The difference between a nutritious meal and a takeaway: A look at how RNZ’s Checkpoint made it to 50 years

When Checkpoint first hit the radio waves in 1967 as a 20-minute analysis and commentary on national and international news, little did the team know it would be the longest-running news and current affairs programme on radio or television in New Zealand. But when you take a look across the past 50 years, it’s resilience in the changing media environment makes the accomplishment no surprise.

In February 1980, as the programme moved from its 10pm spot to a 6pm spot, the Listener praised it by saying there was no programme on either radio or television that could match Checkpoint’s depth of approach to topical issues.

Come 1994, when news stories in other programmes were getting shorter as entertainment values and commercialisation gained prominence, that praise continued as the Listener compared Checkpoint to television current affairs saying: “It’s the difference between a nutritious meal and a takeaway.”

At the time it had extended from a 30-minute to a 90-minute format which, after a few more variations, remains today alongside its ‘nutritious meal’ approach.

However, what has changed in the past 23 years is its platform range, as its now pushing Checkpoint out on AM and FM radio frequencies, as well as a video live-stream on the RNZ website and, in most centres, on Freeview channel 50. It’s also available on the RNZ mobile app or via satellite on the Sky Digital network on channel 421.

“I see Checkpoint as retaining all the agility of a strong, credible, evidence-based news current affairs programme, but also being able to be shared now across a whole range of different platforms because it has that extra digital layer to it. It just increases the shareability of the stories so much more,” says head of content Carol Hirschfeld.

That stability over the years sets Checkpoint apart from other local current affairs offerings as the genre has caused quite the stir in televison’s 7pm timeslot with MediaWorks and TVNZ attempting to combine it with entertainment. The latest Mediawork’s effort, The Project, is the latest example as it takes a more comedic tone.

Hirschfeld credits its stability to RNZ’s charter, which prescribes the broadcaster to deliver an independent and comprehensive local and international news service.

“That’s like being given the licence to do serious news and I think that in this very disruptive time that’s given us a very distinct voice and it lays down the parameters in which we work.”

However, she does point out that it brings with it the challenge to maintain that remit while ensuring it’s engaging its audiences.

“It’s all very well to present serious credible journalism but it also really does have to strike a chord with people and that is the onus is on us to make sure we do that,” Hirschfeld says, before going on to explain how it’d overcoming that is by going beyond the scope of radio.

This time last year, the Radio New Zealand Amendment Bill was passed, bringing with it clarification of RNZ’s values as New Zealand’s national broadcaster. One of the main changes included was the transformation from a traditional broadcaster to a multimedia organisation that could connect with diverse audiences in a range of ways. 

At the time, RNZ communications manager John Barr said: “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.”

Fast-forward a year and Hirschfeld says Checkpoint is seeing a really strong audience on radio—with latest live radio figures showing 239,000 people tuning in—as well as a community of nearly 52,000 people engaging with it on Facebook and strong numbers on Freeview. And that’s not including those who revisit the content archive online after it’s been broadcast.

Hirschfeld compares it to the Paul Henry Show, which saw MediaWorks celebrate it as the first radio programme online, on television and everywhere else. She says Checkpoint has picked up that challenge as well but is handling it in a different way because RNZ is not an organisation with a history of television.

“So we are not looking to do television, we are looking to do primarily still radio but we are adding value. It just gives us the ability to share material and extend its life further.”

For those streaming it online or watching Freeview, Hirschfeld’s had feedback from the audience telling her that they feel free to move to and from the screen because sometimes there are stories with pictures and sometimes there are stories that do not.

“A lot of people ask me: ‘Do you think that genuinely people will be watching?’ And I don’t expect people to be watching the whole time at all, but I do think when people go and find things they are interested in and catch up they look for extra information and the visual side of thing is extra information,” she says.

And when it does add pictures, RNZ uses its own visual language by placing visuals over audio and in doing so, will often use stills.

“When I worked in television, you’d think: ‘This is no good, we’re looking for moving pictures,’” Hirschfeld says.

“But in actual fact, it’s very powerful particularly when there is a real immediacy behind what we put out.”

Unlike a news bulletin which is pre-prepared to show footage at certain times, Hirschfeld says the technology RNZ uses allows it to update changing events quickly or give a story a fresh angle.

With more touch points than ever, modern day news consumers are continuously checking into the news and Hirschfeld says the likes of primetime television bulletins that give a summary of the day’s events are losing their hold on the audience.

“I guess the challenge now for all media organisations is that people are getting up and starting to access news and information as soon as they open their eyes and they can do that in a number of ways,” she says.

“So rather than telling them what has happened, I think there is an interesting development in terms of trying to find the best ways to tell people why it’s happened and give them greater context.”

She sees that as one of John Campbell’s strengths as a broadcaster, who took the reins of the programme early last year. The launch of Checkpoint with John Campbell saw the addition of the new platforms as well as the audience who followed him from Campbell Live.

However, that programme doesn’t stand alone in building Campbell’s reputation as a journalist as Hirschfeld says his whole career has been based on evidence-based journalism which he presents with humanity, warmth and considerable intellect.

“He looks to hold power to account, he looks to shed light where there’s confusion and I think what he’s done in the past made him a good fit with the kind of journalism RNZ practices and its reputation is built on,” she says.

Looking into the future, Hirschfeld is interested to see how changes to technology might make Checkpoint, as well as all RNZ programmes, highly mobile.

“It would be wonderful to think that we could do that without too much difficulty,” she says, pointing out how much it’s already improved since earlier in her career when it would take two weeks to plan a crossover to a foreign country.

Hirschfeld sees RNZ programmes as having much more mobile capability in the future which will help to get into different communities where the news is happening and hear from those who it wouldn’t normally speak to.

“I think from my perspective, that’s one of the most exciting things to look forward to,” she says.

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