Paul Thompson is a man who can move mountains and in moving Radio NZ into another decade, he may have set off an avalanche – Chris Laidlaw retired and replaced by Wallace Chapman, Geoff Robinson retired and replaced by Susie Ferguson, Simon Mercep moved and replaced by Guyon Espiner, Jim Mora moved and replaced by Simon Mercep, Peter Fry retired, Wayne Mowat retired and now Don Rood restructured out of his position as Head of News. Clearly this avalanche has been building for a long time but there’s a risk it could sweep Radio NZ right off the mountain.
Over the next ten years Radio NZ’s CEO, Paul Thompson wants to attract younger listeners to the network, and double the audience from 500,000 Kiwis to a million. Ambitious stuff for an underfunded broadcaster, and problematic too.
Problematic because attracting younger listeners can only mean less programmes for older listeners, so where does this trade-off leave oldies? What other options do the over-60’s have for informative listening?* Thompson will find that trying to programme to all ages means inevitably disappointing everyone some of the time.
That’s where a better funded Radio NZ should come in with separate stations for each age-group. Instead of changing the demographic, Radio NZ should be announcing a new non-commercial radio network for younger listeners. Australia has had Triple J for many years, us Kiwis just got a website, the Wireless.
Everywhere else in the world, media is diversifying, fragmenting, expanding the options for smaller niche audiences – and that’s a great thing for audiences. But here in NZ the opposite is the case, a steady reduction of television channels and radio stagnation.
If Radio NZ had built the youth radio network proposed eight years ago, Paul Thompson would be able to let Radio NZ National stay true to older listeners without fear. And he’d still be on course to double his audiences in 10 years. Instead Paul Thompson is effectively starting a ratings war with himself and the end result is likely to be just like every other ratings war – dumbed down, commercial style radio, this time without adverts.
* Actually this is a question that applies to all NZ listeners.
Myles Thomas is Chief Executive of the Coalition for Better Broadcasting.