A fierce row threatens to split community broadcasting. It has erupted over plans to centralise or ‘corporatise’ control which could strip local stations, particularly ethnic broadcasters, of influence.
Confronted by the digital revolution that has put paid to most media, community radio also faces a decision in Melbourne on February 26 by the Community Broadcasting Foundation (CBF) about whether to radically change how federal government money goes to the 350 or so stations across the country.
The shake-up began about three years ago when the CBF decided that it wanted to do more than just handle the roughly $17 million it gets annually from the government. Modest as it seems, this is what helps keep the stations afloat, although most money, comes from membership, subscription and sponsorship.
Community broadcasting has been around since the days of the Whitlam government, framed by the then Minister of Communication, Dr Moss Cass. But it was Malcolm Fraser who introduced it, and it’s always had cross-party support.
Local people are the heart and soul at most community stations, volunteers who broadcast news, current affairs, music, magazine shows and much more. In return, the stations look to local individuals, groups and businesses for the dollars to keep going.
The broadcasting is either general, religious, indigenous, ethnic or by disabled people.
Anger over the changes is chiefly coming from the ethnic community whose stations get most of the government money and will be hardest hit.
The origins of this dispute are back in 2014 when the CBF hired a consultancy, the Nous Group in Melbourne, to review the funding structure and governance. The Nous Group whose most prominent staffer is Melbourne Lord Mayor Robert Doyle, found that the digital media revolution meant the CBF must radically transform itself and the way it hands out money. A self-appointed board would replace the elected board. The stations and representative organisations directly represented on the board would nominate candidates to a pool from which board members would choose fresh members on the basis of skill.
But it was how the money was to be handled that is causing the greatest ruckus. Money for ethnic programs is given to stations on the basis of the hours of non-English speaking languages broadcast. The amount per hour is weighted more heavily for people new to Australia. The new model proposes, however, that ethnic program would have to apply for funds “on merit” and the CBF would decide on who gets what.
The National Ethnic Multicultural Broadcasting Council (NEMBC) reacted in fury describing the proposed Board model as a corporate model that flies in the face of the principles that define community radio – transparency, democracy and fairness. And it undermines a local station’s ability to decide a program’s “merit”. For them it means an encroaching centralisation of power in the hands of the CBF to determine what happens at the local level. They are no longer a funds administrator, but a “sector shaper”.
The council has rallied its troops accordingly and have mobilised their three million constituents to strongly oppose the CBF moves, with a campaign of petitions and letter writing. This, in a federal election year, is grim news for the Turnbull Government.
A former ALP Victorian Minister for Transport, Peter Bachelor, presides over the CBF. He is best known for the massive cost-overun and teething problems of his State’s Myki transport card.
The NEMBC’s executive officer, Russell Anderson, points to the statistics that shows radio, especially if it is local, is growing in face of the digital revolution. “It is the only media to do so.” He also says it’s not true, as the CBF suggests, that the ethnic radio stations are not keeping up with the digital challenges.
A study conducted, again by the Nous Group and for the CBF, shows many station programs have social media links, were broadcasting in the digital spectrum and had digital on-demand services. “This idea of us lagging behind is just a nonsense – it’s beaten up to sound like there is a crisis in broadcasting to camouflage their flagrant attempts to centralise control”.
Bachelor’s CBF claims to have consulted and listened to the community. The NEMBC on the other hand claims that their concerns have been totally dismissed and that the CBF is intent on “bulldozing” the changes through despite vigorous opposition.
The NEMBC has now approached the Commonwealth to intervene, demanding that the Commonwealth Deed that underpins the funding arrangement stay, as would rules governing funds distribution. That is, the hourly rate model is maintained. Anderson says : “The problem with their new model is that it will be much more bureaucratic and cumbersome to administer. Centralisation of power is always accompanied by more bureaucracy”.
What’s more the NEMBC asked the Commonwealth to hold an independent review of the CBF and its governance. Says Anderson: “We don’t think the Nous Group was truly independent. They were hired by the CBF to conduct the review, and so they came back with a model that suited the CBF’s strategic purposes”.
If the CBF fails compromise, the NEMBC threatens to “go it alone”. Although reluctant to go down this path, it also believes this would solve their problem if its proportion of the Government funds were directed to the NEMBC outside its control.
Already there is an impact locally. The NEMBC says it knows of stations jettisoning ethnic programs “because its all too hard to maintain their funding”.
A 10 page submission from full time, Brisbane ethnic station 4EB President Nick Dmyterko to CBF describes the process as disappointing “with conference presentations, webinars and documentation focusing on selling a proposed model with no specific detail of how all of these changes will provide greater value to community broadcasters and not threaten future funding for the sector.”
He says the threatened removal of democratic participation in making decisions would eliminate what sets community radio apart from all other media.
A briefing paper said the changes were underlined by a more “competitive funding process”, which suggested tendering and discouraging dependency on CBF money. Dmyterko says performance outcome aspirations around money were inappropriate for community radio.
Putting ethnic broadcasting cash in the same pot as everyone else’s was a step towards questioning the legitimacy of ethnic programmes.
Radio board members were elected by their peers at conferences, he said. “The proposed model will allow only a select few in the decision-making process, with an unclear procession [as] to the appointment to these new committees.”
Some broadcasters travel more than 100 kilometres to stations he said and some, such as the Kurds, had no financial support in the community.
Demanding more detailed budgets would put extra strain and cut the time of making programs.
Importantly, Dmygerko says in recent years the total amount of money available has not been announced in advance. Lack of clarity about grant categories reduced opportunities for broadcasters.
Grants for content development should be restricted to broadcasters. “Making content grants available to individuals is encouraging a cottage industry of semi-professional broadcasters making a career in the sector.” The futility of calculating grants was shown by the fact that a station broadcasting 21 hours of specialist programs weekly would receive the same weighting as one producing more than 100 hours.
CBF executive director Ian Stanistreet told Daily Review today (February 16) that is likely, but not certain that his board will reach a decision on 26 February. “If final decisions are reached at this meeting I expect that a paper summarising the outcomes will be published in early March,” he said.
He said the review was a response to a request from community broadcasting sector representatives brought together in November 2012 to consider the CBF’s future as part of framing its strategic plan.
“The CBF has been a careful steward of funding support provided by the Australian Government for the maintenance and development of community broadcasting in Australia since our establishment, however after more than 30 year’s operation we agreed that a structural and governance review was timely.”
The review was aimed at deciding how the CBF structure and governance might be revised to better meet the needs of community broadcasting.
“In doing so it has dealt with a broad range of issues, among them — the scope for simplifying our structure and consolidating our funding opportunities; how we can make our grant processes more applicant focussed; ensuring that the CBF has an appropriate skill base to undertake its current work and to expand its role into fundraising; how we can increase our capacity to support greater sustainability and development as well as providing a level of operational support; achieving a volunteer base that reflects the diversity and dynamic nature of the community broadcasting sector at all levels of the organisation; and how the CBF can most effectively support community broadcasting as it engages with a rapidly changing media landscape produced by the disruptive forces of the digital revolution.”
Stanistreet says there has been extensive consultation with community broadcasting sector as a key part of the review. Two Review consultation papers were published last year and responses to them were helpful, he said. (There were 66 submissions from community stations, organisations and individuals.)
“The Nous Group report was an early element of the CBF Review process which the Foundation responded to in June last year,” he said.