Jamie Morton is the NZ Herald's science reporter.

'Serious concerns' at proposal which could axe award-winning programme

The Radio New Zealand Building on The Terrace, Wellington. Photo / Mark Mitchell
The Radio New Zealand Building on The Terrace, Wellington. Photo / Mark Mitchell

A proposal that could see RNZ's award-winning science programme Our Changing World axed has drawn worry and protest from the scientific community.

RNZ is consulting on a proposal which the Herald understands involves reviewing spoken features and drama to reduce costs and staffing.

One of the affected programmes is understood to be Our Changing World, a weekly programme providing in-depth coverage of science and environment issues, and presented by respected science broadcasters Veronika Meduna and Alison Ballance.

This afternoon, the New Zealand Association of Scientists released a statement airing its concern.

"Its format allows for in-depth exploration of topics and even allows for scrutiny of scientific thinking, a behind-the-scenes intro into what it is like to work in the world of science," said the association's past-president, Associate Professor Nicola Gaston.

"Importantly, it focuses a good deal of the time on New Zealand science and scientists."

The programme aligned well with the Government's "current and laudable" push to improve society's science literacy, she said, noting that the very first point of RNZ's charter stated it would provide programming contributing toward "intellectual, scientific, cultural, .... development".

While the association acknowledged there was a need to periodically reinvigorate content, it was concerned RNZ's plan would see a significant reduction in on-air science content.

"By all means, we expect RNZ to question and re-think science programming, but we need to create more New Zealand science content, not less," Professor Gaston said.

Environmental Defence Society chairman Gary Taylor said the prospect of axing or drastically curtailing the scope of Our Changing World raised "serious concerns".

"Our Changing World has achieved widespread recognition for its excellence and objectivity in bringing the world of natural things to life," said Mr Taylor, who had spoken with RNZ chief executive Paul Thompson about the review.

"Its staff are superb communicators and the program contributes positively to RNZ's reputation as a serious media outlet."

Mr Taylor said the EDS recognised the media world was in a state of flux and RNZ needed to adapt.

But it would counsel Mr Thompson "to avoid doing a Weldon" - a reference to former MediaWorks chief executive Mark Weldon - "and implement careless cuts and lose talent", he said.

The Prime Minister's Chief Science Advisor, Sir Peter Gluckman, this afternoon said he had only recently learned of the proposal.

If the programme was facing closure, he would arrange to meet with RNZ to "discuss the importance of its contribution to science communication".

"The radio is a very important medium for science communication and particularly, Our Changing World allows for in-depth science stories which are critical ... to improving the quality of interaction between science and society in New Zealand."

The Herald understands that many other scientists and scientific bodies are dismayed about the proposal, among them the New Zealand Science Media Centre, which has written to Mr Thompson encouraging a continued focus on science.

RNZ spokesperson John Barr said no decisions had been made about the impact of the review on particular programmes or individual staff.

"What is clear is that RNZ is committed to producing unique and in-depth features content and we have identified science and technology as a likely area of focus under the proposal," he said.

A new strategy would see RNZ producing specialist in-depth material for both podcasting and on-air broadcast.

Staff from across the organisation, as well as outside contributors, would be involved in making that high-quality content, he said.

"The first step under the proposal is to recruit for the new position of executive producer and this person will build and select his/her team and implement the strategy."

Mr Barr said the Environmental Defence Society was correct in pointing out all media outlets were wrestling with changing audience behaviour and with cost constraints.

"RNZ is confronting those challenges in manner that will enhance our ability to deliver on the RNZ Charter," he said.

"We are committed to operating more efficiently than at present and RNZ is reducing costs and staffing across its operations as we deal tight budgets and the need to invest in new areas of activity."

The review comes follows a series of big changes at the national broadcaster, including the departures of veteran newsreaders Hewitt Humphrey, Warwick Burke and Catriona McLeod, and the shift of Nights presenter Bryan Crump to late-night newsreader.

It's understood a wider restucturing plan includes the dis-establishment of 20 jobs and the creation of seven new digital roles.

- NZ Herald

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