Community radio’s digital problem

21 March 2013

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Last week, community radio stations from around the country participated in a special day of broadcasting to convince listeners and politicians alike that they should Commit to Community Radio.

The campaign, run by the Community Broadcasters Association of Australia, is to raise awareness of the lack of government funding to aid stations – such as Melbourne’s PBS – make the transition to the digital radio spectrum.

With currently over 34,200 people showing their support for community radio, the campaign is well on its way to proving just how essential community radio is to the Australian media landscape – an important message that should never be forgotten.

Community radio is a vital part of Australian broadcasting. It generates high levels of local content, makes a significant contribution to media diversity and provides a unique and varied range of services and programs.

According to a survey by McNair Ingenuity Research, in Melbourne alone, 25 per cent of people listen to community radio in an average week.

However, despite the large number of listeners, the future of community radio is at risk. In the last budget, the Federal Government allocated the community radio sector $2.2 million per annum for the next four years.

According to Adrian Basso, president of the Community Broadcasters Association of Australia and general manager of PBS, this is $1.4 million less than the minimum required each year to maintain current community digital radio services.

“We went to the May 2012 budget with some clear figures. And then the announcement came on budget night that $2.2 million came through, which is short of what is required,” said Basso.

The odd thing is, in a previous budget Communications Minister Stephen Conroy seemed fully committed to supporting community radio on the digital spectrum.

In the 2009 budget, the Federal Government allocated $11.2 million in funding towards community digital radio to spend over three years: 2009 to 2012.

With funding support from the Federal Government, the 37 metropolitan-wide community radio stations in Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide and Perth were able to launch digital radio services.

Setting up in 2011, digital community radio stations were able to operate for one year before the government cut 38 per cent of its funding support, making Minster Conroy very unpopular with the community radio sector.

Although many see it as Conroy picking a fight with an unlikely opponent, Basso thinks it is simply a case of being overlooked: “I think the budget was just really tight that year. I suspect they used old figures and it just slipped through.”

While commercial radio stations are able to afford the move to digital, community radio stations cannot afford to cover the cost of accessing digital radio transmission in this early stage of its development.

As well as the initial set up costs, there are also several ongoing costs involved in running digital radio. Added up, these costs will be too much for the community stations to cover without the help of funding.

“It may not seem like a lot of money to the government, but it does to community radio stations,” said Basso.

While the changeover to the digital spectrum has been a slow – and currently ongoing – process, it is vital that community radio maintains its foothold in the digital broadcasting landscape.

Just like the future for television was digital, it is only a matter of time before analogue radio signals become irrelevant. If community radio is to remain a core part of the broadcasting services available, it must have affordable access to a digital future so that it does not get left behind.

“If we’re not on that platform then we start to loose equal relevance to other broadcasters,” said Basso. “It’s pretty important that we keep our place there.”

Unless the Federal Government is able to commit the funding required in the upcoming budget, it will have a catastrophic effect on the future of community radio. Not wanting to fall behind in this fast-paced world of technology, the CBAA will be left with no choice but to substantially reduce the number of services in each major city.

“Come budget night if that happens, it will be a sorry day. We will have to switch off services,” said Basso.

However, members of the CBAA don’t think it will come to this.

After a highly successful ‘Day of Action’ for PBS – as well as the many other stations that participated – Basso is hopeful that it will have a positive effect on the government’s decision.

“I think it will be pretty hard to ignore what we did that day,” said Basso. “Often we’re a little bit under the radar. Certainly this campaign has helped change that.”

To show your support and help keep community radio on the digital airwaves, go to Commit to Community Radio.

Betony PitcherTHUMBBetony Pitcher is in her final semester of a Bachelor of Journalism at La Trobe University and the deputy editor of upstart. You can follow her on Twitter: @betonyjade