Radio NZ: Endangered species in a commercial world

16:00, Mar 05 2010
Radio NZ graphic
PUBLIC BROADCASTER: Radio New Zealand is adamant: no funding increase will mean poorer quality programmes.

The Government's threat to freeze Radio NZ's funding has prompted a fresh round of voices calling to protect the state broadcaster's "DNA" and fight against commercialism. Its bosses say less money risks meaning less quality.

When the red emergency phone rang at Radio New Zealand's Wellington studio last weekend, the broadcaster was handed a golden chance to silence the critics.

Amid vociferous debate about whether the organisation needs or deserves more public funding, they couldn't have engineered a better illustration of the value of a public service broadcaster.

Morning Report presenter Sean Plunket was dragged in from his leisurely Sunday morning and programmes were ditched for fulltime, up-to-the minute coverage of the tsunami threat after Chile's 8.8 magnitude earthquake. Civil Defence Minister John Carter even applauded their coverage on air.

Meanwhile, TV3 was broadcasting stirring hymns followed by Julie Hadden's impressive weight loss story, and TV1 squeezed half-hourly tsunami updates between scheduled programming, at least once including a map featuring long-past wave surge timings.

Though RNZ reporters brought witness accounts from Napier and Christchurch, there was no-one to cover the East Cape danger zone. RNZ had planned to set up a Gisborne office, precisely because of the area's tsunami risk.

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But those plans were axed last year, in the first round of cuts to balance its books in the face of a $1.5 million costs increase and last year's Budget funding freeze at $34 million.

More cuts seem inevitable, with Broadcasting Minister Jonathan Coleman warning Radio New Zealand's board to expect no further funding increases for two to three years.

The board raised the ire of Dr Coleman by countering his demands for savings with obstinate protestations that RNZ was already underfunded and that he should instead look at redistributing the total public broadcasting pot.

Leaning heavily on a 2007 KPMG baseline review, RNZ argues that, taking into account a $2.6 million funding increase in 2008, it still needs 12 per cent more, or $5.2 million, to truly reflect New Zealand, as required by its charter.

The stoush  and particularly suggestions of commercial sponsorship to plug the shortfall  have mobilised a devoted public.

More than 17,500 fans have joined a Save Radio New Zealand Facebook group in just two weeks, claiming a commercial-free RNZ is a sacrosanct treasure and democratic imperative. Hundreds of transistor-clutching protesters marched on Parliament, and in Auckland and Christchurch.

The ructions have also drawn out commentators who claim RNZ is an inefficient anachronism, with overblown staff numbers, a plague of abrasive egos and a lack of leadership that has allowed issues like former news boss Lynne Snowdon's personal grievance to drag on for years, costing more than $400,000.

RNZ is adamant: no funding increase will mean poorer quality programmes. "For an organisation which has spent the past 14 years absorbing increased overheads, while increasing the range and public value of the services it provides, the impact of any further reduction in funding would be quite devastating," RNZ chairwoman Christine Grice wrote to Dr Coleman last September.

RNZ will report back with a long-term cost-cutting plan by the end of this month. But staff, like the public, are being kept in the dark about realistic options under consideration. After the revelations of the medium-term funding freeze, there has been only a soothing e-mail and a staff meeting which simply exposed how little anyone knew about future plans.

Though some staff are anxious, veterans say it's business as usual.

"Anyone who works there knows that the place has no money," says one current staffer.

"It's largely run on the goodwill of the people who work there, and that is ever more the case. There's a certain resignation amongst the staff that that's the way it is. The story that we're not getting any more money. Well, what's new?"

Board meetings and members have already been cut and the once-ample travel budget has been slashed to the extent that RNZ was one of the only national news outfits not to have a reporter at the Copenhagen climate talks, though they did send reporters after the Samoan tsunami. No reporter will travel to the Commonwealth Games, or the football World Cup.

Asked the point of having a national broadcaster which can not afford to attend events of national importance, Dr Coleman says more money is not necessarily the answer.

"A hard look at what is necessary to run RNZ may well mean money could be freed up for travel."

He also challenges the KPMG report's conclusion that RNZ was 20 per cent underfunded, as the funding recommendations were based on current costs plus a "wish list", including regional expansion, rather than the amount needed to sustain existing services.

DR COLEMAN earlier appeared to reject some of the broadcaster's cost-cutting suggestions, which included dumping its overnight show and reverting back to AM transmission. However, in written responses to The Dominion Post's questions this week, he would not endorse, or rule out, any options.

"I'm not going to direct RNZ's board on which options to take."

Other cost-cutting prospects could include programme cuts, swapping New Zealand programmes for cheaper overseas buy-ins, job cuts or reducing regional coverage.

Despite the KPMG review concluding that RNZ needed to extend its 12-office network to fulfil its charter, trimming RNZ's presence outside Wellington, Christchurch and Auckland seems a likely option.

As well as shelving plans for a Gisborne office, documents show RNZ is closing its Palmerston North outpost and holding open a New Plymouth vacancy. Plans for new offices in Rotorua, Greymouth, Invercargill, Taupo, Blenheim and Timaru  each costed at $80,000 to set up and $117,000 a year to run  will presumably also go.

Suggestions of closing the Auckland office seem spurious, as the building is one of the few RNZ owns and its tenanted areas earn income.

Job cuts are a possibility, though the newsroom is heavily unionised and the unions plan a campaign.

Staff account for about half RNZ's costs. While media organisations worldwide haemorrhaged journalists, RNZ's headcount mushroomed from 214 in 1999, to 282 in 2007, dropping to 267 by June 2009. RNZ failed to provide current numbers.

IN 2008/09, 20 staff earned more than $100,000, with chief executive Peter Cavanagh pocketing $340-$350,000.

Those in commercial radio argue RNZ could produce a lot more for its funding  and with fewer people.

Radio Live programme director Mitch Harris estimates it costs his privately-owned organisation just over $5 million a year to run, which includes several hours of news programmes a day, as well as inexpensive talkback shows.

He admits he has no knowledge of RNZ's books, but believes they could eke more from their budget.

"They're probably a bit inefficient, and too heavily weighted towards news and current affairs. When I hear $38 million and they're saying it's not enough money and I hear what they're doing, I think 'No, you've got plenty of money, you don't need sponsorship, you don't need to cut programmes. You probably just need to think about what you're doing a bit better."'

A former RNZ journalist, who has also worked in print, agrees the newsroom appears overstaffed. Regional reporters are underused; there is little impetus to dig for stories and cruising through a quiet radio shift is considered acceptable. Part-time stringers could be a workable alternative to full-time regional staff.

Other RNZ staff say the broadcaster is top heavy and bureaucratic, and if anything must go it should be middle management.

But Wellington musician Dan Adams  also a Save Radio New Zealand Facebook fan and founding producer of RNZ Concert's Upbeat programme  laughs at the suggestion the broadcaster is overstaffed or reckless with money. In seven years he received one pay rise that exceeded inflation.

He initially produced the show listening to a battery-powered radio from the floor above the three metres by three metres windowless Concert live studio, which housed only the presenter, having to run downstairs if something went awry. When a window was later installed, an in-house engineer wired up a talkback circuit and he monitored the show on a pair of $30 computer speakers.

"I was in at Radio New Zealand a few months ago and all that's happened [since I left in 2007] is the producer has upgraded to $50 speakers.

"We made radio out of our heart and grit and determination and passion. There is just no fat in that organisation."

If there really is no room for savings, the argument turns to commercialisation, to bring in more cash. Though it's currently outlawed by law, programme sponsorship of RNZ Concert was floated by Dr Coleman.

"If the RNZ board decide that is something they want to do, it could be accommodated in legislation," Dr Coleman says.

That's not a new idea. In fact, it's an almost perfect echo of 1998, when then Radio New Zealand chairman Bryan Kensington told a parliamentary select committee that RNZ could not cut costs further without seriously compromising its service, and then minister responsible for RNZ, Tony Ryall, responded by commissioning a review into the viability of sponsorship.

Kim Hill, the Nine to Noon host at the time, threatened to walk if her show carried sponsorship, and Mr Ryall eventually instead sanctioned a $2 million funding increase.

New Zealand Sponsorship agency managing director Nick Brown-Haysom anticipates RNZ National would have no trouble attracting sponsors, with its 500,000 weekly listeners and wide range of topics. But it would be unlikely to be a boon for RNZ Concert, with its 130,000 listeners.

"For the income you would get it might not justify the interruption to the show, the listenership being much lower."

Former RNZ political editor Richard Griffin says when sponsorship was mooted, about 20 years ago, estimates suggested it could bring in $5-$6 million a year.

He supports the idea, dismissing concerns it would influence editorial decisions.

"If you are not mature, adult and experienced enough not to be caught in that nexus then you really shouldn't be in that business at all."

But critics argue the practice would be a slippery slope and would compromise New Zealand's last true independent public broadcaster.

Unitec communications senior lecturer and passionate public broadcasting advocate Peter Thompson says he could live with a sponsored RNZ Concert programme, but Morning Report brought to you by The Warehouse would be unacceptable. Having a sponsor moves the programming emphasis from reflecting New Zealand's diversity and providing insightful coverage of important stories to maximising ratings, he says.

"We've seen a prime example of what happens when you have a public service charter but have to try and achieve it on a commercial basis, with TVNZ, when they had a choice between having John Key on Close Up talking about taxation or interviewing some former All Black [Robin Brooke] about some tawdry affair that happened overseas."

He argues RNZ is the only credible, balanced and in-depth news source for issues of civic importance, and should be funded as a basic tenet of democracy.

Mr Thompson advocates a return to the broadcasting licence fee, still used to fund Britain's BBC. He estimates Sky TV's entire programming could be provided for about $6 per household, per week.

"You can get an awful lot of value for not a lot of money when everybody contributes."

Other alternatives used internationally include a phone bill levy, or internet download charge.

Dr Coleman says there are no plans to resurrect a broadcasting fee, though he doesn't rule it out.

He also acknowledges the importance of a public broadcaster to "provide content the market would not otherwise provide": "It plays an important role in reflecting society and stimulating debate".

SURVEYS suggest even non-listeners recognise the role of a public broadcaster  while only 17 per cent of adults listen to RNZ in any week, 84 per cent think it's important.

But his position is simple: in these tight financial times, there is no more money.

Mr Thompson dismisses that argument, and accuses Dr Coleman of "failing abjectly" to fight for his portfolio. The Government should decide what it wants from RNZ, and how much that would cost, rather than capping the budget and saying 'Do what you can for that'. "Because that's the way to a foggy compromise."

It's the same argument raised this week by BBC director Mark Thompson, as the broadcaster sheds radio stations and halves its web pages to cut costs. He says the question should not be "How big should the BBC be?" but "What is the BBC for?"

Education Minister Anne Tolley's announcement this week that funding to tackle truancy would be doubled to $32 million shows that, where there's a political will, money can be found. Dr Coleman concedes broadcasting is not a Government priority  health and education is.

That's clearly not the case across the Tasman. Despite the recession, Australia's ABC has just received its biggest funding boost since 1983  $165 million over three years. Its annual report attributed the increase to public support and the board's "active communication" of the ABC's case to politicians.

So why does RNZ not enjoy the same political support?

Mr Griffin believes the organisation's self-righteous attitude is partly to blame for its troubles. During his tenure, RNZ still had more than 40 commercial stations under its umbrella, making for a very healthy financial position.

"I think we were the only organisation that could travel around the world on assignments with the prime minister. It was a costly exercise but we were able to afford it without too much trouble."

But when the commercial stations were sold to the Radio Network in 1996, there was "a new political correctness creeping into the outfit".

"Radio New Zealand began to live in some sort of bubble, somewhat 'holier than thou'. They were not allowed to be commercial so shouldn't have anything to do with politicians, which seems to me to be extraordinarily contrary. So politicians regarded Radio New Zealand as a bit of a maverick and say 'This is a big chunk of money, how come it is costing so much to run?"'

Even in this funding debate, RNZ antagonised Dr Coleman by suggesting obviously unacceptable cost-cutting options, Mr Griffin says.

Mitch Harris also points the finger at poor management.

"Look at the way this Lynne Snowdon thing has gone on and on. It's cost a fortune. What's going on with the way the place is run?"

When Linda Clark left Nine to Noon in 2006, she complained the organisation was sluggish and bogged down by unhappiness.

Bitchy e-mails leaked to the media last month, in which Summer Noelle presenter Noelle McCarthy gleefully fist-pumps the departure of a producer colleague, suggest a dysfunctional culture remains.

Despite the bad press, no-one suggests RNZ is unimportant, or that it does a bad job of providing in-depth news and representing New Zealanders without a commercial voice.

Whether it can cut costs without compromising credibility and charter obligations remains to be seen. What is clear is that any move toward commercialisation will buy a fierce fight.

Dan Adams says: "The treasure of the organisation is the ideas that come through in the broadcasts, the interviews, the music, and actually give us all something interesting to talk about. That's priceless. If you believe in a healthy democracy, there are certain things it's dangerous to trade away."

BY THE NUMBERS

$34 million was paid to Radio New Zealand in government funding. The organisation raised another $4m.

495,000 New Zealanders (about 15 per cent of the 15+ population) listen live to Radio New Zealand National for at least an eight-minute period from Monday to Sunday.

132,000 New Zealanders (about 4 per cent of the 15+ population) listen to Radio New Zealand Concert for at least an eight-minute period Monday to Sunday. In 2007/08 it was 201,000.

366,000 listen to Morning Report over a week, making it the most-listened to programme. Kim Hill and Chris Laidlaw both attract about 200,000 listeners to their weekend shows.

8 million programmes were played via Radio New Zealand's website in the year to June 2009.

92% of Radio New Zealand National's broadcast hours were New Zealand in origin, content or interest in 2008/09.

16% of Radio New Zealand Concert's broadcast hours were New Zealand in origin, content or interest in 2008/09.

49% of Radio New Zealand National's broadcast hours were news and current affairs programmes in 2008/09.

267 staff were employed in 2009, up from 214 in 1999. [RNZ did not respond to requests for current staff numbers.]

SUSPECT ETHICS AND PERSONALITY CLASHES - HOW TO MAKE THE NEWS

Radio New Zealand has a history of making news, rather than just reporting it.

March 2010  Former Radio New Zealand news boss Lynne Snowdon alleges the broadcaster misspent $889,000 of taxpayers' money intended for news services on features and music. The allegations are a side issue to Ms Snowdon's personal grievance case, which arose after she was fired in 2005, having taken two years' sick leave following accusations of financial mismanagement. It has yet to be resolved.

February 2010  Funding stoush revealed. Leaked documents show Broadcasting Minister Jonathan Coleman was briefed to advise Radio New Zealand board chairwoman Christine Grice that board members could be replaced if they did not commit to cuts.

February 2010  Snarky emails between Summer Noelle presenter Noelle McCarthy and media adviser Janet Wilson are anonymously leaked to the media. To news of the resignation of producer Meredith McGrath, McCarthy gloats "That gets the f ... ing fistpump, doesn't it?"

October 2009  Morning Report presenter Sean Plunket challenges Radio New Zealand's decision to deny him permission to present election coverage for TVNZ and write a column for Metro magazine. The case pitted Radio New Zealand chief executive Peter Cavanagh against the broadcaster's Saturday presenter Kim Hill, Sunday morning presenter Chris Laidlaw and political editor Brent Edwards, all of whom regularly undertake other media work.

November 2008  McCarthy is forced to apologise for using work by British journalists without proper attribution.

February 2007  Ridicule by listeners and staff prompt Radio New Zealand to ditch its $1500 "sounds like us" promotional tagline, accompanied by everyday sounds, after just three weeks. Documents revealed the broadcaster was spending $300,000 on rebranding, including almost $200,000 on television advertisements, $13,000 on new car signage and $60,000 on a new logo.

WHAT THE KPMG REPORT SAID:

IN 2007, the Culture and Heritage Ministry commissioned consultants KPMG to undertake

a review to "assist ministers to make decisions about the appropriate funding arrangements for Radio New Zealand".

Its findings included:

Radio New Zealand is operating efficiently in the delivery of its outputs under the charter. There are no significant opportunities to redeploy resources more efficiently.

Recommends $6.7m additional operating funding in 2008/09, increasing to $8.5m in 2010/11, including covering increased regional representation, pay rises, leave cover and restoring the travel budget.

Recommends 40 extra staff by 2010/11

Radio New Zealand's Wellington premises are "tightly packed with staff members and equipment" and its position on a significant fault line is "not satisfactory for a designated lifeline utility".

Technical equipment is ageing and there is little redundant equipment.

Pay rates lag behind the public sector median and there is little external training.

Staff numbers are "not unreasonable" compared with ABC's Radio National and Classic FM.

RNZ and those surveyed agreed South Island representation did not meet charter obligations. "Increased representation would achieve a significant improvement for relatively low cost."

Travel expenditure appears inadequate for a national broadcaster and news organisation.

The Dominion Post