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.

Comments (10)

by Andrew R on August 14, 2011
Andrew R

Is this idea to televise the radio announcer?  If so, what has priority the radio broadcast or the television?  How would it avoid degenerating into a trite sound bite tv world?

by David Beatson on August 14, 2011
David Beatson

You can have trite sound-bite interviews on radio or television, and you can have remarkable interviews on both. The content and quality of the interview has more to do with the personality and approach of the interviewer and the interviewee than the mode of broadcast  . Modern cameras are very small and unobtrusive. I wasn't even aware of their presence at Kiwi FM. I was concentrating on what Glenn said. Judging from his questions, he was concentrating on my answers.

by Claire Browning on August 15, 2011
Claire Browning

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.

He does that on The Climate Show, too, with Gareth Renowden. It's awesome.

I watch TVNZ7 for its lower-key news at a civilised hour (news @ 8), and - before the money allegedly "ran out", and space for ex-6 programming had to be found - the international current affairs (This Week), and documentaries (E2, etc). 

Does Barnett's vision stretch that far? Or is it really just Morning Report with pictures? Morning Report is not what it was. I don't think the lack of pictures is the problem.

by on August 15, 2011

One really has to ask is just why it has taken so long for the production sector to come to finally come the realisation that it might just be possible to produce 18 hours of public service content per day  for considerably less than $13 million per annum  - I seem to recall that Stratos has been saying just this for years - it  really is no mind boggling revelation -  it surely is a matter of structure, economy and budget! And carefully structured budgets at that...

by David Beatson on August 15, 2011
David Beatson

Claire, I know John's vision extends beyond Morning Report with Pictures - but it will be limited by the funding that can be provided by the Crown and [I hope] contributed by some private sector donors and other institutions who have the same kind of cultural motivation that supports PBS in the United States.

Jim, maybe we're getting to the time when more and more people will listen to the basic message: we can't afford to run public broadcasting services on the old Rolls Royce model. There's a heap of new technology available to contain costs now and with some innovative thinking we can produce high quality content at significantly lower cost. And thanks for the interest that Stratos has expressed in the concept.




by Brendon Mills on August 15, 2011
Brendon Mills

Interesting concept. Would have to be funded (and done) properly otherwise it would just look cheap and nasty.

Not too sure about private donors though, I am reminded of the saying 'he who pays the piper calls the tune'.

by Hesiod on August 16, 2011

no to any of that.

rnz  must soup up its operation.

at the moment it is local and it shows.

it must produce programmes that are 5**** all the way. get rid of the tired hacks and get some smart intellectuals instead .

at the moment the whole thing veers towards smarmy and it should not be the place for kids to cut their chops.

find some people that can copy the best public programming in the world and do it better.

stop pissing about.

by David Beatson on August 17, 2011
David Beatson

Bringing Radio NZ into a multi-media digital environment creates the conditions and the incentices where all its outputs can be "souped up". Continuing to sit in splendid, fund-frozen isolation creates no incentive to change.

by Geoff on August 19, 2011

We don't need some half-baked televised RNZ pretending to be public TV , we need a public TV channel with the news ethos and depth of RNZ.!

This particular National Govt despises RNZ and will NEVER increase its funding to a level where it can fufil  its charter properly - don't blame Morning Report for being a lesser show, blame govt(s) who haven't increased RNZ's baseline funding since 1996 ! RNZ's newsrooms have far, far fewer people working in them, and despite their best efforts, sometimes it shows. But of course that's the aim of the Govt - to cripple its critics - while giving handouts to its commercial friends with the soft little interviewers..

David you worked for the NZBC, and you know that combining TV and radio is a recipe for confusion and results in a desperate scramble for fund which achieves little. 

And I for one have zero interest in watching a TV version of Morning Report, or anything else coming out of RNZ     

by David Beatson on August 20, 2011
David Beatson

Geoff - I worked in radio. I worked in TV. And I often worked in both at the same time, and I was a senior executive in the old BCNZ, where the competition for resources between the two media was regularly played out. Right now, I'm concerned for the very survival of New Zealand public broadcasting services in the new multi-media, global digital environment . There is going to be competition for resources. It will get more intense. My hope is to see RNZ and a small public broadcasting TV operation working alongside each other - not one embedded in the other - sharing resources wherever possible so that multi-media services can be delivered on a more affordable basis than if they operated completely independently. I do not believe we will see a 100% taxpayer-funded, fully-indendent, public television organisation established in the foreseeable future. It will even be a struggle to secure RNZ's future, if the organisation is left to function on current policy settings. Once more, we are going to have to find our own, unique New Zealand solution.  

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