Wellington Scoop

Concert FM: anatomy of a blunder – part one

by Tom Frewen
The most shocking revelation in the background papers outlining RNZ’s proposal to replace Concert FM with a multi-platform youth music service is not the arrogance of a public broadcaster’s board and management acting as its owners — although that’s bad enough — it is the evidence that the person ultimately responsible, Broadcasting Minister Kris Faafoi, clearly didn’t have his feet on the pedals of his portfolio and may not have even been on the bike.

Affable, relaxed and media-friendly, he stacks up as an excellent constituent MP. His reputation as an effective cabinet minister, however, is on the wane, both in Wellington and out in the provinces.

Briefed by RNZ three times on the proposal, Mr Faafoi failed in his ministerial responsibility to protect the public’s interest in a state-owned broadcasting asset, as established in two Acts of Parliament.

The 1989 Broadcasting Act, the creation of his Labour Party predecessors, Richard Prebble and Jonathan Hunt, established today’s broadcasting system with its unique funding agency, NZ on Air. The Radiocommunications Act, also passed in 1989, set up the system’s broadcasting infrastructure including the licensing of frequencies. Section 174 of the Act entitles Radio New Zealand to the use of four national networks, one of them to be “used exclusively for . . . the service known as the FM Concert Programme” and another for “the service known as National Radio.” Section 175 outlines the licence conditions in greater detail. Any change to these sections would require an amendment to be moved in Parliament, opening the issue to debate in the Chamber and scrutiny in the committee rooms.

Broadcasting systems and markets are created and regulated by politicians who are ultimately accountable, in a democracy, to voters. In movie terms, the public’s furious reaction to the proposed scuttling of Concert FM was like a trailer to a longer and more turgid argument had the proposal made it into Parliament.

Checking the political will to take the plan public should have been the very first step for RNZ’s board and management. Turns out, it doesn’t seem to have even crossed their minds.

On Wednesday 5 February, the day that RNZ’s management “consulted” Concert FM’s staff about the impending loss of most of their jobs, I emailed Radio New Zealand’s communications manager John Barr and asked him if the removal of Concert FM from its FM broadcast frequencies would require an amendment to the Radiocommunications Act. He apologised for not being able to give me an immediate answer and said he would forward my question “to wiser heads”.

After receiving nothing further from the “wiser heads,” I emailed again on March 4, repeating my question and helpfully pointing that the 20 working day response period under the Official Information Act was about to expire.

Next day, an email from RNZ’s OIA Inquiries Coordinator George Bignell arrived in my inbox.

“To answer your query re the Radiocommunications Act, RNZ did not get as far down the track as looking at the detail you raise. Addressing the Act would have depended on how the Broadcasting Commission (aka New Zealand on Air) viewed RNZ’s proposal but as we withdrew the proposal this did not get tested.”

The demotion of Concert FM’s statutory protection to a mere “detail” was at odds with the view adopted by the three Queens Counsels engaged by major orchestras to fight RNZ’s proposal in court. The first point of their proposed legal action was that RNZ was in breach of the Radiocommunications Act’s requirement for RNZ Concert to operate within a specific frequency.

Apparently confirming that RNZ’s management had not got round to checking out this “detail”, the email indicated that they would instead be relying on NZ on Air’s view of their proposal. But NZ on Air said it was only told about the proposal’s impact on Concert FM, and then only verbally, in the week before Radio New Zealand’s management announced their move on 5 February.

Responding commendably quickly to my emailed request on that same day, 5 February, for all the information it held concerning the decision “to remove RNZ Concert from its FM frequencies and transform it into an automated non-stop music station,” NZ on Air attached an email from RNZ’s chief executive Paul Thompson, sent to NZ on Air’s acting chief executive Clare Helm, at 8.10am on 5 February as he prepared for his “consultation” with Concert FM’s staff.

“Morena Clare, I hope you are well. As discussed last week, at 10am today we will begin consulting staff about the implementation of the new Music Strategy.”

Thompson then provides background to the strategy in a “stakeholder update”. But when I asked NZ on Air for information about the previous week’s discussion and any earlier references, they said “NZ on Air was advised verbally about a pending consultation with RNZ staff on a new music strategy”. It had been mentioned in passing by Paul Thompson at a meeting on 28 January. That’s all.

The only other relevant information held by NZ on Air was in RNZ’s quarterly reports in the second half of 2019.

Among the highlights extracted from the first quarterly report was the statement “RNZ is reviewing its music services and looking for ways to diversity (sic) and grow audiences through music content.” The second report says “A proposed new music strategy to create value for new audiences and deliver more against the Charter has been presented to and accepted by the RNZ Board.”

Like the captain of the Titanic reporting his ship’s sinking without mentioning the iceberg, the board’s chairman Jim Mather told MPs on Parliament’s Economic Development, Science and Innovation select committee on 13 February that lack of clarity in communications had been a key factor.

“We were so involved in this process as a board and as an executive team that everything that seems abundantly, obviously clear to us would not be to a party that was being first introduced to it. So that’s been a key learning — to step out and ensure that we’ve got (an) independent perspective and it’s clear.”

Ironically, that was almost exactly the advice in RNZ’s “High Level Risk Management Plan”. Of seven identified risks — none of which included having to amend the Radiocommunications Act — the probability of a “Negative response to change externally – Audience and stakeholders” is ranked “High” although its likely impact is expected to be Medium, which is defined as an impact “that will likely affect multiple factor/s i.e. cost, timeline, people, business continuity but not leading to failure.”

The Mitigation Plan for the chief executive and board to counter a negative response? “Ensure clarity of communication regarding alternative listening methods for concert.”

The lack of clarity in RNZ’s communication of its proposal to stakeholders such as NZ on Air may well have been deliberate — to avoid a negative response from commercial operators.

But as for the Minister. Had he been fully apprised of the impact on Concert FM? We may have to wait until the end of April to find out because he has given himself two months — 55 working days — to respond to OIA requests for information about his role.


  1. Neil Douglas, 12. March 2020, 10:52

    It’s because the Minister simply wasn’t up to his portfolio. Ministers often aren’t, especially when it’s not on their cultural wavelength. I can see the Concert Program dying a death of a thousand cuts from be-suited Management and political disdain for Western culture.

  2. James S, 12. March 2020, 11:11

    Similarly, the Ministry for Culture and Heritage has given itself until the end of April to provide information about its discussions with RNZ about getting an additional FM frequency.

  3. Elaine Hampton, 12. March 2020, 12:33

    Concert FM is forever as far as I am concerned.

  4. Derek Wilshere, 12. March 2020, 15:28

    Thanks Tom, we are indebted to the quality of your questioning. Few of us outside the loop have your depth of understanding. Hopefully your observations will add to the debate which must go on … and ultimately be resolved resulting in a continuation of the status quo.

  5. Michael Gibson, 12. March 2020, 18:35

    This is what I wrote at the time (published February 15):
    “The most troubling part of the RNZ Concert fiasco is the part played by Broadcasting Minister Kris Faafoi. If he is indeed the rising star of the Labour Party how could he contemplate the summary dismissal of over a dozen well-qualified staff? What does this say about the government’s attitude towards industrial relations?
    “The treatment of valued employees under the direction of Labour-appointed chairman Jim Mather should be neither forgotten nor forgiven. The feelings of staff who have been dismissed cannot be overlooked. Will the Prime Minister treat those responsible accordingly?”

  6. .Gerald Ginther, 12. March 2020, 22:03

    Michael Gibson, I could not agree more. We need Jim Mather’s head as well as he was ultimately responsible.

  7. Pauline, 12. March 2020, 22:57

    Thank you all, like me supporters of Concert FM keep it up.

  8. Dave B, 13. March 2020, 0:07

    This idea that a government minister, simply because he/she is a government minister, is automatically competent to handle any portfolio, is turning out to be a bit of a crock in this day and age.

    For instance if I was Minister of Broadcasting I would happily let all channels that play continuous washing-machine-music disappear from the airwaves altogether, because I have no interest in this. I wonder if this would get me the job?