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Apr 24, 2008

Community radio loses the fight for digital

Community radio stations have been locked out of ownership of digital radio, and therefore a large part of the future of the medium, writes Margaret Simons.

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Community radio stations have been locked out of ownership of digital radio, and therefore a large part of the future of the medium.

Yesterday commercial radio rejected community broadcasting organisations’ last ditch attempt to sign up to joint ventures conditional on government funding.

The whole thing really looks like a train wreck – and it has largely been caused by the Communications Minister, Stephen Conroy, who has completely clammed up on the issue despite submissions from all sides urging him to bring forward funding to help community radio make the leap into the digital age.

This morning the CEO of Commercial Radio Australia, Joan Warner, said she had written to Conroy last December supporting community radio’s request that funding be brought forward — but had received no response.

“We are not commenting on the Minister, actually,” she said.

As reported in Crikey on Tuesday community radio stations have been through a nail biting period of anxiety as they try to meet punishing deadlines to sign up to joint venture companies with commercial radio in order to operate digital radio multiplexes. The alternative is being locked out of ownership and therefore a seat at the table as decisions on the future are made.

Signing up to the joint ventures means open ended financial and legal commitments, which community radio has not been able to make, given the failure of Conroy to bring forward funding that was allocated in the last Howard Government budget to help with these moves.

On Monday, community radio organisations in Melbourne, Sydney Perth and Adelaide attempted to sign up to the joint ventures conditional on funding being made available. Hobart and Brisbane sought an extension.

Yesterday Commercial Radio Australia rejected all of the conditional sign-ups and refused the requests for extensions. CRA granted a new extension until 10 am this morning for non-conditional sign-up.

But meanwhile community radio organisations have received legal advice that if they commit unconditionally to the joint ventures they could be opening themselves to legal action and could even be found guilty of insolvent trading if unable to meet their commitments because the government funding isn’t made available in time.

Warner told Crikey this morning that the tight deadlines involved meant that it was not possible for the joint ventures to proceed without firm commitments of funding from the partners.

“Commercial radio does have some sympathy for community broadcasting and we have done our best to help them, but this is a commercial enterprise and they are being treated the same as everyone else.”

What does this mean for community broadcasting? By law, the community sector is entitled to two-ninths of the available spectrum, but the failure of Conroy to bring forward the funding means that they cannot participate in the legal structures that were anticipated by the legislation.

At best, they will be access seekers in a structure dominated by commercial interests.

A spokesperson for the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia, Kath Letch, said this morning that it was unclear how this would work.

So why has this been allowed to happen, and what is going on in Conroy’s office? Both the community broadcasters and the commercials have been unsuccessful in getting any response from Conroy’s office on the issue, and his advisers have not returned calls and e-mails from Crikey asking for comment this week.

One possibility is that the budget is being squeezed. Although the $10 million odd in funding was committed in the 2007 budget most of it is payable in the next three years. Is this money now under threat?

The other possibility is that Conroy is considering policy changes on digital radio. This might have been a good idea. The yoking together of public, community and commercial broadcasting in the joint venture structure was always going to be problematic.

But if he wanted to change things, the time to do so would have been immediately on taking government. In this, of course, it would have been handy if he had had a communications policy — something that was constantly promised, but never delivered, in the year before the Rudd Government came to power.

Now the process is far too far advanced, with the deadline for digital radio licence applications coming early next month.

How much it all matters depends on how important digital radio turns out to be. Some think it is already dead in the water. Radio with pictures, after all, is what we usually expect from TV, and there is little digital radio will do that the internet can’t do as well.

But nobody can be sure what the future holds, and with this apparent stuff-up, one part of that future is closed for community radio — and for no good reason.

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