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Thursday, 23 October 2008
Page: 74

Mr NEVILLE (10:09 AM) —The Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Digital Radio) Bill 2008 is supported by the coalition. I do, however, have a few reservations and criticisms of the bill. The amendment contains support for the introduction of digital radio transmission in Australia, a topic of great interest to me and one I have followed for a long time. I would like to talk a little bit about the introduction of digital radio services and what that might mean to regional areas—a topic I have been fortunate to investigate in a previous parliament. In September 2001 I handed down the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Communications, Transport and the Arts report called Local voices: inquiry into regional radio. The report contained our findings from an inquiry into regional radio throughout Australia. That covered both analog and digital transmission. Chapter 5 detailed the opportunities and challenges which lay ahead with the introduction of digital radio to Australia. Even though the inquiry focused on radio services in regional areas broadly, it was well recognised that the introduction of digital broadcasting was logical and, indeed, the next step for Australia’s radio sector.

Some of the opportunities, particularly for regional areas, included an increased number of services and improved diversity of programming as well as digitally generated text services within the radio set. I do not know if it is generally recognised that a digital radio has a little screen on it that digital services can be transmitted to. You might be listening to ABC Classic FM or 4MBS Classic FM in the community network and the piece of music that is being played and the name of the conductor will come up on the screen. It can have lots of other uses, such as for weather reports, stock reports and so on. It is a very interesting medium. Digital radio also has a higher quality sound than AM or FM transmission. It has the added benefit of being able to compress the signal and send down the wire—so to speak—and then split it out again in your radio set. So you can fit a lot more into the spectrum than you can in either AM or FM.

Broadcasters will be able to expand the content they offer to listeners and cater to niche audiences throughout the nation. For example, our national broadcaster submitted at the time of that inquiry that flexibility of the digital spectrum meant it would be able to channel-split—that is, effectively broadcast a number of different programs from the one frequency. It could air different livestock or weather reports for specific communities within its broadcast footprint. As a fierce advocate of diversity of content—and this is a potential feature of digital radio—I find this aspect quite appealing, particularly in a media climate where there seems to be a contraction of new, fresh and local program content. You all in this parliament know me. I have been quite a critic of the way regional radio has been dumbed down over the last decade. Digital radio gives us an opportunity to revitalise regional radio. I believe people living in regional and rural areas are hungry for live and local content, and it is something that has been reiterated by me from time to time—both in my parliamentary and coalition policy committees.

In my home town of Bundaberg, we are fortunate to have a number of community radio broadcasters, which have done a great job in sourcing and broadcasting local and niche material. Doing so has made these broadcasters an integral part of the community. They reflect local views and allow the wider community to have a conversation with itself on a daily basis. I am not just referring to talkback shows and interviews with local leaders and whatever. I mean that it has the capacity to transmit the sort of music that people want. The sort of music that people on the Gold Coast and the Sunshine Coast might want—and this is recognised by the ABC, who have a separate transmission subunit for those two areas and down into northern New South Wales—might be quite different from the type of music people in perhaps Townsville, Tamworth or Roma might want. Again, digital radio—whether it is in the community or in the commercial field—gives a chance for greater diversity and selection.

In the Local voices report that I referred to we also recognised that a number of issues need to be resolved before digital radio is introduced to Australia. We said it was crucial to have regional areas well placed to receive these services. It seems to me—and I am not being unduly critical of ACMA or the department—that a lot of the time we stumble around trying to get the capital city programs going, whether it was colour television or digital television, and then say, ‘We’ll try to catch that up three or four years down the track.’ I suppose there is a good side to that as well in that it allows country stations and particularly community radio stations, which have a lot more challenges, to get ready for the expense involved in introducing it.

This bill amends the start-up date to 1 July 2009—in other words, to the middle of next year. Apparently, this extension has been brought about because of difficulties the broadcasters have been having with access and with certain digital transmission equipment. If this is the case then I support the measure strongly because it is more important to get the switch-over right than to expect broadcasters to meet a schedule that is clearly impossible.

I also note that the bill makes provision for Hobart to be classified as a regional radio market for the purpose of the introduction of digital transmission. I support that as well. Tasmania has a population of only about half a million. It is a big expense. The functionality in Tasmania will be similar to a region—perhaps it will be a bit bigger than an individual region. Nevertheless, the Hobart commercial radio community have asked for this amendment. I think it is reasonable. They do not anticipate that they could meet the deadline, so I think it is fair enough to cut a bit of slack in their case.

The final measure contained in the bill relates to the community radio sector and gives it the wherewithal to share in the ownership of digital transmission in the form of the infrastructure that is available via joint venture companies. The earlier explanation we used for digital radio was that it had pipes and that you could send five or six signals down the one pipe. If you are sending that into a country area, who is going to manage it? Who is going to split it up and say who does this and who does that? The previous government and the current government believed that this should be done by joint venture companies—in other words, the various commercial players should come together and make provision for the community broadcasters to participate.

This is where I am going to be critical. The current government made no provision for that in this year’s budget, so the commercial guys know that it has to be introduced soon, particularly in capital cities, and that they have to go ahead and get the joint venture companies together. The vast majority of community stations, not having the financial capacity to join them, have to stay out of the mix for the time being. They just cannot afford to be in it. So you have the commercial guys being forced to go ahead and the bill making several provisions for the community broadcasters to come into the system down the track. That is annoying for the commercial broadcasters who have gone to all this trouble to set up their mechanisms. They will have to all of a sudden restructure their companies.

The bill is quite specific. It says that they cannot overcharge for their shares, they have to ensure that the price does not exceed the amount worked out under a prescribed formula; they have to, within 30 days of receiving a request from a community station, invite them to join; and they have to keep the offer open for 120 days. It says in another part of the bill that the community broadcasters have to get a minimum of two-ninths of the shares—and I am not quite sure how that works where you have a series of community stations.

There are a lot of complications to be worked through and if the money had been upfront, allowing the community broadcasters to be able to participate fully from day one, we would have had a much smoother and much more certain system. There would have been certainty out there about what the face of digital radio would have looked like, first in the capital cities and then in regional areas. It would have been quite clear. No matter how hard ACMA and the department work on this, until the government open up the purse strings it is going to be a bit of a dog’s breakfast. The first 12 months will be a period of uncertainty rather than certainty.

Section 5.38 of the Local voices report talked about the estimated cost of establishing digital radio transmission in Australia. We took evidence from the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia and they put the conversion at that time—bear in mind that this is some years back—at between $75,000 and $150,000 per station depending on location, size of station and service area. I suppose those figures would have gone up in the normal course of inflation and perhaps some of the equipment has become a bit cheaper over time as well, so I do not know where the balance is now, but you can see that the average community station has no chance. There might be one or two around that can do it but the majority have no chance of coming up with that sort of amount. They are clearly going to have to be subsidised. Clearly, a lot of the infrastructure costs associated with this would not be affordable for most community stations around the country. In fact, a direct quote from the committee’s 2001 report is:

Given the financial circumstances of many regional community stations, it is difficult to imagine them being able to embrace digital radio unless assistance is provided by the Government.

Governments were warned, the coalition was warned and the Labor Party was warned that far back. It is no good them saying, ‘We didn’t realise the difficulty.’ Of course they realised the difficulties. The government’s failure to provide funding to broadcasters, as I said before, has left the community radio sector with nowhere to go in terms of switching on to digital—no funds to purchase their hardware or infrastructure, as I also said, and no ability to access infrastructure. They are in a pretty parlous state.

The fact that the government did not provide the necessary funding assistance makes the option of acquiring a share of joint venture ownership also difficult and it is very important that they have that particular connection. As I said, there would be levels of resentment because they cannot participate fully from the beginning and that will be an inconvenience to the commercial broadcasters. The committee’s report also stated:

The costs associated with introducing digital radio for broadcasters are significant although it may be possible to achieve some economies through the sharing of infrastructure.

Again, until you give the stations an opportunity to know what they are going to get, how can they even talk about joint ventures either as community broadcasters or more widely with their commercial colleagues?

We did make provision for this in our last budget as the coalition government. We provided $2.7 million over three years for ACMA to undertake planning and licensing activities so our national and community broadcasters could make a start on digital. The government has made, I think, about $11 million available next year but, as I pointed out, that hiatus is going to be a bit of a dog’s breakfast until we give the community operators a chance to know what sort of support will be available from the government.

I am a very strong supporter of radio services. I think the fourth estate in its various manifestations is an essential plank of a vibrant democracy. I rail against things like excessive networking and the combining of news services, which rob regional areas of local voices—in fact, that is why we called the report Local voices. Digital radio gives us another opportunity to enliven, enhance and create a new platform for people not just in the cities but in country areas to improve, as I said, with agricultural or Country Hour type broadcasting on the radio, a number of services that a farmer might have in his tractor or down on the workbench in his shed, places where he might not otherwise be able to have, say, a television set. This is a very good medium, and it is very important that it gets out to people in a vibrant and usable form.

There has been a hiatus during the last 12 months with the community stations, who play an important part in some areas. Recently I was in Dubbo on an inquiry into Regional Partnerships, and in the course of that we had discussions with the community station 2WEB. It really has picked up a big part of the broadcast responsibility in that area and, I might say, has attracted the ire of some of the commercial broadcasters.  I was enormously impressed with that station in particular. There are others too. Stations 2MBS, 3MBS and 4MBS are great services being offered by community stations and they will be able to offer an even better service under digital broadcasting, especially if they are given the opportunity. Perhaps these stations should be given an even higher level of subsidy. They are community stations that operate on a similar basis to the ABC’s FM network. They provide a community classical music network. Some would say they are not quite as esoteric as the ABC. There is a more popular classics twist to what they do, and I find a lot of people listen to that. I know people leave radios on overnight and want soothing music to listen to on 2MBS, 3MBS and 4MBS. I appeal to the government to look, when they are doing this subsidisation of community stations—and I trust they will—to those stations that provide specialist service in quality broadcasting to see that they get some assistance as well.

Finally, I support the bill—but with those reservations and with that request for early subsidy to the community stations.