Switching on The Wireless

The Wireless team
Mike and Barney Chunn tell us about Radio New Zealand's new youth-orientated web-based platform The Wireless.

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Mike and Barney Chunn tell us about Radio New Zealand's new youth-orientated web-based platform The Wireless.

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The idea for a Youth Radio Network was first proposed in the 1990s by Neil Finn and Arthur Baysting (writer director of APRA) in response to APRA’s published local content figures showing NZ commercial radio played less than 2% NZ tracks. 

Finn, while living in Melbourne, had applauded the Australian youth station Triple J and could see a real need for such a station in NZ. Their approaches to the then National government got nowhere. And the Radio Broadcaster’s Association (RBA) quickly came in proclaiming the idea as absurd. Their fear of listeners being stolen from their commercial stations was also a factor.

The Labour party in opposition drew it into their Creative Industries white paper as a crucial part of their 1999 election manifesto. Then when they were voted in in November of that year, it was taken to the forefront of policy.

But politics is politics and behind locked doors in 2001 where the RBA and Minister of Broadcasting Marian Hobbs sat and negotiated they all emerged with:

  • the RBA introduced a ‘voluntary quota’ whereby they would reach 20% local content by 2006, a figure that was reached in 2005.
  • The Labour government withdrew any plans for a Youth Radio Network.

And that was that. Until now.

The YRN of old was to be a traditional radio station format broadcast out on FM transmitters, as of course it would be back then. In 2013, the world wide web and its Internet maelstrom finds a whole new arena in which the concept of youth-orientated programming can emerge. 

So how to define it now? How to engage with the sometimes seemingly unengagable? Importantly, how to engage with youth in New Zealand at a time when presented with the Sisyphean task of keeping up with monumental amount of information that the Internet, in all it’s glory, presents? Well, why not start with a name? And they have – The Wireless.

Marcus Stickley is the man who has been handed the somewhat daunting task of answering the rest of these questions; questions we put to him when we talked earlier this year, as preparations for The Wireless launch were still underway.

‘What makes [The Wireless] youth orientated is the way we are delivering the stories and… developing the content, and that we want to have younger voices in our stories so that our audience is hearing from people like them.’

With a thoughtful and unhurried demeanor, Stickley could be mistaken for the sort of father who watches quietly on the sideline as the other parents scream blue bloody murder. While at first this may sound uninspiring, much like the most successful teachers, it might be exactly what is needed at the helm of such a project. Youth are a fickle thing. One thing we might get consensus on however is that youth don’t like being told what to do. The best teachers are facilitators. They facilitate students in finding their own way towards involvement and engagement. Taken in that regard, so too should be a youth online network, if it’s to ever actually attract a youthful audience.

The project, in its current carnation, began searching for its team around a year ago, and forming the foundations of what is to be The Wireless from around April this year.

‘When we started, we were pretty much starting from scratch. So the first thing we had to do was identify the aims of the project. It was really important, I felt, that we work through that process as a team.’

That team comprises Marcus Stickley, a former editor at stuff.co.nz and two producers – Megan Wheeler and Elle Hunt – with project co-ordinator Lena Hesselgrave.

Stickley notes that the key to getting it right was ‘the freedom to experiment.’ While taking example from other sites and projects around the world, notably the Guardian blogs and Triple J’s student site. Stickley says one of the best policies is that they ‘aren’t locked in by the way RNZ have done things.’

‘The broad aim of the project is to take Radio NZ to the younger generation.’

Talking to Stickley, it seems there’s a split in the focus of the project, in that they are as focused on the medium as much as the message.

‘Starting off, we’ll be using social media to start the debate around the issues, so we’ll be using Facebook and Twitter… Our audience often relies on friends and family for information; their peers telling them that they’ve seen a great story, rather than going to websites home pages so much.’

One thing that youth don’t seem to generally like is to be in cohorts with the enemy: that is, the adult population, a population thoroughly stuck in their ways and uncool. Their mother’s listen to Kim Hill on a Saturday morning while they stream their spotify account in the back seat, smirking at mum’s murmurings of agreement Mrs Hill can’t quite hear. For The Wireless, the first thing it likely needs to do is build the right Trojan horse to be distant enough from the connotations of RNZ and all it’s adultness.

Says Stickley, ‘Radio NZ has had the wisdom to recognize that it didn’t necessarily need to be under the Radio NZ brand. It needed to develop something specifically for that audience, and they’ve given us the freedom, to go away and figure out exactly how to do that.’

A clever approach and one that’s uncommon in a world where ‘brands’ are judged it seems by how pervasive they are (just look at the top right hand corner of all Unilever ads).

With the approach of a blank template to build a brand, and a focus on the right mediums that youth are already operating on, the foundation is there to engage with switched on New Zealand youth. But now the question really is, to engage with what? With all that is out there floating around in the enigma of the Internet, there is more than enough information out there for youth to engage with. It’s obvious that they’re already spending a lot of their time engaging with each other online. What is missing?

‘We want constructive, intelligent debates. We want to make sure we have an engaged audience there that is going to interact. I’d like to eventually crowdsource for content, so we are able to present a really broad range of opinion.’

This is the other focus, and probably where the crux of the whole project lies. Youth are used to listening. On the Internet, at school, at home, they’re often the recipients. The proliferation of Facebook and social media has changed that, in so much as youth now have a much greater megaphone, as it were, than at any other time. If they want to gain knowledge and insight on the Internet, it’s already there. What isn’t, in this context, is their own voice.

‘We want to make a website that has stories for all NZ'ers. It’s a website that we want to have anyone be able to go there, and find a story that they can relate to.’

It’s a broad scope for a project, and one that will be tricky to pitch and maintain, for such a diverse, finicky and ever changing demographic. It is also, of course, a group that is interested, interesting, passionate and important, and hopefully that will be what this platform is for: to give respect and volume to youth and their bold ideas.

Check out the website at www.thewireless.co.nz

Written by

Mike Chunn

31 Oct 2013

Interests Mike Chunn has worked with original songs all his life from his days with Split Enz and Citizen Band through Mushroom Records (Dance Exponents and DD Smash) to eleven years as Director of Operations for APRA.

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