Future Tense: Radio New Zealand's Paul Thompson on going commercial, the rise of podcasting and the importance of state-funded journalism

  • Future Tense
  • June 23, 2015
  • Damien Venuto
Future Tense: Radio New Zealand's Paul Thompson on going commercial, the rise of podcasting and the importance of state-funded journalism

In a new series, StopPress talks to a range of newsmakers currently trying to shine lights into dark places while also keeping their own lights on and looks at whether commercial realities are leading to editorial compromise. First up, Radio New Zealand chief executive Paul Thompson chats about why it's unlikely—and important for journalism—for the state-funded broadcaster to go fully commercial.    

For the last seven years, Radio New Zealand’s state funding has been frozen at approximately $32 million per annum. During this time, the rise of digital technology has pushed the radio industry into what is increasingly seen to be its most disruptive period since sound was first broadcast into living rooms from bulky contraptions.

“[Listenership] is at 75 percent at the moment,” says Radio New Zealand chief executive Paul Thompson commenting on the downward trend that has seen the proportion of New Zealanders aged 15-plus listening to radio on a weekly basis drop annually from 96 percent in 2000.

In response to migration of audiences to other services, the commercial radio players have thrown significant sums at revamping their studios, developing video content and introducing new social-media-savvy talent. With its funding fixed, Radio New Zealand has however had to stretch its budget to finance its adoption of digital. 

“There’s been no extra funding to support this transformation,” says Thompson. “An injection of funding would be nice—it would be fantastic in fact—but we’ve got plans, which means we’ve got enough money to do what we need to do.”

Far from being as adventurous as video-streaming radio shows or investing in cross-channel shows, Radio New Zealand’s moves in the digital space have been measured.

In May 2013, the broadcaster launched a redesigned version of the Radionz.co.nz website and in October of the same year unveiled The Wireless, a site targeted at attracting youth audiences.

According to Nielsen data, the main Radio New Zealand website is currently ranked as the 14th most popular local website, attracting an average of 66,500 unique browsers a day during the month of May.

While not nearly as high in terms of its daily reach, The Wireless is also growing at a reasonable rate.

“Look, it’s always hard to create new media product, particularly when you don’t have any marketing money to put toward it,” says Thompson. “We set a target of reaching a figure of 30,000 unique users a month, and they blasted that away and they’re now having record months and sitting at 50,000 unique users a month. It’s still a small audience in the wider picture, but it’s a new audience for Radio New Zealand. These are younger New Zealanders, kids of the digital age.”

For all the challenges it brings, the digital age is also introducing some new opportunities for Radio New Zealand and this has led to some unconventional moves in recent months. 

Earlier this year, the state-backed radio broadcaster signed an agreement with iHeartRadio to broadcast its shows, and then followed this up with a similar partnership with MSN.

“Unlike [the] iHeart [deal], the MSN contract does have a commercial element— there’ll be some revenue share there,” says Thompson. “They obviously have advertising on their site, and when the audience comes to our content, we’ll have a share of that revenue.”

Thompson also points to the added benefit that MSN will be offering Radio New Zealand contra, enabling the state broadcaster to promote its content on MSN—a significant advantage considering the budget constraints.

Internationally, National Public Radio (NPR) has supported revenue accumulated from government funding, corporate sponsorship and donations by commercialising podcasts. So effective has this approach been that Wired recently reported that the US national broadcaster was on track to break even for the first time in six years.

Asked whether Radio New Zealand was considering a similar move and commercialising more of its content, Thompson admitted to being open to the idea.

“We’re starting to look for opportunities around bespoke podcast content as well, because we see that there’s huge appetite for this kind of content. It’s growing really quickly without us doing much more than making it available on those platforms … [But] because we’re publicly funded, any podcasts that we created, which had a commercial element, that content would have to be freely available on our website as well, which probably makes it a little more difficult to commercialise.”

However, Thompson also differentiated NPR from Radio New Zealand and pointed out that relying on a commercial model was risky.

“NPR is a very different organisation to us. It’s got some government funding, but it has more of an affiliate structure with a core and a lot of independent network stations. Even there, you can see that some of those relationships that have kept NPR together are coming under a bit of strain as different parts look how best they can make progress. But what I love about NPR is that they clearly set out to be as expert at telling digital stories as they are at telling stories on air. And I think that’s a really powerful idea for a public service organisation.”

Throughout the conversation, Thompson referred back to this idea of telling stories and reiterated many times that it was important for the Radio New Zealand to retain its independence and commitment to journalism.

“We want to innovate, but we want to do it in a way that doesn’t put up barriers for our audiences,” says Thompson. “There’s no doubt that journalism and current affairs are under a great deal of pressure because the commercial model that has sustained large newsrooms and lots of high quality output is taking a bit of a hit. And the review and demise of Campbell Live is just one example of that. These things are happening through every commercial outlet, and that’s not because those people there don’t believe in the power of journalism; it’s because they’re having to reinvent their businesses and look for new ways to ensure that they’re sustainable. The trend is definitely there that high-quality news and journalism is not as commercially viable as it once was.”

And the cutbacks in journalism aren’t limited to television. A recent gallery published by photojournalist Will Steacy, which showed the quick decline of the Philadelphia Inquirer for five years from 2009, viscerally illustrated how drastic the changes were in the industry.

Adding further concerns over the future of journalism is the fact that mainstream publishing groups are increasingly dabbling in native advertising, leaving many traditionalists uncomfortable because of the way it obscures the line that separates church from state.

Viewed in light of these issues, the very fact that Radio New Zealand isn’t reliant on advertising money or commercial enterprise has made it possible for the organisation to continue telling its stories. 

So well regarded is the radio broadcaster as a news source that when Mihingarangi Forbes felt frustrated with executive interference with her news stories at Māori Television, she left to join Radio New Zealand, following in the footsteps of Carol Hirschfeld. And although a deal didn't come into fruition, Radio New Zealand was also thought to be in discussions with John Campbell once his show was canned by MediaWorks. 

Thompson says that Radio New Zealand's state-funded model is part of the reason why it is today considered as a veritable abode for journalists who are driven by integrity rather than a massive pay cheque, and he goes on to say that this partly underpins the reason why it’s unlikely for the organisation to fully embrace a commercial model.

“For Radio New Zealand, we feel really privileged that we’re protected somewhat from that disruption, because we don’t rely on advertising revenue. We rely on people of New Zealand funding us. For us, the flip side of that deal is that we provide credible, independent and reliable information. That is our absolute lifeblood. And if we’re talking about anything at the moment, we’re talking about importance of being great at providing New Zealanders with that choice, so that there’s a place to go to where you have that really strongly reported, credible journalism that serves the public interest and treats its audience as citizens and not as consumers.”

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