Author : Michele Bawden

Community broadcasting — radio and television — was created to develop and reflect a sense of Australian identity, character and cultural diversity. Community radio stations feel very strongly about ‘local content’ and fear it may be further diluted under a review being undertaken by Communications Minister Stephen Conroy.

The federal government has called for submissions to its review of regional commercial radio local content requirements. But community broadcasters are beginning to question Senator Conroy’s stated commitment to protecting ‘local content’.

The review puts forward as a ‘key issue’ that greater flexibility be provided for regional commercial radio broadcasters, by spreading the same small amount of local content across both weekdays and weekends. In essence, this proposes diluting even further the local content that commercial broadcasters must provide to local audiences.

Yet local content is the essence of community broadcasting, which is media created by local people for their communities

In other media sectors, ‘local content’ is often taken to refer to Australian content. For the community broadcasting sector, ‘local content’ means content that is produced in the local community and is directly and locally significant to Australians living in those communities.

The national average of locally-produced content in the community sector is 129 hours per week, accounting for 77 per cent of all content broadcast (CBD Survey 2007-2008). We produce 77 per cent of our content at the local station level. We also broadcast 36 per cent Australian music, significantly exceeding the 25 per cent quota mandated by our codes of practice.

Australians want this local emphasis. The 9.5 million Australians who listen to community radio each month report that they value most the local content and diverse music formats that community radio delivers (McNair Community Radio National Listener Survey 2008).

Indeed, the community broadcasting sector is growing strongly because of our commitment to local content. Our audiences have grown by almost 50 per cent since 1996 and 80 per cent of long-term licensed community radio and TV services are located in regional and outback Australia.

These licensees are responding to community demand for local news, sport, community information and music produced in non-metropolitan Australia: 39 per cent of community radio stations report that they are the only sources of local programs for their communities (CBD Survey 2007-2008).

When one turns to the local content obligations currently required of regional commercial radio licensees, it’s easy to see why Australians, particularly those in regional and outback areas, have such a thirst for local content.

The majority of regional commercial radio licensees are required to broadcast three hours of local content between 5am and 8pm each weekday. On the most generous interpretation, this is 20 per cent local content. However, if you factor in the full 168 hours of the week across which people can and do listen to radio, the figure drops to 9 per cent local content.

For 16 per cent of these commercial licensees (who broadcast in ‘small markets’), the requirement is to broadcast 30 minutes local content per weekday, or just over 3 per cent. Again, if you factor the entire 168 hours of the week, the requirement is to broadcast just 1.5 per cent local content per week. Remote area and racing radio broadcasters must broadcast only five minutes of local content each weekday — so small a requirement as to be negligible.

Greater flexibility for regional radio broadcasters is hardly the pressing need to be addressed.

If, as the review clearly states, ‘the broad intent of the regional commercial radio localism provisions remains valid’, then regional commercial radio licensees should be required to broadcast material of local content in addition to what is already required. The opportunities for coverage of local weekend issues and events in regional and remote Australia are too obvious and numerous to mention.

Surely, if an area of regional Australia constitutes a ‘market’ that viably can be tapped through advertising, then it also constitutes a group capable of generating enough local content to meet the needs and demands of that community.

While the great majority of community broadcasters are volunteers, commercial radio licensees employ those who exercise a professional skill and insight that is critical to Australian society. Each part of the media sector – public, commercial and community – has a different and important role to play in creating content that reflects the culture and diversity of our communities.

Michele Bawden is the general manager of the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia.