What does it take to get a sensible response out of Government for community broadcasting?

A mixture of stone-walling and high hurdles is threatening the ability of Australia’s most diverse broadcasting sector to make the leap into the digital age.

Yesterday was a nail biter for community radio stations around the country because it was the deadline for signing up to joint venture companies to help run the infrastructure for digital radio.

Without signing, community radio risks being locked out of the discussions that will guide the future of digital radio. Yet signing meant making major financial commitments to companies effectively managed by the commercial radio stations, without any clarity on the potential liabilities in the future.

Around the country community radio has been scraping the bottom of the till to find the money to sign up. Some stations simply haven’t been able to pay their share, and are either locked out or else being subsidised by others.

All this is because Communications Minister Stephen Conroy has failed to respond to repeated requests to bring forward funding to help community radio stations take the steps into the digital world.

The last budget of the Howard Government committed $10.1 million over several years to help community radio make the transition to digital. The Community Broadcasting Association of Australia has requested $2.4 of this to be brought forward into this year to help with the sign up and the funding of technical infrastructure. It is a modest enough request, but by the deadline for joint venture sign-up yesterday there had been no response from Conroy.

By midnight last night, and amid great financial strain, community radio groups in Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth and Sydney had all signed up and paid $22,000 each to the joint venture companies, conditional on receiving government funding.

But Hobart and Brisbane had shied at the jump – not surprising considering legal advice to the effect that the joint venture agreements are far from satisfactory. Hobart and Brisbane stations have asked for an extension to the deadline for sign-up, but it is unclear whether the commercial stations will grant this. After all, why would they?

The issues involved in all this are complex, but the result is a stressed and burdened community radio sector – and an uncertain future.

The process for digital radio roll-out is described here. Community radio has to satisfy a two layer process to be part of the digital radio world. First, they have to form representative companies in each capital city. This is a challenge in itself, with community stations spanning the range of interests from student media organisations such as the cash-strapped but innovative SYN to religious radio and radio for the print handicapped.

Then the representative companies have to sign up and pay their money to get a seat at the table in the joint venture companies that will run the digital radio infrastructure. These JVCs will, of course, be dominated by commercial radio. The process, conducted to punishing deadlines, has been a very high hurdle.

Even those groups that have managed to get to sign-up will get less spectrum than the commercial sector. Commercial stations get 128kbps each, while community stations get just 2/9ths of the capacity to share between them all. In Melbourne and Sydney that works out to just 512 kbps to be shared between nine community stations..

The result is the possibility of a fragmented community radio sector in the future, with some able to use digital radio, and others locked into analogue.

On the other hand, the future of the technology is uncertain. Many in the industry believe that Digital Radio will be stillborn, overtaken by wireless internet technology. Nevertheless the community sector is having to make commitments now, in order to have a seat at the table in the future.

At the same time as community radio is bending under the strain, the Government has yet to come up with a digital solution for community television, which is presently condemned to a slow fade out as more Australians take up digital televisions, and lose the ability to get the community television analogue signal.

Does Government actually want community broadcasting to survive? At the moment it seems that technology that is meant to bring more diversity is actually presenting as a threat to the most diverse, if least polished, broadcasting sector in Australia.

Senator Conroy’s office did not respond to Crikey’s questions on this issue by deadline today.