The 2013 Budget delivered disappointing news for community radio. The Government has failed to meet the funding shortfall that would guarantee the continuation of current community digital radio services – that is, 37 metropolitan digital services in Sydney, Adelaide, Perth, Brisbane and Melbourne. It’s fair to say that the reaction from across the sector was one of shock, anger and a deep bewilderment. The amount of money in question — $1.4 million per year — is tiny in a multi-billion dollar Budget but the decision puts in jeopardy the whole project of digital broadcasting.
That project began more than a decade ago. In October 2005, the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts announced a framework to guide the introduction of digital radio in Australia. The community radio sector had lobbied hard in the preceding years for community broadcasters to have the same entitlements to digital capacity as the national and commercial broadcasters. After years of preparation, the 37 community radio stations commenced digital broadcasting in 2011.
Over this period, tens of millions of dollars have been spent by federal governments to encourage this new technology. This is on top of the hundreds of hours of labour put in by stations themselves installing new equipment, promoting the new service and in some cases, broadcasting entirely different content on their digital service to their analogue one.
Now this colossal investment is at risk and community radio stations are in danger of being left behind. Thousands of people in stations across the country are left scratching their heads, asking, “Well, what was the point of all that?”
Exactly how the sector will respond is unclear at this stage – but the situation does highlight the precariousness of community radio.
The digital radio funding debacle also demonstrates that the sector needs to be supported by the government – it does, after all, deliver incalculable benefits to the community. But at the same time, individual stations can’t be reliant on the vagaries of parliamentary democracy and electoral politics. This is why 3CR seeks most of its funding from donations. In a cheeky nod to this reality, we’ve made our Radiothon theme for 2013 Make Your Donation Political: if billionaires and corporations can seek to buy political influence through campaign donations, then the rest of us can fight back with a voice that is a genuine representative of the people.
3CR Community Radio, broadcasts from a humble old terrace building in Fitzroy. Every week, we put 120 radio programs to air in approximately 20 different languages, made by hundreds of programmers, activists, community members, Indigenous people, workers, music enthusiasts, unionists, people with a disability – people that the mainstream media usually only ever speaks about.
Community radio is the largest media sector in the country, with over 350 licensed stations serving distinct communities not only with local content but also providing access for people to be the media. If digital radio is the free distribution platform of the future then beyond the 37 stations that are currently at risk, there’s also an urgent need to support the rest of the sector transition to digital.
Certainly the federal government has supported the initial phase of a digital transition for the community radio sector; however, the version of “support” is beginning to look a lot less attractive. First we saw legislation that determines the sector’s right to spectrum space; then we found ourselves embedded in complicated legal arrangements with commercial broadcasters in order to obtain infrastructure access, and now we’re being asked to finance an additional service (remember stations are still running their FM and AM broadcasts) with less money than promised.
Some have claimed that the promise to support community radio’s move to digital is a waste of taxpayer money, and that such niche content should, instead, be podcast. One such commentator is Josh Withers of Fairfax Media in Brisbane but even the government is apparently taking the line that the sector should simply seek “community-sourced revenue”.
Unfortunately Withers is not alone in mistaking a multitude of media content and a plethora of digital information for diversity and community access. Social ownership of a media outlet is required to facilitate community involvement in its off air and on air operations. This is about achieving a level of media justice, not just disseminating individual opinions via podcast. It requires a media outlet to prioritise social needs as opposed to functioning under the imperatives of a commercial system or the constraints of government funding and ownership.
As for the Government’s calls for more “community sourced revenue” – surely the volunteer hours of over 20,000 people and the existing subscriptions and donations that are the primary support for the sector are a clear indication that revenue from the community already freely flows to community radio. What we’re asking for is that community revenue — in the form of tax payer funds — make up the shortfall.
We know that we are in the midst of rolling economic crises around the world. What is not broadly considered is that we may well be in — or approaching — a crisis of democratic communication. Just as a crisis of finances seems absurd within the wealth of the world; so too does a crisis of communication appear illogical within a time of unprecedented information flows and digital connection. Delusions of free market inspired free speech flourish alongside hyper-individualised participation models and “free” information. Ultimately what this does is allocate yet more media space to the powerful in society. Community radio is a truly democratic media form, and if society places any value on access, equality and communication rights then we would do well to get behind the future of free distribution of community broadcasting.
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