Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Editorial: Sour notes in sound of local music

The Government's support of local musicians has achieved startling results. Almost 21 per cent of all music on commercial radio last year was by New Zealand artists. A decade earlier, locally-made content garnered just 2 per cent of airtime. Government backing, through the likes of New Zealand On Air and the Music Industry Commission, has pressed the right buttons, and local music is in such good heart that the current New Zealand Music Month seems somewhat superfluous.

A key factor in this development has been the good sense of the Government. When necessary, it has been prepared to check its zeal. Labour's 1999 manifesto pledged the introduction of "format-specific quotas for local content on radio". But better counsel prevailed and in 2002 the Government agreed on a voluntary target, under which broadcasters agreed to aim for 20 per cent of local music by the end of this year. The attainment of that target 12 months early attests to the wisdom of that course.

Now, however, the Government's ardour is getting the better of it. The Broadcasting Minister, Steve Maharey, is talking, quite unrealistically, of matching the likes of Ireland by increasing the voluntary target to 50 per cent. Worse still, he has approved an aberrant rescue plan for Kiwi FM, a station playing only New Zealand music that was about to be closed by its owner, CanWest. The scheme sees the Government grant the company access to three new FM frequencies while Kiwi FM works towards becoming a not-for-profit organisation.

The package shares much in common with the quota plan. Both offer a form of protection for those who cannot stand on their own feet. Kiwi FM, in little over a year of existence, was a ratings calamity. In its first couple of months, it attracted just a 0.6 per cent share of the Auckland market. The latest six-monthly survey, from February to March, gave it 0.7 per cent of that audience.

The rating proved one thing: New Zealanders are keen on local music but they do not want to listen to it exclusively, just as, presumably, few would want to listen to a station devoted entirely to American popular music. Quantity is never likely to trump quality.

CanWest had recognised as much, and taken a hard-nosed commercial decision. It did so knowing that it would attract some bad publicity. It must, therefore, have been delighted when the Government decided to see Kiwi FM's failure as some sort of personal affront.

The rescue package defies the norm on several counts. It was not the subject of a competitive process of any description. And, in entrusting CanWest with a vague one-year trial, the Government has ceded frequencies that, themselves, would usually have been the subject of a tendering process which would have realised between $10 million and $20 million. Additionally, New Zealand On Air will fund the specialist programmes that Mr Maharey views as the remedy to Kiwi FM's rating woes.

Quite justifiably, CanWest's competitors are angry. The three frequencies provide their rival with obvious flexibility and potential. The Government must have expected outrage from that quarter. But it cannot have anticipated the response of a figure of the stature of Neil Finn, who has been quick to compare this largesse to a commercial broadcaster with his own thwarted campaign for public youth radio. In the normal course of events, there would surely have been no stronger advocate of local music.

The strength and breadth of the opposition must surely signal the folly of the decision. By over-reaching itself, the Government has managed to alienate a large slab of the music industry. And all for a radio station that almost no one wants to listen to.

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