Opinion from Brad Smart.
Can someone please tell me what the hell is going on?
Why is Triple M Brisbane being relayed into the Rolleston Mine in Central Queensland.
That mine is well inside the Central Highlands Licence Area Plan (LAP).
The story I’m about to tell you becomes more intriguing as we peel back the layers, so keep reading. I’m sure you’ll be as appalled as I am at what the regulator is letting happen to this industry.
It’s always been my understanding that the Broadcast Services Act licenses specific commercial radio stations to exclusively cover a particular LAP. In most regional areas, those stations are an AM and an FM station.
The revenue for commercial stations in many regional areas isn’t great.
Regional radio stations are just small businesses. Most turn over less than an average milk bar or newsagency, but are subject to tight legislation that requires them to jump through hoops on a daily basis just to stay on-air.
In the past, these stations have had to cough up big bucks for the right to cover their allocated service areas.
In the Queensland Central Highlands, the AM station is 4HI, owned by Resonate, and the FM, SCA’s HIT-FM station. Both are based in Emerald.
Bear with me a moment, as this is a bit technical, but the commercial radio coverage area is designated as RA1. You can see this plotted on some of those maps you can get from the CRA or ACMA websites.
Under the LAP, there’s also provision for community stations and narrowcast services. Some of these have been given their own RA designation, as they’re only entitled to cover a smaller part of the RA1 area.
Sure, we all know there are no hard borders for radio signals and often there’s some overspill. This is called fortuitous coverage, but it’s usually not excessive and rarely deliberate.
The Central Highlands is well known for its coal exports and is quite a good radio market.
Across the region, there are large alluvial coal mines, many of which are located quite a long way from broadcast sites.
The coal pits, in which mining crews work 24 hours a day, are so deep that down at the bottom, radios can’t reliably pick-up local signals without a booster.
Since the 1990s, mining companies have installed FM repeater services to boost the signals of local stations, so their crews can stay informed and entertained as they work.
In most rural radio markets, in-fill repeaters are licensed directly to the associated commercial radio station. Not so in the Central Highlands, where the mine licences have been issued to mining companies under the self-help provisions of the Broadcast Services Act.
Normally, these are referred to as ‘out of area’ self-help licences, but in the case of the Central Highlands, they lie clearly within the LAP boundaries.
Most self-help licences for radio are issued to town or shire councils in remote communities well outside any designated radio service areas. With these licences, councils can retransmit services like SBS, ABC and, in some cases, the nearest relevant regional commercial radio station.
The concept behind these rebroadcast licences is that residents who live sometimes hundreds of kilometres from the nearest major town, can be kept entertained and informed of the latest goings-on, and develop a sense of community with the rest of the region in which they live.
Self-help was always intended to give people access to relevant regional radio services, when they’d otherwise be deprived. The key word is ‘relevant.’
In recent times, with Fly In-Fly Out workers, the Central Highlands’ mine operators have been pressured by their city-based workforce to give them access at work to the radio stations they listen to at home.
Now, reading this in Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane, you’d probably say ‘well, that makes sense.’ However, when those self-help licences are located within a licence area that belongs exclusively to two local commercial services, and those stations have the exclusive right to commercially serve that area, then I believe, that’s another story entirely.
Rolleston Mine began by repeating 4HI at a time when the station was running a live midnight to dawn request program called ‘Miners Overnight.’
After 2011, its new owners Sydney’s Macquarie Radio began feeding large amounts of NSW talk programming into the station, so the mine owners applied to relay the music stations, HIT FM and later Triple J, on their mine sites.
I say ‘on their mine sites’ fairly loosely, because these are 1000-watt services that can be heard in communities for 50-100 kilometres in every direction. They’re full-blown installations.
4HI couldn’t argue with the HIT and Triple J requests, because both those stations were already properly licensed to cover the area.
However, recently, the mine has added Triple M Brisbane to the other three services.
As far as I am aware, the Rolleston Mine does not hold a commercial radio licence for Triple M. It only has a radio apparatus licence, allowing them to rebroadcast nominated services that are already licensed for the area.
Somehow, they’ve managed to slip their application through ACMA without any consultation with the local broadcasters.
An out-of-area service should never have been approved to broadcast in someone else’s patch.
Triple M Brisbane has no direct relevance whatsoever to the Rolleston area.
Unless I’ve been asleep at the wheel and missed it, Triple M’s commercial licence in Brisbane hasn’t been extended to allow them to cover the Central Highlands LAP.
While under a self-help licence, a third-party broadcast service may get the green light to operate outside another station’s LAP, but it’s a different matter inside a LAP.
With the introduction of Triple M Brisbane, I can only conclude that someone is operating a new commercial radio service in the Central Highlands, without obtaining a commercial radio licence for that area.
Last time I looked, the fine for that was $200,000.
Rebel FM, whose service area abuts the Central Highlands’ LAP, was asked to provide a signal to the Rolleston Mine, but turned down the offer on ethical grounds, acknowledging it wasn’t their licence area to broadcast in.
Now, I’m happy to give SCA the benefit of the doubt here and say they’re probably innocent too. In such a large organisation, someone has probably been asked if it was OK for the mine to use their signal and thought ‘Yeah, that’s fine,’ expecting the self-help licensee to know what was involved in retransmitting a commercial radio service.
It does, however, appear that ACMA has also signed off on the deal. This is extremely disappointing, but not inconsistent with their recent record of poor decision-making, that’s disadvantaged regional commercial broadcasters across a number of states.
To my way of thinking, ACMA’s bureaucrats are now playing fast and loose with the regulations, in whichever way suits them.
Taken on face value, if a Brisbane station has been given the nod to retransmit its signal in the Central Highlands licence area, then surely 4HI should be given quid pro quo and allowed to broadcast its signal across the Triple M licence area from Mt Cootha.
I can’t see this being an issue, as apparently, the regulations no longer matter to ACMA, but I suspect their decision-making is a one-way street.
If this rebroadcast process is now to become ACMA policy, it could open up a real can of worms.
Other metro stations may want to start broadcasting in areas they fancy too.
Perhaps a coal mine in the Hunter Valley or Gippsland may get a self-help licence and invite NOVA or KIIS or 3AW to begin coverage there, as an alternative to the incumbent stations.
If that starts to happen, Australia’s whole regulated broadcasting system may soon begin to unravel under this current ACMA regime. Is that what we really want as an industry?
You have to remember that these mines are not fiefdoms or separate countries; they’re not a law unto themselves.
As far as broadcasting goes, most of the Central Highlands’ mines lie within the designated RA1, and the local regional stations licensed to serve those areas not only deserve, but are entitled to protection from their industry regulator.
ACMA and those operating the self-help licences can’t be out there behaving like cowboys. This is amateur hour, and as the Chair of the regulatory authority presiding over these recent events, Nerida O’Loughlin is ultimately responsible for it.
I must say, I’m at a loss to understand why ACMA appears so intent to favor community stations and narrowcasters over commercial operators, when it’s the commercial stations that provide careers for the vast majority of radio professionals.
The Rolleston Mine is only the start.
Goonyella Mine, in the north of the service area, has bounced 4HI and now carries the Moranbah community rock station, Rock FM.
At Clermont, Rock FM’s repeater is in direct competition with local services for 4HI and HIT-FM, even though Rock is licensed to Moranbah. In other words, Rock-FM, a community station, is a growing empire, covering far more territory than it was originally intended to.
The granting of these types of self-help licences within a designated service area should not be allowed simply because some members of a community prefer a different form of programming.
Commercial stations provide broad-based programs and their rights should not be usurped because some people don’t happen to like what’s on offer.
It appears though that we now have a regulator that is prepared to bend the rules to put excessive competition in the way of legitimate commercial broadcasters.
All this pandering to different broadcasting sectors does, is to jeopardise the viability of incumbent regional commercial broadcasters and the employment of people who work in professional radio.
Seriously, if mine workers are so precious they can’t live with the local radio services in the areas they choose to work, then they can play their own music or stream it. There’s plenty of mobile data coverage in all these areas.
Amidst its politically-correct decision-making, ACMA should not forget that back in 2007, the-then coalition government forced onerous restrictions on regional broadcasting stations, like 4HI and HIT FM.
Those obligations still require 3 hours of local content each day (if the population exceeds 30,000) or 30 minutes in smaller markets, and 12.5 minutes of local news that’s of relevance to the licence area.
Local news is a huge and expensive imposition on any station, and is subject to audit by ACMA, as are the provisions of local programming.
If, as it seems, Triple M has been approved as a commercial service running in the Central Highlands licence area, then at minimum, it should be required to provide 12.5 minutes of local news each day and 3 hours of local programming.
The presence of Triple M or any other station being imported into a regional market, directly in competition with those stations licensed to cover that area, is an appalling precedent that must be revoked immediately, before opportunists are allowed to destroy regional broadcasting across the country. Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile!
With this unfortunate precedent already on the books, no licence area is safe from the many carpetbaggers, who prey on our industry.
In short, if ACMA is prepared to throw the floodgates open to all and sundry, for either political ideology or expedience, then it’s time for the industry to rebel.
The self-help process was never intended to give metropolitan commercial operators unfettered access to the bush.
This latest approval by ACMA is nothing more than sanctioned abuse.
Read our follow-up article, with a response from the ACMA here.
About the Author
Brad Smart previously owned and operated the Smart Radio Network through regional Queensland.
He sold his stations to the then Macquarie Radio Network.
He has been a journalist, broadcaster and film producer for over 30 years.
Brad’s articles and podcasts are also available through his website www.bradsmart.com.au