The organisation plays a central role in New Zealand public broadcasting. Under law, it is responsible for the RNZ International (or RNZ Pacific) Pacific shortwave service. It has a statutory role under the Civil Defence Emergency Management Act 2002 to act as a lifeline utility in emergency situations. The New Zealand Parliament also fully funds its AM Network, for the broadcast of Parliamentary proceedings.
Government-funded public service radio in New Zealand was historically provided by the Radio Broadcasting Company between 1925 and 1931, the New Zealand Broadcasting Board between 1931 and 1936, the National Broadcasting Service between 1936 and 1962, the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation between 1962 and 1975, and the Radio New Zealand state owned enterprise between 1975 and 1995. The organisation placed a strong emphasis on training its staff in Received Pronunciation, until it began promoting local and indigenous accents in the 1990s.
As part of the process of privatisation carried out by the fourth National government, the government's commercial radio operations were sold to private investors as The Radio Network in 1996 and the government's non-commercial assets (known previously as New Zealand Public Radio) became the current Radio New Zealand Crown entity.
The broadcaster is bound by the Charter and Operating Principles included in the Radio New Zealand Act, which is reviewed by the New Zealand Parliament every five years and was amended in 2004. The broadcaster is required to provoke debate and critical thought, reflect New Zealand and Māori cultural diversity, cater for varied ages and interests, promote music and drama and create a sense of national identity. It must operate a news service, an international shortwave service and an archiving programme.
It must also produce and commission high quality programming based on research of public needs, and balance mass appeal and minority appeal programming. In achieving these objectives, it must be socially and financially responsible.