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RNZ – destroying a success

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“… we don’t really have any position on what the brand is going to be yet, and what it’s going to be called…”
– Paul Thompson, Chief Executive Radio New Zealand

by Marc Taddei
Just yesterday, Paul Thompson, the Chief Executive of Radio New Zealand and Willy Macalister, Music Content Director, announced that they would be changing the nature of New Zealand’s only Art Music Radio station – RNZ Concert. They propose that RNZ Concert will cease broadcasting on FM (in order to free up slots), and move to AM and streaming services. Furthermore, they propose that the broadcast be largely automated, delivered by a skeletal crew. It appears to be similar to a constantly evolving Spotify playlist. Gone will be the in-depth shows that showcase New Zealand Art Music and its practitioners.

High culture is not for everyone. It can be difficult. It can be confronting. It can require deep thinking. It often speaks to profound ideas. Mostly, it is a part of our culture that demands education, and an interest in modes of expression that are out of the mainstream.

High culture has always only appealed to a small percentage of the population. It has always skewed towards a demographic that is older.

Does this mean that it has no place in our culture? Does this mean that it does not contribute to what it means to be a member of society? Does this mean that it has not had a part in defining us, or the time in which we live? Just because one does not understand something does not mean that it should not be supported.

While much of the dialogue of the high visual arts is framed in a complex relationship between public galleries, universities, private collectors and patrons, and commercial galleries, art music is different.

Music is ephemeral – once performed, it no longer exists. It cannot be bought and put on a wall for a collectable market with a very real interest in both the art and capital growth.

Recorded music allows for the wide dissemination of music, and thanks in the past to radio, it has proven to be a vital voice in the dialogue around the form. Over time, radio stations have found their niche, playing music that appeals to specific demographics. Popular forms of music have proven to be an ideal format for radio stations to provide profits to their shareholders over the past century. People with an interest in these forms of music can find stations that will cater for them. For many forms of pop and world music, etc., one could say that those who have an interest in them, are well catered for.

One of the triumphs of Helen Clark’s government was the use of tactics that encouraged radio stations to impose a quota of local music upon themselves. The result was a vibrant renaissance in the popular music of New Zealand, which allowed a significant part of our culture to be celebrated.

Art music is different. Like public galleries, and museums, the smaller percentage of the population that has an interest in the art form means that our public galleries, museums, orchestras, and our Art Music radio station has required support.

I would like to think that the support came not because of demographics, but because of an obligation to protect that which makes us New Zealanders. The Art Music of New Zealand contributes to the culture of the country, and gives voice to profound ideas. Is it for everybody? Of course not, but art music has never been thus.

Listening to Paul Thompson and Willy Macalister speaking to the new format change was disturbing. The opening quote of this blog is simply indicative off the apparent lack of thought and complete disregard for the culture of New Zealand that both men are displaying.

It is difficult to countenance destroying the voice and centre of the dialogue around NZ Art Music, when the numbers of RNZ Concert are so strong. I found their attempts to underplay the numbers, by speaking of “unique visitors” (that is, listeners to RNZ Concert who only listen to that station, and who do not overlap with Radio New Zealand National) as sophic in the extreme.

They also invoke the charter of Radio NZ, and its attendant mission to support NZ composition and performance, and then falsely underplay the huge role that RNZ Concert has contributed to the dialogue. If ANY radio station fulfils the role, it is RNZ Concert.

It seems to me, there doesn’t appear to be a plan. It seems like unresolved thinking around poll and questionnaire results, applied to demographics, in a scattered approach.

Also, think about the idea of an 18-35 demographic. I would argue this is the most transitional period in life, and what people might like at the age of 18 is highly unlikely to be the same thing enjoyed at 25, 30, or 35. I’m not even going to mention cultural, racial, socio-economic, educational, and political differences within this demographic.

And then what happens after this arbitrary demographic become older? Has thought been given to where their musical interests may gravitate? For centuries, older people have embraced art music. This is a trend that is solid, and why Art Music has not and will not die out as Paul Thompson and Willy Macalister suggest. It is a complete misreading of the demographic trends in New Zealand (and every other Western society), that point to an ageing society.

Simply speaking of the 18-35 year old demographic as if it can be defined largely on age, is suspect. What they mention suggests a need for at least 20 new stations – any or all of which would attract far fewer numbers than those currently enjoyed by RNZ Concert.

Now, should there be more public radio in New Zealand? Of course! I would absolutely be a stanch supporter of that proposition, but to destroy that which is already a success, and a vital part of our very culture, feels a bit like throwing the baby out with the bath water.

There is also a matter of destroying something that clearly has significant support, and in turn supports an entire segment of our high culture, in a roll of the dice that people who do not engage with radio will suddenly engage with a new station.

As mentioned above, RNZ’s charter around New Zealand composition and performance is amply served by RNZ Concert. The spurious argument that the bulk of what classical stations perform is not New Zealand content does not gel with their other statements around their acknowledgement that their new (as yet unformed) concept will be unable to offer an all-NZ content station.

There is also the matter of the market, and the question of whether New Zealand content from genres other than Art Music are already being served. I would suggest that they are. Destroying a successful radio station with a clearly-defined market, makes little sense.

If you are interested, you can listen to Paul Thompson’s and Willie Macalister’s fatuous, self-serving, and ill-considered reasoning for the destruction of RNZ Concert here.

I mentioned the quotas for New Zealand popular music that were gently imposed upon NZ radio stations, and the attendant success. It was a masterful example of supporting the culture in a cost-effective manner, that was embraced by commercial interests.

How on earth is the complete opposite of this faith and support shown for New Zealand’s unique culture happening now?

Marc Taddei is music director of Orchestra Wellington. This article was first published today on his blog.

11 comments:

  1. Neil Douglas, 6. February 2020, 15:11

    Incredibly awful decision. New Zealand needs a radio channel for classical and jazz music! We need a campaign to save our Concert Program. Question: Has the Broadcasting Minister signed off on this decision? When and where was the political debate? I need to know as it will influence who I vote for.

     
  2. Alana, 6. February 2020, 16:39

    If it works, who decides to de-rail it? Clearly the current management follows the market-driven methodology of the last National government. Sign the petitions and let Minister Faafoi know how you feel.

     
  3. Michael Martin, 6. February 2020, 18:28

    The policy to obliterate RNZ Concert FM as of 29 May is an extremely short-sighted decision. There are many talented classical musicians here in New Zealand, who depend upon Concert FM to publicize their accomplishments and help them launch their careers.
    Besides, the decision to substitute it with a “youth channel” serves no public purpose, as young people already have a plethora of choices for music in the private sector. Such an expenditure seems to me to be a waste of public resources.

     
  4. Neil D, 6. February 2020, 21:42

    What petition to save The Concert Program. Could you provide a link to it please? [Here is the petition. It has so far been signed by more than 11,000 people.]

     
  5. Benny, 7. February 2020, 11:19

    Is RNZ ran under PTOM? We all know where that took the bus network in Wellington. Losing Concert will be a massive loss and I can’t understand it: Culture is not something you can monetize, and it has to be supported, not axed. Simply the worst idea to start the year.

     
  6. Neal Palmer, 7. February 2020, 13:08

    We are still hoping for a National Art Gallery, so we can say goodbye to the Concert programme. Perhaps we could can the NZ Symphony Orchestra and the Ballet and the Drama School and anything else that is a national treasure.

     
  7. I. Hutchinson, 7. February 2020, 13:29

    Many Concert Programme listeners live outside the major centres; numerous are disabled & cannot safely drive at night or travel to major centres. I am in this category. Why should we who are unable for a variety of reasons to be concert attendees, be penalised by eviscerating RadioNZ Concert?

     
  8. Stuart Mathieson, 7. February 2020, 19:12

    Excellence is not about numbers. Who understands quantum mechanics? Not a lot. Close down the physics departments at our universities? The Concert program with live hosts is a great source of cultural and intellectual information. It has a profound history. Music was the language of the Gods in pre scientific times. Cantors were esteemed people in ancient Jewish times. Still are. Many still enjoy it as a time warp to departed loved ones. Brain scans show amazing things going on in human brains exposed to great music. It is closely linked with language development. I’ve seen kids with severe Aspergers announce with joy “that’s Mozart”. That’s the power of great music. Classical music is intimately linked with other art forms. Dance, theatre and literature. These art forms preserve and promote the highest aspirations of human kind. Dogs even recognise songs and join in. Magpies too. There is definitely something special going on there. Many of our young classical performers and conductors have international reputations. Many pop and rock bands learned the basics of their craft in classical households.

     
  9. J, 8. February 2020, 18:27

    Obviously, no check has been done on the wildly popular RadioNZ Concert that talks about the history of the music, about the singers, the bands, interesting and quirky stories about them. That’s what people like. The history behind the music. Yet the idiots in charge of this ridiculous decision to automate classical music have ignored the very reason WHY the concert programme is so popular. Its history, its humanity. Leave it alone, on FM. Don’t wreck it. In fact, given the incomes of the individuals making this change, get rid of them. It will cost less in the long run.

    Age is relative when musical tastes are involved. However, already there are numerous stations and other media that youth can access without changing the concert programme. A talented young woman I know debuted her composition on the concert programme. Stunning. Concert FM is already successful for the young, as well as the older demographic.

    Stupid, stupid decision to change a successful format – surely Paul Thompson and Willy Macalister should realise that. Get rid of them.

     
  10. Steve Smith, 8. February 2020, 19:57

    I am not a fan of modern music & can see the sense in preserving RNZ Concert music but the population numbers do not support Marc Taddei’s condescending attitude to the music taste of the 18-35 age group he mentions. Why should that taxpaying group have to listen to the mindless commercial c..p that is commercial radio to enjoy their taste in music so his elitist group can continue their commercial-free taxpayer-provided show?

     
  11. Colin B, 10. February 2020, 20:43

    Steve Smith – I don’t interpret Marc’s comments as condescending to the 18 – 35 group. I think he’s trying to make the point that the RNZ proposal seems to be premised on a highly reductive view of age and musical interests. There are plenty of 18 – 35s who cannot stand commercial pop music radio – in Wellington they’re listening to the eclectic sounds of Radio Active and, at the very least, niche shows on RNZ Concert (jazz, world music, etc). Likewise, there are plenty of the middled aged in Wellington, such as myself, who switch effortlessly between RNZ Concert and Radio Active. Marc’s point is that there is a public value in the universal availability of access to higher culture, of whatever medium and genre, unshackled from commercial considerations – that has always been a fundamental premise of public broadcasting.

     

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