Mistakes in RNZ changes

KARL DU FRESNE
Last updated 07:18 13/06/2014

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Karl du Fresne

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OPINION: I notice someone has started a "Keep Jim Mora in Afternoons" page on Facebook. I wonder if this is the tip of a rather large iceberg.

Mora, of course, was for several years the popular host of Radio New Zealand's Afternoons programme. In the recent reshuffle that followed the arrival of a new chief executive, Paul Thompson, former Morning Report co-host Simon Mercep took over most of Mora's show. Mora still hosts The Panel, the segment in which guests comment on the issues of the day, but it seems that many RNZ listeners are pining over his absence from the rest of the show.

When I last checked, the Facebook page had attracted 288 "likes" - hardly an earthquake, but my own soundings suggest Mora is widely missed.

While Afternoons had grown tired and needed a refresh, its failings had nothing to do with Mora, who was the consummate host for that style of programme. Mercep, on the other hand, doesn't seem to be making much impact.

This raises wider questions about what makes a good radio host. Mercep did an honest if unexciting job on Morning Report, but a news programme is all about gathering information. It doesn't depend on the host's personality. Afternoons, on the other hand, is very much driven by the charm of the host. And since Mercep took over, the show has lost its spark. I would be surprised if its audience hadn't shrunk.

RadioLive, which has quietly developed a strong roster of hosts, will no doubt welcome deserters. It's reasonable to assume that Mercep was moved into the Afternoons slot because RNZ wanted to clear the decks for some fresh blood on Morning Report, its flagship programme. But I suspect the move may have backfired in more ways than one.

RNZ appointed Guyon Espiner and Susie Ferguson to replace Mercep and the sainted Geoff Robinson, presumably with the aim of carrying Morning Report into a new era. But that created another issue. While Espiner is an excellent print journalist and did a good job as political editor for TV One, radio is different.

In radio, the voice is all-important. Especially at breakfast time, it must cut through the noise of boiling kettles, humming microwaves and running taps.

Ferguson's voice has that vital "listen to me" quality, but Espiner's is soft and his diction woolly.

As a result, he's not making the impact his bosses would have been hoping for. I wonder whether they've given him any voice training.

On TV, Espiner's voice wasn't an issue because it's a visual medium. But radio is all about sound - a factor possibly not fully appreciated by Thompson (who came from print media) when he approved Espiner's appointment. Mercep, too, is handicapped by a soft voice. I wonder whether not one, but two, mistakes have been made: first in appointing Espiner to Morning Report, and consequentially in moving Mercep to Afternoons. No doubt RNZ's audience figures will tell us in due course.

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The Greens will have made few friends in politics with their proposal to decriminalise abortion. It's nearly 40 years since the abortion wars divided the country, but the wounds were deep and most MPs would prefer to let sleeping dogs lie.

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More to the point, the Greens' abortion policy represents a dogmatic ideological stance that is at odds with their warm, fuzzy image and supposed concern for the weak and vulnerable.

From a pragmatic perspective as well as a moral one, it makes no sense. Abortion may technically still be a criminal offence (a fact little understood by most people), but when was anyone last prosecuted? The truth is that any woman wanting an abortion can procure one, as abortion consultant Dr Pippa MacKay has pointed out.

The law is a sham: we have an abortion-on-request regime in everything but name. So what are the Greens trying to prove? Were the 14,745 abortions in 2012 not enough for them? Green MP Jan Logie got one thing at least partly right when she said abortion was a health issue. It's a health issue all right - not for women, but for the unborn whose lives are terminated.

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It's hard to imagine anything more worthy of being ignored than a hand- wringing statement by bishops and university professors on the wickedness of alcohol.

Presumably the academics and senior church figures who signed a recent plea for tougher measures to reduce New Zealand's supposed "heavy binge- drinking culture" missed the latest World Health Organisation figures which show that our level of alcohol consumption is moderate by world standards and our rate of "heavy episodic drinking" relatively low.

On the other hand, perhaps they'd rather not let the facts stand in the way of a good old moral panic.

- The Dominion Post

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