These days it’s not unusual to see resumes where people present themselves as editors, multimedia producers or even journalists because they have a blog or website which hosts their content. Indeed, there are community arts organizations which now claim that they work in community media. Even the ABC Open project is claiming to bring media skills to regional communities (“offering projects to get involved in, as well as a community space to share ideas and stories”).
So what does the community broadcasting sector offer which you won’t get from arts organizations or even the ABC?
Not All Content is King
Back in the day when community broadcasting was starting out in Australia, one of the big debates was about whether people from communities would produce unique, never-seen-or-heard-before content or whether they would make second-rate versions of what already existed on mainstream media. Certainly, the early experience of Canadian community media folk was that turning citizens into journalists involved far more than simply giving people access to the tools of the trade. It involved a lot of practice to turn someone into a great producer or presenter. It also involved an ongoing critical dialogue about representation and the media and the embedded (but often well-hidden) values of mainstream media. In community broadcasting these discussions are evident in the codes of practice adopted by both community television and radio. These values and ideas are reinforced in sector training which requires that volunteers critically understand how representation of communities in the media is not as simple as getting people to tell their own stories.
Relationship with Audiences
Take a minute to visit some of the websites which host digital storytelling and, in particular, take a look at the audience interaction with those stories. In many cases, there are zero comments and no interaction. While this is not a definitive indication of how many people have viewed or listened to the story, one gets the feeling that a lot of content which is being produced for the online platform is disappearing into the quagmire we know as the world wide web. So what is the use of telling a story if no one is listening? Community broadcasters have an advantage over other community-based arts organizations because firstly, we have a transmitter- so we do not rely on the online platform alone to attract audiences. Secondly, as radio and television stations we already have committed audiences which consume media content either by listening live to air or online. Remember the statistics: 25% of all Australians listen to community radio every week and those listeners come each week because are attracted by the specialist programs, local news and information, and the desire to support Australian artists (McNair Audience Research 2010).
Who decides on content?
While ABC Open is a fantastic project to encourage user-generated content it has little influence on the overall editorial decisions of the ABC. So is it really giving citizens media power or just allowing them to make a controlled contribution? Community broadcasting on the other hand has an ongoing formalized process of asking communities what they want to hear on air. The Broadcasting Service Act requires community stations “to encourage community access and participatioon in all aspects of station operations, from programming to management”. We all know that community engagement is a licence condition of community stations and ACMA assesses how well stations are doing every licence renewal. Along with the fact that community broadcasters have a long history of content made by community members, the community broadcasting sector is the only sector in Australia which can really claim to produce both genuine and effective citizens’ media.