Hard News by Russell Brown


Radio Times

Noelle McCarthy has responded tartly to Bill Ralston's Listener column depicting Radio New Zealand National as a "rest home" serving "an insipid menu of stewed apple and bananas" with a side order of "smug, hand-wringing liberal contortions".

Amusingly, it's one columnist who used to wait tables at Prego slapping back at another who probably has a table there on timeshare.

I can't point you to the whole of Ralston's column, owing to The Listener's dogged policy of keeping nearly all columns off its website until they're irrelevant.

But I know what Ralston is on about: someone once described the problem at Radio New Zealand to me as one of "cardigan wearers" who would not give way to new talent or ideas. I've used that as mental shorthand ever since. But it seems odd that Ralston should be making such a case now.

As Noelle points out, she's yet to hit 30. The youngest of Radio Live's frontline hosts, James Coleman, turns 40 this year. So it's a little hard to convincingly run the "rest home" and "baby boomer" lines.

But Ralston is not exactly looking to win the argument on mere facts.

"I'm not sure if the audience has deserted the network or if the audience had abandoned its audience," he declares, apparently off the top of his head. "However, I am convinced these days RNZ National is broadcasting almost solely to itself and the few dozen people who control its funding. It is impossible to tell how many people do listen because it no longer participates in the industry ratings survey, preferring to run its own polling and surveys that invariably show it is doing its job admirably."

Well, yes, RNZ did leave the Research International radio ratings survey nine years ago (so it's hardly some Helengrad plot), but even if it was to re-enter the survey, it still would not appear in the ratings. The commercial broadcasters want it that way, because excluding the large bloc of "non-commercial listeners" makes their audience shares look bigger.

But "impossible to tell"? Really?

This page carries research conducted every 10 weeks by Nielsen Media, which finds that the "total weekly live audience for Radio New Zealand National is 525,000 or about 16% of the 15+ population." That's an increase of nearly 150,000 over 2006.

It's also more listeners than were attracted by any commercial radio station in the same period (albeit that they're being counted by two different surveys; the commercial survey is all listeners 10+, so the potential audience is slightly larger). It's nearly four times more than Radio Live.

This seems a rather extreme case of just making shit up. But if it's to be all about impressions, well and good. I work from home and I listen to a lot of radio. Here's my take:

Morning Report: There is no substitute. Whether you love or hate what you hear, it sets the daily agenda. I try and catch Mikey's chats on bFM with the political leaders, or simply to hear what Mikey's doing.

Kathryn Ryan: Consistent but unspectacular, except when it gets to break a story, when it can set an agenda. Tends to burble away in the background. You'd have to torture me to make me listen to Michael Laws or Leighton Smith.

Midday report: Sometimes. More often, I'm over with The Wire on bFM.

Afternoons: I'm enjoying Noelle being there, but the afternoon programming is an odd mix of MOR elements that will sometimes have me wondering why I'm listening. (Then I switch over to b, or occasionally Ralston on Live, or use the iPod.) But I think it probably suits many listeners well enough. The Panel? Sometimes there's Clive Matthew-Wilson or Matt Nippert and sometimes there are just more conservative blowhards blathering about their gut instinct.

Checkpoint: Not as compulsory as it used to be, and I'm not sure why, but still the best radio summary of the day's issues and arguments.

Bryan Crump: Not radio time for me, but I am sometimes pleasantly surprised when I do catch it.

Saturday morning with Kim Hill: Much as I admire the work of Chris Bourke, I think Mark Cubey's arrival in the producer's chair gave this show new places to go. Playing Favourites usually works well -- I loved the Graeme Downes one on Saturday. And she's just really good: it's like a sort of premium service having someone think for me so I can just much on my croissant and think "that's interesting". Some mornings I'll drift off to bFM or Radio Live later on, or go to Hype Machine online and see what the hot new tunes are.

Saturday afternoons: In its way, the standout in the schedule. Simon Morton's 'This Way Up' is inventive, informative and warm, and the music programming that follows is really savvy. I like hearing Trevor Reekie and (currently standing in for Nick Bollinger) Troy Ferguson talk about music, the live recordings are frequently excellent, and I like the scrupulous back and forward announcing of tracks on Music 101. The live recordings, recorded and mixed by Andre Upton I've listened for hours at a stretch some Saturdays.

[Only problem: Graeme Hill's Radio Live show, in which he has admirable freedom, is often really good too. (And, of course, Public Address Radio is totally choice at 5pm every Saturday. We're informative, warm and casual, and Craig Ranapia is a delight. No, really, you should check us out.)]

On Sunday mornings, I like to catch Mediawatch, but the rest of Chris Laidlaw's show really does answer to many of the clich├ęs Ralston hurls about. It is often a matter of male fiftysomethings grunting agreement at each other, and Laidlaw's management of discussions is so passive I sometimes wonder if he has fallen asleep. Perhaps it's what the audience wants (Noelle might not want to face it, but the average age of RNZ listeners is remarkably high) but for me at 10am it's usually over to Radio Live for Finlay Macdonald and Andrew Patterson and guests, who include Rob O'Neill and that Smithies chap. Good show.

Sunday afternoons: For some reason, I don't listen so much. I'll sometimes catch Chris Knox and other things on Graeme Hill's show. The late afternoon programming on RNZ can be good-- the Reith lecture on China and the religious issues programme Touchstone, both from the BBC, were excellent yesterday -- but I'm often listening to the Hype Machine-friendly Sunday drive on b by then.

One more element of Radio NZ's performance warrants mention: the internet. No other broadcaster has responded to the shift online as well as Radio NZ has under the guidance of Richard Hulse. The website delivered four million "programmes or programme parts" last year. That's really pretty good.

So there you have it: thoughts?

PS: There's a public broadcasting theme in Media7 this week too. We'll be discussing National's new Charter-free broadcasting policy with its broadcasting spokesman Jonathan Coleman, South Pacific Pictures' John Barnett and Paul Norris of the Broadcasting School in Christchurch. If you'd like to come along (and even bring a friend) to The Classic tomorrow, hit "reply" and let me know.

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