The Future of Community Radio

Australia leads the world in many areas—some good and some … well, some may be best not to jump up and down about. Which ones stand out for you? For me: Longest Surviving Culture stands out, something to be check-this-out proud of. Unfortunately, the sustainability of that boast is threatened by our mistreatment of Indigenous people. We are really very good at digging iron ore, lead and zinc out of the ground and shipping it out—but I’m not sure how sustainable that is either or whether it’s really something worth boasting about. Australia can also claim to be a recent world leader in house-price growth as well as time spent per capita on social networking sites (it IS a big country after all).

But the development of which we can all be extremely proud is community broadcasting. We lead the world in terms of number, diversity and quality of licensed community-controlled broadcasting stations. Australia is in the healthy situation of having more licensed community radio stations (358) than the number of commercial (274), ABC (65) and SBS (4) stations put together. Melbourne is the heartland for Australian community radio with nine (the most of any Australian city) well developed and supported stations. On the smell of the proverbial, community radio gives access to the airwaves to people who are otherwise denied it—young people, old people, Indigenous people, ethnic people and those interested in alternative views and non-mainstream music.

Community radio (and television) stations are licensed by the federal government when communities express a need for them. They can be geographic (70 per cent of community stations are in regional areas) or communities of interest. Some fine examples are: SYN-FM in Melbourne, constitutionally restricted to young people under twenty-six, which in one corker of a year trained 4000 young people in how to broadcast; JOY-FM, the only radio station in the world operated by and for the local gay and lesbian community; and Goolarri Media in Broome, active in media and music production and in providing training and employment opportunities for Aboriginal people in their community. In Melbourne, also think RRR, MBS, PBS and CR; think KND, ZZZ and RPH—all treasures.

Community stations are generally operated by volunteers; 23,000 people are currently actively involved in operating the 300 plus stations across the country. There are stations on Christmas Island (growing audience) in the west, Palm Island in the east, Thursday Island up north and Kangaroo Island down south—just about the four corners of the country—and everywhere in between. Most importantly, community broadcasting allows all those people to be part of decision making and ownership of stations—but maybe not for much longer. Community broadcasting is hot national infrastructure with a racy past but a doubtful future.

A Short History
A look at the history of community broadcasting in Australia highlights its purpose and value. Community broadcasting, catering to expressed needs of sections of the Australian population, has developed as a complement to the other two significant broadcasting sectors in the country. What is unique about Australian broadcasting is that all three major sectors—commercial, government-funded (ABC, SBS) and community—are large, well-developed and well-supported. The United Kingdom has only recently started licensing community stations, so has only two mature broadcasting sectors.

Broadcasting in Australia developed rapidly from 1923, when the first four radio stations were licensed. It developed into a hybrid of models in the United Kingdom, where all broadcasting was government-owned (commercial radio did not start in there until the 1970s) and the United States, where there are no government-funded radio stations.

Government funded radio started in Australia when it became apparent that the private sector would not service regional areas as there was no ‘business case’ for doing so. In 1927, a Royal Commission into broadcasting directed the Post Master General (PMG) to take control of a number of radio stations, with a brief from government to extend radio into country areas. The PMG contracted the Australian Broadcasting Company to make programs for the service. In 1932 the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) was established, funded by licence fees. Forty years later another development in Australian electronic media occurred when established services again failed to meet the needs of a section—or rather, many sections of the Australian community.

The origins of community broadcasting—or ‘public’ broadcasting as it was known until the ABC appropriated that term in the 1990s—is not traceable to any one single movement. During the 1960s and 1970s four distinct and unrelated threads of political, cultural and social movement, and then two more, came together to weave the fabric of community broadcasting in Australia. Educators, protestors, migrants and, oddly, classical music enthusiasts made strange bedfellows, stranger studio mates. Not long after the start of community broadcasting, Indigenous communities and people who could not use print media also wanted access to the airwaves.

The first identifiable group seeking access to broadcasting was classical music enthusiasts. Peaceful, relaxed and pensive, you might think—hardly the types to storm the barricades of the broadcasting regulators. But not so. In 1961, when the government closed down experimental FM stations, allocating the spectrum to television, disappointed classical music fans formed the Listener’s Society of NSW and the Music Broadcasting Society of Victoria. Their objective was to establish FM radio stations to play fine music.

Educators made up the second group, with some universities lobbying for licences to broadcast educational material on air. They had witnessed the Open Universities in the United Kingdom and the educational stations in the United States. In 1961, the University of NSW was given a licence to broadcast lectures over a non-broadcast frequency.

The third prong of the movement came from ethnic communities. In the wake of post-war migration, the media lagged far behind in meeting the needs of Australians whose first language was not English. As a result of migration, the country’s population had almost doubled in twenty years.

Al Grassby, later a Minister in the Whitlam Government, worked in agriculture in southern NSW in the 1950s. Up to 60 per cent of local people had a first language other than English. Grassby started broadcasting European music on 2RG in Griffith, interspersed with segments in Italian for local farmers on topics like ‘How to spray your earth mites’. By the 1970s, Grassby was Minister for Immigration and started a fledgling SBS through small stations in Sydney and Melbourne. The burgeoning political power of migrants ensured that ethnic broadcasting burst out around the country. Brisbane hosted the first full-time ethnic community radio station, 4EB, in the late 1970s. There are now hundreds of languages spoken on community stations around the country, many catering to recent arrivals such as those from the Horn of Africa and the Middle East.

The fourth group seeking access to the media was the politically active ‘Vietnam generation’. The desire for a more open media was exemplified by the draft resistors and their supporters in Melbourne and Sydney who ran pirate broadcasts. In Brisbane Springbok rugby tour demonstrations in 1971 and their coverage by the mainstream media led students to form their own radio station (ultimately 4ZZZ). As the wave of anti-Vietnam War moratorium marches spread throughout the country, in 1971 students at two Melbourne universities were considering their response to the government’s crackdown on civil liberties and the right to protest. The answer was two pirate radio stations. But these were a token gesture with limited transmission range. Monash University hosted 3PR People’s Radio and Melbourne University had 3DR, Draft Resistor’s radio. Several people involved with the Melbourne stations, particularly those with technical expertise, joined forces to start the Community Radio Federation (CRF) in 1974.

Each of these four groups had one thing in common. They challenged how broadcasting operated in Australia. They wanted control of the airwaves and they lobbied for it, leading to the establishment of the third tier of broadcasting in Australia.

The history of community broadcasting in Australia parallels the changing face of the country’s social, political and cultural environment, changes which began in the sixties and achieved a critical momentum over the next two decades.

Historically, Indigenous communities were badly served by and portrayed in the media. Indigenous aspirations were not part of the agenda of mainstream media. The importance of maintaining Indigenous languages and cultures only emerged as a policy objective in the 1980s.

In 1980, Australia’s first Aboriginal owned and controlled radio station, the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association’s (CAAMA’s) 8KIN, started broadcasting, producing videos and making music clips. Not long after, some Indigenous communities in remote Australia started to adapt low-cost video, videoconferencing and radio services to suit their needs, and some, such as those at Yuendumu and Ernabella, started pirate community television stations.

With a Labor Government, elected in 1983, talking self-determination in Aboriginal policy making, and with bureaucrats like Charles Perkins and Eric Willmot driving the process, Indigenous communities were to officially gain control of media at a local level through the Broadcasting for Remote Aboriginal Communities Scheme (BRACS). With the launch of Australia’s first domestic satellite in 1985, remote Indigenous communities had access to telecommunications, broadcast television and radio for the first time. The launch was seen as both a potential advance for Indigenous communications and a threat to the maintenance of an already diminished language and culture.

When the BRACS project was first funded in 1987, as a Bicentennial gift to Indigenous communities, these communities had the potential to use media to sustain their culture for the first time. BRACS gave communities the ability to produce their own video and radio programs and re-broadcast or ‘embed’ this material in mainstream programming by turning off main signals and transmitting their own programs locally.

Then came the blindfellas. Radio that meets the information needs of people with a print disability dates back almost as far as community radio itself. From 1975 a community group in Melbourne presented a regular weekly news and information program on 3CR. Members were aware of the radio reading services then developing in the United States. In 1978, at Bathurst’s community radio 2MCE, station manager John Martin felt that reading the local newspaper on the radio would provide a service to people who could not access print media—not just vision impaired people, but others with literacy problems and those who could not physically handle books and newspapers. One of a young Andrew Denton’s first media experiences was reading out local newspapers on-air at 2MCE. ‘Andrew’s description of the frocks (from the social pages) was magnificent’, Martin has said.

Overtures were made to the minister for post and telecommunications for access to the broadcasting spectrum for the provision of reading services —to become known as Radio for the Print Handicapped. In July 1978 the minister permitted ‘The establishment of a special radio communications service for the blind and other people with reading difficulties’.

During the 1960s and 1970s changes in political, social and cultural horizons led to changes in the media landscape. The six very different groups who pressured government for access to and control over the airwaves were joined by others and twelve initial stations multiplied as a response to communities expressing a need for and a capability to operate their own radio and television stations.

When community needs have become apparent, as they did in the early seventies, Labor governments have tended to expand government services. 2JJ started when young people demanded a different approach to music than the American Top 40. When classical music enthusiasts became strident about hearing Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert on radio, the government responded with ABC Classic FM. When ethnic communities demanded more than English language programs, the government initiated what has become SBS.

Despite the degree to which our national broadcasters are cherished by people who value independent media, they are not enough. Despite the degree to which they are resourced, they cannot cover the diverse interests that have developed in this old and new country. And despite the high quality of service, they are undeniably national broadcasters; government broadcasters: no matter how much they try to dress themselves up as ‘local’ or ‘community’ radio, they are not of the community.

Recently, the ABC received a massive injection of funding to provide what they described as ‘town square’ services—community hubs where people can contribute content. But Australians generally won’t fall for that. Despite the ABC calling itself ‘local radio’, people in Cairns know when the overnight program on ‘their’ local radio is coming from Melbourne. Without ten times the funding, the ABC just cannot be local enough.

The ABC is a wonderful service, but despite its intentions, it cannot cover all media bases in this country. It should stop acting like it can and stop trying to shut out other media from public events. National broadcasters and commercial radio can’t serve the needs of remote Aboriginal communities. It can’t serve specialist music lovers. Will the ABC provide a service as basic as reading newspapers? How many people interested in working in the media do the ABC or commercial radio train each year? The number is a lot closer to zero than the hundreds trained by community broadcasting.

The Achievements
Today a significant proportion of the Australia population listen to community radio. McNair Ingenuity Research figures found in 2008 that 57 per cent of Australians over fifteen—9.5 million people—listen to community radio every month, an increase of 10 per cent since 2006. Qualitative research showed that people like community broadcasting for local news, for offering the ability to connect or create communities and for more accurately representing our social and cultural diversity than other media.

The achievements of community broadcasting are many. Community broadcasters pioneered FM technology when no one else wanted to touch it. They have pioneered new programming formats supporting local musicians, alternative news, current affairs and information, programs in languages other than English and positive stories about Indigenous culture. Community radio, more than the ABC, provides strong support for Australian music. Musicians like Paul Kelly, John Butler, The Saints, Boys Next Door, to name a few, received their first airplay on stations like RTR in Perth, DDD in Adelaide, Edge FM in Hobart, ZZZ in Brisbane and SER in Sydney. Almost 100 Remote Indigenous Broadcasting Stations (the old BRACS) are operating in small communities in outback Australia. These are communities where Aboriginal people want to sustain their culture, language and sense of community.

The Challenges
For all the young people trained by SYN-FM, for all the Indigenous issues covered by the twenty-six full-time Aboriginal radio stations across the country, for all the thousands of hours of non-English programming broadcast every week in over one hundred stations across Australia and for the hundreds of local musicians supported by their local community radio stations, the sector is at a crossroads.

The immediate challenge for community broadcasting is the proliferation of platforms on which people can express themselves. The days are gone when licences issued to community stations were beacons around which people rallied in a heavily regulated media landscape. The internet can deliver New York and New Delhi for your listening pleasure. How do community broadcasters sustain engagement with their communities in the face of this deluge? If massive media empires like Fairfax and News Limited can’t work out how to maintain readership of their daily newspapers, what hope have community radio stations?

Community broadcasting has developed strategies to address these challenges. By returning to its origins, the days when a microphone, turntable and transmitter and a bit of training could turn enthusiasts into media players, community broadcasting can offer people who believe in independent media, social justice and serving their own communities, pathways to digital literacy and digital economies. The community sector has developed a vision that re-invigorates the community broadcasting role in local communities by enabling them to leverage the rollout of digital technology. Community stations can provide the facilities, training and infrastructure for people who support their ideals to connect with digital media. A level of initial funding support is needed to establish this vision.

All politicians in the upcoming election campaign will be asked to support infrastructure development at community stations around the country to enable local communities to better develop new and engaging local programming. This will be achieved through the provision of digital production facilities and digital media training for thousands of volunteers. The outcome will be a 25 per cent increase in volunteer participation, a doubling to 2000 of the number of jobs in the sector, and a huge increase in local program making.

This technology-based community connecting will echo the innovation and energy that characterised the early days of community broadcasting. As the sector has matured, so has its aspirations and there’s little doubt community broadcasters are at their best when being creative, innovative and providing real alternatives to mainstream media.

The other challenge is the digital platform—costly beyond any community station’s budget and with too few listeners to generate any income. The government legislated for community stations to be hosted by commercial radio on the new digital transmissions infrastructure in 2007. The federal government also hamstrung community radio’s future on the new digital radio platform by reducing its relative broadcast power.

Community broadcasting has lost parity of spectrum—for the first time in its history. That is, community stations are no longer being offered the same licence conditions as commercial or government-funded stations. Whereas on the analogue spectrum (AM and FM) community stations have the same conditions as commercials and government-funded stations—the same allowable transmission power and the same transmission areas—the government is only allowing community stations a quarter of the spectrum offered the other sectors on the new digital transmission platform.

Digital radio transmission has enough challenges for all players—commercial stations are yet to establish a business case and the internet is flooding listeners with stations from across the planet—without the government putting community broadcasters a mile behind the starting line by reducing its access to spectrum. Community broadcasters are least equipped to handle the steep rise in costs associated with generating new program streams on new technology.

Just as community radio stations in the capital cities of the mainland states take the giant and unknown leap into digital transmission, they are effectively being chopped off at the knees. This federal government and its predecessor have taken active measures to diminish and erode more than forty years of development of Australian community broadcasting by over 100,000 volunteers.

Why would governments want to destroy community broadcasting? Is it by simple neglect and lack of knowledge of the many benefits brought by the sector to the millions of Australians who listen to it? Or is it by design, and what could that be? Either case is unfathomable. For community broadcasting, the next couple of years will determine whether or not the decades of development are going to be squandered.

Author Bio
David Melzer was living in the Otways in western Victoria when he became enthusiastic about what was then called public broadcasting. He first volunteered at 3YYR in Geelong in 1988; later he was employed as part-time manager. He went on to manage 3ZZZ in Melbourne—surviving the politics of a station that broadcasts in sixty-five languages. He and his family then schlepped to Fitzroy Crossing in Western Australia’s Kimberley region, where the ABC employed him to work with the local Aboriginal board to establish an independent station. He spent ten years back in Melbourne managing 3MBS, with a stint once again in the Kimberley, managing the ABC station in Broome. He has spent many satisfying hours volunteering at community stations, including 3CR, 3RRR, 3PBS and 3YYR. He is presently Acting CBOnline Manager, Community Broadcasting Association of Australia.

Relevant websites and sources

Australian Communication Media Authority

McNair Ingenuity Research

Michael Meadows, Susan Forde, Jacqui Ewart and Kerrie Foxwell, Community Media Matters: An Audience Study of the Australian Community Broadcasting Sector (Griffith University, Brisbane, 2007), available for free download

Craig Liddell, History of Community Broadcasting, CBOnline

Bridget Griffen-Foley, Changing Stations: The Story of Australian Commercial Radio / UNSW Press, Sydney, 2009.

RPH Australia

Community Broadcasting Association of Australia

Support Arena

Independent publications and critical thought are more important than ever. Arena has never relied on or received government funding. It has sustained its activities largely through the voluntary work and funding provided by editors and supporters. If Arena is to continue and to expand its readership, we need your support to do it.


Really David, is this just a cry for more funding, or a condemnation of all the stations that have missed the boat? “people who believe in independent media, social justice and serving their own communities,” – HA! The regional community radio stations who will not maintain an up to date website, not because of costs but because they don’t care, are the majority.

These ideals of which you speak are not espoused in regional stations. Pseudo-commercial, country music heavy closed shops are more the norm.

Let it die, the web is far more open and offers more.

Oh Jack that is so narrow minded and such a horrible sweeping statement. Clearly you have some issues with some specific stations, but don’t take it out on them all.

I’ve met plenty of regional stations who are trying their hardest to keep the values of community media alive in their communities. It’s tough and comments like yours do nothing to help.

If anything it’s attitudes like yours that are holding the sector back.

Comments closed