Paradihm Lost – Radio Back On

By Tom Frewen

Noel Leeming in Levin stocks eight
portable radios ranging in price from around $90 down to $35
for pocket transistor radios — the most popular personal
electronic communication device before the Walkman and the

 Powered by replaceable, long-lasting
batteries sold in shops, the transistor radio is not
dependent on electricity supply, a critical advantage during
power cuts, as National Radio reminded listeners in a
hastily cobbled together trailer that followed the 10pm news
bulletin on Sunday night as Cyclone Gabrielle slowly faded
away to the south-east.

“The radio keeps
delivering,” proclaimed an announcer ahead of a soundbite
from a female caller who said: “The only thing we had was
a little tiny transistor radio with some AA batteries and
that was a real lifeline.”

The next programme was
Mediawatch. Before indulging themselves in their regular
weekly attack on their commercial rivals at NewstalkZB,
co-presenters Colin Peacock and Hayden Donnell, marching
down their shallow ditch around the echo chamber inside the
political bubble that is Woke Wellington in the 2020s,
surveyed coverage of the cyclone.

Among the people
they talked to was Radio New Zealand’s very own head of
news, Richard Sutherland, who said: “It has certainly been a
reminder to generations who have not been brought up with
transistor radios (that) they are important to have in a
disaster. This will also sharpen the minds of people on just
how important ‘legacy’ platforms like AM transmission are in
civil defence emergencies like the one we’ve

“Over the years, and for a number of
reasons, a lot of them financial, all news organisations
have contracted. And you contract to your home city or a big
metropolitan area, because that’s where the population is,
and that’s where the bulk of your audience is,” he

“But this cyclone has reminded us all as a
nation, that it’s really important to have reporters in the
regions, to have strong infrastructure in the

The editor of Hawke’s Bay Today, Chris
Hyde, said “Just keep supporting local news, because in
moments like this, it really does matter.”

In fact,
having local news matters all the time, as does having a
radio. When you’re alone, crouching in the attic as flood
waters rise or lying on a slab in an MRI scanner, just the
sound of people talking on the radio in the room next door
is reassuring, calming and comforting.

especially in the middle of the night, is radio’s greatest
gift as a medium. It is unfortunate, in this regard, that
Mediawatch made no mention of Radio New Zealand’s very own
midnight-to-dawn presenter Vicki McKay, who, as the storm
raged and chaos reigned, carried on carrying on, reprising
her superb performance when Christchurch was rocked by the
September 2010 earthquake.

“Your brain becomes a
sponge for detail and the mind zones in on the facts and
figures,” she says in her profile on Radio New Zealand’s
website which is badly in need of updating. “Radio is such
an immediate service industry and it is so important to
deliver such news as accurately and quickly as possible. As
the official National Civil Defence Radio Station, we also
have a responsibility to do this without alarming our
listeners unnecessarily. So it is a delicate

Ms Mckay, who has been employed by Radio New
Zealand for just under 40 years says: “I have worked here
alongside an army of professional broadcasters and
journalists who ensure our listeners are informed to the
very best of our ability. How lucky am I to have chosen a
career that I love?”

Sadly, the enthusiam that Vicki
McKay and Richard Sutherland have for radio as a medium does
not appear to be shared by their boss, Radio New Zealand’s
chief executive, Paul Thompson.

Barely eight months
after his appointment in September 2013, he flew to Glasgow
to deliver the keynote speech to the Commonwealth
Broadcasting Association Conference. His speech notes
reveal, with less than eight months’ experience in
broadcasting following a 15-year career in newspaper
journalism and management, he had realised that by taking
the top job in New Zealand’s public radio he’d jumped
onto a sinking ship.

“The evidence is clear that
traditional media are in decline,” he’d decided,
“Radio, television and newspapers are merging into digital
devices that are always switched on.

The future of
content delivery is multi-media, multi-platform,
personalised, mobile and social.”

As Marshall
McLuhan might have said: The medium is dead, long live the
message. But not on radio. To stay relevant and continue
serving the public, Mr Thompson said Radio New Zealand had
to become a multimedia organisation.”

He also wanted
to highlight three troubling facts:

“We are weak
(almost irrelevant) on the web.

“As a radio
broadcaster, we lack visual journalism and digital
story-telling skills.

“Our preferred method of
content delivery – radio – is in long-term

Nearly a decade later, Radio New
Zealand’s website still languishes a distant third to
Stuff (Dominion Post) and NZME (the Herald). According to a
table compiled by SimilarWeb, an Israeli web analytics
company, the websites of Stuff and the Herald get around 39
million visits per month compared with’s 7.8

Of course radio lacks “visual journalism”
(video) and “digital story-telling skills” (text on
screens with hyperlinks). Radio is the medium of the mind.
That is its greatest strength. Checkpoint’s Lisa Owen
tells listeners to check a video of a story they’ve just
heard on their car radio in the hope they’ll remember to
do that when they get home.

As for radio being in
long-term decline as a medium, audiences for New Zealand’s
commercial radio networks remain at pre-internet figures of
around 3.6 million listeners per week. Radio New Zealand’s
latest survey, however, reveals an alarming dip of 8.5
percent in National’s audience, appearing to confirm
anecdotal accounts of growing disillusionment with its
flagship Morning Report. But because Radio New Zealand’s
management now controls the publication of the quarterly
surveys from GfK, a German media ratings company, comparison
with the rival commercial breakfast shows of NewstalkZB and
TodayFM ludicrously requires use of the Official Information

In his determination to turn Radio New Zealand
into a multi-media, multi-platform content delivering audio,
video and text through smart phones and computers, Mr
Thompson also failed to foresee critical developments ahead
such as streamed video and TikTok.

In any case,
digital devices such as the smart phone and the computer are
not “always switched on.” Even though they may include
FM radio receivers, they are just one of a multitude of uses
of which the camera and streamed video are the most

Also, when you switch a radio on it is
probably already tuned to your favourite station. And, if it
is a portable radio or tranny, it will stay on as long as it
has life in its batteries.

Mr Thompson’s tenure at
Radio New Zealand must be almost at an end. It can only be
hoped that his successor will have a better understanding,
not just of radio as a medium but also of the critical role
that non-commercial, taxpayer-funded public radio plays as
an institution in maintaining a well-informed democratic

© Scoop Media


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