Wellington Scoop

In defence of the old Upbeat

by Brian O’Flaherty
The last time RadioNZ Concert made a change to Upbeat, reducing its duration from about 80 minutes to an hour at a later time, I reacted in protest immediately. This time I waited some weeks to see how the changes worked. They do not work for me.

My concern lies in this statement from an announcement of the changes:

For the past two years it’s (Upbeat) been an hour of mainly talk each day, and it became clear that RNZ Concert radio listeners prefer more music.

More music? Given that Concert broadcasts mainly music 24/7 I find this difficult to accept. What listeners said that? If their attention span is so brief, perhaps they should migrate to the mindless babble of commercial radio.

The fact that Upbeat was ‘an hour of mainly talk’ was its outstanding virtue. For me the latest change has shattered the jewel in the Concert crown.

I’m talking about story. Every art, visual or performing, is about story. From The Thinker to The Scream to The Tempest, The Messiah and The Merry Widow, every work tells a story. And behind those stories there is another spectrum of story: that of the artist, the performer, the composer – the people who create the story and bring it to life.

Years of Upbeat prove that that spectrum is inexhaustible. And it brings to me, in the most accessible form of all, the story of people I admire, New Zealanders of whom I am proud.

It only takes a moment to summon examples – off the top of my head, I promise – of those pleasures: the warmth of Renée Fleming; the wisdom of Edo de Waart; the thoughtfulness of Gareth Farr; the reflections of Simon O’Neil after singing under Barenboim with an orchestra which blended the talents of Israeli and Palestinian; O’Neil’s great Parsifal story; the extroversion of Helen Medlyn; the uncommon success of Teddy Tahu Rhodes in mixing opera and musical theatre; Bianca Andrew’s breezy positivity; the knockabout enthusiasm of Pene, Amitai and Pati; the bright horizons of Lexus finalists individually interviewed.

These illustrations in some cases go back months and years – evidence if it were needed of the lasting impact of Upbeat’s story.

And that list covers only music. I haven’t touched on the painters, the poets, the dancers, the sculptors, the writers, the galleries…

This is – was – Upbeat. There is a thread running through the list above. The conduit for all of those stories, for this fountain of gems, was Eva Radich. Not only does she have a gift for relaxing interviewees; she embodies the institutional memory of Upbeat, which makes her a unique asset. That has a value which is irreplaceable. Among other things it engenders a familiarity and confidence in many interview subjects. A recent conversation with the two women from the Behn Quartet was a striking example. It sparkled. Yes, the women were good subjects. But listen again to the brief comments Eva dropped in, demonstrating expert use of good research and lubricating a freewheeling conversation.

Yes, Eva occasionally contributes under the new format, but she is no longer Upbeat’s lynchpin, and that is a loss. There will be a successor, but perhaps for reasons I would be willing to specify, that is not David Morriss, although he is quite competent in his other role. Eva’s talent, on the other hand, is hardly deployed to best advantage on Pick ‘n’ Mix. If her change in responsibilities equals promotion I’m happy for her, but the move is a stunning example of Concert not playing to its strengths.

As for the insertion of lengthy music performances into the hour between 1pm and 2: because it displaces the ‘talk’ it is not welcome at that time. It was good to hear Chemin des Dames the other week but it could have been played between 12 and 1 or 2 and 3.

For me, the new format loses sight of the value of story, and yet that is a paradox. One of the great attractions of presentations through the day is the back story which comes with various works – what Mozart expected when he wrote this, what Schumann thought when he published that. Sunday evening’s Met productions, punctuated by ‘talk’ are another example of the profitable use of story.

Finally, there is another potential brief for Upbeat – constructive dialogue around the current affairs of art. For example:

# Who but Upbeat will monitor the Royal New Zealand Ballet to learn whether the train wreck has been cleared away and the dancers and their support team are happy now? (And as an add-on, will the Rev Behan make a difference on the board?)
# Who but Upbeat will ask Shane Jones if the millions in his regional development fund will nourish the arts as well as business and infrastructure?
# Who but Upbeat will explore the apparent insanity of Auckland University as it contemplates dispensing with Uwe Grod?

As it used to be for me, four or five interviews in the hour of Upbeat were educational, intellectually nourishing and emotional richesse – not the icing on the classical cake but an integral part of the recipe. Concert now seems to have abandoned the kind of informative, entertaining items – examples of which I listed – which made it unique among arts programmes as far as I know.

A Concert executive has responded to my concerns, saying:

The radio audience numbers for Upbeat have shown for some time that many listeners turn it off. We experimented with moving Upbeat’s broadcast time to see if it helped, but the results remained similar. Qualitative research shows most listeners enjoy RNZ Concert for the music, often as a respite from talk. We also know there is a very high audience cross-over between RNZ Concert and our news and current affairs talk station RNZ National. That is, many listeners choose between talk or music programming at different times as suits them.

The reply raises more questions about the changes. Most significantly they are, I suggest:

# How does a programme which has been successful for 20 years or more suddenly become a lemon?

# Concert is a respite from talk on other stations – but is roughly 45 minutes in 24 hours too much to take when it relates to the music and other arts?

# Do people who really dislike a lot of ‘talk’ really turn in numbers to National, which is mostly talk?

# And finally, how large is the sample from which the ‘qualitative research’ is taken?

Brian O’Flaherty is semi-retired, hence his freedom to listen to RadioNZ Concert; he worked in daily newspapers for 30-plus years, ran the NZ Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association for eight, broadcast equestrian sport from five Olympics and has taught English as a second language for 15 years. This is an edited version of a letter that he recently sent to RadioNZ.


  1. Traveller, 2. June 2018, 19:11

    I agree. While many of Concert’s recent changes have been good ones, the loss of the daily conversations with Eva Radich leaves a unhappy gap in its daily offering.

  2. Citizen Joe, 3. June 2018, 17:54

    I can’t say I was keen on Eva Radich’s lunch time spot but anything is better than modern ‘classical’ music which is often tuneless, atonal and jarring. If it has to be aired then please put it on at 3am to keep shift workers awake and help clear CBD bars and clubs. Oh and keep the Concert program free of ‘pop’ which has plenty of channels already.

    What I do like are programs on composers that explain Beethoven’s sonatas or Mozart’s symphonies or programs on conductors or jazz musicians. The best program is New Year’s Day ‘Settling the Score’ which thankfully reverted to a simple format this year and did not include an Auckland concert with modern NZ classical pieces that I doubt would register a single vote (other than perhaps by the seemingly tone-deaf composer).

  3. lindsay, 4. June 2018, 4:32

    The challenge for RadioNZ Concert is the similar programming on international stations available on internet radio. We often listen to Catalunya Musica or France Musique. But Concert can beat them all because of its local content. Of which Eva Radich’s daily interviews were an important part.

  4. Barbara S, 4. June 2018, 14:21

    I like well researched programs and discussions on music. It’s a cheap option to just put on music. RNZ is implementing generational change with young people replacing older presenters but I doubt the audience is getting any younger with us oldies feeling increasingly left out. Regarding programs? Well, at 4pm every weekday, I turn off the Concert program because I can’t stand modern NZ classical music. Otherwise I stick it out hoping to hear some great classical music that will enliven me.

  5. Chris P, 5. June 2018, 17:41

    Agree with Brian O. Will miss in depth interviews with artists both visiting and local. It kept me in touch with the NZ Arts and music scene; what people are thinking as well as what they are doing.