Thursday 20 February 2020

Radio Games

It looks like RNZ's trick to fund both RNZ Concert and the new Youth station would also have worked on former Broadcasting Minister Steve Maharey, who writes:
For now, Concert FM is safe. When the news broke that Radio New Zealand (RNZ) was considering turning Concert FM into an automated station on an AM frequency so it could use the FM frequency to establish a ‘youth oriented’ station, discordant notes immediately emanated from classical music fans all over the nation.

For those new to the story, let me recap. Radio New Zealand has for some time, under the capable leadership of its CE Paul Thompson, been trying to make itself more interesting to 21st century audiences: particularly younger audiences who will, hopefully, turn into lifelong faithful listeners.

This is a reasonable objective but not easy to implement when you have no money (1).

As any good CE knows if you are looking for real money from a tight budget the place to go is people. Accordingly, RNZ made it known that Concert FM staff would be made redundant, a new automated classical music service would take its place and new staff would be employed to run youth programming.

That any of the folks at RNZ thought this would be an easy sell is difficult to understand. They might have realised their mistake if they had made it clear to their Minister and the wider Government. It is a fact of political life that to touch Concert FM is akin to peeing on an electric fence.

It appears that RNZ thought that they told their Minister, but they now say the communication might not have been clear enough.

(A note about communication at this point might be useful. Informing someone is not communication. At a minimum, communication requires feedback from the person being communicated with to be sure they both got the message and understood it).

Back to the story. As a former Broadcasting Minister (disclaimer!), I learnt about the need to tread carefully around Concert FM from the formidable Right Honourable Jonathan Hunt. Rt. Hon. Hunt was the Minister who oversaw the market based reforms to broadcasting during the heady days of the fourth Labour Government. Significantly, despite the preferences of the day for throwing everything open to the market, Concert FM survived unscathed. When I asked how this happened, I was informed that the audience for Concert FM made it political suicide to do anything other than leave it alone.
I really don't get how folks see this play and go "What was Radio NZ thinking, threatening to knife something that is politically untouchable in order to fund a daft youth thing? How could they think it would be easy to convince anyone they could do that?"

It looked, from the start, like an obvious play to extort funding for both programmes. No government would let them kill Concert FM. The government freaking out and funding both Concert FM and the new youth thing seems a daft response though. Or, at least, you'd think that the government could convey back to RNZ that its entire Board would be sacked for running this kind of game against the government if the Board allowed it to proceed. Operational independence is one thing. Creating hostage situations for the government is another.

But the play worked. It'll be interesting to watch to see what other government agencies learned from this episode.

I covered things in my column this week for Newsroom. You can get it here now, ungated; they're worth the subscription though. I conclude:
As Newsroom reported last week, RNZ’s chief executive Paul Thompson worried that going down normal channels to secure the use of the 102 FM band would “bog down our plans for five years and nothing would happen.” A game of chicken in an election year would be much quicker.

It has been a bit strange to see this episode reported as a “debacle” on RNZ’s part, and the reversal of the planned cuts at Concert FM as “embarrassing.” It would have been daft to vandalise Concert FM in favour of a new youth service. That now looks unlikely. But was it ever really the intended outcome?

Rochester University political scientist William Riker studied what he called ‘heresthetics’ – the manipulation of the context or structure of a political decision-making process to get the outcome one wants. Political entrepreneurs are attuned to seeing heresthetical moves, reshaping the political environment to make possible that which was previously impossible.

Rather than castigate RNZ’s boss for the “debacle,” we might instead recognise and even, perhaps, applaud his spectacular feat of political entrepreneurship. If getting everything one wants is a debacle, we might ponder just how wonderful a catastrophe might have been. Sir Humphrey would be proud.

The Government may now have a bit of a problem if other Crown agencies take the appropriate lesson from this little episode. Successful entrepreneurs often attract imitators.

Should the Government not wish this play to be repeated, it might need to find ways of demonstrating these kinds of moves do not pay off for those who choose to play them.

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