Radio in New Zealand marked its centenary this week with tributes to its staying power in the past - and confident claims it’s here to stay in future. Several stations now have bigger audiences than ever and radio is the most profitable part of some commercial media companies. But back in 2014, Paul Thompson declared radio a “medium in decline.” Does he still think that?
“I've lived with this prediction that the demise of radio was just around the corner. It started with television in the early 60s - and it's gone on forever,” radio industry veteran Bill Francis told Morning Report’s co-host Corin Dann last Wednesday.
“It's not going to happen, Corin. Radio is as powerful as ever,” Francis said bullishly.
It was Francis who helped develop the Newstalk format back in the 1980s which ended up being the main commercial rival to National Radio - now RNZ National - and these days he sits on RNZ’s board.
The reason he was on its flagship new show that day was that it was one hundred years to the day since the first ever radio broadcast - a test transmission from Otago University.
“I can't think of a better thing if you were to invent it today - something you could have about you while you didn't have to hold it and gaze at it, like the phone, that kept you up to date and informed,” a former RNZ broadcaster and chief executive Sharon Crosbie told Morning Report the same day - after noting that you can engage fully with radio while chopping onions.
“What could be better? I simply wish that nothing will stop radio for another 100 years,” Sharon Crosbie said.
Check out Aotearoa on the air - 100 years of radio for plenty more about the centenary of radio in New Zealand and audio from the archives.
But one of her successors didn't quite have the same outlook back in 2014.
A few months into his stint, the current chief executive Paul Thompson declared radio “in long term decline.”
The percentage of Kiwis over 15 listening to radio at least once a week had slumped from 96 percent in 2000 to 79 percent by 2013, he told the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association in Glasgow.
Multimedia was the future, he said, but RNZ was “weak and almost irrelevant on the web.” (a comment that didn’t go down well at RNZ at the time . . . )
But it isn't now.
Radio New Zealand was rebadged as simply ‘RNZ’ to reflect the fact that it is now more than just radio. RNZ now offers podcasts, streaming audio and video content.
Yet as this week's centenary loomed, Paul Thompson was among those getting misty-eyed about old fashioned radio.
“My father Gordon was a car salesman and he occasionally appeared on local radio in Gisborne as part of his job. I was allowed to sit in the studio as he and the breakfast presenter went live on Radio 2ZG,” he wrote in The Listener magazine.
“I recall feeling the sense of wonder . . . and despite increasing competition for people’s time, the medium retains its power,” he wrote.
He backed that up with this stat: more than 80 percent of New Zealanders aged 10-plus listen to the radio each week.
But that’s in the same ballpark as the figure he quoted as evidence of decline in Glasgow seven years ago. Some commercial stations now report bigger audiences than ever - and radio is the most profitable part of some of our media companies.
Has radio’s popularity plummeted or plateaued?
“My speech - and thank you for bringing it up - was really a rallying cry to RNZ at the time that needed to broaden its scope and become more multi-platform,” Paul Thompson told Mediawatch.
“Structural decline is part of the reality and the challenge of radio,” he said, pointing to a William Gibson quote he also used in Glasgow in 2014: “The future is here, it's just unevenly distributed.”
“You just need to look at low levels of engagement around younger audiences. The latest New Zealand research from GFK shows 67 percent of 10 to 24 year-olds listen weekly, which is still really high - but that compares with 83 percent of 45 to 66 year-olds,” said Thompson.
What do we want from radio?
Recent audience surveys have shown some of those listeners drifting away from RNZ, prompting urgent reviews to reverse the decline.
Paul Thompson says research commissioned from Kantar tried to identify lapsed listeners.
“The research is telling us there is a fatigue around COVID News (which) is proving to be a turn off for some. I wouldn't be surprised if we've had really strong engagement in the latest lockdown but we won't know that until the next survey comes out,” he said.
“But RNZ audiences are larger than ever, because we have so many people coming to us on digital platforms and through our radical sharing of content with other media outlets,” he added.
“Radio has always been a live medium and that is an advantage. Perhaps it's less about the future of radio and more about the future of audio. Terrestrial radio delivery may become less important over time, but the power of audio, which is obviously the core of our radio, has a really great future - but it's going to be different,” he said.
Paul Thompson was recently re-elected as president of the Public Media Alliance, the world's largest global association of public broadcasters and public media companies.
Many of them face similar challenges.
The UK’s government last month published a digital radio and audio review which concluded “radio’s future must be both digital and multiplatform.”
“It will also be vital that its free-to-air route to market is guaranteed for the long-term,” the review said.
89 percent of the UK population tunes into radio every week, according to the latest figures released since the pandemic started.
That review said radio – for the first time in its 100 years – has become “partially reliant on non-broadcast infrastructure”
"Delivering a shared experience to a mass audience via a radio signal will eventually be eclipsed by the rise of audio tailored to an individual’s needs. New formats, platforms, business and funding models - and presenters - will emerge," Paul Thompson wrote in The Listener.
“What tends to happen is people add things to their media repertoire - and keep doing some of the older things, but also look to do newer things as well,” Paul Thomson told Mediawatch.
But terrestrial radio is universally free to receive over the regulated airwaves. There’s no need for an account with an ISP or a subscription or registration - just a radio.
Is that still important to Paul Thompson?
“I think it's massively important (for) public broadcasting - and it's in our Charter, public broadcasting is not just for those who have and can work a smartphone, who have a great broadband connection for the home WiFi. So I think the future is certainly . . . continuing to keep terrestrial radio as strong as we can, but also leaning into some of those other things as well,” Thompson told Mediawatch.
“That's one of the challenges that we have. We're still investing in AM infrastructure and that technology is nearly 100 years old. We support a lot of the wider radio industries AM services by hosting the transmission," he said.
"We've also got to be able to invest in digital delivery and apps and those customised and personalised services - so there's a bit of a tension there in terms of how we determine where we're going to invest our money,” said Thompson.
Concert controversy demonstrates depth of feeling
He created more than “a bit of tension” in 2020 when he spearheaded RNZ’s plan to reach new listeners with a new youth service. That involved a comprehensive rejig of RNZ Music and - most controversially - taking away RNZ Concert’s FM transmission.
Taking away a radio service from an audience that's grown up with it was a mistake?
“So our plan around establishing that youth network was underpinned by the fact that an FM audience would be successful - and we would then be able to build their audience across to other platforms. So that’s absolutely a key endorsement of the power of radio,” he said.
“The whole controversy was predicated around how important radio still is to New Zealanders - and I think it was a really sobering experience to be confronted with that opposition. One of our board members made the point to me that we're fortunate to have the loyalty and commitment of Concert listeners," Thompson said.
"It was bruising but it's a hell of an asset for us to have those people who feel so strongly. And obviously, we're really looking to make sure the station is assured after that,” he said.