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Save Community Digital Radio now or Silence the Independent media sector

Community radio is at stake, and its fate will be determined in the upcoming May 2013 federal budget.

As technology advances, analogue FM radio will soon become history. So, where are radio broadcasters moving? – To a digital platform.

Digital is the way of the future for radio broadcasting in Australia. Not only does it offer better sound quality and greater accessibility – as stations are recognised by name rather than frequency – it also provides a platform for Australian community radio to be broadcast at a national and, even, international level.

However, this transition may not happen for Australian community broadcasters this year, threatening the end of the community radio sector when analogue FM radio gets switched off.

If this happens, the voices of communities that are not adequately represented by commercial and national broadcasting sectors may be silenced.

Nick O’Byrne from the Australian Independent Record Labels Association told Crikey, “Community radio is the lifeblood of the independent sector, and artists and labels we represent would be at loss without it.”

Currently, 37 community metro-wide radio stations are in the first stages of digitalising radio in Australia.

Some of the well-known broadcasters that are a part of the digital radio transmission, launched by Communications Minister, Senator Steven Conroy in 2011, include Melbourne’s PBS and RRR, Sydney’s FBi, Brisbane’s 4ZZZ, Perth’s RTRFM, and Adelaide’s ThreeD and Radio Adelaide.

Community broadcasters are not-for-profit organisations and cannot afford the cost of maintaining the infrastructure required for digital radio transmission without government funding.

In May 2011, Senator Stephen Conroy assured that the government is “committed to ensuring access for community broadcasting services on digital broadcasting platforms and that this access is affordable to the community sector.”

Back then, Senator Conroy was enthusiastic about the launch of community digital radio.

“The launch of community digital radio metropolitan services will make a strong addition to the diversity and local content of digital radio services available to communities in the mainland capital cities, and don’t we need it,” he said.

However, verbal commitment and active commitment are two different things. His support for community radio did not translate in the 2012 federal budget.

Last year, the Government only committed $2.2 million per annum to community digital radio when the Community Broadcasters Association of Australia (CBAA) put forward to the government that they need $3.6 million to maintain current digital radio services in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth.

If the Government does not commit to the $1.4 million per annum shortfall in funding in the next budget, community digital radio services currently on air will have to be switched off, particularly in at least two of the five mainland capital cities.

President of the CBAA, Adrian Basso said, “If we don’t keep our foot hold on digital radio…we’ll fall off and we may never be able to get back on and we will cease to be equal players in broadcasting world.”

Community radio is a significant part of Australian Broadcasting. In an audience survey, the McNair Ingenuity Research found that 4.4 million Australians listen to community radio in an average week.

The voices of many communities are heard exclusively on community radio. These communities include indigenous communities, ethnic communities, religious communities, the sight-impaired, educational, cultural and youth.

Mr Basso is also the General Manager of PBS, a community radio station based in Melbourne which specialises in a diverse assortment of under-represented music.

He says that if digital radio gets switched off, they will continue to broadcast on analogue. But as the world shifts towards digital in the next 20 or so years, he predicts, their “ability to support and nurture music making will be hampered.”

As Community radio fosters 20,000 volunteers across 362 licensed community radio stations in Australia, it also plays a vital role as a training ground for future broadcasters and journalists.

The Student Youth Network (SYN) is an example of a community radio station that not only provides a voice for young people across Melbourne but also serves as a training ground for young people to learn skills on radio, television and digital media platforms.

SYN’s Radio Manager, Declan Kelly aspires to bring the voices of young people to light at a national level. However, this can only happen through digital radio.

“We speak to youth, but because we’re based in Melbourne we can only really hit people in Melbourne. But if we have a digital station we can access another 24 hours, 7 days a week and get more young voices on the air and a lot more regional voices. We plan to go out and connect with young people in regional communities and non-metro communities and let them talk about what they want to on air,” he said.

He said that if the government doesn’t make up for the shortfall in funding, “The diversity of community radio in Australia will be gone.”

Australian Greens Senator and Spokesperson for Communications, Scott Ludlam, stresses the urgency of the matter by saying that the “situation has actually gotten quite acute.”

He believes that “they [the community radio sector] shouldn’t have to be put in a position where they are choosing which stations to take off air for such a relatively small amount of money.”

Nonetheless, he says it is not too late to make an impact on the budget.

He encourages broadcasters to give the issue airtime and listeners to contact Senator Conroy to make the issue known.

“The public pressure is what swings these things, it’s all that matters at the moment.”

The 13th of March is the National Day of Action where community radio stations will be collaborating to spread the word about committing to community radio and encouraging people to sign the pledge on www.committocommunityradio.org.au.

This is the first time stations are joining together in protest for government support.

“Stations haven’t run this sort of national political campaign before, but we’re really annoyed and we’re going to hammer it home until we get it fixed,” said Mr Basso.

The National Day of Action is the last time to make a significant impact on the funding change before the May 2013 federal budget.

The future of community radio stations across Australia lies in the hands of Senator Stephen Conroy and the decision makers of this country and if they don’t listen carefully, Australia may see the death of independent radio.

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Samantha Yap

The author Samantha Yap

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