ABA Conference Day 2

The second day of the ABA’s Canberra conference dealt with further digital broadcast issues relevant to the radio industry.

In a panel session about turning off analog television services, moderator Michael Gordon-Smith made the point that the commercial television representative body, FACTS was not represented at the session. FACTS’ position is that it is far too early to discuss turning off any of the analog television transmissions because digital television is only beginning.

Other panel representatives were willing to discuss the topic and Gordon-Smith conducted an interesting, amusing and at times controversial ‘Hypothetical’ style session on the topic. Jock Given, Bob Peters and Clive Morton all explored the business models and the technical parameters concerned with turning off the analog TV spectrum.

From the radio point of view there were two interesting strands to the discussion:

First was the discussion on the BAND III spectrum (TV channels 9 & 10) which would be cleared and could be potentially available for Digital Radio broadcasts in addition to the preferred L BAND. An Austereo conference delegate raised the BAND III issue and told the forum that Austereo, and presumably other radio broadcasters, would be keen to have enough spectrum allocated so that each station could provide a full range of services available with DRB, rather than be limited to lesser bandwidth which could reduce the amount of services that could be provided.

The second issue concerned equity between the radio and television industries in the digital conversion process. The television industry was given free spectrum but was limited in the uses it could make of that spectrum – a solution which has caused some problems in the way TV sells the benefits of the new technology and has created political problems between various media interest groups. To be equitable with TV, Radio should, in theory, be given free spectrum to offset the costs of conversion, but if that were to happen the radio industry may also face restrictions like the TV industry has faced. The pros and cons of both positions were briefly discussed by the panel, who (like the government), believed that the process of digital radio conversion should not follow the same track as the TV process.

In an afternooon session, hosted by the soon to retire DOCITA staffer Ruth Ashe, Community Radio sector issues were discussed. Ruth Ashe was also saluted for her strong interest in the radio industry over many years and her particular understanding of the community radio sector. Ruth will be missed!

In the session Barry Melville outlined the brief and not-so-successful history of Community Television. Some of the problems with community TV centred around the inability of the stations to raise enough funds to cover costs. The most successful Community TV station is in Perth, while other stations, especially those in regional areas, have not been as successful. The other issue raised by Melville was the fact that there has been no formal ongoing permanent licences for Community TV. The licences have mostly been short term narrowcast licences and so have not guaranteed any long term viability for the sector.

The Community Radio sector on the other hand has been successful and expansionary. In his speech, CBAA president David Melzer outlined the successes and pointed to on-going issues facing Community Radio. The biggest problem is funding and Melzer detailed how the amount of public funding to the sector had been decreasing in real terms over the past ten years.

Melzer asked, “what is the public interest and how can we serve it?” He compared the community focused style of his sector with world-wide media conglomerates and said public broadcasting “needs policy support to serve the public interest in its unique style.” He urged the ABA to consider how stations can be self-sufficient when issuing licences.

He tabled financial data comparing each sector:

Stations Turnover Profit
Commercial Radio 230 $737m $146m
Community Radio 206 $ 32m nil
ABC 59 – –

Addressing the question “what is the public interest served by our shoestring sector?” Melzer listed industry training and community benefits as being some of the most important contributions of community radio. He reminded the government that, to be truly in touch with the local community, stations need a development package of assistance that will allow staff to keep in touch with their communities.

Melzer also demanded an equitable position in the new digital arena, estimating the cost of conversion to be about $20 million for the community sector. Two studies of the sector presented findings that studied the Australian Community Radio sector and also compared it with community radio in other countries. Melzer emphasised that in most countries there are various methods of cross-subsidy to fund community radio.

In the two studies, conducted by researchers from Griffith University and Queensland University of Technology, various facts about the Community Radio were presented:

60% of Australia’s community radio stations are in regional areas.
NSW has the most community stations (35.8%), followed by Victoria (23%), Queensland (16.7%), South Australia (8.1%), Western Australia (6.8%), then Tasmania, ACT and NT.
More than 60% of community radio formats are generalist, the rest are categorised as Ethnic, Indigenous, Religious, Print Handicapped, Fine Music and others.

There are 137 aspirants hoping for licences in addition to the 206 stations already licenced. An expected increase in sector size of 66% if all licences are granted.

There are 20,000 volunteers working in the community radio sector.
38% of community station managers are paid a wage, 52% are volunteers and 10% are paid as part timers. Their main tasks are focused on sales and admin, leaving programming and presenting mostly to volunteers.