.

Alastair Thompson on Scoop: “Transcript of Guyon Espiner RNZ Morning Report interview with John Key, March 9, 2015

Bryce Edwards roundup of debates on the issue: “Should John Key resign over mass surveillance?”, includes a reference and link to an Espiner interview.

Discussion on Reddit New Zealand, about “Ratings disappointment for RNZ

It is hard for public service radio news, politics and current events journalists, hosts and producers to establish an appropriate style and approach. They operate in a wider, highly commercialised context of celebrity news, drama, conflict and soundbites, and strongly PR managed politicians.

Radio audiences &  website reach

The latest Nielsen RNZ audience research showed that RNZ stations have lost listeners in the last quarter of 2014.  John Drinnan reported:

The survey shows Radio New Zealand lost around 70,000 listeners or 13 per cent of the annualised audience for RNZ National and RNZ Concert combined.

However, less obvious from the headlines, is that other evidence shows there has also been an increase in people visiting the Radio New Zealand website.   Dinnan states:

RNZ says that there has been a significant increase in the uptake for its digital services.

It is crucial that RNZ adapt to the fast changing digital environment, in which online media provides a crucial way through which many people can be informed, educated and entertained. For many New Zealanders, especially many young people, it is simply ignored when there is a vast arrays of engaging media content available.

RNZ has started to address its low level of support from young people with its Wireless website.

This does perform an important service.  However, it does not engage the interest and following in the same way that the Australian Broadcasting Services TripleJ station has achieved for young Australians.

It must be hard to achieve such a following on a shoestring budget. This requires a concerted effort and an innovative approach.

RNZ, the Government, and public service remit

The recent drop in live broadcast ratings has occurred in a context where the government seems to be rather sluggish in fulfilling its statutory role with respect to RNZ. According to the Coalition for Better Broadcasting,

Seven years ago Radio NZ was already struggling financially. A 2007 independent audit by KPMG concluded the organisation was seriously under-funded, under-staffed and under-resourced. It recommended immediate funding increases of $6.7m. But the following year, in 2008 the newly elected National government imposed a freeze that has effectively cut Radio NZ’s funding by 9%.

The RNZ Amendment Bill had its first reading in 2009, and was supported by opposition parties.  However, the Labour and Green Party speakers expressed concern about the underfunding of RNZ and the funding freeze. Pita Sharples was critical of the lack of mention of Te Tiriti o Waitangi in the RNZ Charter [The Charter is part of the RNZ Act]..

The Briefing for the Incoming Minister of Broadcasting, October 2014, states that the value of public broadcasting “is cultural and informational rather than economic.” [p4]

Yet, for the last 5 years, the current government seems to be prioritising funding restraints over the high quality provisions required by the public service remit.

In the above linked briefing to the incoming government last year, it claimed that the Bill had been delayed to ensure they could provide funding that is “commercial-free “ [p11] Hopefully this means that the government has discounted adding advertising or sponsorship to RNZ, as that would undermine the public service remit.

While the RNZ Act makes it illegal for the government to interfere in the day to day running of RNZ and its content, there are some indirect ways the government can have an impact of the state broadcaster: in the Minister of Broadcasting’s selection of RNZ Governor, and in the funding provisions.

Hopefully the RNZ Amendment Bill will now proceed through the House in a timely way, ensuring RNZ provides the high quality, public service provisions that are an essential part of our democracy – and has an adequate level of funding to achieve this.

By Carolyn Skelton.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Carolyn Skelton specialises in writing about politics, gender equality, film and media studies. This is her first article for Evening Report.

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Carolyn is committed to economic and social justice. She has researched and taught in film, TV and media studies, sociology and gender studies. Carolyn is actively interested in local history, and its impact on the present and future. Carolyn currently works part time as a research librarian in Auckland Libraries, which is part of Auckland Council. The views, analysis, and opinions she expresses on this site are her own, and not those of Auckland Council.

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