Community Stations: Embracing the Concept of ‘MORE’ | radioinfo

Community Stations: Embracing the Concept of ‘MORE’

Wednesday 02 December, 2020

Opinion from Brad Smart

What is it with some community stations these days?

I think many of the people behind them have delusions of grandeur.

There are stations out there trying to spread their reach and influence across far more territory than they were ever intended to.

Some even ride roughshod over their contemporaries, with smaller community stations being destroyed as bigger ones penetrate their once-exclusive territories.

I’ve always believed that community stations were given licences to cover specific geographic areas, where that local region wasn’t adequately served by existing commercial stations. Wasn’t the whole idea that community radio would provide niche programs to fill that gap?

If that was the original concept, it doesn’t seem to be the case anymore.

It now looks like many community stations not only want to sound and market themselves as direct competition to commercial broadcasters, but they also want to create a footprint to rival the commercials, particularly across regional areas.

I don’t think this ‘competition’ concept ever entered the minds of politicians, when they first cast their vote to allow for community licences.

Politicians would have seen their vote as a sincere gesture to give a voice to local people, not to provide an additional pseudo-commercial station in the same market.

You’ve got to admit that operators in the community radio space have been very smart over the past 30 years.

They’ve organised themselves with peak bodies, like the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia (CBAA) and Community Broadcasting Fund, to create a legitimate ‘industry,’ where I’m sure ‘an industry’ was never intended to exist when parliament first agreed to grant community licences.

These groups now have become so influential that they’re regularly lobbying government ministers in the halls of Canberra.

Most commercial broadcasters don’t really object to the concept of community broadcasting, as long as it operates as it was originally intended.

Unfortunately, some modern-day community licensees don’t seem satisfied with their lot in life and want to keep expanding their operations.

Cynics might even call it ‘empire-building.’

This sometimes happens when former commercial radio people embed themselves into lethargic community radio committees, bring commercial concepts to the table and hijack the agenda.

It’s not hard to find many examples, where community stations have started to embrace the concept of ‘more.’

The Black Star Network in Far North Queensland is one.

It’s part of QRAM, the Queensland Regional Aboriginal Media group.

This network was originally established to provide information, entertainment and a sense of belonging to remote indigenous communities on Cape York.

A lot of the money to support this service comes from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

Supporting remote communities is a noble sentiment… there’s no doubt about that. However, Black Star began to expand its network into more populated areas shortly after people with commercial radio backgrounds joined them

Black Star now has outlets in the Cairns, Atherton and Cooktown listening areas, where they compete with commercial stations for a share of the available revenue in that region.

The group has been quite open that they want to continue expanding as far south as Townsville.

Cairns, Atherton and Cooktown are all well served by the ABC and commercial stations owned by SCA, NQ Radio and Grants.

Black Star’s breakfast show in Cairns and Atherton is almost indiscernible in its music and talk content from 4AM Mareeba, the local commercial AM station on the Atherton Tableland.

During the middle of the day, you’d have trouble picking the difference in their music from SCA’s HIT FM.

If Black Star is trying to sound like a fully commercial operation and is vying for a share of the larger town audiences, you’d have to ask yourself ‘are the remote communities on Cape York now missing out on services that the network was originally licensed to provide?

Complementing its commercial-sounding programs, Black Star actively seeks sponsorship dollars from local businesspeople in its larger markets.

All the while, its operations are being underwritten by federal government grants. It’s a ‘can’t lose’ situation for them.

Contrast this with the local commercial stations that sink or swim based solely on their appeal to advertisers.

But, rapid expansion isn’t just the purview of indigenous stations.

Rock FM in Moranbah is a community station originally licensed for the mining town, and it’s not just a clever name, it plays - rock music.

The station’s footprint has recently started to grow from its Moranbah region coverage.

Throughout the Central Highlands, many mining companies have been granted self-help licences to reinforce radio signals down in their pits.

Originally, these licences carried the area’s commercial stations, most notably, 4HI from Emerald. However, in recent times, mines have been under pressure from their employees to provide them with different types of programming, so several have gained approval to change the input signal of their repeaters to Rock FM.

For some of those mines, like Lake Vermont, the Rock FM  signal is being relayed ‘out-of-area.’ In other words, even though these changes have been approved by ACMA, they’re operating well beyond the boundary of the station’s original service area. Rock FM has previously been relayed by the Saraji mines in Dysart, over 70 kilometres from Moranbah.

It used to be that self-help licences carried ABC, SBS or commercial stations licenced to the service area, or if the self-help was an out-of-area, they’d use the most relevant commercial service to the region being covered. That concept now appears to be changing, with ACMA allowing community stations to vastly expand their presence, and in doing so, the regulator is boosting these stations’ appeal to sponsors.

I doubt this was ever the intention of parliament, but it does help us understand why commercial broadcasters’ licence fees have had to be reduced, as the constant addition of new players keeps watering down the viability of the radio marketplace.

However, the mines are not the most perplexing issue concerning Rock-FM’s expansion.

The town of Clermont is serviced by ABC radio services, two commercial radio repeaters and its own community station, licensed to the local council.

Despite this, Rock FM has been approved to set up in the town in competition to the local community and commercial stations, thanks to a self-help licence granted to a private company. ACMA’s decision-making process becomes difficult to comprehend, as Clermont is over 100 kilometres from Moranbah and well outside the station’s designated service area.

Over in the South Burnett, just north of the Darling Downs, there’s a community broadcaster, called CROW FM.

This station has long been operated by people with commercial radio backgrounds, and it’s very aggressive in the sales area.

Its studios are in the tiny town of Wondai, but CROW clearly wants to compete for the big bucks in the business centre of the area, Kingaroy, where two commercial stations, 4SB and HIT FM have existed for decades.

Recently, ACMA granted CROW an FM repeater licence on a hill overlooking the centre of Kingaroy.

So, is there now a difference in the way AMCA treats community stations over commercials? Well, it seems so.

When one of the Kingaroy commercial stations asked ACMA for a similar licence, it was told by the regulator it could take up to four years for them to be granted any repeater licence they applied for within their coverage area.

CROW FM is another commercial-sounding community station, which is in direct competition with the existing commercial operators for revenue. It now has a far higher quality signal in Kingaroy than the heritage AM station, 4SB, whose signal suffers badly from electrical interference, thanks to the town’s new factories and workshops.

Further south at Dalby, in the Toowoomba LAP, the local community station, 4DDD, is about to become a serious player on the Darling Downs with the opening of four new repeaters in Meandarra, Moonie, Tara and Wandoan, which lies some 170 kilometres away.

Slipping across the border to northern New South Wales, and they’re playing similar games in New England.

Tamworth has two commercial radio stations, 2TM and 92.9FM and a community station 88.9, which specialises in country music.

The city is a thriving rural centre.

You’d think it would certainly have enough businesses to keep this community station flush with sponsorship for years to come. But, as with a growing number of its contemporaries in community radio - it wanted more!

Earlier this year, ACMA granted the station permission to extend its coverage across the Liverpool Plains on 96.3.

Now, you might say ‘Well, why shouldn’t community stations extend their coverage far and wide, and go where the money is?’

I think one of the major reasons is this.

Some community stations do support a number of paid employees, that’s true, but most stations rely heavily on volunteers.

Commercial stations, on the other hand, employ the vast majority of people in the radio industry. They have weekly pay packets to fill and a range of expenses that community stations never have to worry about.

When community stations start sucking money out of regional markets, beyond what would be considered ‘a donation’ to a volunteer organisation, then it endangers the employment of people working fulltime in the professional industry.

That’s part of the reason we don’t have volunteer architects or lawyers or accountants. They have lobbied successive federal and state governments to ensure their industries are protected from enthusiastic amateurs.

But, there’s no such protection for people looking to make radio their lifelong career.

I know that on social media there are many people who believe radio should be a free-for-all. In some of their opinions, all licences should be abolished.

If they were to get their way, and you wanted a radio career, you’d probably have to be prepared to pump gas for a living and do your radio shift as a volunteer gig.

The more this industry carves the apple, the less advertising there is to support fulltime employees in radio, and I’ve gotta say, from experience, the situation is getting pretty dire in some of the smaller markets already.

When an expanding community station goes into another community station’s territory, particularly in small towns, they also endanger the viability of the smaller station, which was given its licence to directly serve the people of that area.

Community radio certainly has its place in the broadcasting landscape, and I'm not suggesting anything done by stations is illegal. However, I think ACMA is at fault here by letting some community stations grow almost unchecked, emboldening them with a sense of entitlement that they can grow no matter the consequences to others.

The regulator has a responsibility to ensure the viability of our entire industry and that it remains an orderly system. Rubber-stamping applications to sanction big community stations to get even bigger is an irresponsible move at the expense of commercial broadcasters.

It is ACMA who should be ensuring that all the elements of the broadcasting jigsaw stay in balance.

One thing I’m convinced of is that this industry doesn’t need community super-stations.

 

 

 

About the Author

Brad Smart previously owned and operated the Smart Radio Network through regional Queensland.

He sold his stations to the then Macquarie Radio Network.

He has been a journalist, broadcaster and film producer for over 30 years.

Brad is available as a freelance writer, voiceover talent and consultant.

Brad's articles and podcasts are also available through his website www.bradsmart.com.au 

 

 

 

 

 


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8 Comments

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David
2 December 2020 - 4:29am
I think it's indicative of a growing level of audience dissatisfaction with the quality of regional radio services. Regional community radio licencees certainly seem to be attemping to move into the gaps in regional markets. Many of them don't have the same standard of resources or talent to do it professionally.
BD
2 December 2020 - 7:55am
While Brad is right that the legislation probably didn't envisage community stations growing as they have, surely it also didn't envisage that regional commercial (and ABC) stations would be taking so much networked content, and be less "local" in 2020. While some community stations seem to be subverting the intention of the law, and are getting away with providing a pseudo-commercial service without the costs that apply to commercial stations -- especially the wages -- it could be argued that they are serving listeners in regional areas better than, a station that is 90 per cent programmed in and presented from a capital city far, far away. Maybe the government should be funding commercial stations in the regions to include more local content, either on the main station or by a second or online station or podcast. It would be unfair to impose further restrictions on community stations if they are providing a service that the public want and the commercial operator is not providing. The whole licensing regime needs a rethink taking this into account. While it's wrong to allow stations run by unpaid people the "eat the lunch" of the commercial stations, the government regulator has a responsibility to ensure each market is served adequately with the interests of listeners first and foremost. With technology changing so quickly, ACMA needs to grab back control before the horse bolts.
Richard D
2 December 2020 - 10:01am
Hi Brad,
I never worked for you in my Radio days, but from all accounts you were a great owner who appreciated their staff. In your day you believed in local radio I am sure. Now days "blind Freddy" could see how the major networks have taken away so much local radio and staff to hub centres that it is no wonder that community radio has taken ground. The greatest strength of regional commercial radio is localism and they have simply handed it over to community stations who are now taking a firm hold with audience growth. Even the days of young announcers starting in a country station are fast becoming hard to fine and as such young hopefuls are beginning their career in community stations.... all wanting to sound as good as they can. I am not surprised and commercial radio can only look inwards to find the real reasons... they will complain and whinge... but they only have themselves to blame. all the best.
Alaina
2 December 2020 - 11:03am
As a worker at Rock FM in Moranbah I find the statements about us laughable. If you would like any factual clarification, feel free to get in touch.
StJohn
2 December 2020 - 11:36am
May be this is an audience reaction to the extensive networking of commercial broadcasting. For example there is one company which has the the licence for all of WA except 1 station in the country and it has a pair of Perth stations. They also have big networks in the other states as well as a regional TV network in those states as well.
It is the ACMA's rules which have forced regional radio broadcasters to provide a small amount of local content, probably brought on by regional politicians who want to be able to present themselves to the electors particularly at election time.
bradsmart
2 December 2020 - 12:55pm
Alaina. I don't have your contact details, but happy to talk if you want to call me 0418 311011. Brad
Horsy Hawkesbury
2 December 2020 - 4:01pm
Hmmm. One community station in my market which might be put into this category is Sydney"s Hope1032. They're a community licence, but pay their announcers and have an annual budget approaching $1.5M. A large part of this comes from listener financial support. They certainly place themselves as a player in the competitive Sydney market, but the problem is, much of their content is actually community radio standard or poorer, rather than commercial standard. One of my big bugbears is they allow announcers on air who are mediocre at best,and they don't seem to think radio content when emploting on air staff.

Hope1032 is a Christian station, and that's their focus, as far as I can work out, to employ people who want to be ministers and such rather than employing them because of their abilities. Where do we go from there?
Anthony The Koala
3 December 2020 - 4:58am
Generally, community stations play a role in covering local news, issues and music not covered by the commercial radio and ABC.

If you tune your AM dial (frequency changer) in the late evening and midnight-to-dawn, you will hear regional stations sounding alike because the program content is sourced from the capital city networks.

Legally, the regional stations, sections 43B and 43C of the Broadcast Services Act (Cth) ('BSA'), source https://www.legislation.gov.au/Details/C2020C00364, allow non-regional content between 1800 and 0600, ss43C(1) and (8) BSA. Metropolitan stations do not have the requirement that its source program comes from the local market, s61C, BSA. It is perfectly legal for a station in Sydney to broadcast to Brisbane as exemplified until recently by 2GB broadcasting to 4BC.

So, the author is correct that there is "...nothing to suggest..." any illegality by the community radio sector.

The ACMA is acting within the law. By the ACMA granting extended coverage of community stations with repeater stations is lawful. If there is a consequential concern about encroachment into commercial radio territory, then the commercial radio can lobby our Federal MPs into modifying the legislation, schedules of the underlying act (BSA), and regulations to provide scope on the range of discretion allowed by the ACMA and Federal Minister.

Having said that, if there is to be local coverage, the regional stations don't have to have a local presence between 1800 and 0600 by law. If more local coverage is required, then the legislation, should change.

Generally most regional stations are owned by 'capital city' conglomerates
and may lobby for less local presence and centralize programming. But I cannot read the mind and will of the 'capital city' conglomerates.

When it comes to presentation of programs on community radio, the presenters have to undergo a training program conducted by the community station or by an external provider. Presenters should sound professional and not sound like rank amateurs. Sounding professional is not the exclusive domain of the commercial stations and the ABC.

Furthermore, the author criticises an SA community radio station run by former commercial radio professionals especially in raising sponsorship funds for the station.

Recall that sponsorship of community radio by IS NOT raising funds for commercials. The lines between a commercial and a sponsorship announcement may be blurred with the resulting sponsorship announcement sounding like a commercial. A community station can be reprimanded by the ACMA or have its licence suspended or cancelled if it violates the law.

I commented on on this site about the distinction between a sponsorship announcement and a commercial. The announcement can declare the types of goods and/or services with the announcement "....XYZ is a proud sponsor of station name...." But the announcement cannot compare one firm with another firm, NOR can it talk about the qualities of the product and/or service.

Then there is nothing to stop the announcement from sounding professional.

The author makes a valid comment about the possible encroachment of community radio audiences into the commercial radio station's audience. There are market forces, being the regional audience. The community station may well 'eat' into the commercial station's audience because of more local issues discussed and the kinds of music not covered by the commercial station and ABC.

The fault for the loss of regional station's audience lies with the mind and will of the station's management regardless of the location of the registered office of the radio station. The community radio station is giving what the regional audience wants while the commercial station is not, especially if the station is networked from outside the regional area.

Finally, financial management of a radio station, whether community or commercial is important. This site reported on a multicultural community station in Victoria closing because it ran out of funds.

On the other hand the author was critical of an Indigenous radio network, QRAM and its plans being funded by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

However, there is nothing illegal about QRAM expanding. I refer to my earlier paragraph that they are acting according to the law and if there is a concern about taking over a commercial radio station's audience, then the commercial radio stations whether the industry or the affected local commercial regional stations, should then lobby Federal MPs.

As it is, the expansion of Indigenous community radio providing local Indigenous communities may well be the provider of "to provide information, entertainment and a sense of belonging to remote indigenous communities on Cape York..." and beyond. Are the commercial stations covering Indigenous information, entertainment and a sense of belonging? To a limited extent the ABC may allocate a few hours a week, but not 24/7.

In addition there is nothing illegal in QRAM using professional staff to raising sponsorship.

In summary, I see no problem with community radio expanding and fulfiling an audience that is not catered by regional commercial radio, this is especially when many regional stations are networked from the capital cities.

If there is a concern that the ACMA is allowing expansion of the community sector, the ACMA is acting according to law. If the BSA, its schedules, regulations and the discretion by the Federal Minister and the ACMA is the problem of allowing expansion of community radio then lobby Federal MPs to have the law changed. Otherwise, the community stations are acting LAWFULLY.

Thank you,
Anthony of very critical Belfield
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