Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 6, No. 1, 1992
Radio - Sound
Edited by Niall Lucy

Public radio:
the promise and the performance

Irma Whitford

1991 may well be remembered as a year of changes within the media l scene in Australia, with the prospect of a new Australian Broadcasting Authority, pay TV, advertisements to go on public radio and a new television channel for educational and public television at the same time as funding is reduced all round so that everyone involved is trying to do more with less. The enthusiasm with which educational institutions embraced public radio in the early '70s has gone from within those institutions as funding shrinks; and yet, despite a more difficult financial climate, this sector of broadcasting continues to grow from 12 in 1974 to 107 in 1991, with 60 aspirant groups waiting for licences.

Public radio was set up in 1974 as an alternative to the national and commercial sectors. It aimed to give access to the airwaves to those who would otherwise not have an opportunity to voice their views through the media. Within that broad aim, stations made a range of "promises of performance" to provide programming which, it was expected, would complement Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and commercial offerings. The ABC was to provide a national service; the commercials a popular service driven by the need to maximise audience share; and the public sector a local service, an alternative voice which was not driven by that need to maximise audience in order to sell to advertisers. Rather, the aim was to provide for the interests of particular sections of the audience. This kind of definition of public radio with reference to the other sectors does not deny the distinctive public radio role of being 'the people's medium' to which Michael Law, ex-Executive Director of the Public Broadcasting Association of Australia (PBAA), lays claim (33).

Now, more than a decade and a half on, it is interesting to make some assessment of how well public radio has achieved these early aims, how the sector has changed and what has been achieved since the heady days of the seventies.

Most public radio stations began broadcasting with enthusiastic, idealistic volunteers and few paid staff. Within educational institutions, stations had a core of paid staff and began building the mix of paid staff and volunteers which has only come under threat in recent years due to financial pressure. In 1986 the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal report on the financial status of public broadcasting noted that the level of funding for public broadcasting was A$9.53 million and the expenditure of the sector was A$10.17 million. Looking back, 1986 seems to have been a turning when those figures should have led to belt tightening and re-structuring but instead led to attempts to become bigger and trade out of the deficit. Subsequent events have shown that the optimism of 1986 was quite misplaced.

Financing public radio has been a constant problem, almost a dominating problem, even for those stations within institutions. It has been a problem which has distracted personnel from issues of programming and taken a great deal of energy from everyone involved in public radio. While some stations gave access to groups for a fee, most earned income from subscribers and sponsorship announcements and some had income in the form of grants from the institutions which housed them. There has been constant discussion about the exact definition of a sponsorship announcement and constant concern about breaching the regulations. There has also been concern about how many sponsorship announcements a station can have without becoming excessively "commercial". The low fee charged for sponsorship announcements has also meant that it is unrealistic to see this a sole means of support. It would be extremely difficult for a station to exist on sponsorship income, particularly if, as Woods and Anderson found in 1986, 50% of that income is offset by the costs of generating it (iii). It is hoped that the new facility to have four minutes of commercial sponsorship per hour will improve income from this source because at least spots become more saleable as they can clearly advertise (the PBAA first proposed 4 minutes per hour in 1981).

The recent downturn in the economy has immediately been reflected in a fall of sponsorship income, demonstrating the fragile nature of this source of funds. Commercial stations felt a similar impact on advertising revenue. There has been little consideration of how many stations the community can support; in fact, there seems to be a notion that the only limiting factor is the number of stations that can be fitted on the Amplitude Modulation and Frequency Modulation bands. For the commercials, economic factors are the accepted functioning constraint, but the reality is that these also limit public broadcasters. The cost is less, but for all stations there is a minimum functioning cost (probably a minimum of around A5100,000-150,000). A consideration must also be that as the numbers of stations grow, the community of supporters is split among that number, although each special case, e.g. ethnic or print handicapped, has its special affiliates But the community of people oriented willing to volunteer to work for radio is limited. Inevitably, the financial resources and people resources have to be shared around. Yet the Government recently announced a decision to allow 25 new public radio licences (Beazley).

There is a limit to the sponsorship/advertising dollar and audience, numbers are a factor in capturing it. Unattractive though it may be to public broadcasting, sponsors want to back what are seen as "popular" programs. As fast as these are identified, the idea can be stolen or copied by the other sectors, and so the three sectors come to approach each other in programming. Experimentation, already very limited, becomes less likely and there is of course also the other danger that public broadcasters will change their programming in order to attract the advertising dollar, which would nullify the public broadcaster's role. There will be a pressure to be popular, a shift away from the audience to the advertiser to build audience numbers in order to sell to advertisers. Specialist programs which target small audiences may be lost. There is also the philosophical dilemma of promoting a consumer culture.

An interesting exception to program similarities is talkback radio, which both the commercials and the ABC regard as involving them with the community or causing them to relate to their community of listeners. It is seen as a source of feedback. However academics such as Higgins and Moss see talkback more as a device for manipulation of the audience than as participation. Public radio to date has not ventured into this kind of programming and would need to consider the cultural impact, how well it fits the public broadcasting brief, and the organisational structure required to do this kind of broadcast.

As stations become established, presenters become more polished and professional in their delivery. Stations tend to become more settled in their program agenda. This agenda significantly indicates the interests of the most active volunteers, not necessarily those of the community they are set up to service. This agenda tends to "age" with those volunteers dedicated to their program over the years. For example, a prime time program for the youth audience set up in 1974 and run with little change over fifteen years is hardly likely, by then, to have a youth audience - more likely to have a middle-aged one. Other factors impinge; e.g. the advent of JJJ on the market has probably drained that particular audience. Public radio is poorly equipped, by virtue of its organisation, to handle these changes decisively and well. Each program is usually run by a collective, which is most unlikely to declare itself or its program defunct. Because there is no constant monitoring of audience numbers (for cost reasons) there is no real indicator of success or failure in audience terms. This lack of monitoring also produces a gulf between public radio and its audience which highlights difficulties in tapping into audience needs. The lack of knowledge about how well public radio serves the community it is set up to serve has been a constant difficulty. It is far too expensive within the public radio budget to monitor audiences, so stations continue to second guess or work on blindly. In the rare instance that a survey is done e.g. the recent (1991) Public Broadcasting Foundation (PBF) one, real joy is finding that in Perth, about one quarter of the audience listen to public radio and a fraction of that goes to each public radio station. Less positive are other surveys; e.g. Reark Research indicated that after years of public radio, a large percentage of the population in Perth hadn't heard of it and didn't know what it was. A Roy Morgan Nationwide Consumer Research survey in 1987 found that only 33% of people surveyed had heard of public radio. This is a serious problem which needs to be addressed by the PBAA because it is a national problem which impacts on all stations.

As presenters become more skilled and more professional, they gain confidence about their ability to broadcast and that they know what to broadcast. They come closer to the ABC and the commercials in working style. While this is beneficial to the individuals concerned, in that it often leads particular people to jobs in either of these sectors, what is lost is the grass roots context of what they produce. Stylistic concerns and the aim of achieving professional style become as much a concern as content. We hear less of the naive voices with a range of views. We hear less of the issues not covered by other sectors of the media; although the PBAA asserts in its 1991 Annual Report 'The public broadcasting sector, both radio and television differs in its character from the commercial and the national sectors in a number of ways, which is most clearly expressed in its programming formats' (2). It is crucial to the sector to maintain this difference because on the one hand there is the danger of becoming too commercial in order to gain advertising dollars and on the other the possibility of coming to sound very like Radio National as presenters aim for a more professional style.

Public radio stations provide training for their presenters and program producers. Overall the sector involves 300 paid staff and 25,000 volunteers (PBAA 2). While this training varies from one station to another, many of those trained in public broadcasting go on to obtain jobs in the other sectors; e.g. Bill Ryan reports in that between 1982 and 1986, 343 people trained in public broadcasting gained jobs in other sectors, 187 in commercial radio and 156 in the ABC (50). The reality is that public broadcasters provide a training ground for the commercials and the ABC and meet the costs of doing so. It would seem more reasonable for some of these costs to be met by part of the 1% levy other sectors set aside to provide for training. The PBAA could then tap these funds for public radio courses. The drift of the best presenters to paid employment leaves few properly trained staff to train others.

Financial constraints have made it difficult to renew equipment, and of course the original equipment with which many stations were set up is now 15 years old. Over those years of operation, equipment in most stations has aged and is in need of replacement. With the ABC and some commercials moving to digitised sound, it is clear that the public sector will be left using equipment of an older generation.

These issues all involve a balancing act - the wearying burden of financial survival; equipment which is becoming old and dated; the inability in each station to focus on their public in programming; the diffuse nature of management, which leads to a lack of responsiveness in programming decisions; the combination of professional/community voices in the sector; difficulties of relating to the community being served; and how to be an alternate to the commercial sector while earning income from advertising and unofficially training people for all radio stations along the way. These competing forces involve those working in the sector. A pre-occupation with survival limits long term planning and stations tend to get into a mode of crisis management.

Despite these problems, the very number of 107 stations within public broadcasting creates a considerable cumulative force in the Australian media scene. The PBAA has become an effective lobbying group, quietly but consistently lobbying to gain new stations. Against great odds, it has managed to create a space for public television and an acknowledgment that sponsorship should give way to advertisements on public radio.

In the programming sphere there is a large number of award-winning talks programs which are unfortunately only heard by a small audience, and an amazing array of specialist music programs, at which public radio excels. Public radio gives time to explore specialist music genres, and these are usually presented by knowledgeable enthusiasts. It also promotes Australian music and markets the music of new artists. These programs usually gain the largest public radio audience and are a strength of public radio. Now, in the 1990s, there is some self-examination required and some questions that need to be answered: Was public broadcasting simply an idealistic phenomena of the '70s? Is it only alternate programming for minorities? Has it become self indulgent? Is it alternative enough? Is it sufficiently participatory? Is it distinctive in its programming? Is its audience of sufficient size for it to survive?

In order to strengthen their position, those in public radio need to know more about: how people listen to radio in the 1990s; what their needs are for programming; and how to package programs to meet those needs. If the sector is to survive, it does need to find some way to research the audience. It must maintain distinctive programming which is audience centred, socially sensitive and responsive to change. It must maintain training, because audiences will not accept unprofessional and amateur radio. It must do more that preach to the converted. It must become more widely known.

These kind of issues can be divided into two groups: those problems that require action at a national level (promotion of public broadcasting stations, the production of training materials, access to funding from other broadcast sectors, research of the audience), and those that stations need to focus upon (local needs, local skills, local financial support and more focused public broadcasting goals). The promotion of public broadcasting and the identity of local stations needs to be addressed nationally by the PBAA in an endeavour to inform at least those Australians who are within reach of stations that the sector exists for them. The word needs to be spread amongst the young to recruit young volunteers, or the sector will age prematurely. Building an audience can only flow from knowing that public broadcasting stations are there in the community. Training and the production of training materials can most efficiently be handled nationally and a start has been made on this with the PBAA production of the "Radio Jill" training kit in 1991. National training needs to include financial management and how to program to reach public broadcasting goals, which must be clearly identified. Any deals to access the 1% training levy of the commercials and the ABC need to be negotiated nationally by the PBAA.

Locally, the role of each station needs to be clarified and goals set so that these inform all of the production within the station. Financial survival does need attention but it does not need all of everybody's attention. Programming is the major role of a radio station, and participation plays a major role in a public broadcasting station. Public broadcasting was created by public demand and it can only be sustained by reviving and harnessing this same force.

Works Cited

Beazley Kim. Press Release: Minister for Transport and Communication. 30 October 1991.

Higgins, C.S. and P.D. Moss, Sounds Real: Radio in Everyday Life. St. Lucia: U of Queensland P, 1982.

Law, Michael. "Public Broadcasting: Where is it Going and will it Get There?" Media Information Australia 41(1986): 31-35.

Public Broadcasting Association of Australia. Annual Report, 1991.

Reark Research. Market Share of Community Radio Stations. Monitor One, 1990.

Ryan, Bill. "Whither Public Radio" Media Information Australia 53 (1989): 49-56.

Woods, Claire and Anderson Patricia. A Different Kind of Radio. Public Broadcasting Foundation, 1986.


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