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by NZM

Industry: David Ridler Is Making Tracks (from NZ On Air)

by NZM

Industry: David Ridler Is Making Tracks (from NZ On Air)

At the beginning of April 2012 David Ridler left his role as Assistant NZ Music Manager at NZ On Air to return to the land of commercial radio – whence he had come four years earlier. David proved a great fit for the challenging NZ On Air role. An active and knowledgeable lover of music, he is the kind of person anyone would feel they’d get a conversation and sympathetic hearing from. It was his second stint with the funding agency and his focus included the development and bedding in of the new MakingTracks funding scheme. On the eve of his departure back to radio NZM fired him a quick salvo of questions about his past and future roles.

Can we start with a brief rundown of your radio and NZ On Air careers to date?

I started out at Radio Active in Wellington in 1994 while I was studying at Vic. Two years later I decided radio might be my thing so I went to the Broadcasting School at CPIT in Christchurch. From there I scored an internship with More FM Wellington at the end of 1997, just at the end of the Doug Gold era (after he had sold to More FM and Channel Z to CanWest). In ’99 I moved to Channel Z Wellington, then to Channel Z Auckland as Programme Director in 2000. 2002 I moved to NZ On Air for a 2 ½ year stint on the NZ music promotions team, plugging songs to radio with Nicky Donoghue and Camille Guzzwell. Then back to radio, initially at More FM Northland, then at More FM/Mediaworks Wellington. Then early 2008 I moved back to NZ On Air to work with Brendan Smyth in the Wellington HQ on the music schemes. And now I’m about to bounce back to radio. It’s starting to look like I have split personalities – there’s definitely a pattern emerging!

What is the basic job description of your new radio role?

I’ll be overseeing the on-air content and marketing and promotions for the Wellington brands of The Radio Network of which there are five – ZM, Classic Hits, Hauraki, EasyMix and Coast. Basically, I’ll be the Operations Manager of the Wellington branch of those brands which includes coaching the local Classic Hits breakfast show (Dave Smart and Camille Guzzwell), and I will have some input at network strategy level.

Are you leaving a job done or a work-in-progress?

A bit of both I suppose. NZ On Air is always a constant work in progress, but to have implemented MakingTracks with Brendan – from review recommendations right through to the launch and managing the first six months or so – feels like a job done for me. There will always be things to do and review and fine tune, but after four years of dealing with music funding I am ready for a change of focus. The new role offers me a chance to get into the hands-on side of broadcasting again, and managing a team of staff which is something I enjoy.

Do you see 2012 as an exciting time to be getting back into commercial radio, ‘facing new challenges’ and all that? Or is there a better adjective, like say ‘fraught’?

I think all media-related jobs are ‘fraught’ to some extent at the moment, but I do see it as exciting. Radio, TV, print media are all staring down the barrel of some massive challenges. But I still believe in the medium of radio. I know it’s way cooler to declare that radio is dead, but I genuinely don’t believe that. I think it is still a powerful medium and can act as an influential filter for all kinds of content for when you don’t want to (or have time to) search it out yourself. Plus it still plays a really important role in the community and I’m definitely interested in that side of things. Of course, there are a lot of challenges on the horizon, but the same can be said for so many industries right now. Online and mobile technologies are flipping a lot of lids right now, but that doesn’t mean nothing else can exist.

Has radio or music TV taken the bigger hit from online music consumption?

Given the current music TV landscape in NZ I guess you’d have to say music TV at this stage. Not many music radio stations have closed in the last few years. But the key fact all media organisations have acknowledged is that their audience is sourcing their content from many platforms now, sometimes several at once. It’s about remaining relevant and useful for your audience in whatever way makes sense for the brand.

Having worked both sides of the fence do you think that radio’s 20% NZ music content target is reasonable and realistic?

My honest opinion is that 20% is bang on – one song out of five to help represent a nation of four million in amongst music from the rest of the world. I reckon that works pretty well. Some formats are more naturally suited to playing more, and I’m all for that if it’s possible. But I think 20% works and I’m looking forward to being part of the broadcasting sector again and helping to achieve that target.

That 20% has been effectively fixed for a decade or so, but hasn’t been met for the last few years. Should it be adjusted downward?

Well, with the Kiwi FM changes of late (reducing their NZ content from 100% to 60%) and a couple of other adjustments in the RBA Code, the actual figure has dropped into the 16 – 17% range the last few weeks, which hasn’t been great. But no I don’t want to see it come down. I think it’s achievable. The main thing is a constant stream of good repertoire, and I do think we have the musical talent out there to deliver.

MakingTracks replaced a suite of previous NZ On Air funding schemes with a single and newly alt/indie-embracing focus last year. What part did you play in developing and establishing the new programme?
For the most part Brendan Smyth and I developed the nuts and bolts of the scheme, with regular feedback and input from our Chief Executive and our Board, and also the NZ music team in Auckland, who between them know the music and broadcasting landscape very well. The whole scheme was based on the key recommendations of Chris Caddick’s 2010 report. We took that as a blueprint and basically reworked those recommendations into a scheme that could be managed given our current resources.

What sort of agony was involved in determining the 22 application criteria?

It wasn’t really too agonising, but quite fascinating in a lot of ways. We wanted to hone a matrix of achievements that indicated the level of ‘buzz’ that an act was generating without making it reliant on only one thing. As always it’s hard to get anything like that exactly right, but for the time it was launched it offered a range of achievements that show an indication of desire for the music of an act at audience, industry and broadcast level. We definitely consulted on this process with various industry people, and did a fair amount of modelling the numbers to make sure they were in a reasonable ballpark.

Have the online application and vetting processes worked as expected to date?

Chris Caddick’s report implored us to cut down on the amount of applications, because some rounds previous to the changes were taking in over 600 (combined Music Video and New Recording Artist) applications, for maybe 35 grants. That meant 565 + applicants were missing out, and no one was enjoying or really learning from that process. We’re looking at much more manageable numbers now (100 – 150 per round) and there is an in-built education process with the criteria checklist. It provides some goals and parameters which didn’t exist under the old schemes. There will be a second phase providing more information and education about the criteria in year two, mostly via our website.

What have been the chief criticisms? Are they valid?

I think there’s been a lot of criticism around the criteria because it’s new and many people especially from the newer end of the spectrum don’t understand why there should be barriers. I understand that but honestly, applying for funding is but the first hurdle in a long chain of reality checks in the music game. It’s a really tough business and certainly not for the faint-hearted these days.

Some have criticised that we’re now funding too much niche and alternative repertoire and not enough big commercial artists. But I think there is still a flow-through of commercial repertoire coming from the remnants of the album scheme, as well as over 50% of the MakingTracks grants so far going to a mainstream focus. Plus you really have to ask how many songs the commercial mainstream outlets are actually going to play in a year? There are very few playlist slots across the big mainstream stations, so I don’t think it would make sense to throw too many eggs at that basket. I think the balance of 60/40 or even 50/50 mainstream to alternative/non-mainstream repertoire works given the opportunities to place that repertoire.

Another common criticism has been about the applicant having to put money in as well, and the increase in the music video budget. Again if you look at the recommendations in the Caddick Report he was adamant there should be co-investment from the applicant. And in all honesty in today’s economic and political environment I think the expectation of co-investment is here to stay. Public funding to pursue the music dream is something we’ve come to expect in this country because it’s been around for 21 years. But I believe it’s a privileged and unique situation and one which shouldn’t be taken for granted.

What do you consider are the cornerstones of MakingTracks?

I know the term is used a lot, but the diversity of acts funded has already been obvious. Lots of new and emerging artists have come through. (44% of the artists funded in the first six rounds had never received NZ On Air funding before.) I genuinely believe that’s made many acts take a second look at NZ On Air. Perhaps under the old schemes which were more mainstream-focused many felt there was no way in, whereas now the scope is broader and there is a wider palette of acts getting funding support.

I also think the panel system has been an amazing experience. It’s quite inspirational to get seven different viewpoints together each month and see them work together and respect each other and learn from each other. It’s a process that I’m very proud to be a part of, and I feel it gives those panel members a better insight into just how agonizing and difficult it is to distribute limited funds when there’s an unlimited desire for the support.

You’re leaving NZ On Air just ahead of the promised end-of-year-one review of MakingTracks. Are you comfortable with the $ amounts apportioned to music-making and video-making? What about the compulsory artist input of $2000?

I’m comfortable with an artist or label contribution because as I said earlier it was a strong recommendation in Chris Caddick’s report, and I also fundamentally believe in the co-investment principle. The intention was to instill in people that idea of co-investment, which I really believe is going to be a long-term principle when it comes to public funding of music. Outward Sound through the Music Commission requires the applicant to cover 50% of costs, and Chris Caddick’s recommendations to us were that the applicant pay 50% of costs after the second grant. We could have conceivably asked for a $4000 co-investment if we’d followed the report recommendations to the letter!

I know current media and social media trends don’t encourage strategic or long-term thinking, but I would hope people understand this was step one of a radical change, and it needs to be in place in the real world in order for analysis and fine-tuning to take place. If there were more money to be spent (a big if in the current climate I have to say!) then I would say promotion and online marketing to support the single and video is where we could justify more money.

Can you point to a couple major achievements on your watch that might not have been evident to the general music public?

Obviously, MakingTracks has been a massive part of my life for the past 18 months, and to see some of the results of that scheme so far has been a real highlight. I think those funding lists have been really interesting and I love seeing the results (ie. recordings and music videos) as they roll out. I definitely think the standard of music videos has noticeably increased overall, and believe me I see a lot of them.

The work we did with RDU in Christchurch after the February 2011 earthquake including helping them fund their RDUnit mobile studio, and fund the amazing A Flat City documentary (stream available from www.rdu.org.nz) has been very rewarding and inspiring. And I certainly have learnt a lot about courage and determination from James Meharry and Karyn South and the RDU team. I’m actually pretty stoked with all the work that we’ve managed to do with all the Student and alternative radio stations over the past few years.
I’d have to say also just engaging with people from across the music and broadcasting industries over the past four years… I’ve had some great times and great conversations with artists, producers, TV and radio hosts and programmers, publishers, record company staffers, video makers, editors, all sorts of people. It’s been pretty amazing! Hopefully, I’ve managed to help a few people along the way, that’s what I’ve always enjoyed anyway.

What aspects will you be most happy to get away from?

Negativity probably. I’m getting really tired of people endlessly hating on stuff. ‘This band sucks ‘cos I don’t like them so they must suck,’ and all that puerile nonsense. Honestly, it makes me really sad to see how much online hating of music and NZ artists goes on out there, it’s depressing and immature and short-sighted. I know social media encourages reactive thinking and off-the-cuff commentary, but I wish some people would grow up and learn some manners! Everyone has different and unique music taste, that’s what makes music so damn interesting. People should respect other’s opinions more. But maybe I’m just too old school… must be why I’m going back to radio – ha!