Wellington Scoop

Concert FM: anatomy of a blunder – part four

by Tom Frewen
Driving north on SH1 up the Kapiti Coast on Tuesday afternoon, I had to switch the car radio over to AM in order to listen to Parliament debating the Government’s Covid-19 emergency economic package.

Parliament is only available on the AM network. But, so patchy is the FM signal even just a few miles north of the nation’s capital city, I stayed tuned to the AM frequency to catch the commentary on National Radio, allegedly the country’s most trusted news medium.

Eventually, within reach of a strong FM signal from Palmerston North, I fled to the Concert Programme before the start of Checkpoint and Lisa Owen. Her demented appeals for feedback drive me nuts. And I grip the wheel white-knuckled when she follows an interview by saying I should watch it on video. After I get home, of course, because, you know, health and safety and all that. Taking your eyes off the road to watch television when you’re driving is not recommended best practice.

At some point, RNZ will have to admit that streaming video in drive time, which is called drive time for a reason, is a practice that only a New Zealand public radio, assured of taxpayer funding, could adopt. It only happens for reasons linked to RNZ’s disastrous decision to dump the Concert Programme off its FM frequency and fire its live on-air talent.

Although RNZ skites about its ever-growing digital “reach” on Facebook and YouTube, the actual numbers watching Checkpoint’s streamed video are in the low hundreds, a fraction of the approximately 250,000 listeners to the radio broadcast.

Much more important than the numbers, however, is the difference between radio listeners and web-page users. Listeners form an audience, an on-air community which can have political weight, as the Concert FM reaction demonstrated. The internet is a completely different medium.

Although nowhere near as good as it used to be, Checkpoint from 5pm to 6pm is still the most densely packed hour of news and comment on New Zealand radio. Listening to an interview in which the day’s newsmakers explain their positions in some detail is quite different from surfing through a video that’s competing with tempting diversions just a click away in the autoplay queue.

Ever since RNZ’s board, chaired by National appointee Richard Griffin from 2011 to 2018, persuaded chief executive Peter Cavanagh to take an early bath in 2013, his successor Paul Thompson has pursued the goal of turning the radio into a multi-media digital platform on the internet. Coinciding with the Wellington bureaucracy’s eager embrace in 2012-13 of the “Digital Nation” concept, the resulting diversion of money and talent into producing text and video for a web-page has resulted in broadcast radio becoming the organisation’s “poor cousin”.

In the year after Thompson’s appointment by the board in June 2013, the former news media (Fairfax/Stuff) executive developed a “vision for the future” which he outlined in his notes for a speech to the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association Conference in Glasgow, on 12 May 2014.

“The evidence is clear,” he said, “that traditional media are in decline.
“Radio, television and newspapers are merging into digital devices that are always switched on.
“The future of content delivery is multi-media, multi-platform, personalised, mobile and social.”

Radio, coming up to its 100th anniversary as a mass medium, was he said “in long-term decline”.

Radio, as Thompson’s former Stuff colleague Glen Scanlon said on his appointment as RNZ’s first head of digital in August 2014, was no longer “just something that you plug in, stick on top of your fridge and turn on,” The radio had morphed into something new, as Scanlon noted in the publicity material accompanying his appointment to direct RNZ’s digital strategy.

”Your radio is on your phone, it’s on your TV, it’s in your car, it’s on your desktop. So the experience you’re building has to work across all of those types of platforms.”

Thompson’s “elevator pitch” to the CBA conference maintained that for RNZ “to stay relevant and continue our mission of serving the public, and to maintain and grow our audience, we must become and are becoming a multimedia organisation.”

Within the next few months, RNZ developed a strategy based on building an audience to meet the needs of the technology, reversing the usual order.

As the management’s “Music Opportunity” multi-media youth platform pitch to RNZ’s board records:

“In 2015 RNZ set itself a target of doubling its total audience from 600,000 New Zealanders (14% of population) per week to 1,000,000 (28%) New Zealanders per week by 2020.”

RNZ claims that target was reached by March 2019, almost entirely the result of adding 400,000 “users” of its website. So RNZ’s management set themselves a new goal:

“For the year commencing July 2019 RNZ has set itself a new target of ‘1 in 2 New Zealanders’ (50%) by 2023 by “creating a lifelong relationship with all the people of Aotearoa.”

How could RNZ “drive the next level of growth necessary to achieve this new goal? By attracting completely new and different sectors of the New Zealand population.”

Specifically, those new and different sectors would be “younger and more ethnically diverse New Zealanders”.

Incredible as it now seems, RNZ was planning to create a multi-media news and entertainment internet-based platform that it believed would capture half the available audience — and doing it with the full knowledge and approval of the government.

RNZ’s “Briefing to the Incoming Ministers” in October 2017, following the formation of Jacinda Ardern’s Labour-led coalition Government after the election the previous month, outlined two broad options for the development of RNZ into “a stronger public service”. The first, RNZ (Current Path), was a transition period from traditional radio broadcaster to a multi-media service. In the second, RNZ (Growth Option), “RNZ is a fully-fledged multi-media service for all New Zealanders”.

A key difference between the Current Path’s multi-media service and the Growth Option’s fully-fledged multi-media service is in the use of the internet as a “bus replacement” service for broadcasting.

The Growth Option strategy called for “Accelerated transition from traditional broadcast platforms to new multi-media delivery allowing for surplus AM transmission assets (property and spectrum) to be returned to the Crown as part of a business case for a funding increase.”

It’s not only Concert FM that’s at risk, but also the future of free-to-air public broadcasting in New Zealand.

Anatomy of a blunder: part three
Anatomy of a blunder: part two
Anatomy of a blunder: part one


  1. Neil Douglas, 20. March 2020, 9:29

    I only listen to the RNZ Concert Program nowadays. Can’t abide TV or RNZ National – I’m sick to death of hearing about you know what. I just drink lots of water and drink bottles of draught beer to wash down any possibility of virus into the stomach where the acidity kills the you know what virus. I get out and sit in the sun as the you know what virus hates the sun and karks it at more than 26/27 degrees C.

    I am thankful for RNZ Concert which is stopping me going completely nuts, so I’m really thankful that that the be-suited Corporate CEO didn’t get his way and can it. How do these people get elevated way to such decision making positions? I don’t think he’d get a job playing the triangle in an orchestra.

  2. Concerned Wellingtonian, 20. March 2020, 10:19

    The man behind the scenes whilst Minister Faafoi is in disgrace, namely Grant Robertson, should set about improving RNZ’s Board by getting rid of its chairman and appointing somebody who actually knows something and is right on top of the pile, namely Tom Frewen.

  3. Pauline, 20. March 2020, 16:52

    Thank you Tom, and like Neil I am thankful for RNZ Concert and just this afternoon, feeling weary, I sat for an hour with RNZ Concert playing and felt so much better!

  4. Dave B, 26. March 2020, 12:03

    Generic “managers” who have no interest, knowledge or experience in what they are managing, would be better described as meddlers. They are a pain in the arts.