Response to ‘Community Radio should be cut off’

Dan Salmon has sent us his response to yesterday’s opinion piece from Joshua Withers, ‘Community Radio should be cut off’.

Dan has been involved with Community Radio in Melbourne for a number of years, and has worked previously as an academic in communications. He completed his honours thesis on the launch of digital radio in Australia.

So community stations should be struck off the airwaves and made to podcast? That is a surprising opinion coming from someone who claims to be “born and bread” community radio stock.

As community radio stock, Josh knows the importance of the sector to minority groups and those whose voices aren’t heard on the commercial (and to a lesser extent the government) stations.

He knows that podcasts are a huge part of the future of broadcasting. There’s no argument there. But not everyone uses podcasts, and not everyone will – the elderly groups that Josh mentions – are they going to download the latest content? I fear it may be a stretch to get them to transfer over to DAB+.

When a huge amount of radio listening occurs in the car (particularly incidental listening – the kind that happens when you stumble across something you weren’t expecting to as you scan across the dial), and it’s highly unlikely to see podcast-equipped audio systems becoming standard fare in the next entry-level Korean auto, there may not be as big an audience for these podcasts as Josh suggests.

While community stations do cater towards a niche market a lot of the time, that shouldn’t preclude them from being listened to by a larger section of the population. There can be a lot of enjoyment derived from stumbling across a community radio show purely about computing and technology or eastern European pop music, but if these stations are restricted to podcasting, only those who already know about them are going to find them.

Josh expresses hope that the community stations with the means can support their own move to DAB+. I share this hope myself. However, as I’m sure Josh knows, digital radio legislation states that community radio can only exist currently on the DAB multiplexes that are owned by and rented from the commercial sector. Even if community stations were permitted to own their own multiplexes, who could afford them? They can barely afford to pay the rent on the multiplexes they use (hence the request for funding).

Josh would also know that the relegation of community broadcasting to a “podcast-only” model would be a huge blow to the Australian music industry. In an environment where it’s almost impossible for an Australian artist to get airplay on a commercial station, artists of all levels of experience and success rely on community radio to get their stuff out there. Licencing regulations make podcasting music nearly impossible, and so music-based community shows (and there are quite a few) would become completely unviable.

There is also the issue of currency. Radio is unique in that content can be adapted at a moment’s notice, so when the government topples or a building catches fire, often the first you hear about it (apart perhaps from Twitter) is on radio. As well as that, listener interaction and talkback are huge parts of what makes radio such an accessible medium. To banish community radio to the territory of “Here’s what’s been going on this week. Don’t bother calling in to talk to us about it.” is to neuter its capacity. There wouldn’t even be the ability to give away an icy cold can of generic soft drink.

Community radio is not just a training ground for the next commercial stars. There is a huge portion of the volunteers and subscribers to stations who are involved not because they want to be the next Hamish and Andy, but because they love the community stations themselves. These people should not be forced to lose out simply because they don’t aspire to be famous.

Finally, I congratulate Josh on having a successful podcast. There are thousands that aren’t – he got very lucky. Can we expect every community broadcaster to have the same amount of luck?
Have your say – Should the government give more funding to community radio for digital services? Vote in our poll here
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