Regional radio audiences watch out! Measures in the fine print of the budget papers will allow commercial radio stations to have another go at being allowed to reduce staff and resources in the bush following media takeovers.

One of the penny pinching measures in the Budget – and one of the few significant moves for media – is a decision to extend the deadline for the introduction of digital radio from 1 January next year to 1 July.

This is mostly good. Commercial radio is pleased, because it gives them some breathing space in a difficult technical roll out before the “use it or lose it” date for the spectrum. At the same time, they are not prevented them from broadcasting in digital earlier than July if they wish.

Community radio, meanwhile, is also less despondent than previously. The sector gets a bit more money in future years to help them make the transition to digital radio.

But the hidden significance of all this is that in order to extend the deadline for digital radio introduction, the Government will have to amend the Broadcasting Services Act – and quickly too.

That means that all sides plan to get their oars in to push for more changes to be included in the legislative package.

The CEO of the Commercial Radio Association, Joan Warner, told Crikey yesterday that she would be on Minister Stephen Conroy’s doorstep to argue that while he is changing the legislation, he should get rid of provisions that freeze regional radio’s staffing and local presence after a take over.

She said Labor had agreed in opposition that the measures were an “outrageous intervention”. The measures were introduced by the Howard Government as part of an attempt to appease the National Party and persuade them to allow the watering down of media ownership regulation in 2006.

“It’s not a budget issue, but while they are changing the legislation they should look at this too,” said Warner.

Meanwhile Community Broadcasting Association of Australia spokeswoman Kath Letch says the budget means she is “less pissed off” than a few weeks ago. The community broadcasting sector is still recovering from the train wreck of recent months, in which they were locked out of ownership of digital radio infrastructure by the failure of Communications Minister Stephen Conroy to bring forward funding.

But the budget news for Community Radio is moderately good. While they will get nothing for digital transition in 2008-2009, they get more than previously promised in 09/10.

The allocation of $2.4 million over four years to support the Australian Music Radio Airplay Project – which basically helps community radio to promote Australian bands and musicians – is also good news for community broadcasting. The $600,000 a year for community radio training programs will be continued, which was not certain before the budget.

Meanwhile Community Radio also plans to try and get broader changes to the legislation – including perhaps another chance for the sector to be owners of digital radio infrastructure, rather than merely access seekers.

Will Community Radio be allowed back on the bus so far as ownership of infrastructure is concerned? The extension of the digital radio deadline allows some breathing space for all concerned, but Warner says that it will be up to the individual Joint Venture Companies that will own the infrastructure in each state to decide whether or not to issue more shares to community broadcasters.

That’s it for the budget so far as media is concerned. There was nothing of significance for the public broadcasters – but that is no surprise. The only game in town for Auntie ABC is the triennial funding submission, presently in preparation. All hopes hang on that.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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