While Treasurer Scott Morrison was delivering his budget night address a small band of dedicated community radio advocates had already launched into campaign mode.

Buried deep in this year’s federal budget was a small funding cut — an “absolute pittance” to the government — that could mark the beginning of the end of Australian community radio.

Community radio advocates quickly jumped into action to rally an increasingly disenfranchised array of mostly young people to make yet another stand for a service they say plays a crucial role in diversifying Australia’s media and giving a voice to those who are usually ignored.

The government’s Community Broadcasting Program lost $1.4 million per year over the next four years, a minuscule amount in the grand scheme of the budget but enough to put nearly 40 community radio stations at risk of switching off.

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The funding is used by community radio stations to broadcast on the digital spectrum, and Community Broadcasting Association of Australia (CBAA) boss Jon Bisset says 37 stations in five capital cities might be switched off as a result of the cuts.

Being on the digital spectrum is much more than just experimenting with a new technology, he says — it’s a crucial service that the not-for-profits need in order to continue to compete with the commercial entities and reach underrepresented groups.

“The future of free-to-air broadcasting is digital radio and the sector must secure a place on the platform,” Bisset said.

“We can’t afford to be left behind commercial radio. It’s essential that community radio is part of the digital radio broadcast because if we’re not then as more stations move to digital it’ll be much more difficult for listeners to find us.

“They’ll be looking for us on digital radio and we won’t be there.”

Melbourne’s SYN Media general manager Tess Lawley says the burden that has now been placed on community radio stations is “well beyond” what they can handle.

“These are not massive organisations and paying a huge amount of money to broadcast on digital is just not an option for a vast majority of stations,” Lawley said. “At SYN we’re relatively well-resourced, and we still couldn’t cover that.”

“If we get pushed off digital it would be wildly optimistic to assume that in 15 or more years we would still be on the FM spectrum,” Lawley said. “That spectrum is a finite resource that is worth so much to the government if privatised, and if we’re not on digital then we’re gone.”

“This is the beginning of the end of something that has been making a real difference to communities for more than 40 years.”

But community radio stations are fighting back. A day after the budget a new website sprang up, and a petition was circulated. The efficiency shouldn’t be all that surprising — they’ve had to do it all before.

After cuts to community radio were proposed back in 2013, the same group of advocates quickly jumped into action, launching a large-scale campaign backed by a petition with more than 50,000 signatures.

And it worked — community radio received funding in the next budget. But it wouldn’t last long, and three years later it is proving to be increasingly difficult to motivate the same group of young people to fight the seemingly inevitable cuts.

“We know there’s more than 50,000 people that really believe in this and want us to stay in the digital spectrum,” Lawley said. “Now it’s just about getting them to engage with the fact that they’re needed again.

“It happened three years ago. It could happen in another three years. It’s really frustrating to have to keep having this fight over such a small amount of money.”

But the group has proved that a grassroots-style campaign can work, and community radio in Australia is relying on it working again.

“It’s such a small amount of money to the government but it makes a really crucial difference to us as an organisation and the sector,” Lawley said. “It could be in there or it could not be but 50,000 signatures on a petition could make it happen.”

When asked about the funding reduction, Communication Minister Mitch Fifield’s office blames, unsurprisingly, Labor.

“The previous government allocated an additional $6 million over three years in temporary top-up funding for community digital radio and decided that this funding would finish at the end of the 2015/16 financial year,” a spokesperson said.

“All parties understood this and it was clearly shown in the budget papers at the time. The lapsing of this funding reflects a decision of the former Labor government.

“The government is determined to ensure we live within our means and repair the budget so that we are not saddled with Labor’s legacy of debt and deficit.”

Now the CBAA is in the process of meeting with candidates in marginal seats in the lead-up to the election.

To rub salt into the sector’s wounds, at the same time the Coalition decided not to renew community radio’s funding, commercial radio stations were handed a big win, with licence fees slashed by 25% at a cost to the government of $163.6 million.

According to the budget, this is due to the “rapidly changing media market … placing significant financial pressure on commercial broadcasters”.

According to a spokesperson for Fifield, the licence fee cuts were, somewhat ironically, made to assist commercial broadcasters remain competitive in the digital era.

It is community radio stations’ ability to give a voice to diverse and marginalised groups in Australia, those usually shut out from these commercial broadcasters, that is front and centre in the burgeoning campaign to save it.

SYN is leading the way after making the move to digital nearly five years ago. SYN Nation — both a social project and a digital radio station — was created with the aim of reaching out to young people of diverse backgrounds and giving them a platform to have their voices heard.

“We thought it’d take a few years to take off, but we’re only two years in and it’s just been so successful,” Lawley said. “We’ve worked with more than 200 young people everywhere across Australia, from Hobart to Fitzroy Crossing. We’ve put a lot of young people on air that otherwise just wouldn’t have had the opportunity.”

“It’s the people who have been marginalised, who have been told for so long that they’re not worthwhile, that are now being given the platform and the confidence.

“We see young people come into the organisation pretty green but enthusiastic, and they leave with leadership skills, the ability to train people, decision-making skills and confidence.

“That being switched off for an absolute pittance to the government is a massive risk.”

Community radio reaches 5 million people each week, Bisset says, a “significant number” that should be highly valued by the government.

“These stations play an important role in providing voices to communities not adequately serviced by others, including indigenous Australians, ethnic and religious communities and young people,” he said.

“The federal budget doesn’t properly reflect the value the government places on these services to contribute to media diversity. Not funding us, particularly when there are planned reforms to media ownership laws, will mean a less diverse media landscape and far less community voices heard.”

Labor announced yesterday that if elected, it would restore the funding to community radio, while the Greens also said it would ensure that the sector retained funding.

As a Crikey subscriber and someone who began working as a journalist in 1957, I am passionate about the importance of independent media like Crikey. I met a lot of Australians from many walks of life during my career and did my best to share their stories honestly and fairly with their fellow citizens.

And I never forgot how important it is to hold politicians to account. Crikey does that – something that is more important now than ever before in Australia.

North Stradbroke Island, QLD

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