Community Participation in the Development of Digital Radio : The Australia Experience

2012-03-13

  Community broadcasting provides a direct means of enabling non-market, end user-driven experimentation in digital radio service development and has an important history of contributing to social and technological innovation (Rennie 2011). Media participation has become a common feature of new media platforms, strengthening the case for the resourcing and development of digital broadcasting services by community-based users. However, spectrum markets that generate windfall returns to governments also prompt public policy makers to interrogate the ‘public benefits’ of allowing community-based, not-for profit broadcasting licensees to occupy valuable spectrum (DBCDE 2011). These tensions are reflected in Australian digital radio policy and services development. Despite resource and spectrum constraints the community broadcasting sector is nonetheless participating in the development of digital radio services.

  A range of interesting and important questions were opened up with the commencement of digital community radio services in Australia in the first part of 2011: Could the participatory media practices associated with analogue radio be adopted and adapted for the digital platform, and what would be the public benefits in such an outcome? What new opportunities possibilities of participation, in addition to those developed in the analogue radio environment, would digital radio offer?

  Community broadcasting is one of a number of important social movements with its origins in the 1960s that anticipated and informed development of the participatory and co-creative affordances of digital networked media. These capabilities are now valued as sources of innovation in distributed social networks (Jenkins 2006). Other related movements were the open source software and community cultural development movements (Meikle 2002; Hawkins 1993). Like community broadcasting, these movements fostered the development of important new platforms, practices and spaces for social participation through communicative and creative expression.

  If community broadcasting presents an opportunity for innovation on the digital radio platform, then it does so by virtue of its capacity to encourage participation by means of ‘bottom-up’ institutional design rather than through professional-amateur collaboration in content-making. The community broadcasting framework facilitates social participation in the design and operation of media institutions themselves, not just their outputs. This persists as a crucial point of difference from online social media, commercial print and broadcast media, and public service media.

Development of Digital Community Radio
  Analogue community radio was established in response to significant community mobilisation, representing a diverse array of voices. Digital radio, on the other hand, has been driven more by a policy desire for technically superior and more efficient use of spectrum than any clear-cut needs-based case for new services. When community radio was first established it drove the opening up of the FM band in Australia. Unlike other commercial and national broadcasting incumbents, community broadcasters have faced considerably larger obstacles to gaining purchase on digital broadcasting spectrum.

  Australian community broadcasting has its origins in the media campaigns of the 1960s when political activists, tertiary educators and music appreciation groups began lobbying for access to the airwaves. The first proposal to establish what was then referred to as ‘public radio’ was in 1966 when Jim Warburton, Director of the Department of Adult Education at the University of Adelaide, budgeted to set up a station for the broadcasting of educational materials. The license for VL5UV, known today as Radio Adelaide, was finally granted in 1970 as an ‘educational’ license under the Wireless Telegraphy Act (Langdon 1997; Thornley 2001). Two fine music stations in Melbourne and Sydney were awarded licenses during the same period. It has been argued that the early analogue radio campaign was dominated by educational and fine music advocates to the exclusion of more radical groups. However, the issuing of these first licenses, together with the official formation of the Public Broadcasting Association of Australia (now the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia) established a formal sector that could conduct negotiations and provide input into a licensing framework. Unlicensed, or pirate, broadcasters continued in their attempt to gain access to the airwaves throughout this period, although to a lesser extent than in other countries (see Rennie 2006). For instance, in protest against the Vietnam War, students at Monash University and Melbourne University commenced broadcasts 1971, but were shut down because they did not have a broadcasting license (Liddell 2003). Indigenous television started with pirate TV stations in Yuendumu and Ernabella in the mid 1980s (Michaels 1986; Meadows 2000). Such civil society engagements led to the development of the community broadcasting sector and the institution of media participation within Australian broadcasting policy.

  In 1978 ‘limited commercial’ radio licenses were administered; in 1992 community broadcasting was enshrined as the ‘third tier’ of Australian broadcasting with the passage of the Broadcasting Services Act. The Act requires that community broadcasters, amongst other things, be operated as not-for-profit associations and that they allow for participation in the running of the organisation as well as programming.

  In the first part of 2011 there were 356 long-term licensed community radio broadcasting licensees in Australia and a total of 543 licensed independent community operated services in total (ACMA 2011). A total of approximately 23,000 people participated in various aspects of station management and production, 20% of which are under the age of 26. These voluntary un-paid work hours amounted to over $398 million per year (CBF 2011). Audience figures, for 2010, showed that 4.4 million Australians aged 15 and over listened to community radio in an average week, or 26% of the population in that age group. By comparison, commercial radio stations attracted 63% of the total possible listenership, while the public broadcasters (ABC and SBS) attracted 44%. In audience numbers, community radio was slightly bigger than one third of the commercial radios and had over half the audience of the public broadcasting radio stations (Balogh & Geilen 2010).

  Digital radio developed in a very different regulatory and technical environment. Commercial radio incumbents also had a major influence on policy. In the years of policy development the general interest in digital radio was low. Development of digital radio in Australia was also slow compared to other much larger European and North American markets for a variety of reasons, including a low level of general interest on the part of national, commercial and community broadcasters. Consequently policy settings gave most mainland capital city incumbent commercial broadcasters the opportunity to develop digital services, with no plans to shut down the analogue spectrum. Unlike analogue infrastructure the digital broadcast transmission standard adopted by Australia is necessarily shared. It cannot be owned and operated by one broadcaster to the exclusions of others for economic and technical reasons.

  As this short history of digital community radio demonstrates, the potential for content innovation is influenced by a variety of factors that enable the possibilities of a user-led development pathway for digital community radio. These include factors arising from the external policy environment such as the conditions of community radio spectrum tenure, ownership and control arrangement for digital transmission infrastructure, and the extent to which community radio participation in the digital radio platform has been resourced.

  For the moment, policy and sector expectations of the capacity of communities to invigorate the participatory capacities of media institutions may not seem as high as they may have been four decades ago but the allocation of digital spectrum for community broadcasting has in fact had a number of major impacts. It has resulted in the establishment of new, community-based services and triggered development processes for more services. It has fostered new relationships and a greater level of information exchange and ideas within the sector. For example, station managers met to discuss the transition to digital and, in the process, came to know more about each other’s organizations (Letch, personal interview, 2010a). It has also encouraged experimentation with content-centred strategies for facilitating participation in services and, for the first time in the sector’s history, there is considerable support for this kind of activity.

■Christina Spurgeon
Creative Industries Faculty,
Queensland University of Technology

■Ellie Rennie ■Yatming Fung
Swinburne Institute for Social Research,
Swinburne University of Technology
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