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Wednesday, 22 October 2008
Page: 10088

Mr SIMPKINS (7:22 PM) —I greatly welcome the opportunity to make a contribution on the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Digital Radio) Bill 2008. Let me say at the outset that the move to digital is something I wholeheartedly support. The coalition, after all, provided the initiative for the policy and the legislation required to support it. I will, however, generally confine my comments to the effect that the government’s decisions have had on the community radio stations that broadcast in Cowan. The stations I will refer to are 98.5 Sonshine FM and 89.7 Twin Cities FM. Sonshine is the Christian station and Twin Cities broadcasts across the outer north of Perth, with the twin cities being the local governments of Joondalup and Wanneroo.

A place for community radio stations was enshrined in the original coalition legislation. The plan was for the community radio industry to participate in owning the transmission infrastructure. The plan was for the community sector to participate in the joint venture companies responsible for managing transmissions. Unfortunately the community radio stations and the industry were unable to buy into these joint ventures using the money forecast in the last coalition budget. I remind the House that $10.1 million was forecast over four years by the then minister, Senator Coonan. The reason why they could not use the money is that the Rudd government in the 2008 budget took it away—or at least deferred it. I acknowledge that resources from the 2009-10 financial year have been set aside, and I hope that changes to the economic outlook will not result in community radio being left outside the digital tent for another year or more. There is very clearly a need for the Rudd government to assist the community radio sector into digital transmissions in the way the former coalition government provided for. It is my belief that community radio will only be able to enter the digital arena with federal support and will not be able to raise the money required to join in.

The third measure of this bill provides for the community broadcasting sector to still participate in the ownership of the transmission infrastructure. But, as I have already said, the government needs to show up with the entry fee or community radio will not be allowed into the digital club. That brings me to two of the local community radio stations covering the suburbs of Cowan. Firstly, I will mention Twin Cities FM. I recently met with the station manager, Sandra Lubke; Michael Henderson, the chair; Allison Gentry, from the board; and Colin Radalj, board member and sponsorship manager. Twin Cities FM is a submetropolitan station serving the general geographical area of Wanneroo, or 240,000-plus people. That population will grow considerably over the next 20 years.

Twin Cities FM just do not know how digital broadcasting will impact on their licence, because their understanding is that digital radio sends a signal to cover the whole metropolitan region, rather than just a portion in the north, south or east, as FM transmitters do. Their fear is that, if all current Perth commercial, community and public radio services are squeezed into one or two multiplexes, a severe shortage of funding from sponsors or advertisers will result, as technically everyone covers the same area, just with a different rate card. An increase of higher quality programs may result, competing for the listener ratings and the dollar; but that would then decrease localised services, as smaller players without all the business contacts upfront will end up falling behind.

However, if selected commercial, public and metro-wide community stations gain access to the digital spectrum, and there is no clear plan or desire to facilitate the submetro stations, their role and future in their respective communities are severely under threat. At the end of the day, it does not matter what band they can broadcast in; if their broadcasting licence changes to something they cannot provide or becomes defunct, they will cease to exist. In fact, Twin Cities believes that it would take as much as five years for a community radio station to raise the funds to enter the digital spectrum. This bears out my previous points about the need for government to support community radio.

It is very clear that, down at the front line of community radio stations, there is great concern about the future—concern about financial support, access to the spectrum, availability of digital radio receivers et cetera. Overall, it says something about the need for additional information out there in the community radio industry. I can say that Twin Cities FM will welcome the opportunity to enter the digital spectrum, but they must have the opportunity to do so. I congratulate Sandra Lubke and her team at Twin Cities for all the good work they do.

I now will also briefly mention 98.5 Sonshine FM. Sonshine FM broadcasts across Perth and is run by general manager Barry Grosser. The motto of Sonshine FM is ‘No greed, no ridicule, no hurt’, and I congratulate them on the positive values they promote. I would also mention that their music is contemporary and appealing, yet, as their motto implies, none of the songs are nasty or negative. Sonshine FM have existed as a Christian radio station for 20 years, and on 3 November they will be moving to new premises in Como, on land provided by the South Perth Church of Christ. The building that has been built on the site was only achieved after a significant and protracted fundraising effort. I thank the people of Perth for their donations and the South Perth Church of Christ for partnering the station with the land.

But returning to the bill: 98.5 Sonshine FM just want to have clarity as to where they stand. Does the government guarantee that the money will be available to support entry? If the government is not prepared to put the money in, then they will wait for 2013 and the second round that is talked about. I would again just like to note my appreciation of the great and positive work 98.5 Sonshine FM do, including leading the way in Perth on Operation Christmas Child, where shoeboxes of toys are donated by families and sent overseas to needy children in the Third World. To those team members of Sonshine FM that I have met—general manager Barry Grosser and announcers Rodney Olson and John Donoghue: well done, and keep up the good work.

I want to conclude by reiterating that I look forward, as do the community radio stations, to their being able to fully participate in the digital radio future. Unfortunately, the government’s lack of commitment to guaranteeing community radio’s digital future is creating doubt and confusion. What the government has not done is ensure any level of confidence that the government truly understands the community radio sector. It is pretty simple. I ask the minister to categorically commit to community radio’s digital future and provide the necessary resources to ensure community radio can participate in that future. Create certainty, create confidence—that is what we want.

Debate (on motion by Mr Raguse) adjourned.