Wellington Scoop

Concert FM: anatomy of a blunder – part two

by Tom Frewen
I stumbled across Rutherford Ward’s name by accident while fact-checking (dread phrase!) the dubious claim in Spark’s new television commercial that Ernest Rutherford invented radio communications.

He didn’t! He researched detection of electromagnetic waves in the 1890s before moving on to split the atom. It was Marconi who developed and commercialised wireless telegraphy and it was not until quite recently that RNZ’s chief executive, Paul Thompson, succeeded in splitting the radio.

In the mysterious ways of the algorithm, the search for Ernest Rutherford also served up Rutherford Ward who had gone sub-viral by petitioning Parliament to request

“That the House of Representatives urge the Government to dismiss Radio New Zealand’s entire Board from their positions.”

Petitioners have to state a reason for their request. Rutherford Ward said:

“I think the Board, along with the CEO/editor-in-chief and the Music Content Director, have demonstrated a staggering lack of understanding of, and concern and care for, a crucial organisation they supposedly lead; their flawed and rushed proposal to replace Concert with an inferior AM-only unmanned station disqualifies them from continued leadership of RNZ. The precious treasure of RNZ Concert should be guided by those who appreciate and guard its unique role within our cultural landscape.”

Rutherford Ward’s petition was published on 13 February, coincidentally the same day that RNZ’s chairman, Jim Mather, its chief executive, Paul Thompson, and its Head of Business Transformation and Strategy, Alan Withrington, were scheduled to appear at Parliament before the Economic Development, Science and Innovation Select Committee for RNZ’s annual financial review.

As it happened, the 32 minutes that public radio’s chairman and senior managers spent in front of the committee was almost entirely focused on the chief executive’s announcement the previous day that RNZ’s plan to replace Concert FM with a multi-platform youth music service, unveiled just a week earlier on Wednesday 5 February, had been abandoned. The only reference to RNZ’s annual report, the document on which financial reviews of government agencies are supposed to be based, was from Poto Williams, Labour’s quietly-spoken and dignified Christchurch East MP and Minister for the Community and Voluntary Sector. Holding up RNZ’s 2018/19 annual report with its stylised koru cover design and headline “Trust is a taonga”, she expressed sympathy for what must have been a trying week for the men but added, pointedly, that it had also been difficult for MPs who had had to field many questions from constituents concerned about what was going on “at their beloved radio station”.

After noting RNZ’s claim to be the country’s most trusted media organisation, she said:

“Just given that trust is obviously an important aspect of your business, how do you think the public trust and confidence has played out during this particular issue? How do you think the public see you now?”

With a quick glance up at the ceiling, RNZ’s chairman found inspiration there in the way Alfred, Lord Tennyson turned a massive strategic blunder into an act of great heroism in his epic poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade”.

“Well, um, (that is) probably answered by saying leadership is about making the right decisions, not the popular decisions.”

To say swapping Concert FM’s loyal listeners for a completely new, younger audience of about the same size had not proved popular would be to test the boundaries of understatement. But Mather seemed be saying it was nevertheless the right decision.

Half a league, half a league, half a league onward, the chairman charged on:

“It would have been very easy for us to continue to sail along and not do anything of an audacious nature that was going to be transformative, not just for this generation of listeners of RNZ but for future generations as well. So, I don’t know if it’s a trust issue. It probably would be a confidence issue in terms of our support for RNZ Concert.”

Trust or confidence? It depends on your viewpoint. The board needs to have the confidence of everybody from the prime minister down. Trust, though, is the vital ingredient in RNZ’s relationship with its staff, and that can only have been seriously diminished.

Half a league, half a league, half a league onward. The chairman said:

“But to be quite frank, if I can share with you, the most interesting piece of feedback that I have received about RNZ Concert from the many hundreds if not thousands of correspondents that have contacted me in the past week is one pakeha gentleman who re-framed the entire process. He said he considered RNZ Concert to be a taonga — a treasure that has been passed down from past generations. So, as a Maori, that really resonated with me and gave me insight into how connected some of our constituents (sic) are to RNZ’s Concert programme.

“So we have got a much stronger understanding of the passion and belief in this part of our organisation, RNZ Concert. We respect all of the RNZ Concert whanau and fraternity and that audience and we will certainly ensure that we do everything we can to reassure them with confidence that we now have the opportunity to maintain this wonderful service.”


Half a league, half a league, half a league downward, Alfred, Lord Tennyson morphed into Ralph Waldo Emerson who wrote the famous line: “The louder he talked of his honour, the faster we counted our spoons.”

The “opportunity’ that Mather was talking about was the potential, suddenly plucked from the Government’s magic bag of unused FM networks, of a network that could be used for the youth music platform, allowing Concert FM to remain on the frequency designated for it by Act of Parliament.

RNZ’s failure to investigate this existing alternative network — actually set aside for a youth music service and only used briefly about six years ago by Mediaworks for its failed KiwiFM brand — was a mystery until RNZ published its strategy papers on Tuesday.

The “Music Opportunity” business case reveals that Concert FM was to be removed from the airwaves:

“The most noticeable change under this proposal will be that this service will no longer be available on FM radio. However, if listeners have access to a television, a mobile phone or any other internet connect device, they will still be able to receive this classical media service.”

For reasons of cost, the youth music platform required the sacrifice of Concert FM’s presenters and frequency.
Of course, that was before Mather and his board were alerted to the fact that they were dealing with a taonga, or as Rutherford Ward called it, a “precious treasure”.

The next step requires an MP formally to present this petition, which attracted 450 signatures before it closed on Tuesday, so that it can be referred to a select committee and be opened to public submissions.

Anatomy of a blunder: part one


  1. Neil Douglas, 14. March 2020, 10:48

    The charge of the Light Brigade actually succeeded in capturing the Russian artillery with a frontal cavalry charge on the misorders of Captain Nolan. The problem was a lack of follow up by the heavy cavalry led by Lucan who did not get on with Cardigan in charge of the Light Brigade. Cardigan was feted on his return and the cardigan became very fashionable. Ironic that an NZ commercial radio shock jock called Concert FM listeners a cardigan wearing elite. I wear my cardigan with pride when I listen to Elgar.

  2. Henry Filth, 14. March 2020, 11:11

    “. . . the dubious claim in Spark’s new television commercial that Ernest Rutherford invented radio communications.” How very, very, sad.

    As for the rest of the piece, you really do have to wonder where they find these transformative, audacious people, so intent on pointless activity and spasmodic decision-making.