Developing Dialogues: Indigenous And Ethnic Community Broadcasting In Australia

Developing Dialogues: Indigenous And Ethnic Community Broadcasting In Australia

by Susan Forde, Michael Meadows, Kerrie Foxwell

The traditional audience/producer boundary has collapsed in indigenous and ethnic community broadcasting, and this is the first comprehensive study of this homegrown media sector. Based on firsthand research of radio and television audiences in Australia, the authors argue that community radio and television worldwide performs an essential service for indigenous


The traditional audience/producer boundary has collapsed in indigenous and ethnic community broadcasting, and this is the first comprehensive study of this homegrown media sector. Based on firsthand research of radio and television audiences in Australia, the authors argue that community radio and television worldwide performs an essential service for indigenous and ethnic audiences, empowering them at various levels, fostering active citizenry, and enhancing democracy. Developing Dialogues offers international researchers a new perspective on Australian community broadcasting and presents evidence of global trends in the media industry.

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Developing Dialogues

Indigenous and Ethnic Community Broadcasting in Australia

By Susan Forde, Kerrie Foxwell, Michael Meadows

Intellect Ltd

Copyright © 2009 Intellect Ltd
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84150-275-5


Community Broadcasting Contexts

On the question of whether third sector media contribute to social cohesion or threaten it, the evidence points to the sector being an important factor in social cohesion and citizenship, particularly for minority ethnic communities and refugee and migrant communities (Lewis 2008: 7).

Audiences for community broadcasting in Australia identify it as the only media sector that is able to take account of the nation's social, political and cultural diversity. Community radio and television are playing an important cultural role in helping to draw together disparate elements of Australian society. At the same time, analysis of the processes involved in producing these media offers a powerful critique of mainstream media and their failure to contribute more actively to social cohesion. Nowhere is this dichotomy more apparent than amongst Australia's Indigenous (or First Nations) and ethnic community media audiences. It is one reason why we have focused on these particular segments of the community broadcasting sector in this book. The other, and perhaps more important reason, is to explore the processes which have empowered audiences for these multifarious minority media. Wherever Indigenous and ethnic community-based radio and television stations are active across the country, they provide a first level of service for their respective communities. They represent spaces where negotiation over the very nature of the audience-producer relationship has created new ways of conceptualizing 'community media' (Meadows et al. 2007).

Based on a long engagement with Native broadcasting developments and processes in Canada, Roth and Valaskakis have taken this idea further, arguing that the nature of Aboriginal community broadcasting, in particular, might provide a clue as to 'how to electronically recuperate public discourse and reconstitute public space in ways that will bear upon the future of ... society' (1989: 233). Albeit in a more journalistic context, Deuze (2006: 458) underlines the importance of multiculturalism as a defining element of the 'occupational ideology' of modern communication. If, as we suggest, mainstream media remain unable to accurately reflect Australia's cultural diversity, analysis of the community media sector – and broadcasting in particular – offers an insight into how this process might evolve.

Although we undertook the first national study of the Australian community radio sector (Forde et al. 2002), our work was built on various earlier, albeit smaller-scale investigations (Bear 1979; 1983; Moran 1995; Thornley 1995; Barlow 1997; 1999). But what this book is able to include for the first time are the voices of the audiences for community radio and television, completing the production-reception cycle. The bulk of the analysis we offer here is based on what is arguably the first-ever qualitative audience study of an entire national community media sector. It has offered us a privileged glimpse of the processes that 'make' community radio and television in Australia.

Another book on community media?

Australia's burgeoning community broadcasting sector – one of the first established globally – received scant academic or government attention in the first 25 years of its development (Bear 1979; 1983; Moran 1995; Thornley 1995; Barlow 1997; 1999). This situation was reflected globally until the dawn of the new millennium when an outpouring of academic research began to identify community media generally as sites of innovative and participatory practice (Forde 1999; Ewart 2000; Downing 2001; Rodriguez 2001; Forde et al. 2002; Atton 2002; Howley 2005; McCauley 2005; Coyer et al. 2007; Carpentier and de Cleen 2007; Fuller 2007; Wilson and Stewart 2008). But voices of the audiences for these multifarious media have largely remained silent – until now. The handful of audience surveys carried out in the Australian community media sector over the past ten years or so have focused on individual stations – and virtually all have sought quantitative data. While the empowering possibilities of local media production have been canvassed and acknowledged globally in the past ten years, analysis of local audience reception has not received similar attention. Work with Indigenous media in Australia and elsewhere has tended to focus on specific production and reception processes within communities and have been guided by anthropological frameworks with media – or media audiences – not the primary focus (Michaels 1986; Ginsburg 1991; Ginsburg 2000; Deger 2007). Studies that have looked specifically at Indigenous media in Australia and internationally have not involved systematic audience methods, rather relying on analyses of production processes with anecdotal evidence of reception (Roth and Valaskakis 1989; Valaskakis 1993; Meadows 1994; Molnar and Meadows 2001; 2002; Roth 2005; Daniels 2006).

Although there has been significant research into ethnic communities in Australia and elsewhere, audiences for ethnic media have not been a specific focus thus far. For example, Australian research has included an audience study of mainstream media use by ethnic communities (Coupe and Jakubowicz 1992; Ang et al. 2002), the impact of media representation on refugees (Brough et al. 2003), and the relationship between community radio and diasporas (Cohen 2003; Chand 2004). Internationally, there have been numerous studies of ethnic media and their impact but again, audiences have largely remained absent as a focus. These studies include a global examination of ethnic and Indigenous minority media (Riggins 1992; Browne 2005) and investigations of the impact of ethnic media in terms of their impact on diasporas and majority community cultures (Downing and Fenton 2003; Tsagarousianou 2004; Shi 2005). A special issue of the international journal, Journalism, considered ethnic media from the perspectives of various authors (Deuze 2006; Guzman 2006; Lin and Song 2006; Moran 2006; Ojo 2006; Wilkin and Ball-Rokeach 2006). Downing and Husband (2005) pooled their considerable research experiences in this area, identifying the importance of ethnic minority media in their global study of race and racisms. But apart from the audience analysis we offer in this book, there is virtually no other forthcoming audience research from international or local sources that might offer some sort of comparison. An emerging concentration in community radio studies at Sydney's Macquarie University has produced some encouraging new research, at this stage, confined to Thailand (Polnigongit 2005). But the 'absent issue of the virtually unknown' in community media – audience research – remains a challenge for scholars and practitioners alike (Downing 2003). The upshot of this body of research is essentially that 'minority', 'class' or 'progressive alternative' media play a critical role at various levels in their respective communities (Downing and Husband 2005; Gutierrez 2006). Perhaps this is best summarized by two key elements: the failure of mainstream media to become relevant to the lives of significant sections of modern, culturally diverse societies; and the ability of – in this case – Indigenous and ethnic community media to 'put people back in the frame' (Downing and Husband 2005: 37). This is clearly evident from our own investigations.

This book is the first to present detailed qualitative analysis of the ways in which diverse audiences for Indigenous community radio and television and ethnic community radio have adopted – and adapted – these media as essential communication services. We will draw from almost two decades of collective research into Australian and international community broadcasting, including the first Australian (and possibly global) qualitative audience research study of its kind which offers new models for audience research – particularly community and alternative media audience research (Lewis 2008: 23–24; 29). The research tells us a great deal about the nature of the relationships between such audiences, their media and society.

Our long and continuing engagement with the community broadcasting sector in Australia has revealed the extraordinary passion Indigenous and ethnic community media audiences have for their local stations and programmes, along with a belief that community radio and television provide them with an essential service. Community radio and television in Australia are providing minority audiences, in particular, with a first level of service with regard to local news and information, music formats and styles. Indigenous and ethnic community broadcasting networks play a critical role in maintaining cultures and languages, creating and strengthening notions of identity in the face of global, national and local stereotypes. These media more accurately represent Australian social and cultural diversity than any other outlets and perhaps inadvertently play an important role in educating the broader listenership about ideas and assumptions outside their usual frames of reference. The Australian community media sector is playing a significant empowering role for individuals, social groups and the processes that create 'communities' (Grossberg 1987; Rodriguez 2001; Carpentier et al. 2003; Bailey et al. 2008). The process represents a collapse – or at the very least, a weakening – of the traditional audience-producer barrier that defines media production, thus creating an environment which has enabled unique processes of identity-formation 'through dialogue' (Michaels 1986; Kulchyski 1989; Langton 193). This suggests the need to re-think the role of community radio and television. Despite enabling spaces for distinct social and cultural groups to 'connect' and sustain each other, there is scant evidence from our studies to suggest that this process is producing significant division in the broader public sphere – in fact, quite the contrary. By virtue of its diverse and highly accessible nature, coupled with its ability to 'connect' local communities and individuals, Indigenous and ethnic community broadcasting is contributing to the idea of active citizenry and enhancing the democratic process. To emphasize this point, our work suggests community radio is enabling fuller participation in broader society through its provision of information – in language, and which migrant and remote Indigenous communities could not otherwise access – about government services, political and social issues, voting rights and so on. This content creates a sense within these communities that they are, indeed, an important part of a greater 'whole'.

A wide range of audiences access Indigenous radio and television across Australia with both Indigenous and non-Indigenous listeners and viewers identifying 'theirs' as an essential service that plays a central organizing role in community life. These media help people to maintain social networks and play a strong educative role in communities, particularly for young people. They offer an alternative source of news and information about the community and the outside world which avoids stereotyping of Indigenous people and issues. Both directly and indirectly, these media are helping to break down stereotypes about Indigenous people, thus playing an important role in promoting cross-cultural dialogue and in boosting Indigenous self-esteem. One of the key elements in this is the role being played by Indigenous community-produced radio and television in supporting the burgeoning Indigenous music and arts industry. From these multifarious ways in which Indigenous people engage with local radio and television, it is clear that these media are important cultural resources that are being effectively managed by the communities who 'own' them (Meadows 1994; Molnar and Meadows 2001; Meadows et al. 2007: 1).

Audiences listening to specialist ethnic programming on generalist community radio stations or full-time ethnic community radio stations are tuning in because station programming plays a central role in maintaining cultures and languages. Programmes help audiences to maintain community connections and networks and stations enable them to hear specialist music unavailable through other media. Ethnic community radio audiences want to hear local community news and gossip. They are particularly interested in hearing news and information relevant to their lives in Australia, along with that from their home countries and from neighbouring countries and regions (Meadows et al. 2007: 1).

The continuing circulation of ideas and assumptions about the world through Indigenous and ethnic community media contributes to the development of community public spheres which, in turn, interact with the broader public sphere, highlighting both common and differing experiences and issues. But importantly, Indigenous and ethnic media also act – most often quite deliberately – as cultural bridges between their own 'parallel universes' and mainstream society. They provide sites for public opinion formation; sites where citizens can engage in collective efforts to bring their issues to the dominant public sphere; and sites where marginalized communities can attempt to influence the policies of various governments through the pressure of public opinion. As Bickford (1996: 4) suggests, 'both speaking and listening are central activities of citizenship' and it is clear that Indigenous and ethnic community broadcasting stations enable these activities in ways that separate them absolutely from mainstream media. These community-based media are most often the only sources of information – and communication – for their audiences. The mere act of listening becomes a participatory process because, as Bickford (1996: 141) reminds us, listening is 'a practice of democratic citizenship in a diverse, unequal social order'. Indigenous and ethnic community media continue to play a central role globally in offering a critique of mainstream media and its place in the formation of the broad democratic public sphere. Quite simply, Indigenous and ethnic media (and other community media) are spaces where citizens are encouraged to 'speak and listen differently' – and this truism summarizes their contribution to the public sphere and their challenge to mainstream media outlets.

This book is informed predominantly by our practical and research experience with the broader Australian community radio sector. For two of us – Susan Forde and Michael Meadows – it began as volunteer work with one of Australia's first community radio stations, 4ZzZ in Brisbane and involvement with Indigenous community radio and print media. Our collective research interest started with the first national study of managers, workers and volunteers in the community radio sector, resulting in publication of the report, Culture, Commitment, Community (Forde et al. 2002). This was bolstered by the most recent qualitative study, Community Media Matters (Meadows et al. 2007), which included Indigenous and ethnic audiences. During this period, there has been an increasing focus on community and/or alternative media from both the research community and Australian government policy circles. It is for these reasons that we offer – for the first time from an audience perspective – an analysis of why community media is succeeding in the current broadcasting environment.

Our project has been helped by an increasing level of research in Australia into community radio and television audiences, most notably, the McNair Ingenuity quantitative audience surveys in 2004, 2006 and 2008. These reveal that community broadcasting audiences have increased by 20 percent since 2006 and by 26 percent since 2004, with 57 percent of the Australian population over fifteen years old (around 7 million people) now tuning in at least monthly to a community radio station. More than 700,000 people are 'exclusive' listeners – that is, they do not listen to either commercial radio or ABC/SBS – and their primary reasons for listening are to hear specialist music and local news and local information (McNair Ingenuity 2008). Although there is no directly comparable quantitative data available for either the Indigenous or ethnic community broadcasting sectors, our own collective investigations over the past twenty years suggest that listenership within specific culturally and linguistically-defined communities is much higher than for the generalist community sector. We estimate that it varies between 60 and 90 percent, based on prior studies (Meadows and van Vuuren 1998) and recent qualitative data from interviews and focus groups (Meadows et al. 2007). The most recent qualitative audience research set out to explore 'why' Australians are tuning in to community radio and television and the impact it has on their lives. Neither the Indigenous nor the ethnic community broadcasting sector has participated in the McNair Ingenuity studies, believing that reducing an evaluation of their activities to 'numbers', along with the method adopted (5,000 telephone interviews nationally), is an inappropriate way of assessing their community and cultural contributions. Thus, the data presented in this book is the first to offer specific analysis of the sector's Indigenous and ethnic community broadcasting audiences.


Excerpted from Developing Dialogues by Susan Forde, Kerrie Foxwell, Michael Meadows. Copyright © 2009 Intellect Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
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Meet the Author

Susan Forde is a senior lecturer in journalism in the School of Humanities; Kerrie Foxwell is associate lecturer in media, communication, and youth studies; and Michael Meadows is associate professor of journalism in the School of Humanities, all at Griffith University in Australia.

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