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The radio times

By Russell Brown

Tuesday 1st July 2003

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Commercial radio and the porn business have a bit in common. Both are big and make good money from occasionally venal calculations about human nature. Like porn, radio is full of big, swinging dicks and practices considered unusual in the respectable media (you could write a book about John Banks and bee pollen advertorials, and someone probably should). And their veteran practitioners share a fervent belief that no one really understands the real joy and beauty of their industry.

In New Zealand, this belief system is laced with a near-manic distrust of government and regulation. The not entirely unfounded view of the two big radio operators, CanWest and The Radio Network, is that their predecessors coughed up around $100 million to the fourth Labour government for radio frequency leases, so they ought to be able to do what they damn well like. Thus, any censure from the Broadcasting Standards Authority - say, when the breakfast hosts on The Rock crack a good one about wife beating - represents the unacceptable arm of the nanny state. And New Zealand music quotas for broadcast? Pass the Molotov cocktails ...

While the last National government left commercial radio alone to consolidate, network and automate, the current government eventually deduced that radio chiefs were so violently opposed to any further regulation by government that they could be induced to regulate themselves. Hence, the voluntary New Zealand music quotas (sorry, music targets) brokered by former broadcasting minister Marian Hobbs and implemented by the broadcasters last year. Their self-devised scheme is about as transparent as mud, but it seems to work. The overall average for the stations in the scheme (and there are a few missing) shows more than 15% of music played is local, up from 2% seven years ago. Many stations are discovering that it's actually a promotional advantage. And it doesn't hurt the bottom line: CanWest's most recent half-yearly earnings from radio were up 8% to $13.7 million.

Radio being the business it is, there was much speculation about whether there was a quid pro quo for the quota scheme - specifically, that the youth radio network proposal would quietly be taken out the back and shot. It was, bizarrely, National that got the YRN idea on the books, with a hasty pre-election promise in 1999. Ever since then, the Clark government has dithered over whether it will plump for a standalone public youth network - which, no matter how you slice it, would enrage the commercial operators - or just fund more socially useful programmes through existing networks. (Disclosure: I was part of the dithering process as part of a short-term advisory board that got up some ideas for a YRN. But I am officially agnostic about youth radio.)

If the Radio Broadcasters Association members thought they'd get a final word on youth radio when current broadcasting minister Steve Maharey addressed their recent annual conference, they were wrong. He's still dithering (sorry, considering the options), apparently. But they did get a partial answer to another question: frequency renewal. Radio spectrum licences expire in 2011 and, understandably, broadcasters want to know whether they will still have their principal assets after that date. Yes, Maharey said, promising existing holders first right of refusal, subject to a yet-to-be-determined fee.

The minister also promised to address a long-time RBA bugbear - companies misusing free iwi radio licences for commercial ventures - and announced plans to tidy up the mess around low-power FM broadcasting in the guard bands, which separate the main frequencies.

To Maharey's professed surprise, his set-piece RBA speech has been greeted as highly significant. "I've had a total of around 20 hours of conversation specifically about the minister's 15-minute speech," enthused one contributor to a radio mailing list. "There's a lot more in between the lines than there is in them."

A week after Maharey's speech, the government announced that two new frequencies in Auckland will be auctioned later this year.(CanWest, which desperately wants an extra frequency, will snare one, and TRN, which doesn't really need one, but doesn't want its rival getting away, will grab the other.) The government will keep the remainder of the upper FM band in its back pocket for now - at least until a sweeping review of broadcast policy has been completed. Cue: further expansion of that Most Favoured Ministry under Helen Clark, Culture and Heritage, which is busy hiring a new crop of broadcast advisers. Maharey told the RBA members that any frequency rights they relinquish before 2011 will be "reallocated on a case-by-case basis" that is "seen to maximise overall value to society".

Having had their specific grievances addressed, the commercial broadcasters may be coming around to the view that a little such social engineering won't hurt. But, like porn producers, they will, deep down, continue to believe that it is they who know what the public really wants.

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