Radio reaches about 95 per cent of Australians. Australia’s broadcasting system emerged in the 1920s, but it was not until the 1970s that public (now known as community) radio first emerged on the new FM band.
Non-profit broadcasting enterprises around the world are variously described as ‘community’, ‘public’, ‘citizens’, ‘local’, ‘access’, ‘radical’, ‘alternative’ or ‘rural’. In Australia, ‘community radio’ is the preferred title, stemming from the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 (BSA), where the term ‘community’ was officially sanctioned. Australia had established a dual broadcasting (radio) system by 1932, consisting of the publicly owned and funded ABC and commercial radio. This arrangement remained relatively unchanged until 1972, when grassroots movements and other political forces joined to campaign for a third tier in Australia’s broadcasting environment.
Dissatisfied with existing broadcasting services, four groups representing quite diverse interests—ethnic communities, fine music enthusiasts, radical political groups and educational institutions—aligned in the progressive era of the early 1970s to lobby for a ‘public broadcasting’ sector that could deliver specific content not currently provided by either commercial or nationally funded broadcasters.
The Whitlam Labor government initially granted a range of 12 temporary licences to educational institutions in 1972, with temporary licences also distributed to fine music stations and ethnic community stations in 1974. The work of the Whitlam government in developing the modern community radio sector—then known as ‘public broadcasting’—was continued by the incoming Fraser Coalition government, with temporary licences remaining in place until the sector was finally enshrined in formal legislation in 1978.
Australia’s first FM station, 2MBS FM, resulted from lobbying for a ‘fine music’ outlet with significantly better broadcast quality using the new FM spectrum. As a lobby group, the fine music enthusiasts had little in common with ethnic communities and radical political activists, but they did contribute a strong argument around the enhancement of Australian cultural life through fine music. In 1991, the Australian Fine Music Network was established for marketing and other purposes. Fine music stations with a broader definition than ‘classical music’—now including jazz, blues, folk and light opera—now exist in every state in Australia. 4MBS FM is one of the country’s most successful community stations.
As a second pressure group, ethnic communities sought access to the airwaves to ensure broadcasting in languages other than English, and to disseminate their own culturally relevant programming. In 1975, ethnic broadcasting stations 2EA and 3EA went to air, operated by the Department of the Media. They were later absorbed by the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) in 1977. In 1979, 4EB went to air as a community-based ethnic radio station in Brisbane, followed the next year by 5EBI in Adelaide.
The third impetus for the development of community radio came from educational institutions. In 1972, the University of Newcastle and the University of Adelaide became involved in community radio, and this sub-sector was indeed the first to be granted temporary licences by the Whitlam government. Today, the list of stations associated with universities includes 2SER Sydney, 2MCE Bathurst, 2NCR Lismore and 6UVS Perth. The station associated with the University of Adelaide, formerly operating under the call sign of 5UV but known as Radio Adelaide since 2003, has become one of Australia’s largest community radio stations. Stations with an educational background cover a broad range of interests, providing access to many communities including ethnic, Indigenous, youth, gay and lesbian, and music.
The final catalyst for the development of community radio in Australia was a conglomerate of politically progressive activists. Stations in this group included 4ZZZ Brisbane, 2SER Sydney, 2XX Canberra, 3RRR and 3PBS Melbourne, and 5MMM Adelaide (now known as Three D Radio following a ‘buyout’ of the 5MMM callsign by the Triple M network in 1993). These early politically progressive stations enabled access for groups such as Indigenous Australians, gays and lesbians, environmental, youth and radical political activists, and remain a strong element of the sector.
It may appear that these diverse groups have little in common. However, community radio is about community access and participation. A ‘community’ may be defined in terms of interest, geographical or cultural boundaries. However defined, enabling local access to the airwaves is a consistent and central theme.
Globally, community radio tends to be associated with environments where communities are denied access to existing forms of mass communication—such as post-apartheid South Africa. The emergence of community radio is seen by many as a counter to the negative impacts of globalisation and commercialism, by enabling local communities to identify more strongly with local cultural issues. In many sites around the world where community radio is embedded in community social structures, the barrier between audiences and producers is either weakened or completely absent. This is particularly evident in Australia’s Indigenous and ethnic communities.
Australia’s community broadcasting system is different from those in continents such as Africa, Asia and Latin America where the state maintains tight control. Australia and New Zealand have legislated for discrete community broadcasting sectors with provision for access and participation.
In Australia, the BSA now provides the legislative framework for community broadcasting. Among other principles, the Act requires that community stations be not-for-profit, represent their identified communities, and encourage their communities to participate in their operations and production of program content. Unlike other media, community radio considers all of its listeners as potential volunteers. Biennial audience surveys since 2004 reveal that around 29 per cent of Australians over the age of 15 tune in to a community radio station at least once a week (based on 2013 figures). This is the highest per capita listenership of any community radio sector globally.
The first national audience study of the community broadcasting sector completed in 2007 showed that metropolitan and regional radio station listeners perceive community radio to be accessible and approachable. Audiences prefer community radio because it provides local news and information (an increasing rarity on regional commercial radio) and diverse music formats. It also provides audiences with programming that is representative of their communities, from news of local events to community ‘gossip’, and may use local people as presenters.
Community radio supports a significant level of Indigenous and ethnic community programming, with audiences identifying this as an essential service in the absence of alternatives. For these marginalised communities, their local stations help in maintaining social networks and play an important education role. Audiences identify a lack of stereotyping and the role of community radio in promoting cross-cultural dialogue and assisting new immigrants. Indigenous and ethnic broadcasting stations also play a crucial role in supporting local music and culture.
In its short 40-year history in Australia, the community broadcasting sector has experienced phenomenal growth. It makes a significant contribution to Australian culture and its economy. The sector has around 23,000 volunteers contributing around $340 million each year in terms of volunteered work. Around one-fifth of all volunteers are under 26 years of age. Community radio is a major industry training site, with more than 8000 people participating each year. In 2013, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) listed 519 licensed independent community owned and operated broadcasting services in Australia.
This included 355 long-term licensed community radio stations broadcasting more than 46,000 program hours per week, and 95 aspirant community radio broadcasters operating with temporary licences. This compares with 273 licensed commercial radio operators. The vast majority of community radio content (77 per cent) is locally produced. Music makes up almost three-quarters of program output with around 36 per cent Australian content. The sector is Australia’s most diverse, with community radio stations producing many thousands of hours of relevant programming each week in around 100 Indigenous and ethnic community languages.
Across the sector, community radio stations address a range of audiences and their needs: youth, senior citizens, the arts, fine music, Australian music, Indigenous, ethnic, Christian and so on. There are two national community radio news services—the National Indigenous News Service and National Radio News—along with three satellite-delivered distribution services catering for generalist, Indigenous and print-handicapped audiences. Diversity is articulated in the community broadcasting sector’s Code of Practice, which identifies a mission to ‘present programs, which contribute to expanding the variety of viewpoints in Australia and enhance the diversity of programming choices available to audiences’. This resolution is particularly important in Australia where regional coverage and perspectives are vital to many communities.
The dispersal of community radio audiences in Australia has meant a reliance on satellite delivery of program content as a central organising element of national networking. Australia first launched its own domestic communications satellite, AUSSAT, in 1985 following pressure from commercial television stations. The community radio sector established its own satellite distribution network, ComRadSat, in 1993. It offers a range of core programs to community stations that subscribe, along with a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week national feed for participating stations. Around 180 community radio stations access ComRadSat in varying degrees. Stations pay a quarterly flat fee to access available programming.
Funding for the sector has always been an issue, and this has led to debates about the ability of community radio stations to vie for advertising dollars. Community radio stations do not pay for their broadcast licence, and as a result are not permitted to attract advertisers—this is due to the fact that their commercial counterparts can sometimes pay more than $100 million for their commercial licence to broadcast. Community radio broadcasters are permitted to run ‘sponsorship’ announcements; however the quantity of sponsorship announcements is regulated by the ACMA and limited to five minutes per hour on community radio and seven minutes per hour on community television. This regulation is designed to ensure the sponsorship gained by community radio does not impact upon competing commercial radio services in the same broadcast footprint. The Community Broadcasting Foundation (CBF), an independent body that oversees funding to the sector, reports that in the 2013–14 year the sector will receive $17.7 million in government funding. For most stations, government funding comprises only a small proportion of their income (usually less than 20 per cent), with most income gained through sponsorship announcements, membership subscriptions, routine fundraising and revenue from special events.
The core funding received from the government includes an allocation to facilitate the introduction of digital radio. The community radio sector has taken advantage of digital advances, with 38 digital radio services currently offered in major metropolitan areas. The Australian government granted a total of $11 million over four years to facilitate community radio’s participation in digital radio. This funding was not intended to facilitate the replacement of existing analogue services with digital radio, but rather to enable the community radio sector to participate in digital broadcasting.
Community radio continues to pioneer new ways of accessing existing and often marginalised audiences. It remains a first level of service for Indigenous communities and provides diverse cultural groups within the Australian community with information and programming relevant to their lives. As an example, in 2005, 4MBS FM pioneered the spread of community radio into aged care facilities in Brisbane. The initiative is called Silver Memories and uses a spare carrier wave to distribute specialised programming—music and shows from the 1920s to the 1950s—to aged audiences, who have been shown to respond positively to hearing the music from their youth.
REFs: ACMA, Communications Report 2012–13 (2013); A. Bear, ‘The Emergence of Public Broadcasting in Australia’, Australian Jnl of Communication, 4 (1983); House of Representatives Standing Committee on Communications, Transport and the Arts, Local Voices (2001); M. Meadows et al., Community Media Matters (2007).
SUSAN FORDE and MICHAEL MEADOWS