Access to information and communication technologies has always been a struggle for Indigenous communities in Australia, which have survived in an environment that is often racist and discriminatory. Unlike equivalent legislation in Canada and New Zealand, there is no mention of the special place of Indigenous languages and culture in the Australian Broadcasting Services Act 1992.
As early as 1938, Torres Strait Islanders experimented with ‘wireless transmitting’ or two-way radio, but it was not until the late 1960s that Indigenous people first became involved with broadcasting in a significant way. While initial moves were reportedly on commercial radio, the advent of the community radio sector in the 1970s opened the way for Indigenous voices to be heard. Since then, the Indigenous community broadcasting sector—particularly radio—has remained the fastest-growing segment of the Australian broadcasting industry. In communication terms, it has developed to a stage where it provides a first level of service for those Indigenous communities in which it is active, as well as providing a cultural bridge between Indigenous and non-Indigenous audiences.
The first known Aboriginal public radio program went to air on 5UV Adelaide in 1972. With expansion of community radio on the new FM band, Indigenous-produced programs were soon broadcast regularly in Hobart, Melbourne and Canberra. The first Indigenous community radio licence to be awarded in Australia was to the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA) in Alice Springs in 1985. Five years later, the Brisbane Indigenous Media Association received the first Indigenous capital city licence. During this period, Indigenous broadcasters produced weekly programs on the ABC’s regional services and on SBS Radio. Indigenous production units within both the ABC and SBS have continued this tradition through a range of radio and television programs presenting Indigenous perspectives in current affairs and magazine formats, including First in Line (1989), Black Out (1989), Speaking Out (1990– ), Awaye (1993– ) and Living Black (2003– ).
From its establishment in 1990 to its demise in 2005, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) played an important role in the development of Indigenous broadcasting. ATSIC coordinated funding for a number of Indigenous media associations and production centres, and it is doubtful whether the sector would be as significant as it is today without this support. Despite the considerable achievements of the sector, a Productivity Commission inquiry into broadcasting in 2000 was the first official acknowledgement of its importance and impact.
Around 130 licensed community Indigenous radio and television stations—Remote Indigenous Broadcasting Services (RIBS)—serve their audiences in remote parts of the country with a further 23 Indigenous radio stations broadcasting to regional and urban communities. Most of the small RIBS stations re-transmit available satellite radio and television programming— both mainstream and community produced—emerging from a small number of regionally based Remote Indigenous Media Organisations (RIMOs). This extensive and culturally diverse network operates on an annual budget of just under $20 million. In addition to the RIBS stations, there are two Indigenous radio networks: the National Indigenous Radio Service (NIRS) and the National Indigenous News Service (NINS). Another important network is The Aboriginal Program Exchange (TAPE), which distributes Indigenous programs weekly to community broadcasters nationally. Imparja Television, based in Alice Springs, is an Indigenous-owned commercial television station that has operated under a Remote Commercial Television Service licence since 1988.
In the early 1990s, Yuendumu and three other remote communities in the Tanami Desert—Kintore, Lajamanu and Willowra—pioneered the use of converging broadcasting and telecommunications technologies by developing the Tanami Network. The scheme, developed under the auspices of Peter Toyne at Yuendumu, was based on Aboriginal control and a need for media and telecommunications services at a reasonable cost. It used video-conferencing for a range of purposes, from personal communication to strengthening cultural networks, art auctions via the internet, tele-health and online education delivery. The Tanami Network expanded into the Outback Digital Network (ODN), using funding made available by the federal government from the partial sale of Telstra in 1997. Until the internet became more generally accessible, the ODN provided around 60 remote Indigenous communities with video-conferencing, email, fax and telephony services.
Continuing innovative uses of information and communication technologies by remote Indigenous communities across the country reflect a demand for better local services, along with control of the means of production. Although some have criticised an ongoing non-Indigenous presence driving many of these initiatives, none could effectively exist without the imprimatur of local Indigenous communities. The crucial element in all of the successful media enterprises is local community control over how communication networks are conceptualised, structured and governed.
One such development was Australia’s first Indigenous television network, Indigenous Community Television (ICTV), which began broadcasting in 2001 on a spare Imparja Television satellite channel to provide a service to remote Indigenous communities in central and northern Australia. This innovative service evolved from the first experiments with local video in communities at Yuendumu and Pukutja (Ernabella) in central Australia in the early 1980s. By 2005, ICTV was broadcasting 300 hours annually of new programming, close to 100 per cent of it Indigenous content, produced mostly by RIBS communities using local or regional languages without subtitles. It was run on a budget of around $70,000 a year.
The National Indigenous Television (NITV) service, which began in 2007, has experienced numerous shifts, and logistical and other problems, due to changes in government policy and rushed implementation, leading to considerable criticism from stakeholders and audiences.
The first national audience study of Indigenous broadcasting in 2007 confirmed the primary role being played by the vast majority of Indigenous media producers around the country. It identified a strong audience for ICTV in remote communities, ironically months before the network was replaced by NITV. Indigenous audiences around Australia identified their local radio and/or television stations as essential services and central organising elements of community life. Locally produced radio and television programs help people to maintain social and cultural networks, and play a strong educative role—particularly for children. They offer an alternative source of news and information by avoiding the stereotyping of mainstream media and provide crucial support for Indigenous music and dance. An important secondary role is fostering cross-cultural dialogue and understanding with non-Indigenous audiences.
REFs: S. Forde, K. Foxwell and M. Meadows, Developing Dialogues (2009); H. Molanr and M. Meadows, ‘Bridging the Gaps: Towards a History of Indigenous Media in Australia’, Media History, 8(1) (2002) and Songlines to Satellites (2002).