On Sunday 9 February 2020, I drafted a Pundit column, discussing the announced proposal to downgrade Concert FM. My practice is to let columns stew before posting them – in this case the plan was to put it up on Tuesday. By Monday the policy turmoil had changed markedly and I had to make major revisions. At the bottom of this note is the Sunday version of the column; here is the posted (Tuesday) version. (Note that not only had I had to change the direction because of developments but I also had to make some regretted cuts in order to try to keep it within word length.)
The RNZ explanation of what they were doing is here.
The Sunday column was provoked by the Minster of Broadcasting saying that he could do nothing because it was an operational matter. (You can hear the officials giving this ponderous advice.)
Five days later (three of which were not working days – Waitangi Day, Saturday and Sunday) the government promised to intervene. The Prime Minister said that it wanted to keep RNZ Concert on the FM network and did not want the abandonment of presenters. She added that she was disappointed that RNZ had ignored the government’s request to delay the decision. (As an aside, it would be very unusual for a state .agency to be so obdurate towards such a reasonable request; one ponders about what exactly happened.)
In the five days there had been considerable political turmoil. There has been a welter of public pronouncements criticising the proposal, ranging from ordinary listeners to the regional orchestras; grandees such as Helen Clark, Michael Cullen, Chris Finlayson and Kiri Te Kanawa deplored the change. There is a substantial electronic petition. The RNZ Concert presenters were subdued by the announcement but heartened by the flood of texted support. Some QCs are threatening to get the court to overturn the RNZ decision, proposing to do it pro bono.
Nor should the role of social media be overlooked. This Facebook thread is both impressive for the number of people who contributed and a reminder that just because one is into baroque one need not be social media ignorant,
The upwelling of anger has undoubtedly surprised RNZ, probably the government and also me. I have been struck how passive the arts community have been in the face of threats to their arts. Why the difference is instructive.
Both writing and reading are solitary activities. Occasional book launches and literary festivals aside, the relevant communities rarely meet collectively. In contrast, music is a collective activity with numerous concerts which bring audiences together, while performance is usually a collective activity.
Most of its provision is tacitly non-commercial. Subscribers to performance-group concerts were emailed encouraging them to sign the petition. The literary equivalent would be a commercial bookshop emailing to its customer list, but this might be considered unethical. So I am not arguing that the classical music community is larger or angrier than the literary or visual arts communities. Rather it is better organised.
(Note that youth have not countered with an outbreak of support for the proposed RNZ network; they are hardly organised at all. How RNZ knows what is best for them is a puzzle.)
Perhaps the coup de grace for the government was a tart Stuff Saturday editorial which included<> ‘In an election year, Labour should be careful not to take arts-loving voters for granted. The Concert FM news followed closely behind cutbacks at the National Library and Archives NZ and a controversial funding decision that saw the demise of the long-running NZ Books journal. The cultural sector has noticed that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern seemed unwilling to wade into these issues in her role as the Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage.’
By Monday the government was taking notice. Apparently it had some spare FM frequencies it is going to make available to RNZ; what the solution to the funding of the presenters remains to be seen. I still think, as both versions of the column say, that it would be wiser to put off a decision until the RNZ-TV1 merger has been settled. I would have thought that the RNZ management would be so up to their ears ensuring that the integrity of public radio was not lost in the merger that they could not handle the RNZ Youth/RNZ Concert changes as well. .
Given things are settling, was it necessary for me to still write a column? The old version is concerned with ministerial responsibility, where we have already seen some progress. But I also included a discussion of what services the state should or should not provide.
I was loathe to abandon the part of the column making this wider point. Opportunities to discuss it do not arise often despite the issue lurking there all the time. Meanwhile, the second column also gave me a chance to use the example of the Red Queen principle. The practice of policy first, analysis after happens far more frequently than just in broadcasting. The revised column was posted on Tuesday 11.
Below is the draft of the Sunday version:
Muddled Thinking About RNZ. (Sunday draft version)
The Minister of Broadcasting, Kris Faafoi, cannot argue that because it is an operational matter, he has no responsibility for the proposed downgrading of RNZ Concert.
The Minister signed up by accepting the RNZ’s 2019 Statement of Intent which said that ‘RNZ plans to grow both the size and diversity of its audiences to 1-in-2 (2.4m people) New Zealanders a week.’ The current figure, which includes listening and online audiences, is about a million. (Some 600,000 listen to RNZ National, 170.000 to RNZ Concert – including 100,000 to both).
If RNZ wants to expand as promised, it is going to have to find new audiences. So it is targeting the youth market. Because it lacks additional frequencies and financial resources, it proposes sacrificing RNZ Concert. (Perhaps its next expansion will be RNZ Sport, shifting RNZ National back to AM frequencies and also cutting its resources.)
Is the expansion necessary? Under chief executive Paul Thompson, RNZ has become the leading source for news and informed features. Meanwhile, RNZ Concert has expanded New Zealand classical music content without sacrificing its commitment to the classics. What next?
Is RNZ Youth the right ‘next’? Businesses like to expand but what happens when their markets get saturated and grow only slowly? Too often, carried away with faith in the excellence of its managerial skills, a business goes into new markets – where it crashes.
There are underlying different philosophies of the role of state – even among democrats. The traditional view has little trust in the ability of the private sector to deliver; so the state should provide as much as possible – including a full menu of broadcasting options.
The alternate view is that sometimes the private sector can be a very poor provider – healthcare is the exemplar – and only then should the state get involved if it can provide a markedly superior service. There are two reasons for this caution. First, the state can be as onerous on and destructive of political liberties as the private sector; its reach needs to be constrained. Second, even with a constrained reach, the state is so overwhelmed with things that need doing it should focus on the really important.
The provision of a high-quality independent news and related broadcasting services are critical. The BBC is the exemplar. Would we really want our politics to be dominated by Rupert Murdoch and Fox News? Hence the state provided and funded RNZ National, with protections from political interference.
Another place where the private sector in a small country manifestly fails is the provision of classical music. Advertising wont pay for it. Hence RNZ Concert.
RNZ Concert actually does a lot of unpaid advertising, with its live diary of the day’s musical events, and its promotion of New Zealand composers and musical groups (including a substantial commitment to young composers and groups who wont get much coverage on RNZ Youth).
Too often our thinking puts a particular service into a silo despite its being really an integral part of an ecology. Thus, the downgrading of RNZ Concert will downgrade the wider musical scene. (Similarly, Creative New Zealand ignored New Zealand Books in the literature ecology.)
RNZ also provides parliamentary radio (why not outsource it to Murdoch?) and Radio Pacific. But I cannot see the case for it providing a youth service for there are already commercial alternatives. The five in Auckland have a weekly audience of 80,000, which suggests an RNZ expansion there will not be that great.
We should not think in silos. That the state provides a radio service for an elderly group with particular musical tastes does not mean it has to provide one for a younger group with other tastes. The young get benefits from the state in other areas. The tradeoff is not within a sector but across all state provision.
Extraordinarily, RNZ is implementing this change while the entire broadcasting sector is in an upheaval from the Minister’s proposal to merge state radio and television. It would be rational to get the sector framework established and then see whether there is a place for a state-provided youth radio network.
In the interim there is surely a case to replace one of the directors on the RNZ board with someone who has a commitment to the wider culture and music which RNZ should be fostering not undermining.