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Community Radio: Heroes or Cowboys?

A number of aggressive community radio stations are certainly skating on thin ice at the moment.

I keep asking myself “why is it that some people just want to keep pushing things to become something they were never intended to be?”

Like all pressure and lobby groups, community radio has had its wins along the way.

Now, empowered by those ‘wins’, some of the more aggressive community stations want to see just how far they can push the legal boundaries of what they’re allowed to do.

Admittedly, community radio’s biggest win was quite a while back.

That was when the federal government decided it no longer wanted to provide funding to keep community stations running.

As a quid pro quo for cutting the sector loose, community broadcasters were allowed to take on 5-minutes of sponsorship announcements each hour to offset their costs.

I’m sure the prospect of having to fend for themselves scared the hell out of the less entrepreneurial operations, but from day one, some of the bigger community stations were rubbing their hands together with excitement.

For them, it was like getting the ‘keys to the kingdom’.

In the intervening decades, two very important changes have happened within community radio.

Many stations have come to the realisation that a true ‘community’ program format doesn’t work in the real world, especially if your ultimate goal is to build a strong listener base to generate sales.

Secondly, contrary to their original ‘reason for being’, many community stations, particularly those in the major cities, have simply evolved into little more than rather efficient ‘sales machines’, with their own professional sales teams.

These sales people, many of whom previously hail from commercial radio, often dictate the type of programming their station must run if it wants to reach its revenue targets.

Because community stations are required to operate as non-profit organisations, some of the bigger ones actually have to find innovative ways to spend all the money they generate.

Even the current Communications Minister, Mitch Fifield, has commented, on occasions, that some of the community stations he’s visited, particularly in metro areas, have better buildings and facilities than the major commercial operators in the same market.

Admittedly, this contrasts with many of the very small, regional community stations that are hand-to-mouth operations.

What really needs to be remembered is that behind granting almost all community radio licences was the need to provide a radio service of local or special interest that wasn’t already there.

Commercial radio stations are, in the literal sense, ‘broad-casters’.

Their job is to provide general programming that’s of interest to a wide range of people across either a metropolitan or regional area.

On the other hand, community radio was always intended to be niche programming; at least, that’s how it was sold to those politicians, who originally agreed to the ‘community’ class of licence.

The idea was to provide programs of interest to specific groups, who weren’t being catered for by mainstream commercial broadcasting.

It was never intended that these stations would become commercial competitors.

I have no doubt that the original concept for community broadcasting had all the best intentions; giving ‘a voice to the people’.

However, at no time, were community radio stations ever intended to be operated as pseudo-commercial broadcasters, no matter how often people say ‘well, times change’.

To be fair, a number of community stations around the nation are still providing their original form of niche programming, in particular, those catering to different ethnic communities.

However, in recent years, many ‘local’ community broadcasters have successfully applied to ACMA to have their original ‘purpose’ changed from a focus on education, religion or ethnicity to the much more flexible ‘general purpose’ category, ostensibly giving them open slather to run commercial-style music formats.

Needless to say, this preferential treatment of community stations by the Regulator has ruffled more than just a few political and media industry feathers.

The noble and idealistic claims of ‘localism’, that some community aspirants used to gain their licence, have now been relegated to the trash heap of history, as though they never existed.

Many of the current formats are almost the direct opposite of what the aspirants originally intended the station to be; all things to all people.

Under this naïve concept, typically, one of the members may come in at 9am and play their favorite comedy tracks and the next amateur announcer at 10am would play classical music, followed by a hour long interview with the local Mayor, then maybe, old time rock and roll, and sometime during the afternoon a couple of local teenage DJs would spin underground music.

The idea was to get local information and local entertainment to a local audience; something not provided for by the commercial operators.

Problem is, other than getting the presenters’ immediate families to listen to them ‘on the wireless’, it’s been proven time and time again that this type of diverse programming simply doesn’t work when it comes to building an audience.

So now, through targeted formats, we have a pseudo-commercial radio industry living in scores of licence areas around the country, being operated by community stations, many of which have no connection to their original purpose.

Compounding this problem is that the community radio ‘industry’ has grown to support hundreds, if not thousands, of paid full or part time employees, particularly in the management and sales areas, and they all have a vested interest in ensuring their ‘gold mines’ continue to produce.

One of the most interesting points is that this commercialisation of community radio has paralleled an influx of former commercial radio people into the not-for-profit sector.

In some stations, former ‘commercial’ people have all but taken over the on-air presentation roles, and because of their experience, many of the functions of the governing committees.

I guess some of these ‘ex-radio’ people may well have a secret desire to give their former networks ‘the finger’ and show them how programming and sales really should be done.

Revenge has always been big in radio’s DNA, and in recent years, there are plenty of people in commercial radio roles, who have been unceremoniously, and in some cases unfairly, dumped!

Community radio may well be the ideal vehicle for them to start rebuilding their bruised egos.

However, what were initially intended to be niche, localised, amateur-run radio stations, have, in short order, become commercialised, with slick formats and professionally-trained staff, even though many of those staff may be volunteering their time.

Professionalising and commercialising what were supposed to be ‘voice of the people’ operations, has put local commercial broadcasters in an inequitable position.

Firstly, while some community stations may pay a professional manager, and then give retainers and commissions to some of their sales staff, they don’t normally pay wages to their on-air, production or support staff, which makes their cost of operations so much lower.

Community stations also get significant discounts on music and licence fees.

Both of these savings make a difference when you are costing bookings to local advertisers, who may regard one radio station as being the same as another.

Now, some people may say “So what? Community operators are lucky that they have access to volunteers”.

Well, that makes those volunteers’ interest in broadcasting little more than a hobby, which would be fine if they weren’t trying to make their community station sound like commercial stations in the same market, simply to get more revenue.

Those local communities, that once lobbied for a licence to share local chitchat and gossip, are now seeing these stations being streamlined and hijacked away from them, because, well, let’s face it, money talks.

The reality is that when community stations start to become serious alternatives, particularly in regional licence areas, they begin to fragment the audience and the advertising revenue, which is commercial radio’s only source of income.

It only takes a shift of a few percent in overall sales to begin threatening the stability of employment at some of these local commercial stations.

Broadcasting, it seems, is one of the few regulated industries, where ‘amateurs’ are not only tolerated, but encouraged to gouge the market with the support of government.

You can’t do it in medicine, accountancy, pharmacy, architecture, finance or law, but in broadcasting, an ‘unlevel’ playing field appears to be not only acceptable, but quite desirable to the regulators and politicians.

Translating from ACMA-speak, commercial broadcasters are regularly advised to ‘suck it up’ when they complain about the marketplace behaviour of the community operators.

It seems ACMA and their political masters are too afraid of the likely voter backlash should they criticise or discipline community broadcasters for anything, but most egregious breaches of the Act.

While a number of stations have been reprimanded for breaching their 5-minutes an hour of sponsorship, very little action has ever been taken against them.

For the past half decade, with an assumption that the Regulator is turning a blind eye, some of the more aggressive community operators have become bolder in the way they sell, and have been outright ‘poking the bear’ on station sponsorship.

Finally, a few months ago, ACMA, it seems, had had enough and brought out ‘the big stick’ to threaten a number of them, who had gone out to the marketplace claiming to sell ‘advertising’ packages.

You and I may colloquially call all announcements ‘advertising’, but under the Act, community stations are not allowed to sell ‘advertising’; they’re only allowed ‘sponsorship’.

It turns out there’s a major legal difference.

‘Sponsorship’ requires a community radio station to be paid directly from the business sponsoring them.

The local tyre shop, for example, can sponsor the local community station, as long as when they pay their bill, the money goes straight from the sponsor into the station’s account.

With ‘sponsorship’ being defined this way, community stations are technically precluded from access to federal and state government, and other national advertising, that comes through regular commission agents.

Community radio operators know these rules, or at least they probably did when their licences were granted.

However, like most volunteer groups, as time passes, people move on and some of the most important information gets lost in translation.

I suspect many of the more aggressive community stations have been blindly selling in the belief that there’s no difference between sponsorship and advertising.

Unfortunately for them, ignorance of the law is no excuse, or so we’re often told.

Stations, that have been breaching this law, should be disciplined – you do the crime, you do the time.

It’s their responsibility to stay within all the rules, not just the ones that suit them.

I also believe it’s time for community radio to get back to providing those local services, for which they were originally set up.

Creating an on-air sound that is indiscernible from the local commercial stations was never in their charter.

Former commercial radio people may want a forum to get back on the air and have a tinker, and I can fully understand that, but they should not be trying to pretend they have a mandate to operate an unlicensed commercial radio station in someone else’s commercial licence area.

ACMA, too, needs to take a closer look at the beast it’s helping to create by apparently ‘rubber-stamping’ amendments to licence conditions for community stations, so they no longer have to offer a point-of-difference in the programming they provide.

It is neither fair to the local community, who originally lobbied for a licence to satisfy the ‘special needs’ of its local residents, nor to the commercial operators, who provide employment to full-time media professionals in the same area.

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