21 Nov 2021

Radio in NZ 100 not out - but what is its future?

From Sunday Morning, 3:06 pm on 21 November 2021

Radio in New Zealand marked its centenary this week with tributes to its staying power in the past and confident claims that it's here to stay in the digital age. 

But soon after he became Radio New Zealand's chief executive back in 2013, Paul Thompson said radio was a "medium in decline." Does he still think that?

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Photo: 123 RF

Multi-media was the future, he said back then, and since then, Radio New Zealand has become RNZ to reflect that it delivers online streaming, on-demand audio, podcasts and video content. 

But several New Zealand networks now have bigger audiences than ever and radio is the most profitable part of some of our commercial media companies. 

The earlier part of Thompson's journalism career was spent with newspapers which had to contend with the arrival of the internet that threatened their future. 

Now that he heads RNZ he said he faces fewer questions about the future of radio although some question the future of audio. 

"Radio's always been a live medium - it has that advantage because a lot of digital media is live. Perhaps it's less about the future of radio and more about the future of audio. Things like streaming and podcasts and time shifted listening are becoming huge and it's going to get bigger and bigger and terrestial radio delivery may become less important over time...

"What tends to happen is that people add things to their media repertorire and keep doing some of the older things but also look to do newer things as well. That's where radio is at the moment I think." 

Radio NZ CEO Paul Thompson

RNZ chief executive Paul Thompson  Photo: RNZ

Some recent research RNZ commissioned shows that its audience of all ages is choosing to listen to audio when it suits them rather than when it is broadcast live. 

"I think that's really quite a profound shift and a real opportunity." 

Thompson said the interest in podcasts, streaming, especially of music, and time-shifted listening will continue to grow. 

FM radio will continue to survive, he said, however, personalised services such as content choices (similar to how Netflix operates)  will expand in popularity. 

"I can't see that the power of radio which is around that intimate connection through your ears and being able to multi-task while you listen to great content, great programming, is going to change but the means of delivery certainly will shift."

Commercial broadcasters may face the biggest challenges - having to make their business models work in a new environment and he surmises that audio subscriptions may become more important while advertising may decline. 

"I suspect that will be one thing that might happen." 

Despite all the conjecture about the future delivery of broadcasting, free radio remains "massively important" and is part of the RNZ charter. 

"Radio has still got that ubiquitous power... We've got to be able to do both. We're still investing in AM infrastructure and that's nearly 100 years old, that technology, and we support a lot of the wider radio industries' AM services by hosting their transmission and we've also still got to be able to invest in digital delivery and apps and those customised and personalised services.

"There's a bit of attention there to how we determine where we are going to invest our money." 

RNZ presenter Kathryn Ryan has been named the 2015 International Radio Personality of the Year.

Kathryn Ryan, presenter of Nine to Noon.  Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

At a conference in Glasgow in 2014, Thompson mentioned that radio was in long-term decline. Today he said he was referring to a "structural decline". 

He described the speech as a "rallying cry" to RNZ as an organisation at the time that needed to "broaden its scope and become more multi-platform". 

Recent headlines have highlighted a drop in RNZ's audiences, but Thompson said audiences are actually larger than ever through digital platforms and the sharing of content in other media.  

While the research is highlighting some fatigue with Covid-19 coverage, he expects Auckland's lockdown may actually have led to more engagement from people. 

"I would point out our radio audiences are really strong and engaged." 

Asked about RNZ's efforts to appeal to younger people by setting up the Wireless website which did not last long and then his own attempt to use the Concert FM frequency to set up a youth radio service, he said  it was not about just one thing to appeal to young listeners. 

It was "a clear endorsement of the power of radio" although this could change within five to 10 years as more digital initiatives may appeal more to youth audiences. 

"It was a sobering experience to be confronted with that opposition," he said, recalling the "bruising" reaction from Concert FM listeners to the proposal which did not eventuate. 

Open mind on merger with TVNZ 

As far as the TVNZ-RNZ merger is concerned, a Cabinet decision is due in February. He said whatever decisions the government makes radio would continue to be enormously important. 

"Whatever happens around media policy and whatever decisions are made by the government, RNZ on air and online, is going to be a vital part of the future.

"If a new entity is created our services will be central to the success of that organisation and RNZ Concert, RNZ National, RNZ Pacific, our website - all of the things that we do will be carried into the new entity and will be really pivotal to it and there may even be new opportunities around radio and audio in that bigger entity if it's done correctly. 

"So I'm really keeping an open mind and reserving judgement until we see the shape of the policy but I think it could be a time when New Zealanders get a much more comprehensive public service, including all of the goodness that radio and audio can provide." 

'Starstruck' when visiting studio 

Thompson recalled his early experience in radio - not just listening for possible cancellations for his beloved junior football games on Radio 2ZG in Gisborne but also visiting the studio as a 10-year-old when his dad was being interviewed about his car dealing business. 

"Just this thought that from a small room  it gets beamed out into the community and I was really quite starstruck by that." 

Local radio has been a powerful presence in many communities, some quite small, and took off just a decade after its invention in 1921, he said. 

"I think that radio operates really well at all those levels and continues to do so, if you look at community and access radio and iwi radio right to this day."

Thompson said while there have been times when radio broadcasters have made mistakes, overall it has made a hugely positive contibution to the nation's wellbeing.

In the early days it was able to unite an isolated nation and it continues to be "a force for good".

Asked about the worst content that appears online, he said the RNZ charter talks about supporting a cohesive nation and providing an independent trusted news service and these conversations were happening within RNZ all the time. 

"It's a really uncertain time; there's a lot of fear circulating. 

"The big global tech platforms are disrupting the world; they are a conduit for hate and misinformation.

"One of the best antidotes to that is a really vibrant independent local media sector and I think we just have to keep the faith that the work we do as a public broadcaster is enormously important to provide a counterbalance to some of that hateful stuff."

Some of the negative dialogue is confined to a small group who don't reflect the views of the majority, he said. 

Trust in news and journalism in Aotearoa could be maintained by having a variety of reliable, sustainable news sources so people could access a range of media.