Monday, March 16, 2020

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


If you’re not a New Zealander, you will probably not have heard of the recent and ongoing controversy about the possible downsizing – or even extinction – of a publicly-funded radio network.

Here in New Zealand we have a plethora of commercial radio stations, funded mainly by advertising revenue, and broadcasting what is the standard diet of commercial stations in most parts of the world – pop or rock music, talkback, sports commentaries, news (often supplemented by news commentaries from popular – or populist – pundits), and, of course, plenty of commercial breaks.

But we also have the two publicly-funded Radio New Zealand (RNZ) networks, neither of which carries advertisements.

RNZ National – still known to many listeners as the National Programme – is the broad interest network. Much to the annoyance of commercial rivals, it still attracts a larger listenership than any other station in the country, and it serves a very broad diet. Its weekday “Morning Report” is the most detailed reporting and real analysis of national and international news (as opposed to opinionated commentary) currently available on air in New Zealand. It is noted for the incisive and insistent style of its journalists when they interview politicians. Its Saturday morning programme consists largely of interviews with noted national or international figures in the arts or science or sociology – as well as interviews with local musicians in popular fields. It frequently broadcasts serialised readings from notable or acclaimed New Zealand novels. Its afternoon and evening sessions are rather more laid-back and almost populist - panel discussions, “light” music (quite a bit of pop now) and news bulletins, although the evening shows regularly have science programmes and philosophical discussions – I mean with real philosophers who know they are talking to a mass audience. You could say RNZ National is the mainstream broadcaster for the intelligent listener who doesn’t want to listen to advertisements.

The other RNZ network is RNZ Concert - still known to many listeners as the Concert Programme. It is, by design and intention, more high-brow. Most of its air-time consists of classical music. It has regular jazz programmes, and even programmes analysing pop or rock music. Certainly it carries recorded concerts from overseas – including operas from the Met – but it also broadcasts live concerts by New Zealand orchestras and ensembles and is, in effect, the network that lets us hear more New Zealand musicians than any other. Its interviews tend to be with people in the arts.  RNZ Concert is an easy target for populists – especially those who are affiliated to commercial stations – who like to label it as “elitist”; but although its audience share is modest compared with the audience share of  RNZ National, it is not negligible and it is larger than some of the smaller commercial stations. RNZ Concert broadcasts on FM.

The recent threat to RNZ Concert consisted of an ill-conceived proposal, publicly announced by a top RNZ administrator (who later claimed that it was all "miscommunication"), to strip the network of its FM frequency and reduce it to an AM station without announcers, without live broadcasts, but broadcasting only a playlist of pre-recorded (imported) classical music as dictated by a robot. In other words, it would become the mere shadow of a “classical music” station, with all its live broadcasts and spoken intellectual content gone. The FM frequency which RNZ Concert occupied was going to be handed over to a publicly-funded “Youth” channel. Some weeks later the disingenuous claim of "miscommunication" was publicly debunked by the exposure of documents which showed in full what this destructive plan was in its original and full form.

As it has played out so far – because the game is not over yet – this proposal has been met with a loud outcry from most of New Zealand’s intellectual community. It was pointed out that (a.) “youth” was already well served in terms of pop and rock music by all the commercial stations; (b.) as evidence swiftly showed, there is no such thing as one homogenous “youth culture” anyway, and many teenagers and young people belong to the country’s hundreds of school orchestras which train them in classical music. Some even spoke up to protest that Concert FM was and is essential to their musical education. Most telling of all, however, was (c.) the fact that in the main, non-classical-music-listening “youth” now tend to bypass any form of radio and listen to their preferred music on podcasts, down-loads, Spotify and their ilk. The campaign to save Concert FM is now well underway and very vocal. It appears to have been boosted by the intervention of a former Prime Minister, a great advocate of Concert FM,  who seems to have influenced our present Prime Minister to intervene when she had previously been sitting on the fence.

There have, of course, been the standard grumblings from commercial radio pundits about the “elitism” of RNZ Concert, often with the characterisation of the network’s listeners as “cardigan-wearing” old fogeys. But in an election year, when politicians now understand what a strong lobby supports RNZ Concert, the campaign to save the network in its present form is going to have much influence.

I should make it clear where I stand in all this. You will see what my tastes are if you look up a posting I wrote four years back called Elitist and Proud of It. I am all in favour of commercial-free, publicly-funded radio networks. True, I lsten to much of my preferred music on CDs (a form that is now being superseded), and when I go for walks, I’m usually listening to jazz on Spotify via hearing plugs. But where radio is concerned, my car radio is permanently tuned to RNZ Concert to accompany me in long or short car journeys, and the radio in my study is likewise always tuned to Concert FM. And the radios in my bedroom and kitchen are permanently tuned to RNZ National, so that I can listen while shaving or making breakfast or dinner.

To many neo-liberals, and certainly to those who personally profit from commercial radio, the very concept of publicly-funded radio is abhorrent. They are always ready to equate publicly-funded radio with the state-controlled systems of totalitarian states. Indeed some populist pundits mischievously refer to RNZ as “state” radio. This ignores the fact that RNZ operates as a corporation separate from the government of the day. It also ignores the fact that between them, RNZ National and RNZ Concert are now the only networks where intellectual content of any worth can be heard.

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