Jon Bisset

Community radio: media transition and reform

jbisset, 20th April 2016

Commercial media ownership legislation is currently before a Senate Committee for review and, at the end of April, the CBAA will present to the committee on the importance of community radio should proposed changes go ahead.

The CBAA recognises that technology is driving change in media business models and media consumption, and that ownership laws must respond. What we are passionate about, though, is Australian media that builds and reflects strong communities, an open society, a strong democracy and a vibrant and inclusive culture. In the face of current proposed reforms and digital transition, community radio is becoming increasingly important to achieve this.

If the proposed legislation is passed, the effect is likely to be further concentrated ownership amongst the largest media organisations. This may have significant implications for diversity, local news and information and local media production. What future role will public and commercial broadcasters play in sharing diverse views and locally-created content?

Community radio is local radio. We are in major metropolitan, suburban, regional and remote communities, and each station reflects its local community. We are diverse and we are everywhere. We know that local information and news shared by local voices and personalities are amongst the top reasons that people listen to community radio. Listeners also highly value its independence from commercial interests and its commitment to community participation and content diversity.

Listening habits of Australians indicate that radio is well suited to the way people consume media in their new digital lives, and that broadcasting is going from strength to strength in the digital world. We are mobile, and we multi-task, providing listeners with all manner of content in a given day. We also recognise audiences are seeking multiplatform experiences, so we’re learning to talk to our communities through mediums that complement broadcast media including online streaming, podcasts, catch-up listening and social media.

Broadcasting continues to grow in importance (radio broadcasting is almost alone in increasing its audience in the face of technological change). In fact, technological challenges continue to reinforce the importance of broadcasting. For example, there are no congestion issues when a high volume of listeners listen to broadcast radio. This is a major challenge for online streaming of audio - if you’ve ever tried to make a phone call from the fireworks on New Years Eve, you’ll understand what it would be like listening to streaming audio on your peak hour drive to work each morning.

Radio broadcasting also continues to be free to receive. It requires no data plan or subscription. While a new radio is accessible to most, other technologies can be barely affordable on the average income. This access defines community radio - access for the audience to free content that they can’t access from commercial or national media.

Technological change isn’t going to stop and where it will head isn’t certain. What is certain is that in an increasingly global world, audiences are increasingly seeking authentic local voices and local content and media that strengthens communities. This reflects the sublime tension in our age; think global and act local.  

To fulfil community radio’s unique role in the media landscape the CBAA is working alongside our members to ensure that we are available to listeners wherever and however they choose to tune in. This includes all current media platforms and emerging technologies.

If we want Australian media that builds and reflects strong communities, that builds and reflects an open society, a strong democracy and a vibrant culture, the role of community radio must be acknowledged and supported in the media reform agenda.

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As part of negotiations to pass the Government's proposed media reforms in the Senate yesterday, additional support will be provided to the community broadcasting sector.


This paper examines the changing contribution of local radio to the democratic process in Australia. It takes the whole local area approach suggested by the Broadcasting Services Act 1992, to examine all the services available in three regional areas to assess their potential in facilitating public sphere discussion, disputation and deliberation, and (since the common assumption is that deregulation severely curtailed these processes) it does this in a historical frame, comparing the changes in services from 1976 to 2001. Because of its strengths in the analysis of relationships between the state (public) and private sectors, Habermas’s public sphere theory is used to frame this discussion. Recent theoretical extensions have also seen the welcome elaboration of issues of power (Fraser, 1992, 2000) and the inclusion of a new and subtle range of cultural issues (Peters, 1993; McGuigan, 1997, 2004; Keane, 1998) inside its developing literature.


In 2004 the first, national, statistically robust, quantitative assessment of the Australian community broadcasting sector’s audience reach was undertaken. Conducted by McNair Ingenuity, this research provided a major breakthrough in the wider shift to a more audience-centred approach to managing the sector. The findings, significance and implications of this research are considered here. Following recent developments in critical cultural policy studies, this paper locates this renewed concern for community broadcasting audiences within a ‘larger cycle of decision-making’ (O’Regan, Balnaves and Sternberg 2002: 2). The particular influence of developments such as the emerging spectrum market and the imminent transition to digital transmission systems is discussed. These developments are important to understanding why community broadcasting resistance to market-based conceptions of audience is being overcome, and how audience-centredness might be used to facilitate the continuing development of this ‘third’ sector of Australian broadcasting.