By Christopher Testa
It was about a week before my 18th birthday that I found myself behind the microphone, hosting a live radio broadcast for the first time.
I’d had zero radio training bar a 15-minute crash course on how to use the panel; it turned out to be just enough to ensure the show went to air without any major debacles or prolonged dead silence.
Sure, there was the time I accidentally left the microphone on when I shouldn’t have but plunging into the deep end was the best way to learn.
Fast forward a few years to today and I am involved in hosting and presenting programs at two different community radio stations in Adelaide and am about to join the news team at a third.
I work on programs in two different languages, have interviewed former Olympic silver medallists, members of Federal Parliament, Indigenous people from remote Central Australia and people with interesting stories from far-flung lands like Colombia and Samoa.
Without local community radio, such a whirlwind start to my time as a journalist would never have been possible.
Only in very rare cases will a kid will be given a go by the local paper and TV is practically off limits but community radio is there for us all.
In fact, almost everything I have learnt as a journalist comes from my time working in community radio.
More than that too, becoming involved in community radio is like playing for a sporting club; you become part of a big family.
However, the community radio sector is struggling and this is a serious concern.
A $1.4 million shortfall in Federal Government funding means community radio stations in mainland capitals will be unable to proceed with setting up infrastructure to broadcast on the digital spectrum.
The funding shortfall affects 37 metropolitan community radio stations in Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth.
The money was previously committed by the government and so, in many cases, community radio stations are contractually obliged to continue going digital and making sure they are equipped to launch digital broadcasts.
The Community Broadcasting Association of Australia (CBAA) has launched a campaign calling on community radio volunteers and listeners to show their support for the reinstatement of government funding. The campaign website is accessible here.
Some critics may argue community radio is a frivolous way to spend government money and upgrading infrastructure to prepare for the age of digital radio is a mere luxury in the current economic climate.
It is vital to understand why Australian broadcasting must go digital and why community radio is a required component of our media landscape.
Digital radio is the future; the limited space on the spectrum of analogue radio means that a switch to digital is inevitable.
The ability to offer digital services will allow Australian broadcasters space for more content, a greater diversity in programming and, yes, higher quality audio.
Naturally, more broadcasting opportunities will benefit all Australians and not just young journalists like me either.
Australian artists aspiring to be the next big thing in music will benefit from increased air time and smaller communities may find themselves with greater access to the airwaves which they didn’t previously have.
Without community radio, these smaller interest groups may not have any media access at all, or at least a very limited reach.
Across Australia’s community stations can be heard the voices of small migrant and Indigenous communities, alternative political groups, religious minorities and, of course, youth.
The commercial media may be far more powerful when it comes to making money but the presence of community radio by its side is necessary to hold it to account by providing alternative content.
Anything which limits our media diversity is a bad thing for the Australian people and a bad thing for our democracy.
For many community stations, an alternative to digital broadcasting is to continue down the path of online streaming; however this is not a solution to the problem.
Online radio streaming is important to radio stations, particularly as it enables listeners from outside the broadcast area to tune in.
But online streaming uses bandwidth, which is limited and can be expensive, meaning it is essentially limited to its use as a complimentary simulcast.
While the current community radio campaign is still strictly an metro issue, the internet’s big black hole in this country covers large swathes of rural Australia.
Going forward, there is still significant improvement to be made to Australia’s internet connectivity and accessibility before we begin to consider it as an alternative to broadcasting.
Now community radio stations across Australia’s five largest cities are making their collective voices heard.
A recent report by Crikey’s Ben Eltham says the CBAA has been unable to meet with Communications Minister Stephen Conroy for over two years.
With a particular dose of irony given the title of Senator Conroy’s portfolio, it is of serious concern that this access to the government representatives is so difficult.
Speaking personally, I too am investigating the story for a community radio current affairs program and, so far, calls and texts to Senator Conroy’s media adviser have not been met with any response.
The Government has, in the past, said it has contributed substantial funding to the digital projects of community radio stations but ultimately funding must be drawn from subscribers and other community revenue.
Of course, community radio stations are not-for-profit organisations and sponsored messages are capped at five minutes per hour of programming.
Community radio subscribers are firmly getting behind their favourite radio stations with well over 6000 already signing the CBAA’s campaign pledge and now government representatives in Canberra should really answer the community’s questions.
So Senator Conroy, if you’re reading; please pick up the phone and let’s have a chat.