Contrary to the old adage, there is apparently such a thing as too much publicity. When the Herald asked Richard Griffin, new chairman of Radio New Zealand's Board, for an interview, he couldn't see the point. "There is too much on my plate and I don't want to be constantly popping up sounding like some sort of spiv."
It was odd because Griffin, aka "the silver fox", had been popping up a lot to outline new directions for Radio New Zealand. As a PR man and erstwhile political raconteur, he's normally a voluble, smooth talker.
Had he, as some have suggested, been told to pull his head in?
"In the last few weeks, there's been lots of stuff and I've had enough of it really," says Griffin. "The business over the radio with pictures has been generally totally overblown and the business of the Trust has been totally overblown."
He's talking about the proposal by South Pacific Pictures head John Barnett for RNZ to slide into the role of public service television broadcaster, given that the Government and TVNZ have decided it's not worth the bother. The Trust, on the face of it, seemed equally daft - the public giving donations to the cash-strapped state broadcaster to help it out of dire financial straits. Radio with pictures with begging bowl.
"To suggest that somehow or other we are about to become a television station - well frankly it's flight of fancy," says a harried Griffin. "Essentially what we are in the business of is running the business as it presently is."
RNZ's latest commissioned survey, he says, shows it to be number one. "I know that sounds very commercial, but we are the most listened to in virtually every centre in the country."
That does sound commercial and that's the point. RNZ is the only commercial-free broadcaster in New Zealand. Any plans to mess with this much-loved national treasure are met with howls of protest. Hence last year's grassroots "Save Radio New Zealand" campaign over the Government's continuing funding freeze and more recent disquiet over Griffin's views on commercial sponsorship.
In May the Government Commerce Committee noted the board had rejected the commercial path: "The chair stated that, contrary to the board's view, he is personally in favour of introducing sponsorship. He told us that the concept of raising money for public broadcasting is not foreign. He acknowledged the suggestion that sponsorship could make an entity beholden to its financiers, but believes that a competent organisation like Radio New Zealand would not become beholden to anybody."
Others don't share Griffin's faith that it's possible to dance with the devil. "Public broadcasting is commercial-free, taxpayer funded, arm's length from government, independent and quality broadcasting that sets a standard for the rest of the industry, unsullied by commercial interests," says Labour's broadcasting spokesperson Clare Curran.
Surprisingly John Barnett, whose South Pacific Pictures is as commercial as it gets, agrees: "An informed society is critical to the wellbeing of the society. I only see that coming from public service broadcasting." Something, he says, the private sector can't deliver, because of its profit imperative met by selling advertising or charging a fee. "If you do that you deliver a different service, particularly if you have to break for a commercial, which means any debate of importance is structured around advertising."
Griffin's problem is that his appointment is seen as overtly political - that he is, as one commentator described him, "a blue-blooded, made man". He served as former National Party Prime Minister Jim Bolger's press secretary from 1993-1998. The implication, which Griffin vigorously rejects, is he is there to do National's bidding, namely starving the station of funds and forcing it to find other forms of income.
"The truth is they are not starving us. This Government and the previous both believe in public broadcasting," he told RNZ Concert's Upbeat host Eva Radich in May. "To argue somehow that this Government and Bill English and Jonathan Coleman want to sell it off is just absolute nonsense."
Radich didn't buy Griffin's spin, reminding him the funding freeze was deja vu - the same happened under Jim Bolger's watch - and Concert's function had been progressively eroded. "First we lost the concert studios around the country. Now we've lost the pianos, and now the Board has directed RNZ Concert to no longer pay broadcast rights - it seems we are not able to deliver as we have in the past."
The grand pianos, judged surplus to requirements, have been sold for around $100,000. Whether to pay broadcast rights was a longstanding debate. And the charitable trust was to support the work of RNZ Concert for live concerts and scholarships, not to fund RNZ. Griffin was quick to point out that he worked for Jim Bolger not National. "I've never worked for the National Party. I'm a professional. I'm not an acolyte of any party."
RNZ chief executive Peter Cavanagh agrees the charitable trust idea was widely misunderstood - not helped by an "administrative error", since corrected, on the trust deed, which named it the Radio NZ Trust rather the RNZ Concert Trust. "We do get people who contact us and say, 'We would like to give you some money'. And we have had to say in the past, 'There is no vehicle by which you could do that'."
Asked about Barnett's proposal, Cavanagh is tight-lipped. As a former head of Australia's multicultural public service television, the SBS Corporation, does he have a view? "I certainly have a view I'll certainly share with the board when it considers that proposal."
Cavanagh may be headed for a showdown. Barnett's proposal involves much more than simply putting cameras in RNZ studios and fits with National's budget directive that government departments examine the "potential to leverage existing resources to deliver enhanced outcomes". Initial reaction is cautiously positive. "The next stage obviously would be to do a trial," says Griffin pointing out it wouldn't go to air. "But that could be a couple of months away at least, maybe longer."
Central to Barnett's proposal is the Government providing the existing TVNZ 7 frequency to RNZ at no cost. Capital set-up costs are estimated at $1 million - a multiplex of 10 remotely controlled cameras in RNZ studios in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, linked by fibre, plus field reporters equipped with iPhones and iPads to provide live coverage from the regions. Sixteen technical, presentation and production staff in three shifts costing about $1.5 million would handle transmission 18 hours a day, seven days a week.
Barnett sees about 12 hours a day coming from live studio programmes - RNZ's weekday staples Morning Report, Nine to Noon, Afternoons with Jim Mora and Checkpoint, plus Kim Hill, Chris Laidlaw, Arts on Sunday and other weekend programmes. The remainder would be a mix of local programmes now showing on TVNZ 7 - Media 7, Talk Talk, The Good Word, Back Benches and Court Report - currently costing $2.8 million, but which Barnett reckons could be made for $2 million and funded by New Zealand on Air.
In addition Barnett says four to five hours a day of good quality documentary programmes could be acquired offshore for about $2 million a year. The proposal adds up to around $6.5 million, including set-up, considerably less than the $16.5 million TVNZ estimates it would need to keep TVNZ 7 running after June next year.
A fundamental problem with the idea is the Government seems to have already made up its mind about public service television - declining continued funding for TVNZ 7 even though Broadcasting Minister Jonathan Coleman was in favour. Insiders say the rejection came from the top down - with Prime Minister John Key, Finance minister Bill English and Communications minister Steven Joyce preferring contestable NZ on Air funding rather than direct funding of TVNZ 7.
If the Government can't see the point of public service television via TVNZ 7, why would it see it now via RNZ? "The Government has indicated they can't see the point of a number of things, including public service television, but when realpolitik comes along you sometimes can," says an optimistic Barnett. "It's the price tag. If you said to John Key,'You could have public service television for nothing', he'd say it was a great idea."
Barnett says it's a sad indictment that many senior Government politicians, including the Prime Minister, won't front on RNZ. "An informed society is the best promoter of democracy. That's why I find it hard to accept that they don't believe in a public service channel," says Barnett, arguing a knowledge economy must be properly informed. "You can't say we are going to have the best scientists in the world, but, by the way, all the news you get is dumbed down. It doesn't correlate."
Cavanagh says New Zealand is poorer for not having a proper public service television service like the ABC or SBS in Australia, or the BBC. But he's concerned the proposal would detract from RNZ's already under-funded core business and charter responsibility: that with limited funds it should stick to what it does well.
Griffin, despite his personal stance, seems on the same page, telling the Commerce Committee in May: "We universally accept without any question that public broadcasting in a civilised community such as ours is an absolute." He reminds them of his 15 years as political editor of RNZ - "halcyon days when we had lots of money and 42 commercial stations". Plus his time as TVNZ communications, policy development, and government relations manager from 2000 to 2007. "I'm disappointed at the road TVNZ has taken from a personal point of view."
Meanwhile RNZ, under a continued funding freeze, tells the committee it can probably manage until June 2013, when tough choices will have to be made. Some already have: closing RNZ's Palmerston North office; removing its $200,000 external advertising budget; tight controls on capital and equipment costs, and $240,000 in savings from changes in linking programmes to transmission sites.
Travel is severely limited, some vacancies are not being filled and staff numbers are reducing by attrition. Then there's the cost of being the "national lifeline utility" during the Christchurch earthquakes. "We were looking at an earthquake-related budget overrun of more than $300,000," says Cavanagh - a loss that was pulled back to just under $100,000 for the financial year ending June 30.
"This is an organisation that's always been run on the smell of an oily rag," he says philosophically, maintaining the quality of RNZ's services hasn't suffered, although he acknowledges having to put regional expansion plans on hold. Others say the rot is plain to see. "In news and reporting they really don't have the kind of depth they have had in the past," says a former RNZ staffer. "They have a lot less experience on the bench and the organisation is not developing its people."
Some say in its hunkered down state, RNZ is deeply resistant to change. Others say it's riven by a silo mentality and jumped-up egos - one group of producers around a particular presenter apparently known as "the coven". Cavanagh who has two years to run on his contract, is known by some as "the ghost" because he's not seen much. He agrees he's not "a floor-walker" but says his management style is open and inclusive. "Every member of staff knows they can talk to me at any time."
When he arrived eight years ago Cavanagh heard criticism about silos, and how the organisation was out of touch, and old-fashioned. "If silos ever existed, I see no evidence of them there today." RNZ, he says, has embraced the online world. "When the big stories are breaking the entire organisation just pulls together seamlessly as one."
Former RNZ Pacific correspondent Richard Pamatatau, now a lecturer at AUT University's School of Communication Studies, describes RNZ as a very good broadcaster given the constraints.
"It does live broadcasts beyond belief. It does disaster reporting in ways that are fantastic. Nobody in New Zealand can do that as well. But it is also a locked-down place that doesn't reflect on what it is doing." He describes an inbuilt culture of benign neglect, entrenched groups unable to work with each other and some stale, formulaic programmes. "My experience there was actually pretty good. But there is a layer there that seems impervious to any change. I don't know whether that's a fear of change, or an inability to change, or if it's just too hard."
In a converging media world, Cavanagh notes that increasingly the public will see graphics and images to illustrate existing audio and text content on RNZ's website. Occasionally they'll find video content - such as a webcast of classical music performance on the RNZ Concert site. Will there be more - videos of New Zealand bands perhaps? "Where it's relevant and adds value to the content we're producing," he says.
As Barnett points out, if it's happening online, why not within RNZ itself? He says his proposal will attract kudos from those who lament the demise of public service television. "It will mark RNZ as an innovative, energetic organisation, utilising the latest technology to migrate its skills and resources from one medium to another."
Sidebar: Where the money goes