This is not the end

From Hutt Radio General Manager, Rex Widerstrom:


"Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning" - Winston Churchill

As reported in the Hutt News, the Ministry of Culture and Heritage (MCH) have decided to cancel the community broadcasting licence on 106.1MHz granted to Hutt Radio and hand it to Wellington Access Radio, who already have excellent coverage of the entire Wellington region on 783kHz. In compliance, Hutt Radio will cease broadcasting at midnight on Friday, April 1st.

So what happens now? To borrow another quotation, we shall not go gently...

Hutt Radio has been transmitting to the Hutt Valley for over six years now, yet one of the reasons the Ministry cited for the cancellation was concerns about our viability. That's especially ironic given that another arm of the same Ministry, New Zealand On Air, are tasked with funding community radio in NZ yet have made an arbitrary decision that the only thing that constitutes community broadcasting is the small  handful of 12 Access stations.

Those stations then get large amounts of public funds (Wellington Access Radio Society gets around $250,000 while Samoan Capital Radio, which shares its frequency, gets around $160,000) while stations like Hutt Radio get nothing. Yet if you want to get your message on air on Access Radio, you'll pay an hourly fee (reports vary, but it's somewhere between $35.00 and $50.00).

Nonetheless, supported mostly by private donations, Hutt Radio's team of dedicated volunteers have produced 100 hours a week of local radio, and brought the BBC World Service to Wellington during the rest of the time we're on air.

Hundreds of community groups and events have benefited from the entirely free publicity given to them by the station via community notices and interviews, and we've held decision makers to account on your behalf during our weekly two-hour current affairs show "Valley Views". We've covered local sport on "The Line" and we've provided the means for the Hutt Valley Samoan, Cook Island, Tokelaun and Filipino communities to keep in touch with one another and with events back home. 'Big Print Radio for the Sight Impaired', our talking newspaper 5 days a week. Who runs kids shows on radio nowadays? Not 'mainstream' networked radio anymore - but Hutt Radio does. Every weekend. Saturday AND Sunday (and including the wonderful Suzy Cato!). Music lovers have not been forgotten either - with specialist shows covering a wide range of genres - Jazz, Blues, Country, Dinner, Bluegrass and more, plus a basis of easy listening hits to pass the daytime.

So what happened, and why? (We'll come to what you can do about it in a moment).

Unfortunately, there is no legislated process for awarding community radio licences. These are created by MBIE and then handed to MCH (and Te Puni Kokiri, in the case of iwi radio) to do with as they wish.

MCH therefore set up an “independent” panel to consider applications for 106.1MHz. The panel was:

  • Carrie Cooke, Manager, Media Policy – Ministry for Culture and Heritage (Chair) – UK born with no broadcasting experience whatsoever, background in Treasury. One might wonder how this qualifies a person to assess radio licence applications.
  • Jane Wrightson, Chief Executive, NZ On Air – the same NZOA which, led by MCH, already rejects the idea that there can be any 'community' radio model beyond Access Radio, and awards all the government’s community broadcasting funding allocation to a handful of stations, which then also charge their users. Jane is a Chartered Member of the Institute of Directors and has no experience in radio.
  • Brian Pauling, Programme Leader, NZ Broadcasting School, Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology – Former Chair of the Association of Community Access Broadcasters and established Plains FM, one of the handful of access stations which gets NZOA funding (2015: $230,000 + pay to play @ $21 + GST per 25 minutes airtime).

If you stack a panel with a bureaucrat with no radio experience and two other people who think Access Radio is the beginning and end of community broadcasting, the outcome when Access Radio is one of the applicants is a foregone conclusion.

What we were told was the reasons for our not being allowed to continue were “concerns about financial instability” and the fact that our programming harked back to “regional radio several decades ago”.

Dealing with each of those in turn.

We are, as MCH has confirmed, denied funding from the pool of money government allocates to “community broadcasting”. This isn’t a government decision; it’s NZOA’s choice.

So the people who are responsible for starving us of funds then turned around and said “we don’t believe you’re viable because you’re starved of funds”. Irony, much?

Nonetheless, donations were meeting day-to-day expenses and plans were in train under a new General Manager and a relatively new Trust Chair to access both commercial and philanthropic funding.

The second reason – that we sound like the 2ZB of old – shows they didn’t read the application (which ran to some 90 pages, explained how Hutt Radio met every single one of the government's community broadcasting policy objectives, and dealt with all of the concerns the Ministry has subsequently raised). Because that’s precisely what we’re aiming for: a local station with something for everyone, providing a program that’s pleasant and entertaining and which therefore wins an audience… which is then open to hearing about events and issues in their community. We took the 'criticism' as a compliment!

Access Radio is one piece of dull but worthy content after another. Specific groups tune in – primarily ethnic minorities and people with eclectic musical tastes – specifically to hear one program, and then tune out again. Access Radio is an ideal platform for such material, which doesn’t really fit on any other station. But it doesn’t draw a widespread general audience to whom community organisations (including the councils, the Chamber of Commerce etc.) can then deliver a message. It’s the difference between an article in the Pigeon Fanciers Monthly and one in the Hutt News.

Now, to deal with the points they raise in their response to the Hutt News (which were news to us until then).

That "Access Radio has experience as a community radio station in the Wellington region for 34 years and with the capability to extend its community reach through the Hutt Valley region”.

  • Hutt Radio itself has had six years of experience (and so has proved viable); but beyond that Trustees Trev James and Mike Dee, and General Manager Rex Widerstrom, have around 100 years of radio experience between them!
  • Mike Dee has been in radio since 1974. He was Music Director, Breakfast Host and the Drive Show host at 2ZM, breakfast host at Radio Waikato, and worked at Radio Windy and The Breeze as presenter, Music Director then Programme Director. He also helped establish IRN (Independent Radio News) in 1987 as Chief Announcer.
  • Trev James been a broadcaster in Wellington since 1980, when he joined Radio Windy doing midnight to dawn and weekend shifts, then the night show, then the breakfast show, then the afternoon show. He’s best known, however, as host of The Platter Party, first broadcast in 1982, coming to an end in 1991. He has also worked at The Breeze (1992 to 1995) More FM (1995 to 1997) then back to The Breeze (from 1997 to 2009).
  • Rex Widerstrom has worked for Radio New Zealand (2ZB and National Radio), Radio Windy and Radio Pacific (where he hosted first afternoons then networked breakfast). He's been Programme Director for a station in Auckland – at the times the world’s most competitive market (in stations per capita). In terms of financial viability, he's run his own businesses since 1999, at one point employing 40 people. He's currently the owner of a PR agency, and the CEO of an Australian Aboriginal-owned business and divides his time between Australia and New Zealand.

We too had the “capability to extend our reach through the Hutt Valley region”… the Hutt City Council had allocated us $5,000 for repeater transmitters but we hadn’t wanted to take up the money until MCH got round to completing the licence renewal process… something about which it prevaricated about for months, further crippling our operation

Couple with this "the society is professional, providing a reliable and strongly community-based service inclusive of many ethnic groups”.

  • As mentioned above, our General Manager has around 30 years of business experience – something we can guarantee isn’t matched by Access Radio’s Station Manager. The Chair of the Trust is a senior manager in the IT industry. Our Administration Manager/Trust accountant was a senior EA at BCL (forerunner of Kordia, the transmission people). And so on.
  • We permitted any ethnic group which wanted it to broadcast on Hutt Radio and, as mentioned, are home to two Samoan programmes, Cook Islands and Tokelaun programmes plus a Filipino programme - and were in the process of launching a Malaysian show.

That we “failed to meet the required criteria” to:

  • promote local broadcasting services which support local and regional character, as well as identity and democratic and civic participation among regional and local groups

And a service based in Wellington, with a regional focus is going to better reflect the intensely parochial, local character of the Hutt Valley?? Hutt Radio (and the Hutt News) are the only media to allow our Mayors and Councillors to regularly communicate with their electors and those electors to criticise and question their representatives. I’ve never heard a single programme on Access Radio that promoted “democratic and civic participation”. We have Valley Views, two hours of solid interviews every week, mostly featuring at least one local political story, if not more.

  • promote innovation and a diverse range of content and formats reflecting audience diversity and cater for their interests

It’s not easy being innovative when the funding body routinely starves you of support, but we were. For instance we had a 24 track recording studio and had many artists perform live, interspersing their music with interviews. Then we used the recordings to insert their music into our regular playlist. We had the abovementioned ethnic shows. We had people ranging in age from pensioners to those in their 20s as presenters. You don’t just “reflect audience diversity” by speaking Greek for one hour, then discussing the lesbian community for the next. You can also reflect it – and reflect it more accurately – by blending its disparate elements into a format which flows from hour to hour and keeps everyone listening.

  • facilitate wide access to technical, cultural and social broadcasting

What does that even mean? If a group or an individual had something they wanted to broadcast they were welcomed. They could take an hour or more (as the ethnic communities opted to do) or simply turn up and have a professional broadcaster ask you questions and help you through it… what we call the “curated model” of community radio. Or they’d be interviewed as part of our proactive current affairs and sports effort.

  • provide for long-term broadcasting developments

It has been Hutt Radio that has agitated for the government to open DAB (digital audio broadcasting) to public use in NZ (at present they’re running endless “tests”). DAB is commonplace in Australia, the UK and Europe and allows dozens of digital channels on one frequency multiplex. We’ve always streamed our programming online and used podcasts to showcase local content derived from Valley Views and The Line. Access Radio has zero technical innovation, and its “strategy” to future proof itself was to steal an FM frequency from a community broadcaster.

So in summary, the Ministry is now attempting a post facto justification of a process corrupted to achieve the result they always intended. When the licence was first awarded to Hutt Radio five years ago, we were told by senior people in the Ministry that the intent had always been to award the frequency to Access Radio, but that the dysfunction at that time within the Access Radio Society precluded their being able to do so.

So no matter how well Hutt Radio did in the intervening years, it had been set up to fail from the beginning, always used by the Ministry as a placeholder until Access Radio was stabilised.

Does that sound fair to you?

So what can you do?

Protest. Then protest some more.

You won't be alone - community organisations such as the Citizens Advice Bureau have already written to the Minister for Culture and Heritage Maggie Barry to express their concern.

MPs Chris Bishop and Chris Hipkins have indicated that they're willing to take up our cause, and we hope to have other MPs on board soon. The Mayors of Lower & Upper Hutt Cities have both expressed their disappointment and willingness to assist in the future, too.

At this stage, Ms Barry is the best person to contact. You certainly won't get a fair hearing from the Ministry.

Hon Maggie Barry
Minister for Culture and Heritage

Private Bag 18888
Parliament Buildings
Wellington 6160

Maggie.Barry@parliament.govt.nz

Phone: 04 817 6827

You can also write a letter to the editor of the Hutt News or the Upper Hutt Leader or the Dominion Post (details are on the letters page of the respective newspaper).

If you do write to the Minister, or anyone else, please let us know by commenting on this story or copying us in on your email - huttradio@huttradio.co.nz

You're not simply lamenting something that has passed, you're helping us to lay the foundations for the future. Because as we said at the start, we have no intention of going away. We may have to go quiet for a while but (to borrow yet another quote) "we'll be back".

Watch this space for details.