Musical chairs at Radio NZ

NIKKI MACDONALD
Last updated 05:00 29/03/2014
Morning Report
MAARTEN HOLL/Fairfax NZ

Guyon Espiner, the new co-host of Morning Report with Susie Ferguson, promises to provide more grunt to pin down evasive politicians.

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The next week will herald some of the biggest changes Radio New Zealand has seen in years. And that’s just the beginning. Nikki Macdonald looks at the future of the national broadcaster.

No, it’s not a well-timed joke. On Tuesday, April Fool’s Day, Geoff Robinson really will leave Radio New Zealand National’s Morning Report after almost four decades.

And when the time pips signal 6am the following morning not one but two new voices will welcome you to the day.

New chief executive and change-maker Paul Thompson has pounced on Robinson’s retirement, and the departure of another of the old guard – Sunday Morning host Chris Laidlaw – to give the station’s key programmes a vigorous shake-up.

The change begins tomorrow, with Back Benches host Wallace Chapman fronting a revamped, five-hour programme. On Wednesday, listeners will wake to the feistier and more combative Morning Report duo of Radio New Zealand regular Susie Ferguson and former television political editor and current affairs host Guyon Espiner.

And around the end of this month Robinson’s ousted Morning Report co-host Simon Mercep will take over Jim Mora’s afternoon show, while Mora has been shunted aside to co-host the drive-time slot Checkpoint with the ferocious Mary Wilson, who has held that spot on her own since 1997. Good luck that man.

But the presenter changes are only the opening salvo in Thompson’s battle to make Radio New Zealand more relevant to younger, bigger, broader audiences in the midst of falling radio listenership and a media landscape evolving at breakneck pace.

Thompson had only been in the job a few weeks when Robinson signalled he would depart this month – 39 years to the day since he started on the inaugural Morning Report programme.

While Robinson will no doubt be mourned, his retirement was a gift to the man brought in during September to modernise the radio behemoth and secure its future in a digital media age.

Radio New Zealand National’s listener figures have held up OK in the face of generally falling radio audiences (see panel), although it now has only the second-largest cumulative audience. But every media organisation needs to continually review and improve, Thompson says.

The Morning Report changes will be more about fresh voices and styles than messing with the successful programme format. However, he’d like to see the programme breaking more agenda-setting stories and conducting more live interviews. Report has previously been criticised for simply following other media: ‘‘Moaning Repeat – yesterday’s news today’’, as one old joke has it.

Thompson is tactful about Mercep’s removal from the prime current affairs slot, saying he wanted a different mix. But there’s universal agreement that Mercep, who joined the programme four years ago, has not worked in the role, especially in combination with Robinson’s softly softly style.

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The programme needs more grunt to pin down evasive politicians, and Espiner is promising to provide that.

‘‘I think listeners are going to hear quite a different style of interviewing,’’ Espiner says. ‘‘I hope it will be more exacting. It might be a little more aggressive when that’s appropriate, and it often is .... I think you might hopefully hear a little bit of humour, I think there’s room for that ... I do think it needs to be harder edged.’’

Former BBC broadcaster Ferguson, 36, has also proved she can ask tough questions as a regular stand-in host on Checkpoint and Morning Report, and fronting this year’s Summer Report.

For Espiner, 43, presenting Morning Report is the obvious destination for a journey that began around the Espiner family dinner table some 30 years ago.

The family radio was welded to National and Espiner’s endocrinologist father, Eric, was a current affairs fiend. Espiner and older brother Colin, also a former political editor, were expected to debate the issues of the day – Muldoon, Lange, the Springbok tour.

‘‘It was pretty serious stuff. That’s where I trace back my love of interviewing and talking through issues.  ...It was pretty hard to beat Dad because he was always armed with all the facts. But he would demand that you brought facts to the table.’’

Media in New Zealand is unrecognisable since Espiner started out in community newspapers 20 years ago. Even in the 10 years he’s been in television the growth in online news and the fragmentation of media has been extraordinary.

He’s blunt about the limitations and frustrations of commercial television. While working on current affairs show 3rd Degree, stories were often ranked on their ratings potential. So it’s more important than ever, Espiner argues, to have a public broadcaster.

‘‘Let’s tell the truth here. You are always going to have some form of compromise when you have the tension between commerce and journalism. There’s nothing wrong with that, that’s just what it is. If you visualise Morning Report and tried to do something similar on television – for three hours, discussing all the big issues with no advertising, you’d go broke.

‘‘What are the criteria for running a story on Morning Report? It’s whether it’s important, whether it’s newsworthy. As a journalist that’s a luxury position to be in. I think that’s not a luxury for a listener or society. I think it’s a necessity that we have that.’’

Having spent 14 years covering Parliament, Espiner brings a wealth of political knowledge that will be invaluable in election year. But, having moved to Auckland two years ago, he also now realises that the rest of the country really doesn’t care what socks John Key is wearing today or which press gallery journalist Winston Peters ate for breakfast.

Radio New Zealand has long been criticised for being too Wellington-centric, so Espiner knows he’s part of the agenda to redress that balance.

‘‘The age-old question in journalism is, why should I care. Having the distance, from Auckland, is quite good. It doesn’t mean you don’t cover politics and you’re not interested in it – I love that stuff. It’s how can I explain it in a way that Aucklanders are going to understand.’’

He doesn’t miss covering Parliament day-to-day, or the power and influence that comes with the prime minister of the day calling you at least once a week. And he certainly doesn’t miss the hours. With 5-month-old baby daughter Nico, Espiner is looking forward to spending his days at home. While he’s reckoning on an ugly 4am start (10 minutes to get ready, 20 to drive to the studio) he’ll be home by about 9.30am.

When Espiner was appointed, there were congratulatory messages from all sides of the political divide – from the New Zealand North Korea Society to Cabinet ministers, including Judith Collins. Nonetheless, some commentators have suggested Espiner will bring ‘‘Radio Labour’’ back to the Right.

Political bias is high on the public radar with the revelations that TVNZ offices were used to host Labour Party meetings. Espiner is so aware of the risk of bias that he elected not to vote while working in the press gallery. He admits, however, that that might have been the lazy option and that failing to act on your opinions doesn’t mean you don’t have any.

But, harking back to those Espiner family discussions, he dismisses the common criticism that Morning Report is leftie propaganda.

‘‘The left-wing bias thing falls over when you look at the content and the people who have done it. Former presenters include Mike Hosking, Maggie Barry, Lindsay Perigo and Sean Plunket. If they’re a quartet of lefties, I’m Alamein Kopu. It just doesn’t stack up. Bring some facts to the table.’’

He also rejects concerns that perceived bias prevents Government ministers fronting on Radio New Zealand. Just ask Judith Collins if she should have fronted at the beginning of the Oravida cup of tea debacle.

The revamps to the Sunday and afternoon programmes are more wide-ranging than the changes to Morning Report.

Sunday Morning’s soaring hymns have been shipped off to Radio New Zealand Concert and Worldwatch will be axed in favour of two hours of current affairs, sport and world news, leading in to longer interviews and programme regulars such as Insight and Mediawatch.

Weekday afternoon radio will also be radically transformed. The sharp and congenial Jim Mora retains the one-hour panel discussion at 4pm, but will then move alongside tenacious terrier Mary Wilson on Checkpoint. That, says Thompson, is an attempt to leaven Wilson’s style (she’s sometimes accused of pulverising ordinary folks).

‘‘Hopefully it gives Mary a little bit of a breather and allows her to focus still on those ground-breaking and uncompromising interviews. But it also means we can bring in a bit more light and shade.’’

The other motivation is geographical. Shortly after Thompson started, a storm-triggered fire alarm cleared the Wellington building and Checkpoint faded into recorded music. 

‘‘That’s not a tenable position for us as a public broadcaster’’. So having a Morning Report and Checkpoint host and producers in both Auckland and Wellington ensures the show can go on, whether there’s a major quake in the capital or an emergency in Auckland.

But why not simply slot Mercep in there and leave Mora alone? The general consensus is that Mora and Wilson are a tested duo and work well together. But giving Mercep his own show is an obvious risk.

Then again, any change is a risk for an organisation whose fiercely protective listeners have a history of organising revolutions when the most minor of changes are suggested.

In the Morning Report studio a paper sign pleads: ‘‘Please don’t talk over the bird’’. When Radio New Zealand tried to silence the morning chirrups in 2005, a furious public forced a backtrack.

Staff, too, haven’t always embraced change. When Radio New Zealand introduced the lame marketing campaign Sounds Like Us, Saturday Morning host Kim Hill mocked it on air.

Coming from a commercial newspaper background, with no broadcast experience, Thompson risks being seen as the ignorant interloper. However, he’s spent the past six months meeting staff individually, and most seem supportive of change. One insider called Thompson ‘‘a breath of fresh air’’, and a stark contrast to previous chief executive Peter Cavanagh who was so conspicuous in his absence that some staff called him ‘‘the ghost’’.

While he’s encountered little resistance so far, Thompson has no illusions that it will be an easy transformation. ‘‘If you have sensible information and arguments around change, then most people are ready to embrace it. But change is always hard, really hard.’’

Some are disappointed the changes don’t go far enough.

‘‘It’s a shake-up that isn’t a shake-up,’’ says a former Pacific correspondent, now AUT journalism lecturer, Richard Pamatatau. ‘‘It’s still all white people presenting the programmes.’’

He argues the line-up ‘‘shrieks Eurocentrism’’ and the shake-up is a missed opportunity to truly reflect New Zealand, as Radio New Zealand’s charter requires.

Thompson agrees that improving the diversity of both staff and audiences is the No 1 concern for media in New Zealand, and one Radio New Zealand has yet to tackle. He’s hopeful that shortening siloed Maori news bulletins on current affairs shows, and integrating those stories into the main format will help.

While the presenter shake-up will be the most obvious change for Radio New Zealand listeners, the behind-the-scenes transformations are arguably more significant.

Board chairman Richard Griffin brought Thompson in to modernise the organisation he once accused of being ‘‘holier than thou’’ and ‘‘living in a bubble’’. Thompson’s task is to figure out ways to make Radio New Zealand relevant to a bigger, more diverse audience, on a budget that’s been frozen for six years.

Just being a good broadcaster isn’t enough, Thompson says. The organisation’s own figures predicted listener numbers would plummet from 507,000 in 2011 to 390,000 next year.

‘‘We can’t just continue on the same track and think that being a successful radio station is going to cut the mustard in five to 10 years. What we need to do is be as strong on digital as on air, but the big challenge is finding out how we’re going to do that with constrained resources.’’

With four out of 10 listeners aged over 65, Radio New Zealand desperately needs to tap into younger audiences. The first foray into that space was the launch of  The Wireless website last year, which has covered everything from abortion to drug use to buying a home. Thompson says that was developed to fill a gap, providing in-depth stories young people couldn’t find elsewhere. And that’s what he wants to see more of – Radio New Zealand doesn’t need to compete with commercial media, so can do what others can’t.

The website’s audience is tiny, with 20,000 unique visitors a month. And Pamatatau argues it completely misses the mark, by patronising intelligent young people. But Thompson is happy with its progress and has bigger ideas in store for it, including on-air time if the audience grows enough.

New brands also present an opportunity. With tight finances and big dreams, Thompson hasn’t ruled out the dreaded c-word: commercialisation. But he doubts sponsorship on Radio New Zealand National or Concert is the answer.

‘‘Could some of our new podcasts carry some advertising that would be tolerated by our audience and create some money which would pay for the content – I’ve got an open mind. I don’t see it as an easy fix.’’

In the Radio New Zealand reception a newly appointed photographer is videoing Kim Hill. Expect more photos and videos on Radio New Zealand’s website and apps, Thompson says. And probably more websites or apps targeted at specific groups.

And there will be more investment in Auckland, where Radio New Zealand is ‘‘underpowered’’. Within the next year there will be as many general reporters in Auckland as in Wellington. Although finances are squeezed, journalist numbers have remained stable since 2009 and he hopes to keep it that way.

Despite the changes, much will look the same in 10 years, he assures.

If he’s wrong, he’ll have to suffer the wrath of the likes of a former broadcaster and typically passionate Radio New Zealand listener, Ian Johnstone.

He knows they need to modernise, but, at 78, he doesn’t want to listen to the radio online. And God forbid that anyone should mess with his familiar and beloved.

‘‘It’s a wasteland without it. Certainly for anyone of my old age I think it is still the most reliable companion. I’m a tranny-at-the-cricket man, and a tranny-in-the-garden and a tranny-by-the-bedside man. Habits at my old age don’t change much. I need it, that’s all.’’

 

WHO’LL BE DOING WHAT


 GUYON ESPINER

Auckland-based former TVNZ political editor and 3rd Degree presenter Guyon Espiner has a face for TV, but he’ll discover if he has a voice for radio when he takes over presenting Morning Report on Wednesday. He’s promising a more aggressive style leavened by humour.

 

SUSIE FERGUSON

Susie Ferguson has risen the ranks of Radio New Zealand, filling in on Checkpoint and Morning Report and presenting Summer Report. Before that she worked in radio in Edinburgh and London, covering stories in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Sierra Leone. She’ll co-present Morning Report with Espiner.

 

 JIM MORA

Arguably the biggest loser in the shake-up, Jim Mora loses his Afternoons show to Mercep. Mora keeps discussion hour The Panel, from 4pm to 5pm and joins Mary Wilson to lighten and brighten Checkpoint.

 

 WALLACE CHAPMAN

Back Benches and Radio Live Sunday morning host Wallace Chapman will front an expanded five-hour Sunday morning show, which drops the hymns and Worldwatch in favour of two opening hours of current affairs, sport and world news. 

 

SIMON MERCEP

Simon Mercep has been widely acknowledged to be too much of a nice guy for Morning Report. He moves to host a shortened afternoon magazine-style show, from 1pm to 4pm.

 

MARY WILSON

The fearless Mary Wilson keeps her 5pm to 7pm Checkpoint slot, but she’ll have to learn to share – something she hasn’t had to do since she began presenting the programme in 1997.

THE FACTS ON THE TABLE

From 2003 to 2103, the percentage of New Zealanders listening live to radio in New Zealand fell from 91 per cent to 79 per cent.

In 2013, Radio New Zealand National had a 10.3 per cent market share, the highest nationwide and up from 9.1 per cent in 2009. Market share peaked at 11.1 per cent in 2011, probably due to Christchurch earthquake coverage.

493,000 people listen to Radio New Zealand National over the course of a week – the second-largest cumulative audience.

40 per cent of Radio New Zealand listeners are older than 65.

68 per cent of Radio New Zealand staff are older than 40, and 62 per cent are Pakeha.

- Wellington

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