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Classical Gas: RNZ's week of feedback, fury and flips

RNZ bosses are under fire for their proposal to remove Concert from its FM frequencies. Photo: RNZ / Diego Opatowski
Support for classical music has rarely been more vocal in New Zealand.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo: RNZ /Dom Thomas
We go in-depth into the intense battle over Concert FM’s future - and the extraordinarily passionate response that could just save the RNZ station.


Radio New Zealand thought it was time for Concert FM to shuffle off quietly to a retirement home - the station’s stuffy image has been well and truly shed after a fiery week of impassioned support and outrage at plans to slash staff and demote it to the AM frequency. By a week later, Wednesday afternoon RNZ had backed off and gone back to the drawing board. What happened? 

As the flurry of information reaching a crescendo, Mark Amery cut a track through the wealth of media commentary.  

Have you ever seen this much New Zealand media develop so quickly on an arts issue? For once, often divergent op-ed viewpoints seemed in alignment.

Hooked on Classics?

First there was the timing. Even putting the TVNZ/RNZ proposed merger in an election year aside for a moment, a day after RNZ CEO Paul Thompson and Music Content Director Willy Macalister explained the move to RNZ's Colin Peacock, news came from the UK that their Concert equivalent BBC3 had posted its highest audience ratings in three years, while flagship youth station Radio 1 was shown to be in decline. Radio 3 has been applauded for showing some spark in innovative programming to broaden its appeal, after years of criticism. The station comes with the tagline “live music and the arts” Young people, The Telegraph writes, are migrating to classical music.

“The real motivation of corporate-style business thinking, rather than cultural enrichment, becomes a clear and present danger”

“The real motivation of corporate-style business thinking, rather than cultural enrichment, becomes a clear and present danger,” wrote reviewer, conductor and teacher Tony Ryan in The Press on Tuesday, in response to Thompson and Macalister’s interview. Ryan argues that it’s the programmes and presenters due to be cut - not just the music played - that are the “lifeblood” for young people developing in music. 

Elizabeth Kerr, a music critic and former Chief Executive of Creative New Zealand who knows Concert intimately, clarified this issue further. “It is not just the FM transmission and the on-air presenters that are threatened by the plans,” she declared on Facebook, where she is part of the group Save RNZ Concert and instrumental in a successful public petition. “The outstanding team behind them - producers, programmers, librarians and all music staff - are also facing redundancy. Some of these people have been practising their highly-skilled craft behind the scenes for several decades, and training others to follow them.”

Support for classical music has rarely been more vocal in New Zealand. Photo:Unsplash.

Non-partisan support

Toby Manhire provided an excellent summary of the background history to the move on The Spinoff after the first few days of twists and turns, taking the view that “something had to give” at Concert FM.

By then, former Prime Minister Helen Clark was seemingly everywhere online, calling for the government to take action (here on Morning Report and Stuff). Former National government arts minister Chris Finlayson was also on the front foot, calling it a “a real tragedy”, preparing as a QC to take legal action on behalf of orchestras.


Pitch-perfect response

Naturally, many composers and musicians have entered the fray. Dame Kiri Te Kanawa in a statement called it “an inestimable blow to the arts in New Zealand” and, later, the equivalent of ”getting rid of the All Blacks”. Wham. 

“I would like to think that the support for Concert came not because of demographics, but because of an obligation to protect that which makes us New Zealanders”


Leading composers John Psathas and Claire Cowan spoke on RNZ, Cowan saying it was turning Concert into an automated jukebox type service. Head of the University of Auckland School of Music James Tibbles smartly described it as a disaster for the arts in an opinion piece on the university’s website, and conductor Marc Taddei writes persuasively about treating our arts differently in the Otago Daily Times. He criticises RNZ for underplaying the listenership numbers and it’s future potential: “I would like to think that the support for Concert came not because of demographics, but because of an obligation to protect that which makes us New Zealanders.”

And it hasn’t just been diehard Concert FM listener fans writing in defence. Oscar Kightley in the Sunday News took a break from Kanye West and tuned into Concert as a new listener, reporting how much he enjoyed it: “Young audiences deserve a commercial free network and this country deserves the awesome classical music FM station it already has”.


RNZ bosses are under fire for their proposal to remove Concert from its FM frequencies. Photo: RNZ / Diego Opatowski

Best of both worlds

A common theme - why can’t we have both? Or even better I would add, a progresssive public service station for concerts and art that caters to all? On this opportunity, it's not too late. Blogger Chris Trotter was one of a section of people online speculating  that this is all a strategic move from RNZ, knowing full well the outrage it would cause to get more bandwidth (something the CEO clarified they hadn’t done on RNZ on Tuesday). 

In advocating for neither either a youth network or Concert, Trotter was one of many noting that RNZ’s move went directly against the Labour Party’s 2017 pledge not to reduce funding for, or the quality of content and delivery of RNZ special services, including Concert. 

“How much more impressive it would have been,” he writes, “for Thompson and Macalister to have set in motion a steady process of renovation and reconstruction in RNZ Concert, while simultaneously investigating the best way to attract a new and younger listenership to RNZ…. now that would have been a legacy worth having.”

Writing for Stuff, Finlay McDonald (responding to Macalister’s comments to Colin Peacock): “If genre is not the defining precept of the new music service, why should age be...  Wouldn't the more interesting path have been to retain and refresh RNZ Concert, while finding innovative ways to reach younger listeners, thereby attracting and enlightening new audiences of all ages, rather than adopting what is just another format…”

Government caught in the crossfire

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo: RNZ /Dom Thomas


“With an election pending and the roar from the mobility scooters rising,” Brian Rudman writes in Wednesday’s Herald, “the Government has belatedly got the message. It shouldn't have taken a week”.

With Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern finally making no attempt to hide the fact she was 'more than a little miffed' at the national broadcaster’s approach, the issue escalated quickly.

“Imagine if the government could get off its arse and react with the speed they did here for the rest of the media broadcasting industry,” writes Martyn Bradbury on The Daily Blog. Bradbury’s main focus isn’t disagreeing on the protest but rather the speed with which the media are prepared to respond to ‘elitist boomers’.

“RNZ (is) provoking the fury of an existing audience while hunting for a new group who might not even be interested in what the broadcaster is offering”

No one - not even Bradbury or Mike Hoskings - seemed to be batting for the proposal, with widespread concerns about the lack of consultation. While some argue against it on the basis of the mental health of our senior citizens (not a great look for a ‘well-being’ government), others have been questioning what this means for our now grown-up student stations and those already in the youth market. On Wednesday Iwi radio bosses weighed in echoing Bradbury's comments that Concert was getting the ear of giovernment when they had "long struggled to play staff a decent wage" for years, and that there were clear inequities in the arts and major disparities in cultural funding (as seen also with the treatment if NZSO and Royal New Zealand Ballet). Their call highlights issues to do with Māori representation on the RNZ airwaves.

Meanwhile business reporters have been questioning the smartness of the approach. 

“RNZ (is) provoking the fury of an existing audience while hunting for a new group who might not even be interested in what the broadcaster is offering,”  writes NZ Herald business reporter Damien Venuto in ‘Killing a museum’. “You have to question whether this is worth the risk… Much of the criticism levelled at RNZ Concert so far has focused on its low audience turnout over the years... but metrics don't always tell the full story. And this definitely isn't a case of comparing apples with apples. The thing with the people who listen to RNZ Concert is that they're also the ones most likely to support events at opera houses around the country.”

Come today, Wednesday Managing Editor of Newsroom Bernard Hickey was dolling out a lesson in the speedy art of Helen Clark style politicking. Hickey is generous enough to concede that RNZ was, with its levels of funding, stuck between a rock and a hard place in delivering on both a long promised youth network and keeping Concert FM as is. The answer is, of course, more money for pubnlic broadcasring.  Meanwhile, he comments "the Government needs to take seriously the views of 173,300 mostly elderly voters: close to 100 percent of them are enrolled to vote, and almost all of them do. Meanwhile, about 400,000 of the 1.4 million people aged 18-39 are not enrolled to vote and are not expected to vote."

Putting things in perspective

To my mind it’s like applying narrow economic metrics to any kind of cultural architecture and heritage. Some incredible buildings we have lost, we’d kill for now. Would we dare to do this to the care of works of significance in our national art collection? 

We’ve been pitched a red-rag-to-the-bull, binary struggle of youth versus an aging elite, while the opportunity to re-energise and repitch Concert as a station that better meets the charter and gives all New Zealanders access to a plethora of music and the arts remains. That means building on the excellence grown, not ripping it out at the roots.

The Lifeline

Late on Tuesday, the RNZ board announced they had backed down from shifting Concert FM to AM, welcoming the offer of an FM frequency - although CEO Paul Thompson admitted on RNZ’s Checkpoint they didn’t ask them for one before making their controversial move public. There was some good reporting on Stuff  here on Tuesday including comment from RNZ chair Jim Mather. Meanwhile Helen Clark kept on the pressure and the voices on Wednesday just seemed to get louder, with the presentation of a public petition. By afternoon Paul Thompson had met with staff to announce they were going back to the drawing board. Concert FM staff jobs were, for now, safe. Capping off ther week Toby Manhire on The Spinoff analysed the "crushing of the restructure". Can the golden opportunity that exists to renergise public radio be plucked from this maelstorm? And, with the opening up of a new frequency and operating a new station it all has to be funded somehow.

Stay tuned.



Written by

Mark Amery

12 Feb 2020

Mark Amery has worked as an art critic, writer, editor and broadcaster for many years across the arts and media.

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