Tuesday, September 9, 2008

There, I've said it: RNZ is a treasure

(First published Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, September 3.)

Radio New Zealand has copped some flak lately, first from Bill Ralston in his Listener column and more recently from Paul Holmes in the Herald on Sunday.

If it occurs to you that these two critics have something in common, you’re right: they both work for private radio stations, which makes Radio New Zealand the opposition. So when they start picking the state broadcaster apart, it’s tempting to paraphrase the famous line by Mandy Rice Davies in the Profumo affair: Well, they would, wouldn’t they?

I’ve been critical of Radio New Zealand more than once myself, but I now find myself in the unfamiliar position of feeling compelled to defend it – not that it urgently needs my support, given that there are hundreds of thousands of Radio New Zealand listeners who are supremely indifferent to the views of Ralston and Holmes.

Even an enthusiastic proponent of capitalism, as I am, can concede that there is such a thing as market failure, where for one reason or another the private market doesn’t provide a desired or necessary service. There is a powerful “public good” argument for a national radio network that has other objectives besides strictly commercial ones – one that can devote resources to matters of public interest and importance that private radio can’t be bothered with.

That’s the philosophical justification (if that’s not too grand a word) for the existence of Radio New Zealand, and if further justification is required it’s provided by the fact that the network attracts a very substantial audience that has obviously decided commercial radio has little to offer it.

According to the latest research that I could find on the RNZ website, National Radio (I use this term in preference to the clumsy Radio New Zealand National) had 487,000 listeners in an average week last year. I’m one of those listeners, and while it goes without saying that there are aspects of National Radio that could be improved, my quality of life – and that of many other people I know – would be greatly diminished without it.

My day starts with the good cop-bad cop pairing of Geoff Robinson and Sean Plunket on Morning Report and segues into Kathryn Ryan’s Nine-to-Noon, at which point I usually have to switch the radio off in order to get some work done. In the afternoons I catch bits of Jim Mora’s programme, though never as much as I would like, and in the evening I often hear a repeat of something interesting on Brian Crump’s show.

Being a poor sleeper I also listen to parts of the All Night Programme, hosted in alternate weeks by Lloyd Scott and Vicki McKay. The hours between midnight and 6am were once a dreary wasteland of insipid orchestral music and cloying announcers but those days, mercifully, are long gone. Both presenters are excellent but Scott, in particular, is the consummate all-night host, bringing to the programme a gentle, whimsical intimacy that is perfectly suited to the timeslot.

Over the years National Radio has shaken off the stuffy and sometimes pompous formality that it was once known for and attuned itself to the baby-boomer demographic, which I suspect is now its core audience. The programmers no longer assume the average listener is a cardigan-wearing, pipe-smoking superannuitant (though older listeners can still enjoy a burst of nostalgic, old-style National Radio on Saturday and Sunday nights). Hosts are given licence to be irreverent and even slightly subversive – as in Matinee Idle, the idiosyncratic summer music show hosted by Phil O’Brien and Simon Morris.

But the key to National Radio’s appeal is the amount of information it packs into a day. A person who did nothing but listen to Nat Rad all day would be well informed on a range of subjects from politics to the arts, farming to international affairs. You’d still need your daily paper to know what was going on locally, but that aside, National Radio has the bases pretty well covered. No private station comes close to matching it, regardless of what Ralston and Holmes may say.

There’s always a “but”, however, and RNZ’s greatest weakness is that like most state-owned broadcasting organisations, including the BBC and Australia’s ABC, it has a systemic and pervasive lean to the left – not so much in its hard news and current affairs content, which is generally fair and balanced these days, but in its “softer” interview programmes and documentaries. There seems to be an erroneous assumption by some of its producers and presenters that the listeners all share their own cosy, soft-left view of the world.

Political correctness even extends to the children’s stories RNZ broadcasts. It seems that any story with a Maori theme is guaranteed a broadcast, regardless of its quality. Some of these stories are wretchedly bad and if broadcasting them at 6am on weekends didn’t put children off, the content would – though I can imagine a certain type of earnestly liberal Wellington parent standing over their unfortunate offspring and demanding they listen.

Having said that, National Radio appears to have made a genuine effort in recent years to be more even-handed. On programmes such as Chris Laidlaw’s Sunday show and Jim Mora’s afternoon programme, the range of political views is much wider and more balanced than it used to be. This is no more nor less than listeners are entitled to, since Radio New Zealand as a state-owned broadcaster has an obligation to be neutral.

Other grizzles? Well, I’ve expressed myself elsewhere on the consistent refusal of National Radio’s Mediawatch to subject its host broadcaster to the critical scrutiny it applies to other branches of the media. That aside, what puzzles rather than irritates me most about RNZ is the substantial sum of money it wastes on execrable radio plays, atrociously written and badly acted. I can’t believe that anyone, save perhaps for the actors themselves, actually listens to them.


Deborah Coddington said...

I used to be a staunch critic of NatRad - as an MP wrote a paper "Saving Public Radio" which was much misrepresented but essentially said that if we want to retain public broadcasting, then it must be that, not broadcasting for one sector of the community, ie, the liberals - and exclude any voices of dissent from the right.
But I think the new CEO has changed things for the better. Jim Mora is definitely miles better now. Sean Plunket irritates me - but I think few people understand how difficult radio interviewing is. It's not like print journalism, where if you forget to ask something you can ring them back and check. So Sean's okay. I don't listen to Kathryn Ryan as I'm outside working usually. The rural programmes are terrifically good. Eva Radich is a good interviewer when she's filling in. I think the one big let-down is Gael Woods, who seems to be a spokeswoman for the Labour education ministers, or the Ministry, or the teacher unions, and we never get to hear from principals such as Brent Lewis, Roger Moses, John Morris, etc, - those who constantly rub up against the education bureaucracy. It means Woods lets herself down as I can't take her seriously.

Truth Seeker said...

If it weren't for RNZ, I'd not own a radio at all. The commercial Morning Moron stations and the dribbling-idiot Radio Live leave radio in New Zealand a wasteland but for RNZ.

It's interesting you see them as "left-leaning". I put that down to RNZ covering stories the right-wing Fairfax and APN newspapers chains under-cover because the reality of the facts in those stories conflicts with editorial and proprietorial preconceptions.

For example, a commentator like Matthew Hooten doesn't have just another point of view. Such a commentator is one-eyed with respect to the evidence to the point of deeption - either of himself, or all of us - or both.

So what some now see s "balance" I have come to see as including the misconceptions and preconceptions of people incapable of looking at ALL the evidence.

RNZ is able to look at all the evidence....which is why some people tend to see them as left-leaning.

I'm NOT saying that is what you are doing, or have done. But that is what I have seen many people do.

I reject dismissing verifiably correct information out of hand as ideologically interested. It isn't.

But that is what people like Matthew Hooten, Deborah Hill-Cone and others do. Which is why I have little time for them as informed commentators. That they are on RNZ at all is shameful.

Reality deserves better.

The phanTom said...

If RNZ is a treasure they should bury it again - along with any remaining maps to it's whereabouts. I prefer "radio Live" myself, but then, I am just a dumb red-neck. RNZ seems to me to be a bastion of left-leaning white middle class bean-sprout munchers, with a fondness for fondu-nights and granolla bars. At least on Radiolive they don't take it all that seriously : we eat meat! We drink beer! And we watch league! Also, we give Maori a chance! Who on RNZ has their own show like Willy Jackson and John Tamihere? Correct me if I am wrong.