The Hot List winners: Media Visionary

Paul Thompson (RNZ chief executive)

Nominees: James Frankham (Kowhai Media publisher), Duncan Greive (founder of The Spinoff), Regan Savage (Kiwibank GM of marketing communications), Julia Baylis (Top TV head of programming and acquisitions), Sarah Bristow (executive producer of The AM Show), Todd Scott (NBR publisher), Shelley Ferguson (editor-in-chief of Your Home and Garden, Taste and Nadia magazine) 

When looking across New Zealand media, there’s plenty of talent leading the way of radio, magazines, newspapers, websites and TV. However, standing out from the rest is RNZ’s Paul Thompson. The biggest ships are the most difficult to turn around, but Thompson has managed to do just that at a time when the water has been frozen no less. 

“It’s been an absolute privilege and pleasure,” Thompson says about his last three and a half years since taking over the throne as chief executive of RNZ. Joining from his role as Fairfax New Zealand’s group executive editor, Thompson says he’s really enjoyed learning about broadcasting, feeling the stability that wasn’t there so much in the publishing world and moving from a commercial to non-commercial model.

“It reminded me in parts of what the newspaper industry used to be and I’ve also just really loved working for an organisation that’s got such a strong sense of its role in New Zealand life.”

That role comes from its foundation documents that specify its promise to deliver unique and high-quality news, current affairs and entertainment, be innovative and challenging, create a sense of community and foster a sense of nationhood.

“All of that stuff is really motivating us,” he says, again using the word “privileged” to describe how RNZ feels about the charter.

“That does create, I think, a desire for us to grow the appeal and relevance and accessibility of our content.”

If the latest GfK Radio Survey results are anything to go by, it’s successfully living up to that goal with RNZ National sitting in number two position for its weekly audience of 579,400 and an 11.3 percent share of listening time. That audience is up 44,200 from the previous survey.

While RNZ has always been a significant player in the radio market with one of the largest audiences and shares, the last few years has seen the broadcaster shift its mindset with a digital transformation that places greater emphasis on its online platforms, mobile apps and TV. Now, its audience is as varied as ever, with some happy to continue to tune in as they always have, while others have chosen to branch out.

“From what we can see, most people are there online, they’re listening on air, they’re listening on demand and they also pick up our content when they go on Stuff or The Herald.”

Thompson says in the changing media environment, RNZ is going where its audiences need it to be and that’s been made easier by a change to the charter last year.

It specifies RNZ should use the most effective means of distribution and with that comes control of what those means are. And as well as its own platforms, it now collaborates with other media companies, which Thompson says brings in a new audience for RNZ as well as helping out the media sector as a whole.

An example of this is its new 9th Floor series (also nominated for Hottest Radio Show), which profiles five living New Zealand prime ministers. As well as providing RNZ with new angles, news packages, written content, video, podcasts and radio output, major media outlets in New Zealand have also made good use of the series and is set to be broadcast on free-to-air television by Three later this year.

But no matter where the audience consumes the content created by RNZ, Thompson says there’s a common theme across it all.

“The glue that hangs it all together is that the quality of the content is high and it’s credible, unique and different to what other people do.”

While the audiences’ successful pickup of the new digital offerings is a reflection of the consideration that went into the new platforms, what’s just as impressive is the fact the digital transformation was achieved without any extra funding. Thompson says that throughout the process it’s become more efficient, moving resources around the organisation to make room for more digital staff, pointing out that head of digital media Glen Scanlon now has a team of 30-40 staff.

It also made it a requirement for all its programme managers, executive producers and newsroom leaders to think digitally. And while Thompson admits there’s been stress and strain due to questions around resources, he credits his team for the way it’s handled the transitions.

“There’s a lot of hard work behind that and the RNZ staff have been extraordinarily willing to be open to the challenge and they’ve embraced it. That’s because they’re really motivated around getting things to audiences and online allows them to do much more than they could in the past.”

At the helm of the ship, Thompson is held in high regard by the staff and he has an equal respect for them, which is why he’s made it his mission to be accessible to them all.

“I’ve tried to be present and available and I just really try to communicate very strongly opportunities for RNZ as it gets it plan right and evolves as a media organisation. And I think staff have responded to that.”

Part of the message he has for staff now is that they’re 30 percent down the path of its digital transformation, with 70 percent to go over the next few years.

“We’ve done a great job, we’ve adjusted to the new environment, we’re growing and we’ve raised our profile. But if we stop now we’ll again fall behind.”

RNZ believes the future is about multi-platform and Thompson says there’s a world of opportunity to provide more services to New Zealand because of its funding. A major ingredient of that will be it’s on air broadcast, but going forward, the focus will be on ensuring its content lives up to the high standards the charter and RNZ sets.

“What our rock will be, is whether the work we create is distinctive, high quality and credible and really gets to the heart of what it means to be a New Zealander – not whether we’re continuing to do as much radio in the future.”

And being the only non-commercial broadcaster, this attitude puts it in good stead when considering the current turmoil across the media.

“It’s really challenging and the public media space is certainly not going to shrink, it’s going to grow so RNZ needs to be ready to do more work and provide more services as the commercial media continues to adjust to the tough financial situations.”

“I think we’ll need to do a better job, we’ll need to be more transparent and we need to be able to show the government, every dollar invested in RNZ is a service to New Zealanders.” 

People’s Choice Award

Duncan Greive
The Spinoff founder’s ability to introduce something new to the market and build it from the ground up has earned Duncan Greive the public’s win, earning 26.9 percent of the vote. What started as a tiny operation with two people to promote Lightbox has, in a short few years, grown into a respectable (and extremely popular) multi-media organisation. In the voting, Greive was followed closely behind by Sarah Bristow (26.7), who’s taken the risk of broadcasting across TV and radio with The Paul Henry Show and later, The AM Show.

In third place is Shelley Ferguson who earned 18.6 percent of the vote for going beyond the page with publishing innovations like Your Home and Garden’s homewares range. That’s all while editing Taste and playing an integral role in the launch of Nadia magazine.

And in fourth place with 12.4 percent of the vote is Kiwibank’s Regan Savage for bravely financing Mind Over Money with Nigel Latta. The move paid off and early ratings placing the show among the TVNZ’s most-watched programmes. 

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