Since its inception in 2013, Radio New Zealand's (RNZ) digital brand The Wireless has grown quickly, attracting a new audience of readers that were largely disconnected from the legacy structures of the state broadcaster. This upward trajectory has seen the website's average audience climb from 700 daily users last year to 3,000 this year. And the RNZ executive team is now hoping to spread this success across all its digital properties with the appointment of The Wireless editor Marcus Stickley as the digital features editor.
"I still have oversight of The Wireless, but I’m also working with the Radio New Zealand producers to create more online content for the website," says Stickley, who has held the newly created position for about three weeks.
"It’s about expanding out from just doing audio stories that get played on the radio to trying to do more multimedia, more visual content, more writing and just really focus on the strongest feature stories that are being done around the organisation. These features need a really strong digital treatment and greater visibility on the website."
Stickley has been involved with The Wireless since its development phase and he was appointed founding editor when the site launched. But joining an untested project was certainly a risk for someone who had a pretty decent gig as the night editor at Stuff.
"At first, coming into the job felt like a bit of a gamble because it was either going to crash and burn and I’d have to go back to my old job, or it was going to be a great success," says Stickley. "Thankfully, we were given a lot of creative freedom. The team basically got formed up and we were left to our own devices to decided what it was that the Wireless was going to be."
Stickley says that The Wireless "was set up to be free of what RNZ had come to be," essentially providing an outlet dedicated to younger Kiwis.
"In the early days, when we started out the new brand, we had no advertising budget. We had to do a lot of groundwork really explaining what it was and we just really focused on doing great stories around the country. And I feel like that approach has really paid off. We are non-commercial, so people come to The Wireless because they really like what we’re doing. They’ve seen it in their social media feeds or their friends have told them about it in some other way."
Without an advertising budget, the team was completely reliant on the content to grow the audience. If people liked what they saw, they'd come back to it. And because the approach is working with audiences regularly returning to the site, RNZ now wants to employ a similar strategy across its digital offering.
"The Wireless has been an incubator for new ideas, and now we’re really starting to see some of those ideas spread throughout RNZ," says Stickley.
RNZ head of digital Glen Scanlon says that the appointment of Stickley has largely been made to improve the quality of the content delivered through the broadcaster's digital channels.
"He still has responsibility across the Wireless, but his role has been expanded to help us attack much better the deep wealth of feature content that’s generated [across radio programmes]," says Scanlon. "We really want to make that work a lot better online. And part of Marcus’ brief is to work with those parts of Radio New Zealand to really get that stuff out there. Possibly, in the past, we haven’t really got the breadth of content that we have to show its best online. Part of his brief is bringing the skills he’s used at The Wireless to get out some of the goodness out of what we have."
To make it easier for Stickley to manage the content, RNZ has pulled away the departmental divisions that previously divided the digital team members.
"The digital team has been through a restructure to bring us together more," Scanlon says. "We were split into three groups before and we want to get a bit more flexibility in terms of the different skills and people we have. It’s also about giving the staff the opportunity to write journalism and for that to feed back into the radio side. Some of our staff have been producing quite a lot of written storytelling and producing packages for the radio programmes.
"Before we had a very distinct and small news team, we had Marcus’ team [at The Wireless], and we had a team that was handling a lot of the radio-produced content. The third team was called the website team, and they were also responsible for some of the development stuff. There was this great mix of skills, but they weren’t talking to each other enough."
The decision to integrate The Wireless approach across all the digital properties could be construed as a case of the son taking over from the ageing father, but Scanlon says that it fits into the tradition that has always typified the state broadcaster.
"The Wireless tells stories in great depth whether it’s written or video. They have a depth and uniqueness of storytelling. It’s really well presented and thoughtfully done. And that’s really Radio New Zealand down to a tee, and at the moment that’s just pitched in a slightly different area. So that’s the kind of stuff we want to spread across all our digital properties. And I think it’s bubbling through all over the place at the moment."
The difference now is that the storytelling is becoming increasingly cross-platform. And because this is something that Stickley's team at The Wireless has proven itself very adept at, RNZ is now looking to incorporate this beyond the youth channel.
"We’re [already] doing packages for Morning Report," Stickley says. "We’re in touch with the producers, and they’re flagging up stories that we’re doing that they’re interested in. And so it’s just helping to provide a little bit of colour to go with the hard news on Report ... "We currently have one of our arts and culture producers up at Fashion Week, and she’s doing a daily blog as well as programming for the radio."
One of the more interesting—and successful—staff changes recently introduced was the decision to bring together columnist Toby Manhire and cartoonist Toby Morris to produce content on a frequent basis (a recent cartoon on inequality by Morris went viral, reaching over 1.8 million people).
"It’s kind of funny, because we’d been talking about who we might bring in as a columnist for the website," says Stickley. "Then, Glen and I separately had this idea: what if we got Toby Manhire and Toby Morris together. I think you know it’s a good idea when two people have that idea separately. And the columns they’ve done so far have just been fantastic. They’re so funny. When we announced that this was going to be happening, there was a lot of interest online and we just really feel that we’re onto a good thing. We’re just really stoked to be working with two really talented people."
Given how visually driven modern audiences are, the combination of the pair's skill sets has already proven popular among readers, and it's also interesting to see the role of the cartoonist evolving in the digital age.
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In some ways, this feels quite similar to a creative agency partnership, which sees a copywriter coupled with a designer, but Scanlon says that this wasn't the inspiration behind the change.
"We want to do things differently," Scanlon say. "[In this case,] we wanted to meld the words and the graphics elements together in a way that really hasn’t been done before."
Scanlon says that the team at RNZ is also keeping an eye on international trends, and picking up a few tips and tricks along the way.
“We’re always looking. There are a bunch of places doing great things. Some of the things we’re doing at the moment are just ideas that we’ve had but others also come from what international broadcasters are doing. The Wireless started using little video pieces on Facebook, which is something that Al Jazeera has been doing. It works really well, and it’s something we’re having a crack at. Places like NPR and the Guardian are also trying some interesting things. And there’s an outlet in the States doing wonderful live streaming. You pick up bits and pieces and it all just feeds in."
It's difficult to see the current—perhaps antiquated—RNZ website housing some of the quirkier content developed for the Wireless, and Scanlon admits that a revamp will be necessary to make it work.
"The main site is going to be redesigned over the next nine or ten months. We’re just about to start that process now. We’re really excited about this. We have a talented guy who has come in and is going to help us with some design stuff and we’re looking for an external partner who’s going to come in and help us as well. So you’ll see quite a lot of change over the next year."