Paul Thompson on how RNZ grew its weekly audience by 60,000 listeners

When the commercial radio results are released, trade media is generally flooded with promotional material that celebrates the various victory of the various stations. But this isn’t the case for state-broadcaster Radio New Zealand. 

As part of its mandate, Radio New Zealand is precluded from advertising, which means the response to its radio results is somewhat more reserved than it is on the commercial side.
And while there aren’t RNZ ads flashing across StopPress, the team behind the state broadcaster will no doubt be celebrating some of the results that have come through from Nielsen’s All NZ Radio Survey, which tracked listener numbers between February and November this year. 

Overall, the weekly cumulative radio audience for RNZ National and Concert was 564,000 people aged 15 and over, a decent year-on-year lift when compared to the 503, 000 listeners recorded in the previous survey (only the topline figures are available at the moment; individual show ratings will be released next year).

When viewed discretely, RNZ National attracted 488,000 listeners (up from 439,000) while 152,000 people tuned in to Concert on a weekly basis (up from 127,000). 

Radio New Zealand chief executive Paul Thompson says that the latest round of results are a positive shift from last year’s ratings, when a dip in the final quarter pulled the overall numbers down.  

“We haven’t really figured out why that happened in the last quarter of 2014, but this year we’ve really worked hard to do a number of things in terms of our on-air on National and Concert and the audience has really responded,” Thompson says.

Thompson attributes the uptick in listener numbers to several changes incorporated at RNZ over the last year.

“We did some research of key programmes, particularly Morning Report, which is so important to us as our flagship morning news programme and we’ve implemented some changes off the back of that. And we have been doing some interesting things both online and off air with some really strong people who have come into the organisation, so I think all those things have been working together.”

With the likes of John Campbell, Jesse Mulligan and Mihingarangi Forbes joining the state broadcaster in the last year, RNZ has become something of a landing zone for the current affairs talent jettisoned from the commercial media players.  

“We’re just so focused and centred on credible journalism, current affairs and strong robust programming,” says Thompson. “That’s our absolute heartland and we’re not going to budge from that. Other media organisations are developing different strategies that aren’t so centred on quality journalism. We’re not moving, but other organisations are trying out new strategies and I think that means we are something of an oasis for trusted, independent news that people think is credible.”

And as indicated by the increase of 60,000 weekly listeners, there clearly still is an appetite among Kiwis for good journalism. 

Thompson was, however, quick to point out that the commercial networks have also been working on updating their offerings and this, when combined with RNZ’s recent results, has resulted in a stronger industry overall.   

“The proportion of the 15-plus population that listen to live radio each week had been in slow decline since 2000. But that decline has levelled off in the past year or two and the proportion of people listening actually climbed this year to 81 percent.” 

Thompson says this lift suggests two things about the radio market: “First, radio remains resilient and is not as vulnerable to disruption as other traditional media. Second, New Zealand radio broadcasters are doing a lot of good things for their audiences.”

One thing broadcasters are doing particularly well is extending their organisations beyond the traditional channel into the online space, and RNZ is no exception to this rule. 

The main RNZ news site had 1,059,904 users and 4.3 million page views in the month of November 2015, up 101 percent on the same month last year, while The Wireless had 89,720 users and 145,004 pageviews during the same month.

“These days we never talk about any platform results without mentioning our results across platforms,” says Thompson.

“Our user numbers are growing very quickly, but it’s off a small base. We’re now connecting with 400,000 unique people per month and some of them a lot. The audience is still, in terms of a unique audience story, much, much smaller than the Herald and Stuff.”

Rather than regarding RNZ as a discrete state-backed entity, Thompson views it as part of the broader industry and believes that collaboration with the commercial players is 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.”

Over the last year, this collaborative approach has seen RNZ forge partnerships with both iHeartRadio and MSN in order to reach a broader audience. 

“Our content deal with MSN is providing 100,000s of users every month, quite separate from what we do on our own website,” says Thompson. 

“iHeartRadio hasn’t been a massive driver, but it’s great that we’re on it because some people want to connect with us on iHeart. And I really like the fact that we’re working in partnership with NZME to provide something that helps them and also helps us.”

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