Radio ratings: Finely chopped, stirred and spun

Radio audience figures can be sliced and diced. Last week’s release of the first quarter’s ratings was cut so many ways that even the bobby dazzler of the chopping board Jamie Oliver would have been impressed.

NewstalkZB could afford to play it straight (almost) with figures that showed breakfast host Mike Hosking has well-and-truly eclipsed RNZ’s Morning Report as the most-listened-to programme. It stated on its website that “already king of the airwaves” Hosking has “surged to a new record of more than half a million listeners”. His 511,700 listeners – compared to Morning Report’s 429,100 – was certainly worth crowing about.

So, too, was ZB’s place as the top commercial station in the GfK commercial survey with a cumulative weekly audience of 744,000 people. That, too, topped RNZ National’s weekly audience by 117,000 listeners, although ZB wouldn’t draw the parallel because the commercial broadcasters have assiduously avoided a single radio market survey where non-commercial audiences are included in the comparisons.

However, what ZB and its sister, the New Zealand Herald, didn’t tell us was that in its biggest market – Auckland – both Hosking and the station’s overall audience  have come off the boil. The breakfast host’s share of audience in that market has dropped 4.6 percentage points to 30.3 per cent and his weekly cumulative audience is down by almost 6000 to 217,800. The station’s overall share in Auckland is down from 24.3 per cent to 21.5 per cent.

Nor will you find in the ZB/Herald reports any acknowledgement of the audience levels of any other broadcaster. However, to be fair, none of the other broadcasters give an overall picture either. Instead, they dice their own numbers to best advantage.

MediaWorks, unable to claim the top station spot, chose to add up the numbers for all its stations to claim the “leading commercial radio network” ranking with an overall share of 53.5 per cent of the New Zealand radio audience. That equates to 2.44 million listeners a week, up almost 33,000.

It claimed top music station (The Breeze) which has a 9.6 per cent share of the total audience aged 10+ but, by citing the genre, it can remove from the equation talkback station NewstalkZB, which has almost twice that share.

The Edge, MediaWorks said, was top station among the prime advertising demographic of 18 to 39-year-olds.  but it did not acknowledge its overall market share ranking was ninth. Nor did it acknowledge that “number one station for people in the 25-54 demographic” – The Rock – was fourth overall in market share, behind stablemate More FM.

Radio New Zealand, however, had the most bizarre approach among the broadcasters. Instead of a media release outlining the results of its (non-commercial) version of the GfK survey, it sent out a release headed “RNZ focusses on the Future”.

The release began with a single, very long sentence: “RNZ started 2022 with clear priorities and objectives – continuing to deliver the high-quality news, current affairs and entertainment that the public expect from our radio and digital platforms, along with a focus on preparing for an exciting future as part of a new public media entity for Aotearoa.”

Contrast that with the introduction to its release accompanying the last GfK survey in December, which began by stating that RNZ was ending the year on a high, with the strongest audience levels of 2021 across radio and digital channels.

Its latest release gets to the radio survey in the eighth paragraph. It combines the cumulative weekly audiences of RNZ National and Concert to claim a 14,400 rise to 745,600. Was that a vain attempt to somehow trump NewstalkZB’s weekly audience of 744,000?

Only at the bottom of the release does it break out a few of the numbers for  RNZ National, where the cumulative weekly audience is now 633,700, up 7000.It gives numbers for the shows with the biggest growth. Sunday Morning with Jim Mora and Saturday Morning with Kim Hill are both up by 5.3 per cent.

But what of its flagship Morning Report? Not a mention. We have to go to the RNZ audiences section of the state broadcaster’s website for that number (429,100) and there is no previous year comparison. In fact, it is up by less than 3000 on the December survey. At that stage, there was talk of it closing the gap on Hosking. No such talk now.

Only digital start-up Newsroom, which has no skin in the game, undertook a meaningful analysis of the numbers in the latest survey. Co-editor Tim Murphy commented on Hosking’s record numbers:” Only the knighthood and a National government awaits. Mike Hosking’s breakfast show has ticked off almost everything else: eclipsing the great Sir Paul Holmes in the ratings, leaving RNZ’s former powerhouse Morning Report in the dust and now pulling almost double the listeners of any Auckland music show”.

So, you might say credit where credit is due, even if I pine for the days when Hosking was simply an exceptional interviewer without the ego overlay.

I also pine for the days when media outlets covered such things as audience surveys simply as news stories, handled in a neutral way and, if necessary, acknowledged commercial connections at the end.

What I read from the broadcasters last week was not journalism. It was marketing.

World Press Freedom Index

Call me biased but I do think New Zealand should have been a little higher up the ranks of the latest Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index.

I know that being placed 11th isn’t bad but last year we were in 8th place. This year we have Liechtenstein above us and Jamaica immediately below on the overall index and the top spots are again dominated by the Scandinavian nations.

However, when I read the analysis of New Zealand under the five indicators that the organisation  has now adopted, I think we have been short-changed.

The new methodology defines press freedom as “the effective possibility for journalists, as individuals and as groups, to select, produce and disseminate news and information in the public interest, independently from political, economic, legal and social interference, and without threats to their physical and mental safety.” In order to reflect press freedom’s complexity, the researchers now consider the political context, legal framework, economic context, sociocultural context, and security in each country.

We score well on the political indicator (7th after Finland) on the basis of media independence from government and the make-up of our two regulatory bodies – the media Council and the Broadcasting Standards Authority.

We do okay on economic indicators (10th after Portugal), thanks in no small part to the $55 million Public Interest Journalism Fund. However, after that it is all downhill and I question whether they have got matters quite right.

On legislative indicators we score a dismal 54th after Paraguay. Much of that score seems to be based on the fact that it can cost hundreds of dollars to have Official Information Act requests filled. Yes, there are examples of that happening. In my book Complacent Nation I cite the examples of a Dominion Post reporter receiving an OIA invoice for $651, an environmental group being charged $1600, and Auckland University law professor Jane Kelsey being quoted a cost of $14,500 (negotiated down to $8500). It shouldn’t happen but nor does it fully reflect the workings of the OIA. Many requests are routinely answered without cost but the report suggests high cost is the norm.

We sit at 15th on the sociocultural indicator (after Liechtenstein), compromised by the view that “the nation’s bicultural dimension is not completely reflected in the media, still dominated by the English-language press”. The report acknowledges a “rebalancing” is taking place through Māori Television and Māori language programmes in mainstream media. However, the report does not cite the number of Māori speakers in Aotearoa (variously estimated to be between 11 and 21 per cent of the population), which could moderate any definition of “rebalancing”.

It is in the area of safety that I think the report betrays a lack of local knowledge. We follow Luxembourg at 21st. Our place seems to have been primarily conditioned by abuse and threats toward journalists at the occupation of Parliament Grounds. While that invective was unacceptable, I question whether it is an accurate reflection of how safe journalists are in this country. Are our journalists in significantly greater danger than their counterparts in Ireland (ranked second safest), Jamaica (8th), Namibia (12th) or the Czech Republic (17th)? I doubt it.

I know that New Zealand can be proud to be ranked 11th on an press freedom index of 180 countries but I would be even prouder if we had been placed closer to last year’s eighth place. And we should be aspiring to take Norway’s top slot.

If you are curious about which country is at the bottom of the table, let me tell you. It’s not Russia, which sits at 155th. The least free country is North Korea. No surprises there.

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