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Standing Committee on Communications and the Arts
07/03/2016
Broadcasting, online content and live production to rural and regional Australia

PRINGLE, Mr Joel, Policy and Research Adviser, Community Broadcasting Association of Australia

RANDALL, Mr Phillip, President, Community Broadcasting Association of Australia

SICE, Mr David, Technical Consultant, Community Broadcasting Association of Australia

[15:41]

Witnesses were sworn—

CHAIR: We now welcome representatives from the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia. Thank you all for attending. Would you like to make an opening statement?

Mr Randall : Thank you very much. I was hoping we would have facilities for video projection this afternoon, but if that is not in place—

CHAIR: There is a white wall up there.

Mr Pringle : We have a thing, or we have hard copies if that is not—

CHAIR: What about a combination of both?

Mr Pringle : We could do a combination of both.

Ms MARINO: I had Harvey Community Radio just over the weekend at the WA state fire brigade championships, held in Harvey itself. They were there providing a service with their caravan and doing a great job.

Mr Randall : I am from Western Australia and in fact worked in that area for a number of years, at Bridgetown. It is a very nice part of the country. If the process of setting up is going to take too long, we are more than happy to simply speak to the paper copy that you have if that would be helpful.

CHAIR: Okay. Why don't we do that? Why don't we begin? Why don't you start speaking? We are time constrained.

Mr Randall : Thank you very much. I would like to thank the committee for the opportunity to address our submission to the inquiry into the importance of public and commercial broadcasting, online content and live production to rural and regional Australia, including the arts, news and other services. We note that the terms of reference fail to include the substantial community broadcasting sector. I am sure this was an oversight and trust that, before we conclude today, the committee will understand the importance of the community broadcasting sector to rural and regional populations.

Community broadcasting in Australia is the largest independent media sector and a key pillar in the Australian media landscape. It is recognised internationally as one of the most successful examples of grassroots media. Almost five million people tune in to 444 not-for-profit community owned and operated radio stations across the country each week. These stations provide programming that caters to the needs and interest groups of their communities and contributes to and reflects an Australia that is an open society, a strong democracy and a vibrant culture.

A key feature of regional community broadcasters is the diversity within generalist stations, whereas there is more diversity of specialist stations in metropolitan areas. The community broadcasting sector is defined in the Broadcasting Services Act, and the key things that set it apart from the rest of broadcasting are the facts that we are licensed to provide for community purposes, we are operated as not-for-profit, and we provide programming that is able to be received by commonly available equipment and is made available free to the general public.

In the document that you have at hand, the data that is reported is taken from two sources of research conducted on behalf of the CBAA: the Community Broadcasting Station Census and the Community Broadcasting National Listener Survey. Unless otherwise stated, the data in the document is for rural and regional stations.

Besides our submission to the committee, two other submissions were received from the community broadcasting sector: one from the Indigenous Remote Communications Association, and the other from CAAMA in Alice Springs. Indigenous broadcasters are a large and important part of the community broadcasting sector, and many of the stations that make up that subsector are members of the CBAA. However, they do have a unique position in the sector, and in some ways their operations are very different to those of other community broadcasters. We encourage the committee to refer also to these submissions. We also appreciate the acknowledgement of community radio's importance from the Chief Minister in the ACT in the ACT government's submission.

There are 180 fully licensed stations in rural and regional Australia, plus others operating on temporary licences. One-third of community radio stations are reported to be the only radio broadcaster producing local programming in their area. Community broadcasters' output of local content compares very favourably to the minimum requirements for regional commercial stations: some three hours per business day, or 30 minutes for small licence areas.

In your document, there is a picture of 3WAY-FM, a station along the Great Ocean Road in Victoria. It hosts the Warrnambool Media Hub, in partnership with SYN, the youth community broadcaster in Melbourne. The aim of the hub is to increase youth participation in community broadcasting.

In 2015 a young media leader in the project, Sam Maloney, was recognised as Warrnambool's Young Citizen of the Year. Out of the project Sam established Waveform Media, producing 7½ hours of content per week, hearing on 3WAY as well as SYN's digital radio platform in Melbourne. The SYN side of the project has also been establishing youth media hubs in Byron Bay, Canberra, Hobart and Gippsland with an eye to continuing to support more regional community as resources allow.

Some 42 per cent of regional and rural community stations run completely without staff. Listeners tune in for a variety of reasons. They rate local information and news as one of the highest reasons, at 63 per cent; local voices and personalities at 32 per cent; to hear a voice that is independent of business and government at 31 per cent; and to hear Australian music and support local artists at 29 per cent.

Community broadcasters regularly feature in the annual Australia Day Honours List, acknowledging their contribution as volunteers and community leaders beyond their involvement in broadcasting. They are deeply connected into their communities. In the document you have available to you, you will see there is a list of recipients in 2016.

Community broadcasting stations operate in regional and rural areas on very limited budgets. The median annual income is less than $50,000 per station. Eleven per cent of stations in rural and regional areas, though, report operating on less than $15,000 per year. These stations, however, even though they are existing on less than $15,000, are still producing 100 hours of local content and 180 minutes of community information per week. Again, this contrasts strongly with the minimum requirements for the local content for commercial stations.

Rural and regional communities receive a very high return from a very moderate investment in community broadcasting, from the Australian government, through the Community Broadcasting Program. Nationally, the Community Broadcasting Program was just under $17 million in 2015-16 and is set to drop to around $15½ million in 2016-17. The Community Broadcasting Association of Australia believes it is critical that funding not be reduced and be maintained at current levels. Of the $16.88 million in 2015-16 some $3.6 million was used for the first phase of digital. We believe this needs to continue and funding needs to be maintained at current levels.

It is also important that the indexation freeze, that was applied to funding for community broadcasting, be reversed. The sector is facing some very significant challenges, both in the first phase of digital and in maintaining the current level of funding to rural and regional stations. Also in the document be presented, showing the resourcefulness of community broadcasting to operate on minimal funds, Tank FM in Campsie have located their studios in a repurposed water tank, and they are very proud of their unique studio and location.

There is an average of 10 hours of news and six hours of current affairs each week on community radio in rural and regional areas. Thirty per cent of stations report producing in-house news averaging 3.3 hours per week. There is an average of 279 minutes of community information per week on community radio.

UGFM and Tasman FM are included in your document. UGFM played an important role for locals affected by the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria. The station lost two transmitters in the fires but quickly got back on air to transmit important community updates. The station won the 2009 Tony Staley Award for Excellence in Community Broadcasting for their role that year. In 2010 the Victorian state government signed an MoU giving official recognition to UGFM's role as an emergency broadcaster.

Tasman FM, in Nubeena, in the south-west of Tasmania, was started as a response to the Port Arthur tragedy in 1996. They began transmitting just three years later. As an emergency broadcaster they not only provide community information but also provide shelter and sanctuary during bushfire events. In response to the challenge faced during these events the station has gone to solar energy to ensure they can continue to broadcast if and when the power grid goes down.

National Radio News is a news wire service produced out of 2MCE in Bathurst and Charles Sturt University. It has been providing a news service to community radio for more than a decade. Its audience is between 1.5 and three million weekly listeners, making it the second-largest service in Australia by reach. It works to report independent, cutting-edge, thoughtful, alternative news. Recently it has included state Pacific bulletins, and ways to produce more locally relevant content are being explored.

Thirty-nine per cent of music programmed on community radio is Australian music. An average of 49 hours of Australian music programming takes place on regional and rural stations each week. Stations average 57.5 hours of live performances recorded each year by regional and rural community broadcasters. Special mention should be made of the Australian Music Radio Airplay Project, a community radio initiative based out of the CBAA, that supports Australian music artists in gaining more exposure through community radio stations.

The Community Radio Network is a satellite-delivered service that allows stations to connect and to share content. Other arts content produced by regional stations and shared over the CRN includes radio plays, talks content, and lots of music programs. In your document, you will see a number of programs that are broadcast on the network, including the Woodford Folk Festival, the Tamworth Country Music Festival and the Mildura Country Music Festival.

Good Morning Country is a long-running and popular CRN program produced out of Taree, Campbelltown and Goulburn. In your document, you will see a photo of the team interviewing Lee Kernaghan at the Tamworth music festival as part of their annual broadcast for that event.

Rural and regional stations also contribute to International Women's Day, NAIDOC Week, National Science Week and International Jazz Day content on the CRN network, which, in turn, is used by regional and rural stations to supplement their locally-produced content.

Community broadcasters have become a hub of production—it is not just radio; it is now multiplatform—providing facilities for training, networking, development and support. Community broadcasters would say that citizen journalism is not new—that, in fact, our sector has been doing it for the last 40 years.

In many ways, Indigenous community broadcasters lead the way in multiplatform content. They identify as cross-media organisations. CAAMA in Alice Springs are a great example of this, and we encourage the committee to have a look at CAAMA's operations, amongst others in the sector.

Digitisation is driving media and broadcasting reforms. Local is becoming more important. Radio broadcasting stands out with growing listenership. Regional communities will have a mix of technologies, but the principle remains the same: community radio is free to receive. It must be accessible and affordable on the available broadcast technologies, including to access spectrum and for listeners to receive.

The regional rollout of digital radio is critical to regional broadcasting. We recommend that the committee engage with the work of the Digital Radio Planning Committee for Regional Australia, chaired by the ACMA. The CBAA is represented on the planning committee. Digital rollouts have ensured access to core community radio services to date—radio reading services through the RPH network, ethnic and Indigenous broadcasting and faith-based broadcasters. In some cases, the metropolitan rollout has maintained or broadened the footprint for these services, giving better access to more people. It is a key consideration as to how this continues through the regional rollout as well. Without skirting around the issue, this will require some level of government funding. I would like to ask David Sice to talk further about community broadcasting and its move to digital.

Mr Sice : Thank you. Phillip referenced the role of satellite in distribution of and collaboration on content as being particularly important to regional broadcasting. That is absolutely true. I notice you have a presentation following this from Optus talking about the VAST system, so I will not dwell on the technology the community sector uses except for to say that it is the VAST system. That acts as a critical backstop for direct-to-home delivery of services where there is no terrestrial analog or digital community, commercial or national broadcaster available in the area. That is critically important. In the case of the community sector it is cost-effective. It is being used to distribute to the stations as well as direct to home, so there is a double benefit there. It includes specialist programs along the lines that Phillip has already outlined that are a feature of community broadcasting dealing with specialist audiences and areas of commercial market failure, if you like, including things like radio reading services, faith-based services, Indigenous services and so forth. It is free to receive on a direct-to-home basis, and that is a critical point; there is no cost for the user to receive the radio service.

That is not the end of radio delivery, of course. In regional areas as well as in the major metropolitan areas a significant amount of radio listening is not done in a fixed location. Something like 35 per cent is in a car in Australia, on average, with something like the balance of that being in a fixed location—either at work or at home. I think you probably have statistics on that already. Therefore, in a digital situation or delivery scenario there needs to be a free-to-air mechanism—something that is at no cost for users—to get radio services into the future on the move. Phillip mentioned the digital radio regional planning committee which the CBAA is sitting on, which being effectively chaired by the ACMA. It has membership of the CBAA, Commercial Radio Australia, SBS, ABC, the department, ACMA itself and the ACCC. It is currently looking at extending free-to-air digital radio to major populations centres—that is the next phase. Of course, it makes sense to implement a broadcast technology to deliver radio to a significant number of live, concurrent listeners. That is where the broadcast part of the equation makes sense technologically and economically. The community sector is very pleased to have reserve capacity on multiplexes, courtesy of current legislation. We would not want to see that changed. There will be some financial implications over the coming years as that rolls out, of course. With that reserve capacity, at least there is access to the multiplex.

That deals with regional metropolitan centres continuing to have increasing amounts of free-to-air radio services. Then there is the next layer out, where it gets more difficult to economically sustain free-to-air digital broadcast infrastructure. Maybe there is a multitechnology approach—strike the word 'maybe'. A multitechnology approach is the relevant way forward there, where you would look at mobile broadband services filling in gaps in the very sparsely populated areas. In areas where, in the early stages of digital broadcast rollout, it is not economic to bring it on early, you would rely on other technologies to support that. In the home you have the VAST solution to a fixed service, and in a mobile situation you have digital broadcast and mobile broadband options. Really, the user on their mobile, for instance, would not really care how it gets to a device. There are going to be devices launched fairly soon with mobile broadband and with the DAB chip set built in. So the live thing can get to the user either way; the user would not really know. Except for one thing: when it is delivered to you via mobile broadband there is a cost, so that is different to free-to-air. You might say, 'It's not a very big cost,' but it is quite excluding to some people to have to have that mobile data plan just to get their primary radio service.

I would suggest that the committee might like to consider the idea of introducing some form of legislative requirement, for a set of primary broadcast radio services, at least, that there be legislation put upon the telcos to deliver those services on a zero rated or unmetered basis. That would equalise the delivery of the primary set of radio services to all Australians. That is one plank that I think would be useful for the committee to consider. The other is in terms of continuing—I think Phillip mentioned this—at least the existing levels of funding to support inclusion of community broadcasters in the infrastructure that delivers free-to-air digital to users.

The third thing I would say would be to encourage and support the work of the Digital Radio Planning Committee for Regional Australia as it works through these complex issues to make sure that all Australians get a primary set of radio services on a free-to-air basis. I think, perhaps subsequent to this, we could make sure that all the committee members get a copy of the CBAA submission to that group, which predates the formation of the group but sets out pretty well the policy precepts and principles that I have been talking about here and articulates them in a little more detail. Thank you.

CHAIR: First of all, thank you very much for presenting to us. I am sorry if the words 'community radio' were not in the title of the inquiry. I know you do not want to be associated with public broadcasting per se but, as you are under the broadcasting act, maybe you are in there.

Mr Randall : Thank you.

CHAIR: But we would not like you to think for a minute that we do not value what you do. I think all of us are probably familiar with our own individual community stations and the reach that they can have and why people tune in—because they like the very local voices. You have mentioned the digital rollout. Is that essential for the continuance of community radio?

Mr Randall : We certainly believe it is. Certainly media has moved from an analog world to a digital world. Commercial radio, and certainly commercial television Australia wide, is now digital commercial radio in the major markets and is moving to so in regional areas. If community radio is left in the analogue space it will eventually mean that, at some stage into the future, we will be left behind in an analog ghetto, but it is also going to restrict the access of audience to our services. We are convinced that, in the same way that commercial radio was making the transition to a digital future in rural and regional areas, community broadcasting must as well.

CHAIR: I think it is going to be a long time before there is a cut-off, because we heard a stat this morning, and you used it yourself, that 35 per cent of people listen in cars. Of the 10 million cars driving around, half a million have digital radios, so I think it will be a long time before there is a cut-off date.

Mr Randall : One of the interesting things, though, that we are now finding is that people who are buying cars today are buying cars with digital radios and are tending to find that, rather than moving around between the AM, FM and digital bands, they will just stay on the digital band, because the AM and FM stations are, generally, simulcasting in digital. It seems to be a trend that people are quite comfortable just sitting in one band and not moving between. Our concern into the future would be that, if everyone is on digital except community broadcasting, people will not generally go to the FM band, where community broadcasting primarily is. They will stay within the digital band and they simply will not find their community broadcasting service.

CHAIR: I do not think we are about to disenfranchise 35 per cent of the listeners who are in the 10 million cars of which only half a million would be able to listen. I think it is a way off yet. But an important aspect of community broadcasting is, of course, the volunteers and the training of the volunteers. I certainly remember visiting CAAMA in Alice Springs and seeing what an important broadcaster it is. I remember them saying that it was CDMA that allowed them to actually supplement the costs of running that radio station. But, with the abolition of that, how are they going?

Mr Randall : I do not have any direct information on that. CAAMA is still a strong station, but funding is a challenge for the Indigenous sector generally. CAAMA would obviously adjust its cost base to fit within the resources that are available to it. The Indigenous sector is now quite resource poor and struggling to provide the services that it really does need to provide, particularly in the rural and regional areas of Australia.

CHAIR: Does that mean it has lessened its impact? I was very impressed with it when I went there.

Mr Randall : I do not believe it has lessened its impact; I think they are just doing more with less or doing the same amount, I should say, with less.

CHAIR: You say you are reaching—

Mr Randall : Around 5 million—

CHAIR: Five million people with 544 stations. Are those people just tuning in at some period during the week?

Mr Randall : Yes.

CHAIR: The part I really like is Australian music, supporting local artists and recording local artists and putting them to air. Could you expand on that for me?

Mr Randall : AMRAP—the Australian Music Radio Airplay Project, which has been a government funded project over many years and operates out of the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia—has a mandate to encourage the access to community broadcasting by Australian artists. That project has been very successful in ensuring that new artists' content gets delivered to community radio for airplay. Community broadcasting stations around Australia, though, take their responsibility of reflecting their local communities very seriously, and that is why some 39 per cent of the music that is played on community broadcasting, particularly in rural and remote areas, is local Australian content—and some of that is very local content. Thirty-nine per cent is far above what we are required to play; in the code of community broadcasting, stations are required to play 25 per cent of Australian music content. The sector goes far above that in rural and regional areas, as well as in capital cities. It is a part of ensuring that we have a diverse culture represented on our radio stations.

CHAIR: All of the music shows you mentioned are really country music. Do you broadcast other sorts of music as well?

Mr Randall : Yes, and in fact around the country community radio stations would play almost every genre of music that you could imagine. In the larger centres, capital cities in particular, there are dedicated fine-music stations and there are dedicated youth-music stations. In regional areas, you generally do not find the broadcasters dedicated to one form of music; they are in fact licensed as generalist stations; and their scheduled programs reflect that. On regional and rural stations you are going to find fine-music programs up against a country music program up against a thrash-metal program and everything in between. It is the eclectic nature of community broadcasting in the regional areas. So it is not just country music.

CHAIR: So the fine-music stations are very much part of the backbone of community radio?

Mr Randall : Yes.

CHAIR: Can you remember off the top of your head what sort of reach fine music is getting, perhaps in Sydney?

Mr Randall : I will defer to Joel.

Mr Pringle : We do not have that on hand, but I can get that for you.

CHAIR: Can you get the break-up of each of the fine-music stations?

Mr Pringle : It is difficult to break up by station, because of the way we do surveys, but we can certainly aggregate it.

Mr Randall : Fine music has been part of the landscape of community broadcasting from the very earliest days. 2MBS here in Sydney was one of the very first community broadcasters in the nation.

CHAIR: It is a very fine station.

Mr Randall : Yes.

Ms MARINO: We have heard a lot today about a change in the media landscape and a different provision of service, and that goes back to absolute local. We have seen a massive change in the print media and how people are accessing their information. Community radio is probably, from my experience, the most connected to its local community, and each of my small towns has a community radio that is very linked in to the community. You have seen our terms of reference and you have made comments relating to that. Given what this committee is considering, from your point of view, being so closely connected with rural, regional and remote communities, what would your recommendation be? I am a farmer from the south-west of Western Australia. Your sector is important to regional, remote and rural Australia for local stories and connectedness and, if you like, is the glue that helps to hold regional communities together. If there is a recommendation to come out of this committee, what would you like it to be? I am happy for you to take that on notice, as something for you to consider when you look at our terms of reference.

Mr Randall : Thank you; we would like to do that. I suppose, overwhelmingly, the challenge for community broadcasters in regional, rural and remote areas is funding for the basics of running a radio station. As we mentioned, many of these stations operate on less than $50,000 a year. They struggle to find the resources necessary to replace equipment as equipment fails and yet their sole purpose is to actually be a voice for their community. Ongoing government funding to assist these stations in replacing equipment, in providing for the basic infrastructure to run a community broadcaster, we believe it is essential. Particularly in this age of possibly changing media ownership rules, it is highly likely that community broadcasting will become even more important in telling local stories. If commercial operators decide to consolidate or amalgamate, it may well be that local voices in the commercial world will cease to exist in some markets and the responsibility of community radio will become even greater. Certainly resourcing community stations in these areas is a huge issue. The amount of money available through the community broadcasting program, outside of the first phase of digital, is less than $14 million, spread across 444 radio stations. Funding for regional and rural areas is a major issue.

Ms MARINO: Should there be anything else beyond that, I would also be interested in that. If you consider that there are other recommendations that you would want to make from your particular perspective, I think we would be interested in those as well.

Mr Randall : I suppose in tandem with that, and something that we will provide in more detail, is a review of the legislation and the codes under which community broadcasting operates to ensure that community broadcasting has the flexibility to be agile in a rather dynamic media landscape today.

Ms MARINO: Perhaps you could make some quite pointed remarks about exactly what they are.

Mr Randall : Now or later?

Ms MARINO: I am not sure of the timing at this moment.

CHAIR: Send them in, if you would not mind. That would be great.

Mr Pringle : Briefly, before we move on to that question, our submission to the budget process contained items that were priorities to our sector. I would recommend having a look at that. I can forward that on.

Ms MARINO: That would be useful.

Mr Pringle : We will also respond directly as well.

CHAIR: That will be most useful. Thank you very much for presenting today. If that information could be sent to the secretariat, that would be wonderful. You will be sent a copy of the transcript of your evidence, to which you may make corrections relating to grammar and facts. Thank you for being with us.