In the weeks since the 2016 budget, amidst the arts carnage and upheaval of Medicare, a voice has been lost in the noise: community radio. Loved by communities, loathed by non-independent news sources and admired by overseas content-makers, community radio is the voice of music aficionados, divergent political groups and rural storytellers.
For over forty years, volunteers have anchored shifts and communicated through the magic of radio transmission, beaming words and sound which gather us together, and hold a mirror up to who we all are and what we stand for.
In the 2016 budget, the federal government cut the $1.4 million in funding allocated to community radio digital services in all capital cities. At the same time, the government announced that commercial television and radio broadcasters are to benefit from an immediate 25 per cent reduction in licensing fees, with further reductions under consideration.
$1.4 million is a small drop in a budget of $400 billion, but it has a big sting in the tail. ‘Potentially, it excludes community broadcasters from a digital broadcasting future and threatens the whole community broadcasting sector’s role as a key pillar in Australian broadcasting,’ argued Jon Bisset, the CEO of Community Broadcasting Association of Australia (CBAA).
The 2014 Community Radio National Listener Survey found that over five million people listen to community radio each week. 25 per cent of capital city listeners are now tuning in to digital services, and the audience is growing.
There is a clear disconnect between what community radio represents for the public and the government’s obvious ambivalence towards the sector. This has led to the CBAA declaring Friday 3 June to be a National Day of Action. It will be a day of information-sharing, petition-signing and raising awareness among our listeners of the very real threat of station closures, because if no-one can hear us on the digital platform, what’s the point?
Community radio was first introduced in the early 1970s, with Radio Adelaide as the recognised first station. It was always envisaged as a third model, a separate tier of radio service, distinct from commercial radio and public radio. Community radio has always been about community voices, often regional, grouped around varying interests and identities, on a strictly non-profit basis. In a changing cultural, linguistic and social landscape, storytellers, musicians and artists connect us all and represent our core values.
3ZZZ is Australia’s largest ethnic community radio station. Melbourne-based Joy FM is a dedicated LGBTI station providing vital community support. Other community radio stations such as 3RRR (Melbourne) and RTR (Perth) have a more generalised program, catering to a large variety of different specialist groups within the grid. PBS (Melbourne) remains the first specialist music station, where under-represented and emerging music genres are supported.
The point is, within this third model of radio is an extraordinary diversity of opinion and style, proud and independent and vital. This is truly independent media, which has its own broadcasting code and which feeds public and commercial spaces.
There are countless stories of fellow radio announcers who have given bands airtime, championed their cause and watched them become players on the international stage. When the 2010 Save Live Australian Music rally happened in Melbourne as protest against then restrictive liquor licensing laws, bringing thousands to the streets and resulting in the historic Live Music Agreement, it was community radio which broadcast continually the information needed for people to attend.
But it isn’t only about the big city broadcasters. Who will ever forget UGFM’s heartbreaking broadcasts in the lead up to and coverage of the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires that hit Murrindindi, Narbethong and Marysville in Victoria? Community radio is vital to small communities for the dissemination of information in times like these. Then there’s the sheer joy and wonder of being in a tent backstage at WOMADelaide, one of Australia’s largest music festivals, sending the music from the stages via the Community Radio Network and the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association’s network to any of the 360 radio stations around the country who wanted to share.
At the end of the day, we all have stories we can share about these special stations. Whether it is an interview that makes us stop what we are doing to listen, hearing a catchy tune for the first time, and or merely realising that we are part of a greater whole. Media is now digital: it isn’t something that is part of the future, it is now, and unless community radio is provided with the support to develop in the digital radio space, to continue the journey of social inclusion, cultural diversity and amplifying the voices of local and grassroots communities, then they will be lost, and we will all be poorer for it.