Wellington Scoop

Concert FM: anatomy of a blunder – part three

by Tom Frewen
“By the way, Jane,” says RNZ’s Paul Thompson to NZ on Air’s Jane Wrightson in a CEO-to-CEO aside at a meeting “regarding another matter … next week we’ll be making a start on getting rid of Concert FM and firing all its presenters.” Those would not have been his actual words, of course.

The official version, according to NZ on Air, is: “At the end of the meeting [on 28 January], Paul Thompson mentioned to Jane Wrightson that they would be consulting with staff on the review of their music strategy and an email with further information would be circulated the following week to key stakeholders. As it was a passing comment, no notes were taken on this topic.”

In Wellington’s lexicon of euphemisms, “review” means “getting rid of employees” and “consult” means informing those employees that they’re about to get the chop. RNZ’s review of its music strategy produced a new strategy that turned out to be the political equivalent of poking a knife into a toaster. The audience reaction was so fierce and high-level that all involved in its conception sought shelter shelter behind the nearest euphemism and fudged timeline.

With Broadcasting Minister Kris Faafoi and his officials in the Ministry of Arts, Culture and Heritage taking refuge behind their ability to delay responses to OIA requests until the end of April, the spotlight fell on RNZ’s chairman Jim Mather and chief executive Paul Thompson, when they fronted up to Parliament’s Economic Development, Science and Innovation committee on Thursday 13 February. It was the day after they had hurriedly killed and buried their ill-conceived plan to replace RNZ’s classical music programme with a youth-oriented, multi-media platform.

Committee member Melissa Lee, National’s broadcasting spokeswoman, opened questioning by noting the unusually large media presence. She then tried to find out why RNZ wanted to use Concert FM’s frequency when there was another unused national network set aside for youth music.

Or was it necessary, perhaps for reasons of cost, to get rid of Concert FM so as to be able to afford the new multi-media platform. RNZ’s chief executive had already said that the persuading the government to fund anther network would be very difficult.

“The Music Opportunity’ document released by RNZ on Tuesday 10 March clearly states that the concert programme would no longer be available on FM radio. Broadcasting an automated classical music programme with no presenters is described as an option.

“This would involve using the AM radio network currently used for the live coverage of Parliamentary proceedings, which usually only sits (sic) for approximately 90 days per annum. At present the down time for Parliament has been leased to Radio Rhema, and this arrangement expires in (redacted).”

Also redacted is the amount of revenue from the Radio Rhema contract that would be lost, adding to the cost of the proposed youth music service.

And then there is this intriguing comment:

“ . . . and it may also add another issue to be wrestled with in our plans to eventually withdraw from AM broadcasting.”

Is this another strategy we need to know about? What is certain, however, is that it is not the responsibility of public radio’s management to be formulating broadcasting policy, any more than it was ever within RNZ’s power to remove the Concert Programme off the FM frequency allocated to it in an Act of Parliament.

At the select committee hearing, RNZ’s chairman made an opening statement in which he proceeded to walk MPs through the issue in the Q&A format favoured by spin doctors and politicians in a tight spot.

“Did RNZ follow an appropriate process in keeping the Minister adequately informed of our new service for young New Zealanders? Absolutely. The Minister was briefed on our new strategy and the potential impact on RNZ Concert in August 2019, October 2019 and most recently on January 29th this year.”

So the Minister and, by extension, his officials in the Ministry for Culture and Heritage (MCH), had known about the plan to scupper Concert FM since August. But that didn’t tally with what MCH’s chief executive Bernadette Cavanagh told the Social Services and Community Select Committee the previous day when Ms Lee asked when her ministry first found out about RNZ’s plan.

“We’d known that Radio New Zealand was undertaking a review of its music strategy for some time,” Ms Cavanagh told the committee. “They’ve made no secret that over the last 12 months they’ve been looking at that. The board chair and chief executive at Radio New Zealand advised the Minister of that on the 27th of January and Ministry officials were in that meeting.”

Actually, the meeting was probably the one that Mather said was on Wednesday 29 January. It had been a busy week for meetings, starting on Monday 27 January when Cabinet met to decide on Faafoi’s big new and long-awaited public media announcement.

After promising all year to announce a big new media policy, Faafoi failed to get Cabinet approval for it before Christmas, coming back on 27 January with a decision to commission a business case for a merger of TVNZ and RNZ plus — and this is significant — more money for NZ on Air.

RNZ’s political editor Jane Patterson, who had the inside running on this story, probably with assistance from NZ on Air, reported on 29 January that, had Faafoi’s plan been green-lit in December, ”the government would have been readying now to pass legislation under urgency to disestablish RNZ and TVNZ, and then proceed with a business plan later in the year.”

As there is no reason to doubt the reliability of her sources, Patterson was actually saying that Faafoi was prepared to push the most radical change in the country’s broadcasting system in 30 years through Parliament under urgency with no opportunity for any public input.

If it is astonishing that a political editor of Patterson’s experience and seniority would not think that worthy of comment, it is beyond gobsmacking that Faafoi and his advisers would think it was politically viable.

The meeting “regarding another matter” at which Thompson updated Wrightson was on Tuesday 28 January, the day after the Cabinet approved Faafoi’s proposal and just three days before NZ on Air’s chief executive departed to become the Retirement Commissioner. Wrightson’s 12 years at the Broadcasting Commission had seen the agency, designed by Treasury as a mechanism to prevent government funders being “captured” by television broadcasters, fill a policy formation vacuum at the MCH and wind up on top of the heap.

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


  1. Neil Douglas, 18. March 2020, 8:56

    How much does RNZ Concert cost a year excluding the CEO’s pay? I see Treasurer Grant has announced a multi billion infrastructure plan. Surely a tiny fraction can be spent on maintaining (nay improving) our classical and jazz social infrastructure. At the moment all I listen to is the Concert Program as I am sick of hearing about COV-19 so I don’t listen to National or watch TV. Classical music cheers people up, which should be worth something in the well-being budget.

  2. Daryl Cockburn, 18. March 2020, 9:55

    I’m with you.
    Of course Grant knows a significant proportion of Kiwis listen to 98% of the time.
    He is a very informed, intelligent and lovely man. CNZ is here to stay as-is while under his watch.

  3. Glenda, 18. March 2020, 23:03

    Jane Patterson, just like every other RNZ News employee, wary of crossing her boss for fear of being shown the door. RNZ CEO Paul Thomson is the issue here, and the toxic culture he has created inside the company.

  4. Heather Rogers, 19. March 2020, 5:38

    Who appointed Paul Thompson? He needs to go.

  5. James S, 19. March 2020, 9:50

    The Board of Radio New Zealand appointed him:

  6. derek Wilshere, 19. March 2020, 13:04

    They should both go.

  7. David Young, 23. March 2020, 20:19

    It was a board appointed by the previous government,
    Toxicity in all fronts.

  8. Neil Douglas, 24. March 2020, 7:01

    To me, ultimate responsibility lies with the Broadcasting Minister by letting the CEO get so far with his awful plan. Both should resign or be shown the door. Thankfully, a mass uprising of Concert Program listeners that brought in the Prime Minister and Treasurer saved the Concert Program. So well done us Concert Program listeners. How I need classical and jazz music in these dark days.