The alternative media in Australia have a long history, emerging around the same time as other media aimed at a broad mass audience. In their earliest forms, alternative media existed as community-based newspapers for disenfranchised groups, and as the socialist and labour press. As time progressed, new alternative media developed—such as ethnic community newspapers in the post-war migration period, the counter-culture press, gay and lesbian media, and community radio. The ‘heyday’ of alternative media to Australia was the late 1960s and 1970s. This was also a time when radical publications attached to marginalised political groups, such as the land rights press and associated black action publications, began to make some impact on public sphere debate. Alternative media in contemporary Australia take the form of community radio, independently owned news publications, the radical press and online publications of varying persuasions that are not attached to major media groups.
Other discussions of alternative media—such as Chris Atton’s Alternative Media (2002)—include all forms of expression from subcultures, such as graffiti, fanzines and public artworks, along with more traditional and online media forms. Here discussion is limited to those outlets dealing specifically with alternative content and alternative processes for producing that content—in this context, alternative media are inexorably connected to notions of the public sphere and enhancing democracy. Journalists who work in alternative media practise a form of journalism that is based on strong notions of social responsibility and a strong commitment to the idealistic norms of journalism. They are distinguished by their drive to motivate people to participate in public activity, rather than to simply provide ‘fair and balanced’ information to the public.
The radical working-class press of the early 20th century was continuing 19th-century anti-capitalist traditions from around the globe, while the Aboriginal print media—an early form of what we now know as ‘community media’—was even further advanced with the emergence of the first Aboriginal newspaper, a weekly newsletter called the Flinders Island Weekly Chronicle, as early as 1836. Australia’s first ethnic community newspaper (a German publication) appeared in 1848, but the proper development of such a strong ethnic press did not occur in Australia until the post-World War II immigration boom. The development of a strong ethnic press in Australia is certainly evidence of the mainstream media’s inability to accurately represent the interests of minority communities, and the willingness of participants to create their own community of voices. So while the alternative media industry in the early 20th century was dominated by the working-class/socialist/labour political press, it also featured a developing Indigenous press and an ethnic press designed specifically to serve unrepresented migrant groups.
Across time, alternative media have responded consistently to their environment and their contemporary context. The counter-culture publications of the 1960s and 1970s, for example, were a direct response to the ultra-conservatism of the post-war 1950s, and emerged along with a diverse range of socially conscious music, fiction and political activity. In the same vein, the working-class socialist publications of the early 20th century arose as the trade union movement gained momentum, when workers’ consciousness and identity were building, as the Industrial Workers of the World appeared as a political force and at moments when capitalism was in crisis (such as the Great Depression or World War I). Alternative media experienced a lull after World War II, during a conservative era marked by anti-communist and anti-socialist sentiments and the Cold War—perhaps the reason for the ultimate rebellion against accepted values throughout the 1960s and 1970s.
The ‘underground’ or ‘counter-culture’ press—accompanied in Australia by the emergence of community radio—represented an important stage in the development of an alternative media industry. Rather than present a unified socialist or working-class view of politics, the underground publications set out to present the new counter-culture movement. Their primary aim was to challenge and shock conservative moral and social values. The Australian OZ magazine (1963) was one of the first true counter-culture publications, closely followed by (among others) Revolution, High Times, Brown Paper, the Digger, Source, Loose Licks, the slick Living Daylights (Richard Neville’s venture upon his return from London OZ magazine), and later Nation Review. Alternative media of this 1970s era were bolstered by the establishment of the Alternative News Service by the Australian Union of Students, which served to distribute content to a network of alternative publications. During this fertile period, the land rights movement also launched a number of titles, Identity, Black Action and the Koorier, among others, while ethnic communities joined together as one of the major driving forces behind the establishment of the community radio sector.
It is important to note that the groundwork for the emergence and occasional success of many counter-culture publications had already been laid a decade earlier. In Sydney in 1958, Tom Fitzgerald, the financial editor of the mainstream and reasonably conservative broadsheet the Sydney Morning Herald , established Nation , a fortnightly opinion publication dealing with issues of major national and international significance. From 1958 until 1972 (when it merged with Sunday Review to become the widely read Nation Review), Nation gave voice to a number of important writers.
Outside these boom periods of alternative media in Australia, a number of outlets have struggled against the odds to bring their alternative media content and community to the public. Throughout the 1980s, for example, community radio continued to develop, while publications such as Australian Society (later Modern Times), the Independent Monthly (with some arm’s- length backing from the John Fairfax Group), Green Left Weekly, the first national Indigenous newspaper the Koori Mail and various socialist publications continued to make some headway in the mainstream public sphere. They paved the way for later ventures—the relatively short-lived Republican Weekly, Eric Beecher’s the Eye, and Jesuit Publications’ Eureka Street. Alongside all these periods, student newspapers formed an important part of the alternative media sector, featuring a range of long-term respected publications such as Honi Soit, Semper Floreat, Tharunka, Farrago and Lot’s Wife.
The Australian alternative media scene today boasts a number of successful online publications, although many involved in their production may twitch when the term ‘alternative’ is applied to their work. The term ‘independent media’ is therefore preferred by many outlets that sit outside the mainstream today, including Crikey, the Monthly, Online Opinion, New Matilda, various Indymedia sites and a plethora of other blogs, commentary sites and online publications. The internet has provided something of a boon for alternative media due to its low production costs and ease of distribution.
Alongside this boom in internet-based alternative media, community broadcasting in Australia has enjoyed enormous growth. The sector has developed from an informal consortium of ethnic, fine music, radical left and educational institutions to a sector that now has more outlets than the commercial radio sector, with 519 licensed independent community owned radio stations and five licensed community television stations by 2013. While not all community radio stations would consider themselves ‘alternative’, stations such as 2XX in Canberra, 2SER FM in Sydney, 3CR and 3RRR in Melbourne, 4ZZZ in Brisbane and 5UV in Adelaide have formed the backbone of the alternative broadcast media in Australia since the early 1970s. Across a range of print, broadcast and online ventures, alternative media continue to expand the media landscape in Australia and in doing so, continue in their endeavours to activate public debate and civic life.
REFs: P.H. Cock, ‘Australia’s Alternative Media’, MIA, 6 (1977); S. Forde, Challenging the News (2011); P.F. Perry, ‘Alternative Magazines and the Growth of the Counter Culture’, MIA, 6 (1977).