Radio conference – new Communications Minister in political panel session

In the Political Panel Session at this year’s Commercial Radio Conference, the newly appointed Communications Minister Daryl Williams spoke by satellite from Perth and took questions from the audience.

Also on the panel, which was moderated by 2GB’s Philip Clarke, were Shadow Communications Minister Lindsay Tanner and Democrat Communications Spokesperson John Cherry.

After only a few days in the communications portfolio, Williams said he is “in listening mode,” so he confined his comments to a range of set topics currently being handled in his portfolio. There were very few surprises in his remarks.

On the topic of the new Media Bill, he said the government is “committed to the changes outlined in the bill,” but that getting it through the Senate “is a complex matter.”

Speaking on topics of specific interest to the radio industry he said:

“The simplicity and immediacy of radio keeps it relevant… new technological challenges can’t kill it.”

“Radio accompanies us through life, rather than diverting us from life, as tv does.”

“Digital radio can learn lessons from the introduction of digital tv.”

“Neither government or the industry is prepared to commit to a [digital radio] technology yet.”

Lindsay Tanner began by saying he thought there is “not much wrong with the commercial radio sector in broad terms,” and said that the opposition generally “supports the government’s and the department’s approach.”

He made the point that there is an area of significant disagreement, the Cross Media Laws being proposed in the new Media Bill, but that this is “a bigger issue” than just radio.

He spoke about the proposed merger between the ABA and ACA, saying the opposition is “agnostic” on this issue. He did observe though, that “reshuffling bureaucracy is often a substitute for lack of policy.”

Tanner also believes “there is a strong case for reserving spectrum for radio.”

He commented that his advisor, while in Canberra, listens to Nova 100 on the internet stream, saying that legislation will have to “evolve” to keep up with this “new world.” On digital radio he says there is “no cause to hurry” and Australia should learn lessons from overseas before moving too quickly towards digital radio.

The opposition’s position on cross media laws is guided by “a commitment to diversity of opinion and diversity of ownership.”

Tanner also acknowledged the “enormously important role” played by talk radio in shaping public opinion and commented on the issue of advertising on the ABC:

“[Ads on the ABC] should be of concern to commercial radio – if the ABC were to accept commercials, that would be a direct threat to you… I believe that if the Howard Government is re-elected advertising on the ABC could be on the agenda, because they hate the ABC… Commercial Radio’s interests could get trampled in the rush to bash the ABC.”

Democrat Senator John Cherry agreed with Tanner that “a lot is not controversial,” saying that Commercial Radio Australia is a very effective lobby group for the commercial sector.

He said metro market radio expansion “has been a great success,” but that in regional markets there are some concerns.

“One of the concerns is a decline in locally produced programming and news… A recent ABA report shows a strong demand for local news – this is an audience demand and a public requirement… Diversity of opinion is important.”

In the question time The Australian’s Jane Schultz asked about the controversy around Broadcast Australia’s request to conduct a digital radio trial in Melbourne. In response Daryl Williams said: “From the government perspective we have to facilitate the trials, but no one organization should gain commercial advantage from the trials.

DMG’s Paul Thompson asked about section 40 and narrowcast licences that may become commercial “by the back door.”

Responding to this Williams said: “I am in listening mode at the moment” and did not give a great deal of detail, beyond what is current policy – that there will be no new Section 40 licences, but existing licences will be grandfathered.

Tanner said: “I do see the commercial radio sector’s concern… It is important to maintain the integrity of commercial radio, and it could be detrimental to the values of community radio and… not in that sector’s interest either.”

Cherry stated that the Democrats’ view is that “community radio needs to be on a better financial footing” through more government grants.

Other sessions at the conference included a regulatory session, mostly focusing on the proposed merger of the ABA and ACA, and a creative session showcasing the successful US radio advertising campaign for Bud Light beer.