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MEDIA-AUSTRALIA: Aboriginal Radio Holds Its Own

Kalinga Seneviratne

BRISBANE, Apr 5 2008 (IPS) - When the Brisbane Indigenous Media Association (BIMA) applied for a community radio license 15 years ago they had to compete with a Christian group which argued that there were more Christians than aborigines in Brisbane and thus merited a license first.

But BIMA was able to convince Australian broadcasting authorities that though there were more Christians than aborigines here, the latter had a greater right to get their voice heard because the Christians were well represented in the rest of the media. BIMA was thus given the license and started broadcast on Apr. 5, 1993.

Started as Radio 4AAA-FM, but popularly known as 98.9 FM, it is the first Australian aboriginal-run community radio station in a major city. Today, as it celebrates its 15th anniversary, 98.9 FM is more a mainstream radio here rather than a fringe community station.

“We happen to be black and we happen to be community radio, but we see ourselves as stakeholders in the mainstream radio industry in Brisbane. We have some 120,000 mainstream ‘white fellow’ listeners a week,” Tiga Bayles, general manager and founder of the aboriginal radio station, said in an interview with IPS.

Bayles argues that an attraction is country music, a genre of local Australian music that is popular both among white and aboriginal Australians. For many of Australia’s indigenous people who grew up in the outback (countryside) or in desert reserves, this music is popular entertainment. Over the past 50 years famous country music stars have included legendary aboriginal names like Jimmy Little and Roger Knox.

At 98.9 FM they make sure that at least two songs from aboriginal musicians are played each hour. The station broadcasts 24 hours a day. “We don’t have any competition here, there is no other country music format broadcast on radio in Brisbane,” noted Bayles.

“Country music is a bridge that brings together the two communities – indigenous and non-indigenous,” argues Prof Michael Meadows of Brisbane’s Griffiths University. “The reason it works for 98.9 FM is because of indigenous people’s close affinity with country music,” he added.

Pradip Thomas, an Indian-born Christian, who lectures in mass communication at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, is a regular listener of 98.9 FM. “Country music is a clever strategy they have used to reach out to a wider community,” he observed. “I think they have succeeded in this. There is a large crowd of white folks who listen to them when they drive to and from work in the morning and in the evening.”

In addition to day long country music, 98.9 FM broadcasts a five-minute news bulletins each hour from 6.00 am to 8.00 pm Monday to Friday. This is produced by the Brisbane-based National Indigenous News Service (NINS) of which Bayles is the chairman. “We have a particular policy that stories need to be about or related to indigenous communities, but also (appeals to the) majority communities,” he explained.

Thus, NINS, which provides an indigenous perspective on news, is distributed to some 150 community radio stations across Australia by satellite. They also invite other aboriginal radio stations to provide news to the newsroom in Brisbane where 3 full time journalists are employed.

Bayles also broadcasts a live talk programme from 9.00 to 10.00 am daily 5 days a week, which is also distributed nationally by NINS. “I bring in a guest to talk live in the studio or talk live on the telephone on air. In this way we’re giving a white audience a black experience,” he argues.

Meadows told IPS that the audience research he has conducted in Brisbane indicated that this programme has a good listenership among white professionals in the city, especially those who work in the health and government services sector. “They said that Tiger’s programme gives a much needed indigenous perspective on various issues.”

Over the past 18 months Meadows has done an audience survey of aboriginal media, especially radio, in Queensland, whose state capital is Brisbane. “Radio plays a very important role in providing the link for remote indigenous communities with the outside community,” he argues. “People everywhere we went said indigenous radio was the voice of the people. It’s their’s and they have control over it and they can say what they want.”

Australia’s indigenous people have been locked out of the mainstream media for a long time. Worse, especially on commercial media, they have been stereotyped as drunkards, uneducated ‘no-hope’ people living on government welfare handouts.

In the past 20 years, a new breed of indigenous people, well-educated and articulate, like Bayles, have led a counter-attack against this negative portrayal of Australia’s original people. As a result there are now 105 unique small community radio and television broadcasting facilities known as Remote Indigenous Broadcasting Services in far-flung communities. In addition, there are 25 licensed aboriginal community radio stations across the continent.

While Bayles is happy with this rapid growth of aboriginal media in Australia, he is concerned that most of it is not professional enough. He says a lot of them turn up at the station, play whatever music they like, talk a bit on air and go away. To make aboriginal radio more professional, 98.9 FM has set up a training arm offering three certificate courses along with e-learning facilities.

They bring in six to eight station managers from across Queensland to Brisbane for training three or four times a year. “We introduce them to our style, the standards and the philosophy behind this station. The philosophy is that everybody that has ears is a potential listener to your radio station,” explained Bayles.

Unlike most other aboriginal radio stations, 98.9 FM is not purely dependant on government funding. Only a third of its income comes from government grants to indigenous media, the other two-thirds comes from sale of airtime to advertisers and income generated from projects such as training radio broadcasters.

“There has been no increase in funding for indigenous radio for probably 15 years. It is not good,” complains Bayles. “We should be able to get funds directly from the treasury and be that independent voice of the people.”

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