Powerful music: media, culture and the ‘Third-way’ in New Zealand. A grounded theory analysis of Kiwi FM
The New Zealand radio market is one of the most deregulated in the world. There are no limits on ownership, very few constraints on content and no quotas for local content. New Zealand’s radio environment reflects the strong neo-liberal principles that underpin the open, market-driven New Zealand economy. Political promises and public discussions about the creation of a nationwide commercial-free public radio service for young people had faltered against these principles in the early to mid-2000s with strong opposition from incumbent commercial radio interests decrying government interference in their commercial rights. It was in to this environment in 2005 that one half of the foreign-owned radio broadcasting duopoly introduced a radio network into the three main cities that played only New Zealand music – Kiwi FM. Within a year the network had failed to attract sufficient listeners and advertisers to stay on-air and was nearing closure. At this point the Labour government of the day stepped in to save the struggling network by giving it access to temporary free frequencies and funding to make programmes featuring New Zealand music. This was an extraordinary situation in that commercial radio in New Zealand is notable for its focus on producing only programming that will create significant profits for shareholders, rather than public service-type programming benefiting national arts and culture. It was also extraordinary in that the government had intervened to support a commercial company to ensure a failed radio network would survive.
This dissertation explores why and how this happened through a grounded theory analysis of the significant amount of official documentation this situation generated, through interviews with key players and other contemporaneous material such as media interviews, blogs and newspaper articles about Kiwi FM. What emerges from this data is evidence of a ‘third-way’ agenda operating in this situation – New Zealand’s version of the then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Tony Blair’s ‘Cool Britannia’ appeal to voters in what amounted to public-private partnerships in the cultural sectors of the economy. This ‘third-way’ promise to revitalise a shared sense of nationhood while delivering economic growth through improving the creative industry’s capacity to output marketable culture was echoed in New Zealand. The story of how multinational media company CanWest (owners of Kiwi FM) came to be a partner with the Labour government in promoting New Zealand music demonstrates some of the key issues inherent in this approach.
Importantly, these partnerships rely on personal connections and relationships as well as the growing interconnections and shifting power differentials created between governments and officials, businesses and the media. The Kiwi FM story shows that while partnering with businesses in order to achieve cultural-economic goals such as promoting and monetising a national music culture may seem logical and low-risk, business necessarily has a longer view beyond the election cycle, and will join into and construct these partnerships in order to gain commercial advantages first and foremost.
This dissertation offers critical new insights into the policy making processes, the commercial decisions and the cultural arguments that were behind the experiment that was Kiwi FM. Ultimately, I argue that substantial deregulation of the media should be carefully considered, as belated attempts to influence the market to achieve government policy goals are unlikely to succeed in a highly commercial media environment driven by competitive pressures and empowered by significant potential influence over the electorate.