BROADCASTING FOR REMOTE ABORIGINAL COMMUNITIES SCHEME
Indigenous use of video can be traced back to a 1975 Whitlam Labor government initiative that made video equipment available in urban and remote video access centres. But a major impetus for community control of Indigenous television in Australia came from experiments with local video at two Central Australian Aboriginal communities—Yuendumu, 300 kilometres north-west, and Ernabella (or Pukutja), 400 kilometres south, of Alice Springs—in the early 1980s. In 1983, American anthropologist Eric Michaels, working with TAFE assistant Kurt Japanangka Granites, began a study of Aboriginal television production at Yuendumu. School teacher Rex Guthrie supported a similar experiment at Ernabella the following year. This ‘Aboriginal invention of television’, as Michaels’ landmark report on the experience is called, paved the way for the first recognition by the Australian government of the need for Indigenous people’s control of their own media production, illustrating the strength of kinship ties and their relevance to the ownership of knowledge and its dissemination in various forms.
The Broadcasting for Remote Aboriginal Communities Scheme (BRACS) was announced in 1987 as a means of delivering satellite radio and television to 28,000 remote Aboriginal Australians. It was a direct result of Aboriginal submissions to two 1984 inquiries into the broadcasting needs of remote communities: Satellite Program Services and Out of the Silent Land. Around 80 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities received an equipment package that included a satellite dish, an FM radio aerial, an audio cassette recorder, two video cassette recorders and a video camera. This enabled communities to receive one of three available ABC radio services (national, regional and FM) and the only available ABC television service. Remote Commercial Television Service programs were also available via satellite, with communities deciding which channels to accept. BRACS also provided basic facilities for communities to produce and broadcast their own community radio and television programs, including those in their own languages. Control of programming was at the point of entry of the signal from the satellite, enabling communities to switch it off and insert programs of their choice. Some Indigenous broadcasting groups in North Queensland and the Torres Strait used BRACS in its early stages to videotape and ‘broadcast’ local sporting activities and to inform their communities of important local cultural events such as funerals. The Department of Aboriginal Affairs argued that it allowed for culturally offensive material to be managed by individual communities.
The scheme has been criticised on a number of counts. Virtually all communities involved claimed there was little or no consultation before equipment was installed. Some communities already had some production equipment and would have preferred to have chosen additional gear rather than having existing equipment duplicated. Another key complaint was that there was little funding for training and maintenance of the equipment in the critical early years of operation. A belated federally funded training program for community BRACS operators up until the early 1990s had mixed success, which spurred Remote Indigenous Media Organisations (RIMOS) to develop their own training regimes. There are now several established training centres for remote Indigenous broadcasters, primarily in the Northern Territory and Queensland. Most Indigenous media organisations argue that the sector has never been funded at levels that meet community communication needs and expectations, with few options for a career path in Indigenous broadcasting.
Under BRACS, each community was encouraged to form a community media association to control and administer its own facilities. The scheme went part of the way towards giving communities control over the type of television and radio they could experience, but a lack of training, the powerful attraction of mainstream programming and the later arrival of pay television in some remote communities limited its potential. Some have argued that BRACS should have been seen as an experiment and, if successful, could have become an important cultural development tool. Indeed, its later incarnations have arguably produced some of the most innovative television in the country, particularly through the efforts of several active RIMS. The Remote Indigenous Broadcasting Services scheme became the latest incarnation of BRACS in 2005 under a revised Indigenous Broadcasting Program.
For all its faults, BRACS encouraged the development of these associations, which ultimately produced Australia’s first remote Indigenous television service, Indigenous Community Television (ICTV), in 2001. However, a federal government policy decision switched off ICTV to make way for the new National Indigenous Television Service in 2007. ICTV re-launched as both a streaming website called Indigitube and via the Westlink satellite service on Channel 23 in 2009.
REFs: M. Meadows, ‘The Way People Want to Talk: Indigenous Media Production in Australia and Canada’, MIA, 73 (1994); H. Molnar and M. Meadows, Songlines to Satellites (2001).