Over the past few years the country's main media companies have spent millions creating the integrated newsrooms of the future to keep up with the demands of a fragmented audience. RNZ has made similar multi-media moves (and even changed its name recently to mark its cross-platform aspirations), but as a government-funded, non-commercial broadcaster it has had to make these changes within its existing budget, which hasn't changed for eight years. But last week the Radio New Zealand Amendment Bill was passed after being under consideration for ten years, finally providing clarification for RNZ’s commercial capacity as well as its values, new and old, as New Zealand’s national broadcaster.
The bill passed its final reading in parliament last Wednesday and would become law once it got royal assent, an internal message from RNZ communications manager John Barr said.
He said the bill put in place a new charter that reflected RNZ’s role as a modern public service broadcaster “while protecting the core values that have provided the foundation for RNZ and other quality broadcasters around the world for more than 50 years,” he said.
He said those core principles remained as potent as ever in defining its unique role in New Zealand society.
“But just as important, the new charter provides a blueprint for the future encouraging us to take advantage of changing technologies for content delivery.”
Barr said one of the main changes would be a transformation from a traditional broadcaster to a multimedia organisation that could connect with diverse audiences in a range of ways.
“The technology-neutral provision emphasises the need for RNZ to meet the demands of audiences beyond the traditional radio listener, extending our reach to those choosing to use smartphones, tablets and other devices anywhere and at any time.”
And crucially RNZ must provide its services in a commercial-free manner, he said, however that didn’t mean the broadcaster couldn’t take advantage of commercial opportunities.
“The document makes a stronger statement about RNZ’s role, reaffirming our commitment to a core free-to-air service with no advertising, but it does not prevent RNZ from taking advantage of opportunities such as the recent presence on iHeartRadio and MSN, or licensing its content for re-use by commercial providers.”
Barr told StopPress the bill wouldn’t open up huge commercial opportunities but it opened up the idea of exploring partnerships, potentially with other media. So it seems like a small change in comparison to the change to TVNZ's charter, which meant it became a fully-fledged commercial broadcaster.
“There’s been a long history with [this bill] and it’s good for us in that it does define commercial activity, it also enshrines that our core services remain commercial free. It’s [more about] what we can explore in terms of delivery of our content onto other platforms, as long as initial material is freely available to the public.”
In the case of the partnership with MSN, RNZ received a small income stream, as it took stories that had already appeared and put them on its platforms.
For the last eight years, Radio New Zealand’s state funding has been frozen at approximately $32 million per annum.
Chief executive Paul Thompson was unavailable to discuss the changes to the charter, but he said in an email statement the passage of the bill, with strong cross-party support, powerfully endorsed the work RNZ did.
“Political debate about funding levels will continue, but there is a consensus that RNZ plays a critical role in keeping people informed, encouraging freedom of thought and expression an fostering national identity,” he said. "The new charter usefully says we must ‘take advantage of the most efficient means of delivery’. This empowers RNZ to continue to innovate in how we deliver journalism, entertainment and programming to audiences. The charter is also clear about why we exist. It says RNZ’s ‘purpose is to serve the public interest’. We are privileged to have such a unique and unequivocal role and one that has been granted by the people’s representatives in Parliament."
In December, he told StopPress that collaboration with the commercial players was important.
“RNZ is really determined to be co-operative and collaborative with other media organisations. We’re quite happy to share our content with others if that helps us to get better audience engagement. We don’t have to do it all under our own steam.”
He said RNZ’s content deal with MSN was providing hundreds of thousands of users every month.
In a government release, Justice Minister Amy Adams said the bill clearly defined what it meant for RNZ to be commercial-free and that operating without sponsorship or advertising ensured that its content would not disappear behind a paywall.
“RNZ now has some room to explore opportunities for strategic partnerships and audience-building through content, without losing any integrity as a public service provider,” she said.
“This bill ensures RNZ will have greater freedom to explore new media platforms and extend its reach, in turn providing greater value for every dollar spent on RNZ’s content.”
She said RNZ had grown its audience across all platforms.
“RNZ continues to grow its audience base across all platforms, with a live-listening audience of over 560,000 per week and 4.2 million items downloaded in 2014/15 (up from 3.5 million the previous year). In 2014/15, radionz.co.nz page views reached 36 million (15 million higher than the previous year) and users of the RNZ mobile app grew by some 50 percent.”
Adams said the charter would be reviewed at five-yearly intervals.
Despite budget constraints, RNZ has done its best to spread its content across different platforms and upgrade its services.
For example, last year it revamped its Checkpoint show after recruiting John Campbell and spread it across different channels including RNZ’s website as a video stream, on YouTube as a live stream, on the radio and on Freeview channel 50. It also launched the impressive youth-focused The Wireless in 2013, which is a finalist in the best website category at this year's Canon Media Awards.
Despite the fact Thompson said the bill had strong cross-party support, Labour broadcasting spokesperson Clare Curran said the government’s flaccid support for public broadcasting was highlighted when the bill was finally passed after a seven year wait, while the broadcaster remained severely underfunded and forced to cut staff.
“The government pretends to support RNZ’s role as an independent, commercial-free public service broadcaster but has kept its funding frozen for the last eight years, forcing it to cut staff and restrict some functions while it tries to adapt to the changing media environment,” she said.
“RNZ has done a great job in adapting but the strain is showing. Chair Richard Griffin recently told a select committee it would not make a budget bid for more funding this year, this indicates a clear message from the government that it would be a waste of time.”
She said as the bill was introduced to parliament back in 2009, following a 2005 review of its charter, it was ridiculous it had taken so long for it to get through to parliament.
“There is a statutory requirement for a charter review to occur every five years. In essence, we have skipped two reviews. This is a demonstration of the lack of commitment the government has shown towards public broadcasting. It clearly does not value the role RNZ plays in our democracy, and the importance of state broadcasting for public debate and commercial-free discussion and programming.”
So could RNZ find money elsewhere? And do these changes open up other commercial opportunities that wouldn't impact on its editorial integrity? Barr was unable to be contacted to answer follow-up questions about the possibility of new revenue streams outside of its "core services", like crowdfunding or podcast sponsorships.
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 in December whether Radio New Zealand was considering a similar move, 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 at 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.”