Paul Thompson: radio head

By David Cohen In Business

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Paul Thompson: “My management style has been one of doing things differently.” Photo/David White

‘This feels pretty big.” Paul Thompson, the bespectacled new chief executive at Radio New Zealand, sounds surprisingly unnerved for someone who has just spent much of the previous half-hour chatting in a quiet precise voice about the qualities he hopes to bring to his latest job.

It is also an apt remark for somebody new to the helm of Radio NZ to be making. From left to right, inside the state broadcaster and out, among friends and foes alike, everybody seems to agree the country’s oldest public broadcaster is sorely in need of a shake-up.

It is, most of all, however, an obvious statement for anybody who happened to be holding court in Wellington at 2.31pm on August 16, 2013. The 6.6-magnitude temblor walloping the building did indeed feel pretty big – and rifle bullets are dawdlers compared with the speed with which the 46-year-old editor and I abandon our chairs for the nearest doorway. “Well, that shut me up, didn’t it?” he says, laughing. “F—!”

Chances are, as the new boss settles into his latest role across town this month, he will quickly be regaining his power of corporate speech.

THE IMAGE PROBLEM

Many are now standing by for tremors emanating from the magnificent edifice that stands at 155 The Terrace: Radio New Zealand House, Thompson’s new working home. Why else, for the first time since non-commercial radio broadcasting was established in 1910, would the organisation have appointed somebody with no radio experience to be its chief?

Sure, it’s a national treasure, a jewel of the public broadcasting system that has usually been the first to bring word to the country of great events. Yes, it’s home to one of the country’s deepest troves of archival broadcast material. At one time or another it has employed virtually all New Zealand’s famous radio presenters – even if they do have to share a channel with, for example, discussion on Afternoons with Jim Mora on who crafted the “greatest song ever written” or, perhaps, a light take on events by Pinky Agnew and Te Radar, with the latter scraping his luxuriant sideburns against the microphone while speaking in a silly voice about life in New Zealand.

Last year, for the second time in a row, Nielsen Media’s “The Year that Was” confirmed the organisation’s flagship Radio NZ National as the country’s top-rated station. Commercial radio stations dispute that, saying the survey is not comparable with biannual Research International surveys suggesting Newstalk ZB is the most-listened-to talk station. But to take just one of many recent RNZ accolades, star interviewer Kim Hill was recently named International Radio Personality of the Year by the prestigious Association for International Broadcasters in London.

From left, Radio NZ’s Kim Hill, Kathryn Ryan and Simon Mercep. Photos/David White

Something like 10% of New Zealanders can’t imagine going through most days without the aural accompaniment of Radio NZ. Unfortunately for those people, however, and even more unfortunately for Radio NZ, they seem to be a ragged minority of potential listeners, and probably part of an even smaller minority of folk who care about public broadcasting.

“This country is full of people – I hear from some of them on a fairly regular basis – asking what public service broadcasting is all about,” Radio NZ chairman Richard Griffin tells me with a sigh. “They’re largely Tories, yes, but that sentiment is quite widespread.” Indeed, Griffin says, even when he considers Radio NZ from the ostensibly close vantage of its own boardroom, “I’m not entirely sure what makes this place tick, either”.

It was with this in mind that the dapper chairman followed with a particularly anxious eye the recent recruitment process that yielded Paul Thompson.

Photo/David White

The search began last November and was still in full swing five months on. Griffin wasn’t on the three-person selection panel who interviewed the 12 shortlisted candidates – the one-time political editor turned PR man’s extensive connections in the media business all but ruled him out as a disinterested party – but the appearance of Thompson’s résumé excited him nonetheless.

British-born but relocated to New Zealand with parents Ann and Gordon at age six, Thompson was educated at Gisborne’s Campion College and went on to do a cadetship at the Gisborne Herald. The position was to give the 17-year old an enduring passion for the printed word, although he still made time to do a history degree at Massey University.

Returning to daily journalism in 1990 – the same year he married Paula – he made a lively beat for himself on the dairy round with the Waikato Times. After a relatively brief spell in England, he returned to the Times in 1995, taking on a number of senior editorial positions before being appointed, briefly, editor of the Nelson Mail and then, in 2001, Christchurch’s Press.

“My time at the Press was a time when the industry boomed, and I was a benefactor of that profitability,” he says, recalling that one of the major “problems” of the time was whether they had the printing capacity for the weekend edition. “What a problem!”

In Canterbury, as elsewhere, the up-and-coming editor began each new weekday to the sound of Morning Report, shaving to the rural news report and ironing his shirt to its business news. “I guess that’s illustrative of the type of family I come from and the circles I move in.”

YOUNGBLOODS AND THE OLD GUARD

Griffin believes Thompson’s appointment is probably the most important executive move for Radio NZ since at least 1995, when the Broadcasting Act established the operation as a stand-alone public broadcaster responsible for Radio NZ National, Radio NZ Concert and Radio NZ International.

In recent years, Radio NZ has been beset with many nettlesome challenges, some of them common to all media outlets adapting to the new digital landscape, others peculiar to a service that receives $35 million a year in public funding and has publicly ruled out moves towards sponsorship or commercialisation.

The editorial fiefdom employs about 300 workers – the equivalent of 99 full-time public servants – within which two groups struggle to advance their interests.

On the one side, insiders say, are the ascendant, idealistic, left-leaning younger reporters. On the other are the old-guard types who migrated to the broadcaster decades ago (in the case of the wonderful Jack Perkins, six decades ago) because it seemed like a Beeb of the South Seas, and nowadays would probably find it a bit hard to get work anywhere else.

Both sides are overwhelmingly white, middle-class and reluctant to speak on the record.

However, somebody who isn’t worried about chatting about the operation is one-time Morning Report presenter Sean Plunket, who still gets up many mornings marvelling at “the absolute revelation of being deinstitutionalised” after resigning his position with Radio NZ three years ago.

Sean Plunket: “We’ve done ourselves out of good journalists because they weren’t BBC.” Photo/Paul Estcourt/NZH

For younger reporters, Plunket explains, the network represents a “worthy, socially aware, liberally campaigning” place to be, while for the older guard it remains somewhat mired in a decorously Anglican past as some kind of far-flung version of the BBC, albeit one that would presumably not countenance the kind of wide-ranging charter review recently experienced by its British counterpart.

Certainly, an online search of the staff bios on the Radio NZ website seems to bear out some of the last point in respect of recruitment practices at least, with British-born presenters comfortably outnumbering, for instance, identifiably Maori employees – this despite the lip service Radio NZ likes to pay, from an apparently safe distance, to the country’s native culture.

“What are we really dealing with here?” Plunket asks warmly, taking the Maori issue as an example of a wider malaise. “A state broadcaster that’s truly reflective of what we are as a country?

“Look, I’m not speaking against my former colleagues, but that’s been the absolute culture that if you’re from the BBC, you’re somehow better. I actually think we’ve done ourselves out of good New Zealand journalists because they weren’t BBC.

“And here’s a funny thing. I work at RadioLive, right? Which doesn’t have any pretence about bloody Maori Language Week or any of that shit. But what do we have for three hours a day? We have two Maori guys who present – JT and Willie – our mainstream show. They’re not marginalised off into some ‘Maori news’ slot for a quarter of an hour as some kind of nod of the head to Maori culture in the middle of Morning Report. It’s the real deal.”

Griffin doesn’t strenuously disagree. “That might disturb some people in Radio NZ,” he says, “but I think it’s fair to say that the status quo has in a lot of ways been the order of the day – the dynamic that creates artistic tension has not been entirely obvious.” The issue of diversity? “I’d like to see the catchment widened,” he says.

The Radio NZ chairman did not have a close relationship with the previous chief executive, Peter Cavanagh, despite many problems that called for the two to be of a similar mind. (Cavanagh turned down the Listener’s request for an interview.) Those problems have included, as well as the need to better reflect the digital environment, the issue of greater diversity, the Government’s cap on new funding and the long-term future of Radio NZ Concert, an elite service that attracts a relatively microscopic 17,000 listeners on a good day yet costs up to $7 million a year to run.

Kathryn Ryan presenting Nine to Noon. Photo/David White

Radio NZ also has spent the past decade mired in a miserable employment dispute with former news chief Lynne Snowdon that has chewed up the better part of $1 million and made the history books as the longest-running case of its kind. Griffin acknowledges the case has become “a nightmare” for both sides. In the latest turn, it is now set for a hearing with the Employment Court later this month.

“I’ve never walked away from anything in my life except, sadly, a couple of marriages,” Griffin says, “so, yes, I hope Paul’s appointment will allow me to say at some point that my job’s done, that I’ve made some headway.” More than he might have under the predecessor? He nods his head in agreement. As thoroughly professional as Cavanagh undoubtedly was, Griffin says, “I don’t think our chemistry was right.”

And what about his chemistry with the new incumbent? “Come the time, come the man,” he says with unalloyed enthusiasm.

EXPERIENCE WITH LAYING PEOPLE OFF

If the earthquake offered a helpful metaphor for understanding the challenges of his new position, it also underscored the nature of Paul Thompson’s previous role, too. We had been seated in Fairfax House, the corporate headquarters of New Zealand’s largest newspaper publisher and Thompson’s professional fountainhead for almost a quarter-century.

The past decade has been a hellishly jolting time for both the company and the newspaper business as a whole, leading some to speculate whether Thompson’s exit was less about embracing public radio for its own sake than simply jumping ship. “That has been said, but it’s not true,” he says evenly, while also dismissing speculation that the Radio NZ position came while he was looking at a similar role in television. The decision to leave Fairfax had in fact been “incredibly painful” to make, he says.

Did he think some within Radio NZ might consider him a bit of an interloper? “Yes, I expect that, and I hope they tell me about it.”

It’s faintly possible that they might be a little too worried about their job security to do that. Thompson has, after all, laid off quite a few people in his time.

As group editor with Fairfax Media over the past six years, his biggest hurdles were the brutal, lingering effects of the global economic downturn and the long-term media disruption around digital, which have “combined into a Frankenstein-like monster” for all concerned.

For this reason he has also overseen seemingly endless rounds of restructuring – by some counts, at least seven – of the company’s once-unassailable stable of print titles. All in all, he reflects, “we had gone from a simple, beautiful world based on decades, if not centuries, of proven success to a smaller new world where the revenue picture is much more complicated, not least where the money is coming from, without the same level of resourcing. My management style has been one of doing things differently, and pushing aggressively in new directions amid the disruption.”

And will this month’s entry to public radio be in any way painful for the young and old guards at Radio NZ, employees and listeners alike?

Thompson won’t spell out what may be in store. In part that’s because he doesn’t yet feel he has anything to announce, at least not until he first meets personally with every individual working for the broadcaster, a gesture that has already won him plaudits among other Radio NZ employees I spoke with.

What he’ll be keeping in mind as he settles in this month is that the network he has been entrusted with “is in a unique position as a commercial-free public broadcaster, but it also needs to reflect the nation as a whole, to get to the essence of New Zealand and to different parts of the country”.

As Thompson sees it, that network is currently pitched heavily to older white people, “which is terrific, but if you rest on your laurels expecting support from that demographic, well, you’re missing out other ethnic groups, younger people, regional audiences and so on.

“Somehow – and yes, it’s a hard thing to do – you have to reflect all of New Zealand. This is difficult, but this isn’t rocket science, this isn’t at all profound.” But this does feel pretty big.

A question of bias

The BBC’s coverage of contentious topics has been found wanting.New CEO Paul Thompson’s moves to quickly set up the expected review of Radio NZ programming follow a recently completed BBC review of its coverage of contentious topics such as immigration, religion and the European Union.

The frank report, commissioned by the BBC Trust, found the BBC did not accurately reflect the public’s growing concern about immigration because of a “deep liberal bias”. It also said the BBC was “slow to give appropriate prominence to the growing weight of opinion opposing UK membership of the EU, but in more recent times has achieved a better balance”.

Although the BBC’s overall coverage of issues was deemed “broad and impressive” and “the overwhelming number of journalists at the BBC leave their personal politics at home”, the BBC has committed itself to guard against groupthink or bias.

Helen Boaden, a former BBC news director and now head of radio, candidly admitted to the trust that the “liberal bias” when she began in 2004 meant the BBC did not take the views of lobby groups like Migration Watch “as seriously as it might have”. The BBC now consciously seeks a diversity of voices from outside the political elite.

In New Zealand, Twitter sometimes gives an insight into the views of Radio NZ producers. Last month producer Mark Cubey tweeted about the Mighty River Power result: “Anyone saying MRP result is a win is an idiot. Can’t believe govt spin is leading the business news.”
– Staff writers

More by David Cohen

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