2020 ISSUE 04:




An idea for Creative Australia

Contributors: Tom Dawkins, CEO, Vibewire, Ellie Rennie, Research Fellow, Institute for Social Research, Swinburne University, Bryce Ives, Heywire, ABC, Ralph McLean

Community media has long had an important role in the Australian media scape. It was of course a Brisbane community radio station 4ZZZ FM (then 4ZZ) that convinced the federal government to grant them an experimental FM radio licence in February 1974 and help pioneer the new broadcast spectrum. The printed word in community media has also had its place in pushing boundaries, trying new things and training the future media faces. I’ve published before a list of people who have come out of student media, an waivering area of independent media.

Often it is these same organisations, or emerging organisations in the community media sector, who are also going forth in the digital environment. The community sector has been an important contributor to the development of digital media, providing online access, community information, software development and training. The public and commercial media are both well-advanced in the digital media environment. Commercial media has staked out its place via the acquisition of successful Web 2.0 businesses. Public service broadcasters have carried their existing status as quality sources of information into web pages, podcasting, and online forums. A ‘third tier’ of Web 2.0 will ensure digital innovation and content diversity.

Community media is essentially very different from user-generated content and social networking media, even though it is fuelled by the similar factors (altruism, social bonds, hobbyist technologies etc). Community media organisations are community-governed, not-for-profit associations. They provide access to production and distribution (as do other user-generated new media) but also allow for participation in the running of the organisation and the development of technologies. Community sector organisations are socially-responsive and proactive in that they cater for groups who are not otherwise adequately represented and develop technologies to serve identifiable needs rather than market gaps. These organisations are professional and industry-like, with an emphasis on standards, training and ethical responsibility when it comes to information dissemination.

Community media is more collaborative and diverse than public service media at the content layer (for instance, the youth-run Vibewire.net). Many community media organisations also produce technical solutions for the nonprofit sector – from free software development for NGOs (see NGO-in-a-Box) to broadcast playout and administration systems (for instance SYN player on syn.org.au). Australia’s first publicly available web server, Pegasus, was initiated by the Rainforest Information Centre in 1989. Catalyst, established by former community television producers in Sydney, designed one of the world’s first open publishing sites (‘Active’). In July this year EngageMedia launched Plumi, an open source video exhibition platform. As these examples illustrate, the community media sector can provide important innovations which benefit all sectors of the media.

It is laughable to think that online media occurs ‘naturally’ and does not require funding to be sustainable. The rise of non-market media – such as social networking, content-sharing and open-source collaboration – has fundamentally changed the way we produce and share information. However, it has not changed the need for sustainable organisations, reliable income-generation for community enterprises or reward for labour. Although online distribution is less capital-intensive than broadcast media when it comes to infrastructure, these organisations still require resources for administration, staff, offices and software development. For this kind of innovation to occur, and at a more rapid pace, existing policy and funding needs to extend to other forms of community media.

As broadcast and digital media converge, Australia’s media policies must follow suit. It is time to extend community media support structures into the Web 2.0 environment. If we do not restructure this important sector soon, community production and information will become increasingly marginalised. Existing online media groups will continue to suffer from lack of resources and industry representation. Community broadcasters will fall behind as audiences move to broadband distribution. Australia’s community associations and cultural groups will find it increasingly difficult to keep-up with online developments. We must move quickly to encourage cross-platform community media institutions, provide support for collaborative endeavours (across radio, web, print and TV) and resources for online activities. We urgently need to revisit community media policy and funding structures in order to guarantee community communication and innovation in this rapidly expanding sphere.

The Recommedations

Australia has one of most advanced community broadcasting sectors in the world but we are currently lagging behind when it comes to community media convergence. With some support, Australia’s community media sector can easily meet the challenges of the digital age. The solution is simple:

  • Expand the definition of community media; and
  • Establish an additional funding stream for online activities.

The first step is to expand the operations of the Community Broadcasting Foundation and provide additional funds to support online community media. Reconfiguring the CBF into the Community Media Foundation will boost the diversity of projects and opportunities afforded to Australians to express themselves, while promoting training, technological innovation and new techniques for building community dialogue.

Thanks to Tom Dawkins, outgoing CEO of the national youth media and arts organisation Vibewire and good friend for passing on documentation for this entry. And thanks to Bryce Ives for his considered feedback (see comments).

This idea relates specifically to point 4 of the Creative Australia summary: “How to encourage participation in emerging global industries” but also relates generally to:

  • point 2: “Future directions for the ABC, SBS, Australian Television and Radio
  • point 5: “How we build on the creative sector’s potential as a major Australian export industry”

If you like this idea please post a comment. If you have something you’d like to share with me, send me an email. If you’re interested in having your say then try to get along to one of the many local summits. K Rudd himself will be at the Southside Summit in Queensland.

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