Pulling the FM plug on the Concert programme was a matter for Parliament to decide

This post by TOM FREWEN is one of two being published on Point of Order today on the restructuring of state broadcasting and the fate of RNZ’s Concert programme.   

Tom is a journalist and broadcaster who has worked for both commercial and publicly funded media. He reported on the NZ House of Representatives for 22 years, starting the Today/Week in Parliament programmes in 1994, and he established Mediawatch on RNZ, fronted first by Russell Brown and now by Colin Peacock.   

There was never any need for the QC trio, hired by local orchestras to fight RNZ’s plan to turf Concert off its high-quality FM frequency, to go past the first of the three legs of their proposed legal action.

That was the claim that RNZ was in breach of the Radiocommunications Act 1989 which, together with the Broadcasting Act of the same year, provides the legislated foundations for the broadcasting system established by the Fourth Labour government 31 years ago.

Section 174 of the Radiocommunications Act entitles RNZ to use “certain frequencies” for “the operation of four services including “the service known as the FM Concert Programme”. Section 175 specifies the conditions of the licences relating to the FM Concert Programme and National Radio

RNZ’s chief executive, Paul Thompson, assured Lisa Owen on Checkpoint on Tuesday this week that legal advice had been obtained when they hatched what they call their “strategy” to become more relevant to younger people.

But it was not clear from Thompson’s answer that the advice addressed whether the licence conditions imposed by the Radiocommunications Act would require an amendment to the legislation.

It’s never easy interviewing the boss, especially one who speaks the corporate pidgin with its rich and flexible vocabulary of euphemisms and jargon.

Among Lisa Owen’s many good questions were –

Owen:  Certainly, some legal minds believe that the Radiocommunications Act designates particular channels for Concert FM and it would require some kind of legislation to change that. Did you take legal advice on that and is that your belief?

Thompson:  Yes. We have taken legal advice on that. We are aware that we would have had to have that signed off as part of our annual Statement of Performance Expectation negotiations with the Government. That was always going to be part of the plan.

Owen:  So, you were always needing the Government’s rubber stamp to push forward?

Thompson:  Yes, we would have provided a proposal and there would have been feedback and, in the end, it would have had to be signed by the minister.

Even it never occurred to RNZ’s management and board that it was not within their power to move Concert FM off its frequency, it should at least have been obvious to their minister and his officials. The minister is Kris Faafoi, a former TVNZ Gallery reporter who has enjoyed a warm and uncritical relationship with his former colleagues since taking over the portfolio from Clare Curran.

With the Broadcasting, Communications and Digital Media portfolio he gets advice from the Ministry of Arts, Culture and Heritage and the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, which administers the Radiocommunications Act.

In Parliament’s first Question Time of the year on Wednesday , Faafoi told National’s broadcasting spokeswoman, Melissa Lee, he had been briefed by RNZ in August and October last year “that they were working on a youth strategy. They brought their final proposal around the youth strategy and the impacts of that to me on 29 January of this year.”

A week later and (as Thompson admitted on Checkpoint) without bothering to secure the minister’s signature, he and his head of radio and music, David Allan, and his music director, Willy Macalister, went ahead and confronted — they would say “consulted” — Concert FM’s staff at 10am on Wednesday  February 5 with the news that 18 of them were going to be sacked.

It was a fairly ugly scene, by all accounts. There had been talk of a new music strategy. But the decision to fire all the presenters, automate the schedule and shunt if off the FM frequency onto AM with an inferior audio quality came as a distressing shock.

Before informing his employees of their fate on that Wednesday morning, Thompson issued a “stakeholder update.”

“Morena Clare,” began his 8.10am email to NZ on Air’s acting chief executive, Clare Helm.

“I hope you are well. As discussed last week, at 10am today we will begin consulting staff about the implementation of the new Music Strategy.”

The attached update on that strategy says “the RNZ Concert service will continue and will undergo some changes . . .

“From the middle of 2020 RNZ Concert will no longer be available on FM but it will still be widely and easily available through online streaming and on-demand services…”

Finally stripped of its protective euphemisms, the strategy was unveiled to the public on RNZ’s website at 1.55pm on Wednesday.  The headline (since deleted) ran:

“RNZ guts Concert radio as it plans appeal to youth” ran the headline.” 

Asked by Melissa Lee if he accepted responsibility for what Helen Clark called “disastrous handling” of the issue, Faafoi said:

“It’s very important that governments keep away from operational decisions that public broadcasters make.”

Removing Concert FM from its frequency was not an operational decision.  That the minister believed it was raises serious questions about his competence.

Nor is it a ministerial decision, as Thompson seemed to believe.

It is a decision that only Parliament can make and one in which the public have a voice — which is the reason, perhaps, for the obsessive secrecy surrounding the ludicrous “business case” for a TVNZ/RNZ merger.


2 thoughts on “Pulling the FM plug on the Concert programme was a matter for Parliament to decide

  1. Thanks for this excellent article shedding light on a shocking and distressing episode. If the management have ignored the legal framework within which they operate, they should be gone, yesterday. But I suspect the Labour Party was right behind this attempt to gut the Concert Programme. Jacinda was, we hear, a DJ as well as a fish and chip shop assistant. Do you want fries with your Sid Vicious?


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