10 Jul 2022

Radio Australia? RNZ's musical outsourcing under fire

From Mediawatch, 9:10 am on 10 July 2022

The bombastic tunes broadcasters use for news become so familiar we barely notice them - until they change. RNZ is being criticised by local musicians and their industry bodies over its decision to outsource the $43,000 contract for new theme music to an Australian outfit. 

Trumpeter performing. (Photo by Tom Merton/Caia image/SCIENCE PH / NEW / Science Photo Library via AFP)


Listeners tuning in to RNZ’s Morning Report at 6am sharp on the 30th of May were greeted with an unfamiliar, and perhaps for some, disturbing, sound.

Gone were the blaring horns that had introduced the show for the last eight years.

In their place was a wash of swirling synths, plucked strings, and ethereal whale cry-esque interjections.

The new theme was composed by the outfit Song Zu in what RNZ dubbed a “sonic refresh” for Morning Report and its other major news shows, Checkpoint and Midday Report. 

It was certainly easier on the nerves than the old news music.

But there was one problem: Song Zu is based in Australia and Singapore.

RNZ’s decision to outsource the contract overseas has provoked an outcry from local musicians and their industry bodies.

In an interview with The Spinoff, Screen Music and Sound Guild of New Zealand co-chair Polly McKinnon said the decision was a “slap in the face” for local composers and sound designers.

1News reporter Benedict Collins followed up on the growing unrest, lodging an Official Information Act request which revealed RNZ had spent $43,000 on the composition and rights for the updated theme

That likely beats the annual salaries of some of our cash-strapped musicians. 

Local songwriter Rhian Sheehan told Stuff the outsourcing spoke to a wider issue with trusting local songwriters. 

"There is so much talent out there that is not being nurtured ... or trusted. We don’t need to go offshore to have a piece of music written for anything. 

If there was a running theme in these complaints, it was that local musicians are perfectly capable of delivering a great news intro of their own.

in The Spinoff, McKinnon said she could name “literally hundreds” of musicians who could’ve done the job equally well.

Jeremy Toy and the Serato Roland DJ808

Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

This week Mediawatch decided to put that to the test. We called up local songwriter and synth expert Jeremy Toy to see what sort of news theme he could slap together in a couple of days for free.

He came up with two good themes, one of which he wrote during a meeting.

"There's so many musicians who would be willing to take this up. If I got paid for a day I could turn in 10 versions of a news theme and one might be fairly okay, and that's just me. It doesn't make sense in that regard because there's so many good composers."

Toy saw the decision to outsource as possibly being the result of a lingering cringe about employing local talent.

"There's still that feeling that people overseas know better than people in New Zealand. There's that element of it that's kind of yuck."

RNZ said it did consider local options before settling on Song Zu.

The production company was eventually chosen because of its recent work with the multilingual and multicultural Australian public broadcaster, SBS, and also their experience with the use of indigenous instrumentation.

It worked with local composer Jim Hall, who specialises in the use of Māori instrumentation, and the final music suite includes Māori elements including taonga pūoro and porotiti.

But does the new theme tune stack up with the best of the best internationally? 

Victor Vlam on screen in the news

Victor Vlam on screen in the news Photo: supplied

Dutch collector Victor Vlam is one of the best-credentialed people in the world to make that assessment. He holds the world record for the largest catalogue of news music, with his recordings spanning 1876 hours, 2 minutes and 52 seconds.

He gave the new theme a positive review, noting its combination of electronic elements and strings.

"It suggests something that's quite modern, quite contemporary, and at the same time the strings suggest that it's newsy. It's more urgent," he said. "If I had it in my collection I would probably play it multiple times."

Vlam said he wasn't surprised the contract for the theme had gone overseas. 

Broadcasters often outsource their theme music to companies and composers with a proven track record, such as the writer behind the instantly recognisable BBC news theme, David Lowe. 

"Those bigger companies tend to have more experience. That experience tends to be beneficial because what makes news music hard to create is that most only last a few seconds," he said. "When it comes to news you have to make your point very quickly, succinctly, and that's actually quite hard."

But for Toy, the fact that RNZ is funded by government money made that decision sting more. 

It was one thing for a commercial company to go offshore with contracts, but another for a public entity with a remit for fostering local content, he said.

"Why not just have somebody here make music here for the people that are going to listen to it?"