Radio New Zealand’s Paul Thompson on the decline of radio

On 12 May, Radio New Zealand’s chief executive Paul Thompson delivered a speech at the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association Conference held in Glasgow—and his thoughts on the industry stood in stark contrast to the optimism that has been voiced by the respective PR teams of the commercial stations.

From the first line of the speech, which is currently available on the Radio New Zealand website, it’s clear that Thompson is bracing himself for a significant challenge in the role that he only stepped into nine months ago.      

“The evidence is clear that traditional media are in decline,” he says. “Radio, television and newspapers are merging into digital devices that are always switched on. The future of content delivery is multi-media, multi-platform, personalised, mobile and social. To stay relevant and continue our mission of serving the public, and to maintain and grow our audience, we must become and are becoming a multimedia organisation.”

This statement is particularly true when considering the drop in levels of radio engagement among Kiwi listeners over the last 10 years. A graph based on statistics from Radio New Zealand shows that the percentage of the New Zealand population older than 15 that listens to radio at least once a week has decreased from 96 percent in 2000 to only 79 percent last year.

(Note that this information relates to audiences aged 15+)

While Thompson says that Radio New Zealand continues to have certain positives—such as shows with number one ratings, a trusted news team and an extensive catalogue of online content—he says that these “signs of robust health mask how vulnerable the broadcaster is to digital disruption”.

“It is tempting but wrong to believe that this disruption is not a significant threat to broadcasters – even those like Radio New Zealand who rely heavily if not exclusively on government funding,” he says. “The very term ‘broadcasting’ hints at our vulnerability as it speaks of a time when our control of the means of distribution – through transmitters and masts and the like – gave us control of our audience’s attention. But we are now in a new age in which the means of distribution will increasingly be dominated by the publicly owned internet.”

And according to the chief executive, this is an age that Radio New Zealand is ill prepared for.

“I want to highlight three troubling facts: we are weak (almost irrelevant) on the web; as a radio broadcaster, we lack visual journalism and digital story-telling skills; [and]our preferred method of content delivery—radio—is in long-term decline,” he says.

“When I was appointed as CEO in September last year, I quickly realised that some of the things that had made us successful and highly relevant to New Zealanders in the past decade were unlikely to work so well in future.

He asserts that the Radio New Zealand’s decision to over-value radio listeners at the expense of the online audience means that the broadcaster “barely [has]a seat at the table in what has been the fastest growing media platform in the past 15 years”.

At the end of October last year, in what could be seen as an effort to ameliorate this online anonymity, Radio New Zealand launched The Wireless, a multimedia online platform geared at a younger, tech-savvy audience.

“We launched The Wireless website … as a deliberate strategy to target an unmet audience need with content developed and delivered in the manner of the audience’s choosing. While it is still a small website, with just five staff, its audience is growing,” he says.

A further encumbrance obstructing Radio New Zealand’s path to multi-channel content delivery is the fact that an antiquated government policy, established in the 1970s, requires the division of state broadcasting into separate radio and television entities. This, when combined with limited government funding of about $38 million per year, limits the broadcaster’s flexibility in terms of branching out its offering to the scale that the commercial networks have done.

Comparatively, TRN recently unveiled a pair of multimedia studios in Auckland and Wellington that will enable the network to deliver content across all channels.

“The [studios have]incredible video and camera equipment that can stream live and HD quality videos that can go live to mobile devices,” said TRN’s chief content officer Dean Buchanan. “We don’t believe the target audience goes home and waits for a TV show to start at 8.30. They want content now, when they want it, where they want it and they want to watch it on what they have in their hands,”

Across the commercial network divide, MediaWorks Radio is also currently in the process of updating its Auckland studio in the lead up to the release of the Edge TV on 27 June.

“The Edge HQ is having a complete studio refit, setting up our team of TV content producers with the latest television tools,” says The Edge TV content manager Ross Flahive, who recently returned to MediaWorks after a stint in Dubai. “This is a big step forward in the evolution of radio, for both listeners and clients, and it’s exciting for The Edge to be leading the way.”

In addition to hearing The Edge on radio and watching it on TV, fans will also be able to stream content live on mobile phones, tablets and online via the station’s website. 

When compared to the moves being made by the commercial networks, Radio New Zealand’s shift into the digital realm seems relatively small-scale and a few steps behind.

This being said, the government-funded network doesn’t rely on advertising revenue in order secure its longevity and it doesn’t enjoy the autonomy that its commercial counterparts has.

And while there are clear differences between Radio New Zealand and the commercial networks, one thing they seem to agree on is that the quality of the content will determine the future success of New Zealand’s radio stations.

“This transformation [of media]means many profound things, as we all know,” says Thompson. “But I want to highlight one of them: the death of mediocrity. Our control of transmission in the past allowed us, the broadcasters, to largely set the standards of quality and relevance. But in a world where the audience has more choice than ever before their attention will always shift to those media sources which best meet their needs. In effect the audience will call the shots, not us, and the first thing they will shoot is any content which is sub-standard.”

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