The physical size of Australia and its dispersed distribution of population influenced the development of regional broadcasting, and the term ‘network’ has become synonymous with regional radio and television rollout to nonmetropolitan audiences.
The challenge of how to broadcast to communities located outside metropolitan areas was considered in the first decade of radio. The first official radio network belonged to the Australian Broadcasting Company, formed in 1929 as a result of the amalgamation of the A-class stations after a recommendation by the 1927 Royal Commission on Wireless.
The Australian Broadcasting Company was nationalised when the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) was established through the Australian Broadcasting Commission Act 1932. The ABC incorporated 12 stations, which in turn incorporated four regional stations as relay stations: 2NC Newcastle and 2CO Corowa (New South Wales), 4RK Rockhampton (Queensland) and 5CK Crystal Brook (South Australia). At the time, there were 43 commercial radio stations.
The two earliest surviving B-class (later known as commercial) stations to emerge were 2HD Newcastle and 4GR Toowoomba, both established in 1925. By 1930, most B-class licences, awarded for an initial period of five years, were coming up for renewal. Early in 1930, the freeze on new licences ended, and both metropolitan and regional applicants were awarded new licences, including for 2CZ (later 2LM) Lismore and 3BA Ballarat. Within five years, there were more than 60 commercial radio stations, with regional stations broadcasting a range of services, from weather reports to the condition of stock routes. By 1939, there were at least 117 clubs affiliated with commercial radio stations, including the Smile Clubs of 2AY Albury, 2GF Grafton and 3BO Bendigo; the Junior Country Service Club of 2GZ Orange, the Women’s Club of 3SH Swan Hill and the Chums’ Club of 7QT Queenstown.
Programming on the ABC’s network was initially shared between metropolitan stations and distributed programming to regional areas; the latter became the cornerstone of the ABC, as it pursued an agenda of service and education to those living in regional Australia. Accordingly, it had a very high profile in rural and regional areas, and in many cases was the only option for those outside large regional or metropolitan centres.
The ABC’s Rural Department was established in 1945, and significant rural programs have included The Country Hour (1945– ), Blue Hills (1949–76) and Australia All Over (originating in the 1960s), although these traditionally have been broadcast from metropolitan stations (primarily Sydney). Current affairs programs AM and PM are also broadcast throughout the regional network.
The ABC’s radio services to regional Australia expanded as a result of the Second Regional Radio Network project in 1986. This project resulted in the separation of the ABC’s regional and national service, and significant expansion of regional services, including Classic FM. In 1989, Triple J (which had commenced broadcast as 2JJ in Sydney in 1975) was networked to metropolitan cities; four years later, the rollout of Triple J began to regional areas.
During the 2000s, most major ABC radio networks became available to regional listeners: Local Radio, Radio National, Classic FM, Triple J, and NewsRadio (which also broadcasts federal parliament). These services have been complemented by a strong online and, more recently, digital presence.
In contrast to the relationship between the ABC and regional Australia, deployment of the SBS Radio service to the regions has been recent, despite the establishment of SBS as a multicultural broadcaster in 1977. SBS Television broadcast to metropolitan audiences for the first time in 1980, but did not become available to regional areas until after 1993, when it was rolled out more widely. Programming on SBS has always been centrally created, with no localised programs; in contrast, the ABC broadcasts state-based programming within its national television network.
The period between 1990 and 2010 saw expansion into regional areas in both television and radio. For radio in particular, huge growth in the community and commercial sector occurred during this period.
The community radio sector was established in the 1970s. While the initial drive for a participatory broadcasting model did not come from those in regional or remote areas, the uptake of community radio outside metropolitan areas was rapid and transformative, and developments in satellite technology enhanced the ability of regional and remote audiences to access and share programming. The launch of AUSSAT1 in 1985 facilitated the expansion of television and radio to remote parts of Australia, and the Optus Satellite remains the means by which non-metropolitan audiences receive program distribution via broadcast networks. Additionally, the Viewer Access Satellite Television (VAST) scheme was rolled out in 2010, enabling those who weren’t able to receive terrestrial reception access to free-to-air digital television channels.
Community radio also benefited from advances in satellite technology. In 1993, the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia (CBAA) established a satellite known as ComRadSat, which allowed network programming to be accessed by community radio stations around Australia. Through the satellite, community radio stations have been able to subscribe to a range of services to complement local programming. These include the National Indigenous Radio Service, Radio for the Print Handicapped Australia, the BBC World Service and the Community Radio Network (CRN). The CRN is complemented by the Digital Delivery Network (DDN), which enables automated program ordering and distribution from the CRN satellite channel, and this is managed by Community Broadcasting Online. Programming that can be accessed via this network includes National Radio News (NRN), the National Indigenous News Service (NINS), The Wire (current affairs) and The Daily Interview.
Supported by the development of satellite technology, a number of schemes were established during the 1980s and 1990s that increased the ability of Indigenous, public and commercial broadcasters to access audiences in remote regions. For example, the Broadcasting from Remote Aboriginal Communities Scheme (BRACS) was established in 1987. It supplied technology to community broadcasters that would allow them to promote Indigenous culture, and contribute to a network that linked to Darwin and Alice Springs based on the use of self-help retransmission facilities. BRACS was replaced by the Remote Indigenous Broadcasting Scheme (RIBS) in 1991.
The Remote Area Broadcast Scheme (RABS) was also established to support distribution of television broadcasting services through the analogue network via satellite; it enabled access to ABC, SBS and commercial networks Imparja Television (Central), Seven Central (NE), Golden West and WIN West (Western).
Networks of significance to develop during this period were the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA) in 1980 and Imparja in 1988, both based in Alice Springs. The success and longevity of these networks are due to their ability to mix local and imported programming to meet the needs of a diverse audience.
Community radio has also benefited from technology that has facilitated a mix of local and networked programming, and between 1990 and 2010, the sector grew from over 80 stations to more than 350. In 2014, there were 358 community radio licences, 91 temporary broadcast licences and 38 long-term free-to-air digital services. Most community broadcasting services are located outside metropolitan areas. While these stations provide locally produced content (indeed, community stations are often the only source of local programs for their communities), the ability to access networked programming has supported a dramatic growth in the sector.
The commercial sector also saw huge growth in the latter stages of the 20th century. Development of new commercial radio licences had been relatively static between the late 1930s and the early 1980s, when metropolitan FM stations in capital cities were launched. Most regional commercial stations prior to 2000 were on the AM band, and within this group of stations, some significant networks were established, such as the Queensland Broadcasting Network during the 1940s.
Significant growth in commercial regional broadcasting commenced in the mid-1990s, driven initially by regional investment by RG Capital Radio and DMG. New station launches on the FM band in the early 2000s marked the beginning of regional commercial networks on a national scale. In 2004, Macquarie Regional 407 regional broadcasting RadioWorks took over RG Capital Radio, and at the same time, DMG turned its attention to the metropolitan market, purchasing nine new FM radio licenses and launching the Nova network that focused on metropolitan cities. DMG sold its regional stations to the Macquarie Media Group in 2005, and refocused its attention to metro and digital stations, retaining an interest in only one regional radio station, Star 104.5 FM on the NSW Central Coast.
Macquarie Regional RadioWorks (subsequently the Southern Cross Media Group) therefore dominated regional radio broadcasting in latter stages of the 2000s but, due to breach of ownership regulations, it was required to divest itself of some of its regionally based commercial stations. Macquarie was therefore joined in the regional radio broadcasting space by the Prime Media Group when Prime Radio acquired a number of commercial regional stations in Queensland from the Macquarie Radio Network in 2005, and launched Zinc Radio stations on the FM band in 2008. Prime’s strategy included retaining three heritage AM stations, with a long history in their local communities. These stations, which were not renamed, were 4CA Cairns, 4MK Mackay and 4RO Rockhampton.
These changes in ownership enabled regional listeners to access high-profile breakfast and drive programming. For example, Southern Cross Austereo generated high-profile metropolitan- generated drive programs throughout Australia. In turn, Prime Radio built a networking facility on the Sunshine Coast in 2008, from which it produced daily local and national news bulletins for its stations across regional Queensland.
Easy access to syndicated programming on commercial radio stations allowed well-known ‘metropolitan’ voices to be heard around Australia— for example, talkback hosts John Laws and Alan Jones could be heard on the AM band, and breakfast and drive host teams on the FM band. However, while networking allowed a significant degree of program-sharing across the network, commercial stations incorporated local programming that connected the stations with their local communities. In particular, breakfast programming in regional areas has remained firmly ‘local’, or broadcast from a large regional centre, as opposed to being networked from city-based stations. Conversely, drive programs are usually networked from metropolitan areas.
In addition to community and commercial networks servicing regional and remote Australia, the Vision Radio Network, comprising open narrowcast licences, has emerged as a significant player for non-metropolitan audiences. Based out of Brisbane, Vision commenced broadcasting in 1999, and is operated by the United Christian Broadcasters of Australia (UCB). It comprises 500 open narrowcast licences, based primarily in regional towns and cities, that operate as relay stations for single-source programming across the network. Radio TAB also operates a significant network throughout Australia via open narrowcast licences serviced by the National Racing Service.
Like commercial radio networks in regional areas, television commenced in regional areas primarily through independent station ownership that concentrated on local programming, with some content provided by metropolitan stations through loose affiliations. Regional television ownership was impacted by the policy of aggregation in the late 1980s. Prior to aggregation, regional areas received the ABC and one commercial network, in addition to local station content. After aggregation, ownership changes allowed major networks to reach much greater proportions of the Australian population. WIN Television, Southern Cross Television and Prime Television emerged from this period, and have been dominant in regional television from the 2000s.
News services to regional areas increased, but were often generated from central production centres. This has prompted debate about consolidation of ownership and the impact on the production of local news. For larger regional centres, the amount of local news and the options available to listeners have generally increased; however, while the amount of local regional news appeared to increase, this news was collected from within a larger geographic area. For many small communities, the consolidation of ownership in regional broadcasting resulted in a loss of visibility of local issues. Policy development in the area of networking in both television and radio has therefore been torn between expansion and protection—that is, enabling people throughout the country to have access to the same level of service (and thus services), while at the same time seeking to protect local services (and culture).
In summary, the dominant themes related to networking and programming in regional broadcasting have been access to technology to enable broadcast across a vast physical space; consolidation of ownership; and the need to balance local programming with that accessed from a network.
REFs: ABC, ‘Submission to the Inquiry into the Adequacy of Radio Services in Non-Metropolitan Australia’ (2000); ACMA, ‘List of Licensed Broadcasters’ (2014); Australian Government, ‘Indigenous Broadcasting’ (2014); J. Bailey, The Country’s Finest Hour (2005).