Morning Report will not be brought to you by Spicy Bob’s cheesy chicken tenders

“I’m Guyon Espiner”.

“I’m Susie Ferguson”.

“And this is Morning Report – brought to you by Spicy Bob’s cheesy chicken tenders!”

Fear not. This ridiculous line, or anything like it, is not something we’re likely to hear over the airwaves anytime soon.

Radio New Zealand is still firm that it will not sacrifice its brand by putting ads on the air, chief executive Paul Thompson tells StopPress.

While the ad-free, government-funded national broadcaster is making changes to keep up with digital evolution, putting ads on National Radio programmes, or even its website, is not an option at this stage.

“I think our audiences would view any change like that in a very dim way, because part of what they enjoy is that we sound different to other people, which is part of what we’re here to do,” Thompson says.

In May of this year, with just nine months under his belt as chief executive of Radio New Zealand, Thompson delivered a frank speech to the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association in Glasgow about the challenges ahead for radio.

Paul Thompson has been in the chief executive’s chair for just over 15 months now, but already he has made some big changes – change being a word he uses a lot.

There’s been a changing of the guard at Morning Report, to start, and Radio New Zealand’s youth-oriented website The Wireless is entering its second year with a growing multimedia focus.

The organisation has been restructured internally, bringing in new positions in the head of digital media, head of content, and head of radio.

Thompson says this has led to more accountability, not to mention that he can “already sense the new thinking”.

“I had ten direct reports in the old world and a lot of the accountabilities were shared between two or three managers, whereas in the new world it’s very clear who’s accountable for what.”

Former Radio New Zealand presentation manager John Howson is accountable for radio brands, while new hires see famous broadcaster Carol Hirschfeld accountable for content and ex-Stuff.co.nz editor Glen Scanlon for digital.

“I’ve only just managed to get those people on board – it takes a long time to hire people – but they’ve started now and I can already sense the fresh thinking and the fresh ideas they’re bringing in is making a difference,” Thompson says.

Scanlon has been in the role two weeks and he’s already proposed a Radio New Zealand website redesign, presenting some options to the chief executive just yesterday.

“He’s looking to showcase our content better… often we bury some terrific stories, they’re quite hard to find,” Thompson explains.

So Radio New Zealand doesn’t want to pepper Morning Report with ads, have the business news sponsored by Val’s Vegan Bangers or Kim Hill brought to you by Barney’s Bath & Spa Emporium, but really? No ads even on the website?

“No,” Thompson says, simply.

He’s sure he doesn’t want ads on radionz.co.nz – a product he calls one of the broadcaster’s “core services”.

“We are funded by the New Zealand taxpayer to create a media experience in radio and online that nobody else does, and I’m wrestling with the idea that somehow because it’s on the website it’s subject to different rules,” he says.

They may, in the future, create some new digital products and services that aren’t so “core” and could be commercialised, but those wheels aren’t in motion yet.

And there are conditions on this sort of commercialisation, Thompson says.

“Firstly, that it doesn’t trash our brand, and secondly that it allows us to bring in revenue that funds our public service content.”

According to the latest Nielsen All New Zealand Radio Survey (commissioned by the broadcaster), of all the radio stations in the country Radio New Zealand National’s cumulative audience of 503,000 listeners makes it number one nationwide for audience size. 

Its station share of 10.2 percent makes it second among all stations in New Zealand with people over 15-years-old.

So what could it do to raise revenue without compromising its proud independence?

Radio New Zealand already makes about $4 million a year in commercial revenue (mainly through rent and consultancy services) and is certainly not against making money (“Revenue is not a dirty word for us,” Thompson says, wisely).

There are other media organisations that Radio New Zealand can look to for example, although its chief executive says not one is an exact fit.

TVNZ is one of Radio New Zealand’s closest relatives, and it has gone down the commercial road fully. When asked if it is anachronistic for our publicly funded radio broadcaster to hold off doing the same, Thompson says he doesn’t think so.

“I think TVNZ has a different purpose – it is publicly owned, but a commercial network, which has a pure commercial mandate…Radio New Zealand operates to a different set of goals – our job is to not be commercial but to do content and explore stories and develop programming that resonates for different values.

“I think if we just became like TVNZ it would reduce choice and diversity in the media,” he says. 

There are overseas models for publicly funded broadcasters trying to remain competitive, too.

The BBC commercialises its world service but not its domestic services. Australia’s SBS has limited advertising on its television network. And America’s NPR has some ads but does it in a way that is keeping with the brand of that content.

“All of those options are ideas but I don’t think any of them fit directly for us – we’ll have to carve our our own path I think,” Thompson says.

The path may be slow to emerge, however.

There are barriers to Radio New Zealand’s evolution. It operates under its own act of Parliament and is subject to the Broadcasting Act. It has a charter.

These things are in place to maintain Radio New Zealand’s independence, though, and while they may sometimes slow innovation it ensures the organisation is not beholden to any commercial or political pressure, Thompson says.

“And that’s really precious for us, that’s our lifeblood that independence…that’s what our audiences expect, so you tamper with that at your peril.”

The other major barrier to rapid innovation is limited funding. Radio New Zealand gets around $35 million per year funding from the Government through NZ On Air, the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, and through Parliamentary Services as a fee for the broadcast of Parliament. That figure has been frozen since 2010 and is frozen for the foreseeable future.

While commercial stations can forge ahead with ambitious digital development, studios for multimedia production, and new multimedia staff, Radio New Zealand’s resources are tied up in doing what it’s always done best, and what it’s required to do.

“Excellent content is expensive, and rich, trusted, credible content is what we’re all about… we spend most of our money on that content and there’s very little left over for investing in new initiatives,” Thompson says.

The organisation is undoubtedly constrained by Government funding caps, and there is no immediate fix on this front.

But the broadcaster’s strategy stands very clear: to remain strong as a radio broadcaster while developing as a digital media outlet.

Radio New Zealand might now have the right people, the right structure, and most importantly, the right attitude to stay afloat.

What happens next is up to them, but also up to the consumer.

“As a traditional media outlet we sat there for decades calling the shots and deciding what people wanted.

“In this in this new world you have to be so much more responsive to audience needs and desires,” Thompson explains.

“We believe we can execute our strategy in the next few years and we don’t think there’s anything that’s going to stop us doing that. But it is going to be hard work.”

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