Youth radio killed the classical star

Classical music will be marginalised by RNZ's reshuffle.
Classical music will be marginalised by RNZ's reshuffle.

EDITORIAL: If you had a dollar for every time you heard that the future of broadcasting is uncertain, you could afford to buy Fox News and run it as your own vanity station. But the cliche about troubling times and uncertain futures was made real again this week. 

Two different announcements told us about two related problems with two radically different timeframes. We learned on Wednesday that RNZ plans to charge ahead with what it calls "the biggest overhaul of its music services in years" and it plans to do it very soon. 

RNZ expects to have its long-established classical music station Concert FM off air by the end of May, replaced by an automated classical channel that will share an AM band with broadcasts from Parliament. Those hoping for soothing orchestras on weekday afternoons will hear noisy arguments from MPs' question time instead. 

RNZ has also signalled that there may be less commitment to recording and broadcasting local classical concerts. 

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A new youth music channel will launch in its place in August. An ad-free music channel certainly has its merits and RNZ National is already doing very good work in this area. Proponents have pointed to Triple J in Australia and Radio 1 in the UK as highly successful models, but there is also an argument that youth have moved away from radio in the two decades since such a network was first proposed and worries about commercial radio programmers avoiding local music have largely disappeared. And then there is the sizeable problem of disgruntled commercial operators watching their hard-won audiences decline due to state-run competition.

It doesn't help that the radio reshuffle has been pitched as a generational battle and a class battle. The new music offerings will be aimed at 18-35 year-olds, including Māori and Pasifika audiences who don't generally tune into RNZ in large numbers. But that paints the Concert FM audience as old, white, elitist and even dying off – a characterisation that seems to have motivated much of the backlash. 

Have both RNZ and Broadcasting Minister Kris Faafoi​ been surprised by the size of the backlash? Faafoi said on Friday that he will mitigate the concerns of Concert FM listeners. One of those listeners is former Prime Minister Helen Clark who has been active online in her campaign to save the classical network. She even reminded RNZ of Labour's 2017 election promise to not reduce Concert FM's offerings. Faafoi is squeezed between Clark and NZ First broadcasting spokesperson Jenny Marcroft, who is also sceptical about plans that will "deepen age divisions" in New Zealand. 

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. 

Faafoi made his comment about mitigating the concerns of Concert FM listeners during an update about the proposed merger between RNZ and TVNZ. He revealed that the proposal will now lead to a business case due in six months, which means no decisions about the new broadcasting entity will be likely before the general election, by which time Concert FM will be history. Of course it is important to be careful about such dramatic changes but those hoping to find out exactly why RNZ could not run both Concert FM and a youth music channel within its new, supersized structure were left none the wiser.




The Press