New Zealand Prime Minister joins fight against classical music broadcasting cuts

10 February 2020, 17:27 | Updated: 10 February 2020, 17:28

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and Jacinda Ardern on RNZ cuts
The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and Jacinda Ardern on RNZ cuts. Picture: NZSO / Getty

By Kyle Macdonald

Jacinda Ardern says that when it comes to classical and popular music, "one does not need to come at the cost of another".

Current and former New Zealand Prime Ministers have placed themselves at the centre of a debate around classical music, broadcasting and young audiences.

On Wednesday last week, Radio New Zealand announced plans to axe all 17 jobs at their classical music station, Concert – the country's 'fine music network'. Concert currently plays classical music, live performances, and world music and jazz. Under the proposals, the network would be taken off the FM frequency, and become a fully automated, presenter-less play-out available only on AM and digital platforms.

When revealing the plans, Radio New Zealand chief executive Paul Thompson said Radio New Zealand listeners "skew older", and "we need to start connecting with younger New Zealanders". The proposal is for a new "youth" music brand to replace the classical station on its FM frequency.

The country's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who is also Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage, has now entered the debate. On Monday morning she spoke up for the arts, music and retaining classical music broadcasting in the country.

"We need to broaden the access of all New Zealander to the arts" she said. "One does not need to come at the cost of another."

Ardern also reprimanded the Radio New Zealand RNZ music content director Willy Macalister and chief executive Paul Thompson for announcing the cuts without taking in her government's concerns.

"[Broadcasting Minister Kris Faafoi] explicitly asked for time so that we could see if whether or not there was something we could do to prevent the loss of the FM frequency for Concert. RNZ went ahead and announced this regardless", Ardern said.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks to media
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks to media. Picture: Getty

Ardern was not the only top politician to wade into the arts debate. New Zealand's Prime Minister from 1999–2008, Helen Clark, tweeted last week that the change "equates to a dumbing down of cultural life in NZ". On Facebook she called it "a demolition job on a much-loved and long established service."

Separately, the country's former Attorney-General, Chris Finlayson revealed he's drafting plans for a legal challenge against the planned removal of Concert from its frequency.

Since the announcement, an online petition has been launched, and a 'Save RNZ Concert' group has formed on Facebook. Protests against the cuts are also planned throughout the country.

RNZ Concert regular broadcasts recordings, cultural interviews, and live concerts from Kiwi orchestras including the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra (below) and Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra.

Radio New Zealand defended the proposed changes, saying it is taking public feedback into account and continuing to consult. The government-funded network argues the fine music station is not closing down, but moving platforms.

Classic FM contacted Radio New Zealand last week for comment. A spokesperson said there was no media release about the plans and referred Classic FM to an opinion piece on the New Zealand current affairs website Stuff which labeled the plans a "massacre", saying the "proposed cuts to RNZ Concert are sad but necessary in the current climate".