The latest move to breathe new life into public broadcasting services is a proposal to turn Radio New Zealand into a multi-media operation. Here’s why it’s worth a crack.
Radio New Zealand does what it does do well. National Radio sets the standard in radio news, current affairs and talk. Concert Radio is the only form of broadcasting that ever moved a very dry Secretary of Treasury to warn that he would leave the country if it was closed down. Demand for RNZ on-line, on demand news and programme replays via the internet is so high that it has RNZ management worried.
But one ingredient is missing from the multi-media mix that the state-owned public broadcasting service offers. Great sound – but where are the pictures? After more than 50 years of television beaming into our homes, we have been converted into a culture that demands a rich visual diet every day, every night.
That’s why I welcome the proposal that John Barnett from South Pacific Pictures has pitched to the board of Radio New Zealand for “radio with pictures”.
It’s not a new idea. I gave it some serious study more than 30 years ago when I worked on Radio Pacific as a breakfast News-Talk host. In those days, the hurdles between radio and video were just too high. Access to the airwaves was incredibly difficult in that pre-deregulation era. The television technology was too big, clumsy and expensive to match the pace of nimble radio. And radio and TV marched to different priorities in different time-zones: radio drew its biggest audience at breakfast and through the day-time, and TV found its best following in the evenings.
But many of those hurdles are down now. Just the other day, I turned up at the tiny studio of Kiwi FM for an interview with Glenn “wammo” Williams. This young multi-mediacaster was simultaneously operating on radio, texting on mobile, web-streaming our interview live, and then offering it on demand via the Kiwi FM website for those who missed the live broadcast. We were talking about the future of public broadcasting after the digital switch-on. He was already living it.
Before the day was over, I had calls and emails from half a dozen broadcasting colleagues in Wellington and Auckland who had heard about the interview via their own social networks and viewed it on the Kiwi FM website.
Later in the week, I joined a panel discussion at Unitec Auckland, chaired by regular RNZ business commentator Rod Oram, about revitalizing public broadcasting. My colleagues were Terri Byrne from the multicultural Planet FM community radio station, Peter Thompson ,the senior lecturer in media studies at Victoria University, the ubiquitous Russell Brown from Media 7, and John Barnett.
The Unitec forum drew an audience of maybe 120 or more in the Unitec campus theatre, but the event was also being shared live to a wider audience via the internet. It included input from tweeters, twitterers, and texters around the country. Oram said there had been input from as far away as Hawaii for a previous panel discussion.
Barnett told us he had been given a positive reception by the RNZ board and outlined some of the arsenal of new media technology that he proposed using to add the necessary visual enrichment required by the television audience.
He saw scope for including original productions currently provided to TVNZ 7 by independent producers – and was confident that he could deliver 18 hours of programming a day on a public broadcasting channel at a cost that is considerably less than the $13 million a year TVNZ was paid to produce TVNZ 6 and 7. My own analysis of the concept indicates that he is right.
The government has frozen funding for Radio New Zealand and NZ On Air for the foreseeable future – but I believe there is significant scope for the redeployment of funds from agencies in the health, education and welfare areas that are mounting print and video public education programmes, and other organizations in the arts and cultural arena that currently receive Crown funding and could be interested in reaching beyond their traditional communities of interest via a multi-media public broadcasting service of the kind being suggested. There is also scope for securing funding from regional government, civic-minded corporates, philanthropic organizations and individuals, and Stratos Television has expressed interest in providing distribution of public broadcasting content.
John Drinnan’s coverage of “Radio NZ with Pictures” has given the impression that the RNZ board is at odds with its CEO Peter Cavanagh over the proposal. I hope this is not the case. Cavanagh was formerly a senior executive in Australia’s innovative SBS TV network. I am sure he realizes that we are heading for a multi-media digital future that will not permit RNZ to survive in splendid isolation as the “wireless” of yesteryear.
Let’s hope the discussions that are now taking place will move to the point where a trial can be mounted to identify any issues requiring resolution so a television dimension can be added to the rich resource of talent, contacts, research and audio materials that currently supports the National and Concert programmes.
Otherwise, the government’s current funding freeze and the narrow policy focus on taxpayer support for local content that finds acceptance with the major commercial television networks will see public broadcasting services, offering the diversity and accessibility of programmes and communication modes a modern society needs, consigned to a cryogenic grave.
Declaration of interests: David Beatson is currently host of the Beatson Interview on Stratos & Triangle Television, and is a former chairman of NZ On Air.