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Thursday, 23 May 2019 11:08 pm

Can the click of a mouse save public broadcasting? Maybe…

EXPRESSING your opinion these days is easier than ever. One mouse click lets the world know that you like coffee, listen to Pearl Jam or object to animal cruelty. SABRINA DANKEL looks at how nearly 20,000 clicks might “save” Radio New Zealand:

CHRIS Armstrong got to know about the apparent need to save New Zealand’s only public broadcaster through a friend.

Not through a normal friend, though: the two former work mates communicate mainly on a virtual level.

It was on social networking site Facebook, where it was suggested to Armstrong to join a group called “Save Radio New Zealand“, a campaign against a National-led government proposal to freeze the public broadcaster’s funding.facebookMAIN

All he needed to do to join the protest was to click on a little icon on the top of his Facebook profile page: “Chris Armstrong is now a fan of Save Radio New Zealand.”

More than 400 million people worldwide have joined Facebook since it was founded in 2004. It allows its members to create user profiles that include contact details and lists of personal interests and hobbies.

Users can connect with their friends’ accounts and get in touch with people who share the same interests by creating or joining interest groups and fan pages.

Save Radio New Zealand” is just one of more than 620 million interest groups on Facebook, and it is a place for the average person to express their opinion on the Radio New Zealand debate.

Since its founding on February 17, 2010, the group on the social networking site has gained more than 19,000 fans and continues to grow (making it more popular than the Prime Minister’s fan group).

But is it really that easy? Can a mouse click – or more precisely, a lot of mouse clicks – change society?

One who may know is Martin Hirst, Associate Professor of Journalism at Auckland University of Technology and a former ABC broadcaster.

Virtual protest through websites like Facebook is an interesting way of campaigning to raise awareness – but not much more, he says.

A Facebook group is an interesting thing to campaign with, but there is only so much your Facebook friends can do. “It’s a virtual thing – it’s not real until people go out and protest on the streets.”

Luke Appleby, technology blogger for Stuff.co.nz, agrees. “These groups can be indirectly powerful, by coming to the attention of the media outlet, which then reports the group, thus raising the profile of the cause.”

According to the latest Radio NZ audience research by Nielsen Media, 84% of 1000 randomly selected New Zealanders agree it is important for New Zealand to have a public service radio broadcaster.

Appleby says internet groups are still a quiet form of protest. Their influence might not be strong enough to affect any direct changes in society and they can not be presented the same way as a petition.

“There is nothing like a good old-fashioned picketed demonstration to make a point, as it brings the protest into the physical realm as opposed to the virtual.”

Scoop editor Alastair Thompson says people on line do not feel like protesting: “It‘s more of a social activity.”

However, members of the “Save Radio New Zealand” Facebook group have managed to turn their virtual rebellion into real protests.

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TEE SHIRT: Neil Watts wants to save RNZ.

At the end of February, the first of a series of nationwide “sit in/tune in” protests took place on Parliament grounds in Wellington, when about 200 people gathered to tune in to National Radio.

One of the protestors, Sara Fraser, said it was sad that a country like New Zealand had only one national voice on the airwaves.

“Radio NZ gets treated like an add-on by the Government, and is not respected in the way it should be. It is a voice of the people, it doesn‘t matter what age you are, what ethnic or economic background you come from, it speaks to all New Zealanders and so the government should respect that.”

Wellingtonian Neil Watts got himself a Save Radio New Zealand tee-shirt and is actively involved in the campaign. “The beautiful thing about Radio NZ is that it is independent.”

MusicianMAIN

PROTEST FOR QUALITY: Musician Luke Rowell.

He said because basic media representation for the people was the cornerstone of democracy, New Zealand needed a news medium that was not compromised by loyalty to the government and commercial sponsors.

Radio NZ’s main focus lies on informative talk-back shows, but the station is highly valued amongst musicians.

Luke Rowell from the Wellington band Disasterradio said Radio NZ was a large voice for musicians like himself. “What they provide in terms of their reviews and their criticism of music and their support for independent music – there is nothing like it.”

Like many others, he grew up with the station. “I grew up as a kid thinking that state radio was a God-given right. If you’re going to pull back the programme it’s going to affect anyone.”

SaveMAIN

SIT IN/TUNE IN: Protesters gather outside Parliament to save NZ's last public broadcaster.

This is not the first time Radio NZ has needed “saving”. It has been kicked around by politicians on previous occasions.

The difference this time is the public support for New Zealand’s last public service broadcaster – back in the 1990s, when there was a move to remove public broadcasting – massive campaigning by the station itself was needed to raise awareness.

NewsRoom business website founder and editor Peter Fowler led the 1996/1997 campaign against the demolition of Radio NZ’s home in Wellington.

“The destruction of Broadcasting House next to Parliament was scandalous and needless, but a good example of the regard Radio New Zealand has been held in by past National Governments,” he says.

firstbroadcast

NZ's first parliament broadcast (pic: google)

When Broadcasting House was demolished in 1997 – after it mysteriously caught fire – Radio NZ not only lost its base, but also a symbol for public broadcasting.

“One major effect was the loss of some of the best studios in the Southern Hemisphere. I regard the attack on Broadcasting House as just another example of the attack on public broadcasting itself. What better way to demoralise someone than to evict them and demolish their home.”

Radio New Zealand lost the building, but saved broadcasting.

Scoop’s Alastair Thompson says in the 1990s the New Zealand media was at a higher standard than nowadays and therefore the public did not appreciate the threat of losing Radio New Zealand as a public broadcaster as much as they do today.

“People are finding the media very disappointing at the moment, but back in the 90s there was lots of alternatives, so newspapers were a lot better, TV was a lot better and Radio NZ didn‘t stand out as it does now.”

The current debate was triggered by Minister of Broadcasting Dr Jonathan Coleman‘s announcement Radio NZ would need to cut costs as public funding was not to be increased.

RNZ supporters now fear the station could be forced into commercialisation and thus lose its impartiality.

“The Radio NZ debate boils down to the argument that taxpayer-funded radio is taking profits away from commercial radio bosses who have to compete on the crowded free market,” Fowler says.

He says the public broadcaster can be politically manipulated by the amount of funding any given government decides to give it: “It can weaken its news gathering and reporting abilities in particular by slashing overall funding.”

Green Party MP Sue Kedgley agrees that Radio NZ is being treated by the Government like a political football.

If Radio NZ is forced to embed advertisement into their programmes, the station will lose another reason for being, she says. “It will not be immune from the pressure of businesses and advertisers, it will stop talking about the issues the advertisers don’t want to talk about…it will lose its impartiality.”BuildingMAIN

Fowler says Radio NZ may have to take drastic steps, such as going off-air for parts of the night and cutting back programmes, and news and core services would be affected.

The station was granted nearly $32 million for 2009/2010 by NZ On Air, the government broadcasting agency that is principal funder for RNZ National and RNZ Concert.

This sounds like a lot of money at first, but – as Hirst points out – with Radio NZ being a public service for the whole population of New Zealand there is not much money left if you break it down per capita: “It‘s not a lot of money per person.”

While companies like the ABC in Australia or the BBC in the UK have the resources to provide public service broadcasting that reaches every person in the country, Radio NZ has not enough money to do so, he says.

“In Australia they have a national network (like National radio here) and a youth network and also several other regional networks to cover local events. Radio NZ can‘t do those kinds of things – there is only one radio station for the entire country.”

Radio New Zealand also cannot afford to have a web presence like the BBC. “The BBC is a multi-media company, if you like, whereas Radio NZ unfortunately is just a radio station with a website.”

He says Coleman‘s announcement was a politically motivated threat to the existence of the last bastion of public service broadcasting in New Zealand.

United Future leader Peter Dunne, who attended the protest outside Parliament, says Radio NZ has been kicked around by politicians for the last decade or so.

“The parties of the right tend to take the view that Radio NZ’s role as a national broadcaster is overstated. The left-wing parties say it is a public service that needs to be funded by tax payers.”

Peter Fowler says both the left and the right-wing parties have strangled funding to RNZ for the past 25 years, particularly since the election of the 1984 Lange Government.

“Just as John Key wants New Zealand to be a financial hub of the world, so it should also be a media hub of the world, particularly given our time differences with the Northern Hemisphere. You can‘t run an international financial hub without having a media hub to support it.”

Rather than shrinking the reach of Kiwi broadcasters, the government should be extending it globally through television, radio and the internet, he says.

Martin Hirst says any cutback will push people towards commercial radio and television: “I think Radio NZ will always be a political football, no matter what government.”

Fowler says RNZ had a very strong lobby and the outcome of the debate would depend on the “showing of the lobby.

“I feel successive governments have seriously lacked vision in the field of broadcasting, particularly with the arrival of the Internet.”

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is a graduate from Whitireia Journalism School, now working for a rock magazine in London.
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  1. Great article Sabrina. Topical, balanced and informative. Some commercial newspaper publishers could learn a great deal about journalism from you.
    One point for clarification: Radio New Zealand provides plenty of current affairs/news programmes and hosts intelligent, balanced and informed debate. But, it isn’t ‘talkback’. The term talkback refers to stations like Radio Live where members of the public call up and talk to the host about whatever is on their mind – typically unintelligent and uninformed.
    Whilst campaigning for Save Radio New Zealand at the Homegrown Festival, I found that many Kiwis – particularly younger people – think that Radio New Zealand is a talkback station.
    Perhaps some clearer marketing is needed by Radio New Zealand on this. Not that they have the budget for marketing.
    Otherwise, great stuff!
    Congratulations on a bright career ahead.

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