Adrian Basso, President of the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia, has written an opinion piece ahead of tomorrow evening’s reveal of the Federal Budget, discussing the importance of community radio.
“With Budget night drawing close, anxiety within the community radio community is building. Everyone is waiting with baited breath to see whether the Federal Government will fill the funding gap that will allow community stations to be part of the new era of digital radio alongside the commercial sector and the ABC and SBS, or leave the community broadcasting sector behind.
Every week 4.4 million Australians tune in to community radio and if you wanted to categorise them you’d need a lot of boxes. Some are radical – some conservative. Some favour Beethoven – some death metal. With stations devoted to ethnic, religious, Indigenous, youth, vision impaired, educational and an array of other broadcasting services, our radio diversity is the envy of the world.
A few years ago, Canberra made a commitment to support the future of this diversity with the introduction of digital community radio services in five capital cities. The legislative framework designed by the government requires the community radio sector to, for the first time, buddy up and share transmission infrastructure with the commercial sector.
The shared costs are regulated by the ACCC, meaning that when the commercial sector decides to spend money – for example on things to improve transmission and coverage – its less cashed up cousins no longer have the time-honoured option of delaying or getting by with a few rubber bands and a Band-Aid. The money must be spent. “…Leaving digital community radio services around the country scratching their heads and facing a bleak future – or, more precisely, no future at all.”
Initially, the government covered the costs. As thankful as the sector was for this contribution, it wasn’t merely a form of government benevolence – successive federal governments over many years have stated community radio must be part of any digital radio future, and have pledged to ensure access to the platform is affordable for the community broadcasting sector.
In 2011 the first stage of the digital radio rollout was completed and 37 community radio stations in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth set up their digital services. They have been fund-raising and investing in the station infrastructure, resourcing and planning, and beginning to exploit the opportunities digital radio presents for listeners. We are putting in our own time and money to make this work.
When community digital radio was officially launched, Communications Minister Senator Conroy was on hand to cut the metaphoric red ribbon and spoke of the critical importance of the community broadcasting sector in providing media diversity and supporting the freedom of expression Australians are so proud of – this same diversity he spoke of again recently.
But then, in the last budget, funding was short by $1.4 million, leaving digital community radio services around the country scratching their heads and facing a bleak future – or, more precisely, no future at all.
By Federal Government standards, this sum is small – a tiny fraction, for example, of the billions it recently made when it sold the analogue TV spectrum in April. However, when the $1.4m is divided among the community stations affected, it is a body blow and, for many smaller stations, a killer punch. “Unless the Federal Government commits the missing funds in Tuesday’s Budget, many digital services will need to be switched off.”
Unless the Federal Government commits the missing funds in Tuesday’s Budget, many digital services will need to be switched off. The new programming that has just been set up on the digital platform will end up on the scrapheap, investment of scarce resources wasted and radio listeners tuning in through their digital sets left wanting.
Community digital radio services have been on-air for two years and the on-going funding required is well known. These on-going costs have not been disputed by the Government and the Government knows full well that community stations that are already run by volunteers on the smell of an oily rag have little or no chance of miraculously finding the funds.
Community radio is a vital part of the Australian broadcasting landscape. It provides a voice to communities who are often not catered for by the commercial or national broadcasters and it’s run for the community by the community – providing the independence and local content so often craved by listeners.
The government’s funding shortfall doesn’t just hurt a small community whose concerns can be swept quietly under the carpet – it’s a huge segment of the Australian population.
Millions of community radio listeners are waiting anxiously to see whether the federal government will realise the impact of the funding shortfall and find the money come Tuesday.
The future of our digital community radio services are at risk – but by committing a small amount of funding, the government has the chance to save them.
President, Community Broadcasting Association of Australia
You can sign Commit To Community Radio’s petition online here.