On the eve of Waitangi Day last week, as our leaders gathered on the treaty grounds to celebrate the bicultural foundations of New Zealand society, the bosses of our public radio network revealed plans to sabotage that partnership. Well, one side of it anyway.
Radio New Zealand chief executive Paul Thompson announced that from May 29, Concert FM, the beating heart and voice of Western musical culture in New Zealand, was to be emasculated. Classical music, jazz and world music was to be booted off the CD-quality stereo-FM radio band it had occupied for nigh on 40 years and relegated to the old mono, low-fi, AM channel – except, that is, when Parliament was sitting. Then, instead of enjoying world-class concerts beamed live from our concert halls, listeners would be forced to endure the dulcet tones of MPs droning on.
The back-ups would be channel 51 on free television, or an online link. In addition, 17 of its 21 staff were told they were to be replaced by an announcer-free, classical music jukebox.
Why? Because Concert FM's 170,000-strong audience was "predominantly Pakeha and skewed towards older people" and the RNZ bosses wanted to grow audiences on a new channel targeted at people "aged 18 to 34, including Maori and Pasifika audiences…"
What was deeply dispiriting to a card-carrying Concert FM listener like myself, was how long it took for Culture Minister, Jacinda Ardern and Broadcasting Minister, Kris Faafoi to kick back. For days, they dithered, claiming it was a matter for discussion and that politicians could not interfere in programming and operational issues. The latter is true, but what RNZ bosses proposed were major changes to the business operation itself, which certainly was the Government's decision to make.
It took an unprecedented whack around the ears from former Labour PM Helen Clark to nail that exercise in obfuscation. She pointed to Labour's 2017 Election Manifesto which promised that Labour would ensure that any change to RNZ "does not result in any reduction in the funding or the quality of content and delivery of any of the current specialist services including … Radio NZ Concert". It added, "Labour's objective is to improve and increase these important special interest services…"
Despite this crystal-clear pledge, Thompson and RNZ music content director Willy Macalister went ahead with their plans to skewer Concert FM, in particular, to purloin its FM frequencies for "a new youth platform".
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It took five days of growing anger from supporters, including Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, former Labour Finance Minister Michael Cullen, and arts organisation leaders like Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, chief executive Barbara Glaser, to finally force Ardern to front up on National Radio on Monday morning. She made the startling claim that Faafoi had indeed underlined Labour's election pledge to RNZ bosses when briefed in late January and asked RNZ to delay any moves until the Government had considered the matter. They ignored his instruction. She told Morning Report, "I'm pretty frustrated by that situation. It's unacceptable."
Echoing Labour's manifesto promise, she said "increasing what young people can hear should not come as the cost of what others hear".
If the above is true, then its Thompson and Macalister who should be packing their bags, along with RNZ chairman Jim Mathers, not the 17 Concert FM employees who were as good as given notice last week. Such defiance of one's shareholder minister is totally unacceptable.
Equally unacceptable was the ageism and racism involved. Radio New Zealand is often mocked for its political correctness, yet here it was, planning to degrade the listening experience of 170,000 loyal devotees on the grounds we're silly old Pakeha whose hearing is probably so bad we won't notice the difference.
Old farts we might be. And Pakeha. Well some of us anyway. But we are also the generation that marched in the streets against the Vietnam War, Springbok tours and nuclear visits. And we vote.
With an election pending and the roar from the mobility scooters rising, the Government has belatedly got the message. It shouldn't have taken a week.