Hard News by Russell Brown


Radio NZ: Sailing on in straitened times

In any given week, a Google News search will tell you how many public interest stories originate with our public broadcaster. This or that public figure will have "told Radio New Zealand" something that becomes a story for everyone else.

Historically, that's because the news shows at either end of the day -- Morning Report and Checkpoint -- have acted as, respectively, an agenda-setter and a clearing house for daily political news in particular. But is that still the case? Can that still be the case?

The government's decision to freeze RNZ's budget provoked a minor rebellion from the broadcaster's board, and a "Save Radio New Zealand" campaign that achieved real momentum. But Christine Grice has ended her term as chair, to be replaced by Richard Griffin, a smooth operator of some note. Griffin's deputy chair is Josh Easby, who made his pile in commercial radio. And the budget stays capped.

Griffin recently declared -- having failed to convince his board of the merits of commercial sponsorship -- it was a "very real possibility" that RNZ could establish a trust to solicit donations from the public to fund its operations. In the meantime, RNZ has tried to make ends meet by selling a couple of pianos. Griffin granted to Parliament's commerce select committee that cake stalls might also be an option.

The strain is starting to show. The station no longer has a Maori affairs correspondent or a social issues correspondent. Its overseas travel budget is now down to $30,000 annually -- just a little more than Rodney Hide spent on a single jaunt for himself and his girlfriend.

But perhaps there's more to it than that. Sean Plunket might have been a difficult employee at times -- not least for his chief executive -- but he made things happen on Morning Report. (I'm told -- by my Mum --that his new Wellington ZB audience, weary of talkback demagogues, is enjoying his more open, discursive style. )

Am I alone in drifting off Morning Report since he has been replaced by Simon Mercep? I may well be: surveys say Radio New Zealand's cumulative audience has increased notably since Plunket's departure, although the earthquakes in Christchurch may well have been a factor there.

A less obvious, but more troubling problem is that many ministers from this government simply do not turn up on Morning Report. There are exceptions -- Steven Joyce, Gerry Brownlee -- but when was the last time you heard Anne Tolley get a grilling, or the Prime Minister himself?

I'll be talking to Radio NZ's head of news, Don Rood, on this week's Media7 about how the operation is travelling in straitened times -- and why our national public broadcaster may not be able to bring its half a million listeners any substantial coverage of the Rugby World Cup.

I'm the sort of person who quite often listens to the second hour of Checkpoint. I'm interested in what you all think, given the crossover between the relatively small audience at this website and the much larger one served by Radio New Zealand.


If you'd like to join us for tomorrow evening's Media7 recording -- where I'll also talk to John Hagen and John Gray, the director and "star" respectively of A Rotten Shame, the documentary on the leaky homes crisis that has navigated a legal minefield to get to its screening slot on TV one at 9.30 tomorrow -- then we'll need you to come to the Victoria Street entrance of TVNZ between 5.15 and 5.40pm. As ever, try and drop me a line to let me know you're coming.

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