Radio and Culture

“…we actually don’t really have any position on what the brand is going to be yet , and what it’s going to be called…” 

- Paul Thompson, Chief Executive Radio New Zealand

Just yesterday, Paul Thompson, the Chief Executive of Radio New Zealand and Willy Macalister, Music Content Director announced that they would be changing the nature of New Zealand’s only Art Music Radio station – Radio New Zealand Concert (RNZC). They propose to cease broadcasting on fm (in order to free up slots), and move over to AM, and streaming services. Furthermore, they have proposed that the broadcast be largely automated, delivered by a skeletal crew. What they propose appears to be very similar to a constantly evolving Spotify playlist. Gone will be the in-depth shows that showcased New Zealand Art Music, and its practitioners.

High culture is not for everyone. It can be difficult. It can be confronting. It can require deep thinking. It often speaks to profound ideas. Mostly, it is a part of our culture that demands education, and an interest in modes of expression that are out of the mainstream.

High culture has always only appealed to a small percentage of the population. It has always skewed towards a demographic that is older. 

Does this mean that it has no place in our culture? Does this mean that it does not contribute to what it means to be a member of society? Does it mean that it has not had a part in defining us, or the time in which we live? Just because one does not understand something does not mean that it should not be supported.

While much of the dialogue of the high visual arts is framed in a complex relationship between public galleries, universities, private collectors and patrons, and commercial galleries, art music is different. 

Music is ephemeral – once performed, it no longer exists. It cannot be bought and put on a wall, to a collectable market with a very real interest in both the art, and  capital growth. 

Recorded music allows for the wide dissemination of music, and thanks in the past  to radio, it has proven to be a vital voice in the dialogue around the form. Over time, radio stations have found their niche, playing music that appeals to specific demographics. Popular forms of music have proven to be an ideal format for radio stations to provide profits to their shareholders over the past century. People with interest in these forms of music can find stations that will cater for them. For many forms of pop and world music, etc., one could say that those who have an interest in them, are well catered for. 

One of the triumphs of Helen Clark’s government was the use of tactics that encouraged radio stations to impose a quota of local music upon themselves. The result was a vibrant renaissance in the popular music of New Zealand, which allowed a significant part of our culture to be celebrated. 

Art music is different. Like public galleries, and museums, the smaller percentage of the population that has an interest in the art form means that our public galleries, museums, orchestras, and our Art Music radio station has required support. 

I would like to think that the support came not because of demographics, but because of an obligation to protect that which makes us New Zealanders. The Art Music of New Zealand contributes to the culture of the country, and gives voice to profound ideas. Is it for everybody? Of course not, but art music has always been thus.

Listening to Paul Thompson and Willy Macalister speaking to the new format change was disturbing. The opening quote of this blog is simply indicative of the apparent lack of thought and complete disregard for the culture of New Zealand that both men are displaying.  

It is difficult to countenance destroying the voice and centre of the dialogue around NZ Art Music, when the numbers of RNZC are so strong. I found their attempts to underplay the numbers, by speaking of “unique visitors” (that is, listeners to RNZC who only listen to that station, and who do not overlap with Radio New Zealand National) as sophic in the extreme. 

They also invoke the charter of Radio NZ, and its attendant mission to support NZ composition and performance, and then falsely underplay the huge role that RNZC has contributed to the dialogue. If ANY radio station fulfils the role, it is RNZC.

It seems to me, there doesn’t appear to be a plan. It seems like unresolved thinking around poll and questionnaire results, applied to demographics, in a scattered approach. 

 Also, think about the idea of an 18-35 demographic. I would argue this is the most transitional period in life, and what people might like at the age of 18 is highly unlikely to be the same things enjoyed at 25, 30, or 35. I’m not even going to mention cultural, racial, socio-economic, educational, and political differences within this demographic. 

And then what happens after this arbitrary demographic become older? Has thought been given to where their musical interests may gravitate? For centuries, older people have embraced art music. This is a trend that is solid, and why Art music has not and will not die out as Paul Thompson and Willy Macalister suggest. It is a complete misreading of the demographic trends in New Zealand (and every other Western society), that point to an ageing society. 

Simply speaking of the 18-35 year old demographic, as if it can be defined largely on age, is suspect. What they mention suggests a needs for at least 20 new stations – any or all of which would most likely attract far fewer numbers than those currently enjoyed by RNZC.

Now, should there be more public radio in New Zealand? Of course! I would absolutely be a stanch supporter of that proposition,  but to destroy that which is already a success, and a vital part of our very culture, feels a bit like throwing the baby out with the bath water. 

There is also a matter of destroying something that clearly has significant support,  and in turn supports an entire segment of our high culture, in a roll of the dice that people who do not engage with radio will suddenly engage with a new station.

As mentioned above, RNZ’s charter around New Zealand composition and performance is amply served by RNZC. The spurious argument that the bulk of what classical stations perform is not New Zealand content does not gel with their other statements around their acknowledgement that their new (as yet unformed) concept will be unable to offer an all- NZ content station. 

There is also the matter of the market, and the question of whether New Zealand content from genres other than Art Music are already being served.  I would suggest that they are. Destroying a successful radio station with a clearly-defined market, makes little sense.

If you are interested, you can listen to Paul Thompson and Willy Macalister’s fatuous, self-serving, and  ill-considered reasoning for the destruction of RadioNZ Concert here

I mentioned the quotas of New Zealand popular music that were gently imposed upon NZ Radio stations, and its attendant success. It was a masterful example of supporting the culture in a cost-effective manner, that was embraced by commercial interests. How on earth is the complete opposite of this faith and support shown to the unique culture of the country happening now?