Wellington Scoop

Classical music, young listeners, and a monumental blunder

by Tom Frewen
The same day that RNZ announced that Concert FM would be replaced by a new “music brand” aimed at 18-34-year-olds, the BBC’s classical music station Radio 3 reported that a surge in young listeners had boosted its audience ratings to their highest level in three years.

Radio 3 and Concert FM both reach about 4% of the population while Classic FM, one of Britain’s three independent national radio networks, also reported a significant increase in under-35s among its 5.5 million weekly audience.

Classic FM’s senior managing editor, Sam Jackson, said: “I’m particularly heartened by the continued growth in listening among our youngest demographic, proving that classical music can be enjoyed by everyone — no matter what their age, experience or background.”

While Radio 3’s weekly audience rose by 16.4% to 2.13 million listeners in the final quarter of 2019, Radio 1, the BBC’s flagship youth station, continued to shed audience. From more than 10 million listeners five years ago, Radio 1 slumped to 8.79 million, the first time its ratings have fallen below nine million.

In contrast to RNZ’s chief executive Paul Thompson, who wants to give Concert FM’s presenters the heave, Radio 3 and Classic FM vigorously promote their talent, on-air and via social media such as YouTube.

Radio 3’s increased audience can be attributed in part to its breakfast shows. Co-hosts Petroc Trelawny and Georgie Mann attract an audience of 689,000 (up from 600,000) on weekdays while the weekend show, hosted by Elizabeth Alker, is experiencing its highest ratings since 2004.

Jess Gillam, the exciting 21-year-old saxophonist, became Radio 3’s youngest ever presenter last year. Her Saturday show, This Classical Life, features musicians aged under 30.

Classic FM, Britain’s most popular classical music station, sets out to attract young listeners with shows such as High Score, dedicated to video game music.

The Daily Telegraph reports James Rea, director of broadcasting for Classic FM’s parent company, Global, as saying: “In our latest set of audience figures, 1.15 million under-35s now tune in to Classic FM every week and we need to welcome them to the station. That’s why we embrace and champion everyday forms of classical music, including film and video game music, as well as more traditional compositions.”

Concert FM could do the same, if RNZ’s management included anyone like James Rea, a radio professional with an understanding of, and sympathy for, public broadcasting.

RNZ’s chief executive Paul Thompson, thinks of broadcasting as content delivery. In his speech to the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association Conference in Glasgow on 12 May 2014, he said: “Our preferred method of content delivery — radio — is in long-term decline.”

He could not have been wronger.

Six years on, of the three mainstream forms of news and entertainment media, radio is by far the strongest.

Newspaper and magazine sales decline, television audiences fragment, while steam radio steams on, earning New Zealand’s commercial networks a steady $280 million a year from advertisers wanting to reach the 82.3% of the population who listen to a radio station each week.

Glen Scanlon, Thompson’s former head of news and digital who followed him from Fairfax, once said: “Radio isn’t just something that you plug in, stick on top of your fridge and turn on.” But it is – not necessarily on the fridge, but you do turn it on and leave it on, unlike the TV (unless you’re using it as a radio) or your phone (unless you’re using it as a phone).

David Allan, RNZ’s head of radio and music, from a background in commercial radio talkback, has a preference for hiring people with a profile from having been on TV.

Willy Macalister, RNZ’s music director, can claim 19 years broadcast experience which, according to his LinkedIn profile, runs right across “the product team spectrum”. He says “I believe that Radio Programming is a case of Art via Science. We work in a creative industry that needs to place talent in a position so that they can create great radio.”

That’s what they do at RadioNZ Concert, Willy. That’s why people are so upset at the prospect of losing them.

RNZ’s board includes the former chief executive of Newstalk ZB and is chaired by the former chief executive of Maori Television, Jim Mather. He welcomed the news that RNZ might be able to use the abandoned KiwiFM frequency for its youth network. Ironically, that same 102 FM frequency was where the last youth radio network plan fizzled out, causing Mediaworks to hand it back to the Government.

Blaming the whole thing on a “miscommunication” — seemingly about when the public would become the last to be told about the plan to ditch Concert FM — Thompson joined his chairman in welcoming the news about the possibility of gaining a third FM network. He saw it as “really affirming that the government has endorsed our strategy.”

So, to quickly recap: that strategy was to decide last year to replace Concert FM with a new youth-skewing music brand that would piss off everybody from the prime minister down, attract tens of thousands to protest via on-line petitions and prompt others to write screeds of well-worded outrage in letters to newspaper editors, only to welcome the use of another network that they must have known about all along.

Although hugely entertaining in the way it unfolded, this monumental saga of sheer bungling incompetence has left 18 employees, the talent that attracts such a devoted and loyal audience of all ages to RadioNZ Concert on FM, unsure about their future.

Blaming a “miscommunication” without addressing the enormity of the blunder is simply pathetic.

February 12: RNZ withdraws its plan to restructure RNZ Concert


  1. TrevorH, 12. February 2020, 19:05

    Great post, very informative. The management of RNZ clearly need to be removed as soon as possible.

  2. N.D., 12. February 2020, 23:43

    There is nothing wrong with RadioNZ Concert as it is. Sounds great.

  3. Joe Bennett, 14. February 2020, 9:01

    Classical music has endured for centuries because generation after generation find it moving and beautiful. Such music needs the clarity and fidelity of FM and the explanatory introductions of announcers, but they were going to biff it onto AM, the natural home of ape rock and Radio Sport, and select it by computer. If you want to know what it would have sounded like, google Classical FM Sydney, where you’ll find a medley of the pretty bits of Strauss and Beethoven interspersed with ads for prostate pills and cheap funerals. It’s aural wallpaper with a sprinkling of dread.

  4. Barbara Smyth, 15. February 2020, 17:31

    I am just sitting down and listening to Inside Out with Nick Tipping which we do on Saturdays. Well researched and featuring varied jazz music from around the world including New Zealand. Long may the programme continue with Nick Tipping AS IS.