Former Prime Minister Helen Clark has waded into the debate over the future of Radio NZ, saying it is an important service that provides in-depth and specialised reporting.

"I'm a great believer in public radio," Helen Clark said in a brief visit to Wellington yesterday.

"I say that as someone who probably got quite a lot of my information from various public radio interview shows where subjects could be tackled in much more depth than they can be when they have to be constantly interrupted by ads."

Helen Clark was responding to reports that Radio NZ faces stern challenges to remain a high-quality service in the face of rising costs and a frozen budget in the foreseeable future.

Broadcasting Minister Jonathan Coleman has asked the public broadcaster for a range of longer-term options on how it will meet these challenges.

Before the commerce select committee yesterday, Radio NZ board chairwoman Christine Grice downplayed any perceived friction between the board and the minister. She said she was confident of meeting Government expectations without compromising standards.

But under questioning about budget restraints, chief executive Peter Cavanagh said: "Undoubtedly as resources become tighter and tighter, inevitably there will be some degradation of quality."

Tempers flared at times during the meeting, as National MPs reacted angrily to repeated questioning from Green MP Sue Kedgley about whether Dr Coleman had threatened to sack the Radio NZ board or interfered with operational matters.

Ms Kedgley quoted a document stating that the board could be replaced if it failed to find a solution, but the paper in question was from the Ministry of Culture and Heritage and offered generic advice to the minister ahead of a meeting with the Radio NZ directors.

Ms Kedgley then read a quote from the minister in yesterday's Herald, in which he said, "If boards don't play ball, at the end of the day [replacing them] is the ultimate sanction", but she omitted "but we're nowhere near that stage".

National MPs scoffed at the quotes and the suggestion that Radio NZ was starved of money. Hamilton West MP Tim Macindoe told the Radio NZ delegation that "working within your budget is not starving you of money".

Ms Grice repeatedly said there had been no interference from Dr Coleman, nor had there been any direct threats to remove the board. "Radio NZ has to live within its means and there is absolutely no question about that."

Ms Grice also backed away from a quote that changes would "result in dumbing down our service and duplication of the commercial sector's populist model", saying it was from the context of service cuts, rather than a funding freeze.

Members questioned Ms Grice about a number of possible changes to save money or raise revenue, but she would say only that all options were being considered, even the "Kentucky Fried Chicken Kim Hill" show.

She said Radio NZ's performance was rated at present at an all-time high. Its budget last year was $38.2 million, $34.2 million of which was public money. Labour Party deputy leader Annette King said the chairwoman was "putting on a very brave face".

Ms King said it would be like living in a Third World country if National Radio had to shut down between midnight and 6am.

WHAT TO CUT
Options Radio NZ is considering to save money or increase revenue:

* Moving the service to an AM frequency in parts of the country.
* Slashing the advertising budget.
* Not sending reporters to cover the Commonwealth Games in India this year.
* Limiting coverage of music/arts.
* Dropping plans to open a regional office in Gisborne or closing the Palmerston North branch.
* Switching off National Radio between midnight and 6am.
* Commercial sponsorship for Concert FM and other programmes.
* More repeat content.
* Shifting out of the Auckland premises.
* Dropping its internal audit.