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Classical music: At the centre of a political storm?

by Classic Melbourne

This past week, Radio New Zealand was under threat of being moved to the AM band, thereby causing classical music enthusiasts to fear for its future. One such was Wilma Smith, a violinist well-known to audiences in Australian as well as New Zealand for the quality of her work. Although the matter has been resolved favourably and those plans abandoned for now, some of the arguments used to substitute a “youth” station for Concert were alarming, as they echo the sentiments of some of those who think classical music is only for old people.

Classic Melbourne deplores any attempt to set any cultural or music groups, or indeed any diverse groups, against each other. We agree that the process as described in the media involves a dumbing down of Radio NZ Concert, a situation that should be avoided at all costs. And we entirely resent the implied suggestion that classical music is only for the oldies. Was there something we were missing in the New Zealand debacle? Could something like this possibly happen to the ABC’s Classic FM? Classic Melbourne asked John Smyth, a member of our team with long experience in broadcasting and technology, for his thoughts.

Think back to the days pre-FM, with ABC broadcasting only on AM. Remember what a difference it made to be able to hear music in high quality and stereo. For NZBC, who like the ABC is the dominant classical music producer and promoter, this is a very cynical move on their part. I can only think of a couple of lines of spin they might use to justify it: 1) being listened to by mainly ‘oldies’ with deteriorating hearing, the reduction in quality is not significant; 2) classical is often played in ‘background’ mode (like Muzak) and the listener is not even in the same room, and is focussing on something else, so the ‘spatial’ aspect of stereo is not significant. (A stereo version could still be available on the streaming service and on digital TV -like ABC Classic on Channel 27).

RNZ currently has only two networks. The other network (“National”) is only broadcast in mono on both AM and FM. Hence the desire for access to the only national stereo network (Concert) for popular youth music. Further note: the national AM network currently broadcasts all sittings of Parliament, with a relay of a Radio Rheema filling the rest of the time. So with Concert replacing Rheema on AM, it would have been interrupted whenever Parliament was in session. Remember the battle between Parliament and the cricket in the AM-only days?.) BTW

The move is probably part of political manoeuvering to get spectrum space for an additional Auckland-based ‘youth’ radio channel, to more effectively compete with the commercials. It seems that the government will now discuss making another frequency available, and the PM has said that Concert should stay on FM. (Dame Kiri also made her feelings known on the subject).

A preview for a similar ‘cost-reduced’ future for the ABC?

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Photo caption: The recent argument about classical music broadcasting in New Zealand reached even the prime minister, Jacinda Ardern. Photo: RNZ /Dom Thomas

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