By Jessica Harkins: Pacific Media Centre
Challenge noun: a task or request requiring special effort.
If ever there was a word used to describe the task facing our broadcasters in the coming decade, it would be this, if last week’s ethnic diversity broadcasting forum is anything to go by.
New Zealand on Air and the Office of Ethnic Affairs hosted the forum to ask: How will the changing demography of New Zealand be served and represented in the broadcasting media?
It brought together producers, writers and broadcasters from across the country to discuss the changing face of New Zealand, and what that change might mean for their industry.
According to many of those present, special effort was most definitely required to address the evolving demographic landscape.
British High Commissioner George Fergusson says there are some “fascinating challenges” in New Zealand. He quipped, “It’s not like Britain anymore.”
He said that Britain faces some of the same challenges faced in New Zealand, but that both countries “ended up at the same square quite differently,” referring to the varying diasporas within each nation.
Fergusson emphasised the need to serve the diasporas at least as much as the mainstream.
As well as the British High Commissioner, the forum was addressed by the BBC World Service’s Murray Holgate, who was quick to say that he wouldn’t be reminiscent of Brits past, who also came to New Zealand and “talked a lot.”
“I’m not going down the route of saying what you should do,” he said
“What we have is a really advanced and open media environment that brings us a lot of challenges,” he said, bringing up the “c” word again.
He spoke of the competitive nature of broadcasting throughout the world.
“We used to be the window to the world to our audiences in this area [South Asia], which we no longer are, because the local broadcasters are bringing the world to their audiences now too.”
He made it clear that the issue was not just putting different coloured faces on the telly, or different accents on the wireless, but included addressing the “hideously white” nature of the BBC’s newsrooms.
“There are many levels at which discrimination operates. It’s part of human nature to emphasise differences rather than things in common.”
To try to alleviate this, the BBC has implemented a policy in recruiting that says if there is a candidate who is of an ethnic minority, it must be proven why that person cannot have the job.
He says this policy has been a success so far.
“As a consequence, certainly at the lower levels of the BBC, there is a far better spread of minorities. At the management levels the BBC is still rather hideously white, it has yet to travel up the organisation.
“At World Service on the other hand, many, many of the top jobs are from the target audience. It has allowed us to be more successful, in a world which is changing very rapidly and which could leave the BBC very isolated, it has allowed us to compete. Rather than seeing different ethnicity as a cost, it is actually seen as revenue for us, something that has value,” he added.
Holgate says one of the many advantages of having diversity in the staff at the BBC World Service is in having your target audience in the building. He believes a lot of time has been saved in having people in the know within the organisation.
He explains by using China as an example. He says that many of the FM radio frequencies are used as travel stations, where the traffic situation is updated, sometimes 24/7.
“Radio has taken on a whole different meaning in Beijing than say, in London. Again, if you haven’t got the people there, you’re not going to know this. You can sit there pumping out your shortwave until you’re blue in the face, and nobody’s listening to you,” he says in his polished blue-blooded accent.
When it comes to the World Service, Holgate believes one of the most important things to think about is language.
“We broadcast to linguistic groups,” he said, “we tend to leave the ethnic group out of it.
“We are broadcasting in a language because that language is about communication,” he added.
Jim Blackman, chief executive of Triangle and Stratos, says: “As New Zealand changes its face, there is a need to focus more keenly on the preservation of culture, and the preservation of language.”
But he also had some choice words for the forum attendees, and perhaps its organisers.
He relates his thoughts when first asked to partake in the forum.
“I thought; how come cultural diversity has become the new black? After all we’ve been doing it for the past ten years. Not only in Auckland, but also over the past 18 months, nationwide, on Triangle Stratos.”
Blackman says: “The problem with ethnic broadcasting is that it’s not commercial, it’s not mainstream enough for the mainstream people because there ain’t no money in it sunshine.”
Jim added that the challenge facing all small channels over the next few years is the switch to digital broadcasting, which has a huge cost attached to it.
Radio, a medium that doesn’t have the same costs as television is arguably faring the best of the two, due to the reduced cost in setting up a station.
Dozens of niches
Terri Byrne from Planet FM says: “The market, or audience as I prefer to think of it, has splintered into dozens of niches.”
She says this split has benefited radio in New Zealand, by giving rise to some of the highest per capita numbers of radio stations in the world.
“Auckland with 50 stations has more than New York or London,” she says.
Planet FM is an access radio station, which broadcasts in more than 50 languages, all made by people of those language and ethnic groups.
“Minority is mainstream, and in 2020 will be more so,” said Byrne.
She quotes Bob Geldof: “The future belongs to those who make their own media.”
“New Zealand is fabulously diverse, and when what was once mainstream media catches up with that it will hand over the tools, relax the editorial control, embrace the new aesthetic and discover the riches already being expressed in a thousand ways,” she added.
She says Planet FM’s philosophy is about giving cultural groups a channel for expression, what she sees as the true definition of what public broadcasting is. As Leslie Rule (US academic and commentator) puts it: “It’s now more about broadcasting the public”.
Byrne’s hopes for the future are clear.
“It will not be about “them” becoming like “us”, and hopefully by 2020 it will not even be about “them” explaining themselves to “us”. Hopefully it will be about all of us discovering who we are as a nation.”
Julia Parnell, producer of TVNZ programme Minority Voices, a show that focuses on new settlers to New Zealand, talked about some of the motivation behind the show. What did they want to find out from the people they featured?
“We asked them; “What do you want to say both to your own communities and to wider New Zealand?” “What do you think people need to know about you and your experiences settling here?”
She added: “The fact is, these people already know what they need to assimilate. They know exactly what wider NZ needs to know about them. They know how to live in NZ, they just need to be heard.
“Once we understand the needs and dreams of new New Zealanders, the “other” will become the “familiar” in New Zealand broadcasting. And from there true diversity will come.”
Keynote speaker Shaun Brown of SBS Australia opened his comments to attendees with a compliment.
“In my opinion, New Zealand is, in at least some respects, ahead of Australia in confronting and debating the issue of diversity in programme making.”
His comments were met with surprise by some people in the audience, who recall his past views of ethnic diversity in the media while news executive at Television NZ, which were somewhat different from those he expressed last week.
Bharat Jamnadas of Asia Downunder remarked that we had witnessed “the browning of Shaun Brown!”
“Perhaps he realises the meaning of his surname now,” he laughed.
Brown’s history in New Zealand broadcasting aside, what he said on Thursday was acknowledged positively.
“Seeing indigenous faces on our screens and experiencing indigenous stories should be an incidental part of our television consumption – not something that is token or categorised as ‘special event’ television, or something that is the exclusive domain of public broadcasting,” he said.
Brown also pointed out the importance of SBS as a public service in the Australian media landscape.
“Prior to SBS, diversity or foreignness was presented as unpronounceable, unpalatable or incomprehensible in the Australian media landscape. Some would argue that the broader Australian media has done little to correct this imbalance.
He said that diversity in the newsroom was also an issue.
Behind the scenes
“I can acknowledge that behind the scenes we are open to criticism for not having enough cultural diversity in our management and programming teams.
Brown is not a fan of quotas, saying they can produce “artificial results” or give the impression that staff appointed in this manner “have not got there on their own merits.”
“However,” he adds, “people in leadership positions both in New Zealand and Australia can and must do more to foster talent in the independent production sector and to entice talented people from indigenous and multicultural backgrounds into the broadcasting sector in a range of roles.
“Diversity in our industry must become just as important and front of mind as diversity on our screens.”
Tapu Misa, New Zealand Herald columnist and chair of one panel of speakers, remarked: “There is a danger of talking too much among ourselves” in terms of narrow broadcasting that isn’t aimed at a mainstream audience.
Arguably, her comments can be transferred to the people who attended and listened to each other talk of the virtues of ethnic diversity in the broadcasting industry.
In a demographic that’s constantly changing, this is no easy feat. But the challenge has been laid.
Jessica Harkins is a postgraduate Bachelor of Communication Studies (Honours) student on the Asia-Pacific Journalism course at AUT University. Pictures of Tapu Misa and NZ On Air's Anna Cottrell (top) and SBZ's Shaun Brown are by Del Abcede (PMC).
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