It fills me with a certain kind of pride that the biggest story in New Zealand this week was not political upheaval, a deadly virus, sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll, or even Taika Waititi's stunning Academy Award win ... but instead widespread outrage over the proposed canning of our national classical music radio station.
Being in the somewhat unusual position of having had my songs played both on RNZ's Concert FM and on so-called "youth radio", my peculiar music history became bizarrely relevant this week. I stood at the intersection of a raging debate and watched the drama unfold with interest.
Who knew that classical music could inspire such passion? Classical music fans, of course.
I could bang on about Debussy's sound-paintings, Beethoven's towering masterpieces and the exquisite, heartbreaking beauty of Puccini's Vissi d'arte for hours. I may not sing classical music (publicly, at least) these days, but I have a deep love and respect for what some will regard as old-fogey music.
Except, it's not. Far from it. Babies love it. Students study to it. Young people feeling exhausted by the sheer ridiculousness of modern life and all of its bombardment take refuge in it. Indeed, given that much of the popular classical repertoire was written centuries ago, generations of people young and old have ensured that it endured against the odds, because it spoke to them in some way.
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Understandably then, the announcement by RNZ that it would relegate Concert FM to an automated service on AM radio wasn't exactly met with rapturous applause. Indeed, the whole thing seemed rather poorly orchestrated. Pun intended.
Since then, after some hasty backtracking, the plan to close the curtains on Concert FM appears to have been shelved, with the Government instead considering finding another FM frequency for a youth-focused station. Still, I keep arriving at the same question about an FM "RNZ Youth". Namely: why?
"Youth" — however that term will be defined by RNZ in its mission to engage with younger audiences — are indisputably already well served by commercial music stations, Spotify and SoundCloud. ZM, The Edge, bFM, George FM, Flava, Mai FM ... if you've ever allowed a teenager to control your car radio dial, you'll be well aware that there are plenty of stations playing artists you've likely never heard of, who said teenagers stan.
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The market is already crowded, and profitable. The stations also have digital offerings, catering for a demographic whose media consumption habits are largely digital. You have to ask whether Kiwi youth need a publicly funded FM radio station replicating what the commercial market is already providing for them. They didn't ask for it, so why are RNZ so hell-bent on giving it to them?
There is one major problem with commercial radio, however, which could provide a legitimate opening for RNZ to launch a niche, younger-focused brand. Commercial radio plays a negligible amount of local music. Having experienced the rigmarole involved in trying to get a Kiwi song played on commercial music stations, I would fully support an RNZ station dedicated entirely to New Zealand music.
Alternatively — or better still, additionally — strengthened legislation could improve the situation for New Zealand music. Commercial radio stations in New Zealand adhere to a voluntary code that encourages them to aim for 20 per cent of the songs they play to be by New Zealand artists. In my humble opinion, as New Zealand music is going from strength to strength, this is no great challenge, and it wouldn't create any significant hardship if the voluntary code became involuntary, and more detailed.
There are many loopholes to the 20 per cent Kiwi content goal. The most obvious is the programming time. If Kiwi music is being played at 3am, the audience it reaches is clearly much smaller than during the heavily patronised breakfast and drive shows. Big fish Kiwi artists also present challenges. Though it's hugely exciting that a handful of Kiwi artists are making serious waves overseas, if radio stations fill their 20 per cent quota mainly with the hits of the same group of internationally successful Kiwi artists, that makes it more difficult for new Kiwi talent to be heard.
Public funding has tried to remedy some of these problems, for example, through commercial stations hosting a New Zealand On Air-funded New Zealand music section featuring a new Kiwi track every so often. The songs would often play in off-peak slots, however, which results in diluted impact.
Programming decisions are also made by a tiny group of radio executives, who have enormous power over the radio success of Kiwi artists. In order to even get in front of them, you need to experience rare runaway digital success, have a record deal with a major label, hire an established independent radio plugger, or know someone who knows someone who might be able to get you an introduction.
Though in my experience there's a lot of goodwill from radio staff towards Kiwi artists, there are significant barriers.
So where does this leave RNZ? In the perfect position to step in and solely play New Zealand music. Kiwi youth have plenty of radio options already that will serve them the biggest hits from around the world. They don't have a station whose sole focus is championing the new home-grown talent that might just produce their next favourite song.
Alternatively, RNZ could focus on creating other multimedia content, and partnering with existing commercial media brands to get young Kiwi eyes and ears across it.
Young media consumers are likely to engage with media from a large variety of different producers. Is our public broadcasting buck getting the most bang while it remains wedded to the idea of owning both the content and the channel?
And as for Concert FM ... where is the youth engagement strategy to get more young people interested in classical music? Classical music has plenty to offer so-called "youth". They just need to be given a chance to discover why they should stan Mozart.