Hard News by Russell Brown

Doing it for the kids ...

It was interesting too see last night's One News item on a potential youth radio network, even if it was largely given over to opposition to a plan that doesn't actually exist yet.

What happened yesterday was that Radio New Zealand CEO Peter Cavanagh spoke to Wellington staff and told them that he was amazed when he arrived to take up the job that RNZ didn't provide more of a service to young New Zealanders. The impression is that he'll press for funding for a YRN.

That will be easier than you might think - indeed, assuming money from the education vote is still on the table, the money's not really the problem. Nor are frequencies, which are already reserved. But when the YRN was last seriously discussed, the response from the RNZ board and management was effectively that if they were to play a role, it would be under sufferance.

It didn't look the most propitious of circumstances in which to establish the venture, and I was among those concerned that a lot of money which could have been put in making programmes could be sunk into building a new edifice. The new willingness at the top to deliver youth radio as a core business seems to change the equation.

It's hardly a done deal, though, as Steve Maharey was at pains to emphasise last night. As broadcasting minister, Maharey has made some impressive strides in getting commercial broadcasters onside - in part through hearing out and acting on their grievances, but also by not committing himself to a YRN.

The upshot has been that the commercial sector has made the voluntary local quota scheme (sorry, "broadcast targets") work well - to the extent that it appears to actually be enjoying the thing it once regarded with horror. It still amazes me that during the last-but-one New Zealand Music Month, More FM not only played Goldenhorse, but had Goldenhorse play live in its studio. That's quite a change of culture, and not one you'd want to lose through a tantrum on the part of commercial radio.

Another concern with a national YRN is that it might risk trampling the little players in the regions it reaches, and possibly student radio too. If it were up to me to establish a YRN, it would be a fairly open model: do plenty of external commissioning, be willing to break out programming for supply to community broadcasters, don't be the 600lb taxpayer-funded gorilla.

I'm also not sure about simply adopting the Triple J model from Australia. Established as a publicly-funded youth network, Triple J has had the rather embarrassing experience of seeing teenagers and young adults drain away while older listeners hang on - pushing the station into competing more directly with a new crop of commercial rivals, which (in contrast with the situation here) didn't exist when it started up. Our radio market is different to Australia's - more crowded, more varied, more niche - and in a lot of ways that's good.

I don't think a YRN, if it comes to pass, should try and command the local youth experience, or be too sexy - it should, as National Radio does, offer things that nobody else can or does. National Radio itself already makes excellent contemporary music features which would shift easily to a YRN. If there's to be education budget money, then it should make some effort to tie in with the curriculum during the daylight hours (baby boomers will remember those classroom broadcasts) - and perhaps even pick up some ideas from Andrew Dubber's KidsNet proposal.

Anyway, it's obviously not my call, but I think might be interesting to watch what happens …