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Digital killed the community radio stars? Conroy’s fight with DJs

Community radio broadcasters around Australia say government funding to make the digital transition will come up short. Musicians are worried about the consequences.

Communications Minister Stephen Conroy has picked a fight with an unlikely opponent: the community radio sector.

The community radio sector is bigger than you think it is. Long seen as the poor cousin of the flashier commercial sector, there are more than 300 community broadcasters scattered around the country, ranging from large, semi-professional outfits in the capital cities to small outback radio stations catering to niche and specialist audiences.

According to an audience survey for the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia by McNair Ingenuity Research, about 4.4 million Australians listen to community radio in an average week. The eight capital cities account for around 2.8 million, but community radio is arguably strongest in the regions, where another 1.6 million non-metro listeners can be found. With tens of thousands of volunteers and a significant role as a training ground for the commercial media, community radio is a significant player in the national mediascape.

But community radio has a digital problem. As Australia’s radio waves slowly digitise, the importance of analogue systems is slowly declining. After a slow start, hampered by Australia’s quixotic choice of the expensive DAB+ protocol, digital radio is finally beginning to gather pace. According to Commercial Radio Australia, digital uptake is beginning to take off. Digital audiences are now around 1.4 million in five state capitals, or 11% of the audience. More than a million digital radios have been sold, and many new cars are now shipping with DAB+ receivers.

Community radio has begun the long-road to digitisation too: 37 of the larger metro community broadcasters — including some of the best-known stations such as Melbourne’s PBS and RRR, Sydney’s FBi, Brisbane’s 4ZZZ, Perth’s RTRFM, and Adelaide’s ThreeD and Radio Adelaide — have been part of a year-long roll-out of digital which sees them take a share of each capital city “multiplex” (a fancy word for a radio transmission).

Unsurprisingly, transmitting digital radio costs money. The community stations are being partly funded by the federal government to pay their share of the multiplex. But the fed is not funding all of the cost, leaving a $1.4 million shortfall. The community broadcasters are contractually obliged to pay the multiplex operators if they want to keep their digital signals on the air.

As a result, the community radio sector has launched a campaign across the 37 affected stations. Community stations are running anti-Conroy advertisements at a high volume. Given the sector’s ability to reach down into niche demographics in an election year, it’s a development that could hardly be welcomed by Labor strategists.

We put to the government that what would be required would be roughly $3.6 million each year,” explained Adrian Basso, president of the Community Broadcasters Association of Australia. “The budget amount came through as $2.2 million, and we’re still grappling with where that figure came from, because we were quite clear that $3.6 million was required. They’re not inflated figures, they’re actual costs.

There’s a framework that’s legislated and its quite a complex regime of legislation; it says that we have to lease or partner up with the commercial stations [for digital transmission]. Those costs are then passed on, and it’s not something we can choose to opt in or out of, it’s just a cost they pass on to the community sector.”

Community radio is the lifeblood of the independent sector, and the artists and labels we represent would be at a loss without it.”

Cassandra Wilkinson, chairwoman of popular Sydney station FBi, backs Basso’s point. She argues the sector could continue to broadcast on analogue, but given the government sets the spectrum rules the community sector is simply asking for the funding necessary to comply with the new digital regulations. “It’s vital for the public access, community-run broadcasters to be on the new digital platform,” she told Crikey. “Independent and local voices need to remain loud and strong in the media if we want a healthy culture and a vibrant democracy.”

Basso says the value of the sector is in its diversity. “We have some quite unique services that no one else caters for, whether its indigenous or radio-print handicapped, there’s youth stations, faith-based stations, there’s a Muslim station in Sydney.”

Community radio’s other big value-add is for the music sector — especially independent musicians, who typically rely on community airplay to get the word out. Nick O’Byrne from the Australian Independent Record Labels Association told Crikey that “commercial radio will never support the development of emerging acts … it will never take a programming risk”.

Community radio is the lifeblood of the independent sector, and the artists and labels we represent would be at a loss without it,” he said.

But the sector’s pleas have so far fallen on deaf ears. A spokesman for Conroy told Crikey the government had provided $13.5 million over four years from 2009-10 to 2012-13 to establish and provide digital radio services, as well as an ongoing $2.2 million in operational funding to the sector:

The primary source of funding for community broadcasting, however, has always been and should continue to be drawn from sponsorship and donations from within those communities, independent of government support.

The government is proud to augment this funding, but it should never be seen as a substitute for independent community-sourced revenue.”

Representatives from the community radio sector tell Crikey they are frustrated by the lack of access to government decision-makers. No one from the Community Broadcasters Association has been able to meet with Conroy for more than two years.

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  • 1
    Andybob
    Posted Friday, 1 March 2013 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    Community radio is more important and likely to be more resilient than commercial radio. Both are prone to being eaten by the internet anywhere that has data service. The community services have already got an established following. I have no idea why people listen to commercial radio, mainly I think because they’re used to it and don’t realise whats already available on net radio.

    But there are some things left unexplained. Who is charging the community stations this money for transmitting in digital ? Why is it more expensive than analog ? Saying its for a “share of the multiplex” is very uninformative.

  • 2
    Posted Friday, 1 March 2013 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    Thanx for this; I was wondering what my fave community radio station was banging on about.

    I would have appreciated a line or 2 explaining why Australia’s choice of the expensive DAB+ protocol was ‘quixotic’.

    Incidentally, the signal on my portable digital radio drops out for about 2 minutes about 5 minutes after turning my radio on. Has anyone else had that problem?

  • 3
    Matt Steadman
    Posted Friday, 1 March 2013 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

    As a community radio volunteer, great to see this issue getting coverage in Crikey. Sure the government can find an additional $1.4M per year to keep these vital services on-air?

    I agree with Gavin’s enquiry regarding the “quixotic” choice of DAB+ as the digital standard; DAB+ was a smart choice. Countries who previously adopted the DAB format are now upgrading to DAB+ (rendering early adopters’ radios completely useless)

  • 4
    Andybob
    Posted Friday, 1 March 2013 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

    Sounds like a buffer running out Gavin, especially if it happens for all stations. If you can find a menu item that increases the size of a buffer that might help.

  • 5
    Salamander
    Posted Saturday, 2 March 2013 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    The appalling thing about digital radio is that years down the track all areas outside the State capitals are still excluded owing to “spectrum not yet available”, and NO idea if and when it will be. “The Govt hasn’t released it. We have no information. Speak to your local member”.

    Fine and dandy, plus DAB radios are sold everywhere now and you can hardly buy an AM receiver any more. Tough if you live, eg, in Newcastle, want to listen to RN and your radio packs up. Do it online and pay through the nose as Telstra has a virtual Regional monopoly being the only provider with a decent network.

    Way to keep everyone in the loop. You think Western Sydney is outer Mongolia?

  • 6
    Posted Saturday, 2 March 2013 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    I share Salamander’s difficulty in finding an analogue radio. I’ve been looking in every electronics store I pass and eventually found my favourite model and bought 2. I still wonder whether I should have bought more given the state of plans to extend the digital radio roll out.

  • 7
    Demas
    Posted Sunday, 3 March 2013 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    Analog radio transmission takes place by each radio station having its own transmitter on its own frequency in the AM or the FM band. For example MMM, RRR, JJJ, etc. each has an FM transmitter up at Mt. Dandenong putting out a signal from the big towers.

    Digital radio is totally different. In Melbourne there are 2 Digital transmitters situated at MT. Dandenong that currently transmit all the digital radio stations simultaneously. Currently there are about 48 digital stations on these transmitters, but there can be more, in fact stations can be created at will by the broadcasters, hence you can a PINK station for a short time.

    The process is that all the stations provide the analog audio to the Multiplexer, a gadget that takes all the signals and ENCODES them together and transmits them on just 2 frequencies across Melbourne. Your digital radio then receives these signals and DECODES them into the separate stations.

    In order to do this the stations got together and created CRA Pty. Ltd (Commercial Radio Association) which owns and operates the 2 transmitters. Each station pays a share of the costs for this service. That is where the money goes that the Community stations need.

  • 8
    AJH
    Posted Sunday, 3 March 2013 at 9:20 pm | Permalink

    DAB+ just doesn’t seem to make sense, and spending money on the transition just seems like throwing money down the toilet.

    I already stream my radio via 3G most of the time, largely because I can get access to a much larger range of content, in the language of my choice. The quality is as good as DAB+, and all you need is an internet connection to access it.

    DAB+ players are expensive, the coverage is limited (there is no coverage outside metro areas), and the channel selection hasn’t even caught up to FM radio. Meanwhile, almost everyone has a 3G-capable mobile phone in their car, capable of picking up radio stations from around the world. Car entertainment systems will increasingly leverage that capability.

    DAB+ will go the way of Laserdisc. A cool technology, but one that will be superseded before it goes mainstream.

  • 9
    Demas
    Posted Sunday, 3 March 2013 at 10:50 pm | Permalink

    @AJH. Congratulations, you are volunteering to pay for the “transmission” of content/data to your phone. The content providers love you for that and they hope there will be more like you so in the future they can become subscription services over the Net. A great step forward. LOL.

  • 10
    AJH
    Posted Monday, 4 March 2013 at 7:47 am | Permalink

    @Demas

    I most certainly don’t pay a cent, the amount of data used by audio transmission is essentially a rounding error on the monthly usage. Audio isn’t a high-bandwidth application.

    Radio, television, and all other broadcast media will eventually end up on the internet. It’s a natural step forward, and makes a lot more sense than taking up huge chunks of valuable spectrum for a specific purpose like radio or TV.

    Digital TV will stick around for another decade, because it is a high-bandwidth application. Digital radio just makes no sense at all. The Internet is a better delivery mechanism.

  • 11
    Matt Steadman
    Posted Monday, 4 March 2013 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    @AJH

    It’s a good and valid point, but millions of people are listening to traditional broadcast radio each week. Only a handful of radio stations could even consider paying for the infrastructure to serve millions of listeners with individual UDP streams. Online listening is great, but broadcast technology is still the most effective way of servicing a “one-to-many” audience model IMHO.

  • 12
    Andybob
    Posted Monday, 4 March 2013 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Demas for that explanation, very helpful. Like AJH I believe that all current media will gravitate towards the net, but the speed will depend upon access. Until you can easily access the net in regional Australia away from towns, there will be a role for broadcasting.

    Is the government proposing to do less for community radio than it is doing for commercial radio ? I know it sounds foolish that government money would be spent assisting the commercial stations, but this is Australia so I thought I’d ask.

  • 13
    Demas
    Posted Tuesday, 5 March 2013 at 10:54 pm | Permalink

    The only reason the Gov is helping TV & radio to move to digital is because it is an investment for them, actually. Admittedly the release of Radio station spectrum space will be a long time coming, but TV dividends will be available in full at the end of this year. At this time analog TV exists only in the metropolitan areas, and that will be shut by the end of this year. Melbourne will be the last city to be switched off (early December I think). Spectrum space will then be sold for many, many millions of dollars.

    When they manage to move radio to digital the spectrum space released will be so massive(unlike TV) that the government should be spending more money rather than less. Right now all radio stations in the AM & FM bands can be transmitted on just 3 frequencies across Melbourne. That means that you can have the entire FM band clear for sale. Worth hundreds of millions. Realistically though the public is not ready nor are the manufacturers of cars, and car radios are the key.

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