This is something I wrote back in May (this version dates from 21st) that hasn’t received a public airing.  Interested in your thoughts.  I wrote it in Word and have just pasted it in below… forgive the crappy formatting.

Community Broadcasting and Public Sphere 2.0

ALP Senator Kate Lundy announced on 29th April 2009, via her website, that she was involved in the creation of an online public sphere. In her post she said that the aim of the exercise was too “facilitate regular topics of interest to both the general public and to the government. This way people from all around Australia can participate online.”

What is this Public Sphere?

First of all, let’s clarify what we mean by “Public Sphere”.  The introduction to the Wikipedia article on the subject says:

The public sphere is an area in social life where people can get together and freely discuss and identify societal problems, and through that discussion influence political action[1]

In the traditional sense, these areas have included many physical locations, such as University forums, the traditional soap box, group debates and community media.  However, Michael de Percy posted a blog article on ABC Unleashed which observes:

Mass communication has been institutionalised for so long that the term ‘public sphere’ usually refers to the media and the formal arenas where elites disseminate information.[2]

Public Sphere 2.0

So here we come to Senator Lundy’s Public Sphere 2.0: the creation of online spaces to facilitate discussions around public policy.

The first of Senator Lundy’s sessions was held at ANU on 7th May, and was streamed live via the Internet so that users could watch, while people could tag comments on twitter with #publicsphere to participate in the sessions.

The topic for the session was “The opportunities and issues around getting high speed bandwidth in Australia”. Just over three hours of talks on the topic occurred, and included examples of improving healthcare and education, reducing carbon emissions, uses in agricultural industries, and access to public information.[3]

According to de Percy

“A major theme emerging from Kate Lundy’s Public Sphere 2.0 was the issue of power: ‘Why aren’t citizens trusted? Why should we be fearful that if we innovate, we will be shut down? How can citizens drive e-democracy if their hands are tied?’”[4]

The question for Community Broadcasters is how can we be involved in these processes?  Community radio and television has played its role, through its core values, in providing media access to those under represented in the mainstream. This can be observed in the sector through all aspects of station activities, but in terms of public perception, this is most obvious in broadcast programming. Community broadcasting has shown particular strengths in public/current affairs, talks and issues programming, from those distributed nationally to single-station, locally produced programs.

Community Broadcasting and its Values

Let’s look at those core sector values and how they’re shown through the Codes of Practice[5].  Let’s sum them up as ‘access’, ‘diversity’, ‘volunteerism’ and ‘independence’.

Independent of major media and corporate sponsorship, each station is run by a company or association on a not-for-profit basis to represent their community.  Communities may be geographic: based around towns and cities; or appealing to specific groups of people: such as the young, seniors, religious, fine music and indigenous groups.  With a sector over 30 years old, and over 300 stations around the country, community broadcasting provides their services right around the nation.

Most of the rest of the planet hasn’t been as fortunate as us in Australia in terms of such a large and diverse community broadcasting sector.  The allocation of free licences in the public interest in parallel to the national broadcasting services is something uniquely Australian.  While we find a lot of hype around online social media in the US and other countries, the scope of Australian community broadcasting may lessen and confuse the impact.

Dr Ellie Rennie says in the introduction to her paper Digital Radio in the Prosumer Era[6] (presented at the 2007 CBAA Conference):

The categories of ‘old’ and ‘new’ media don’t strictly apply to community broadcasting. The sector possesses many of the characteristics of ‘new’ social networking media: it relies on community affiliations and the circulation of information occurs through volunteer effort. Community media has always been ‘prosumer’ – in that it enables consumers (audiences) to become producers. However, community broadcasting is distinctly ‘old media’ in its technologies, codes of practice, legal restrictions and standards. If this is a new ‘era’, are we ahead of our time or have we been left behind?

One could choose to view the sector as some form of bridge between old and new media models and that Australian’s have been prosuming for over 30 years.

Online Participation

So in the face of things like the National Broadband Network, and a new public sphere how can Community broadcasting maintain relevance and participate?

The sector, along with society in general, is heading towards a huge flux.  A massive change in the way we consume information is already underway, and while technology continues to forge ahead massive shifts will continue.  Community broadcasting’s challenge is to engage with those at the fore without leaving those at the rear behind.

On 7th May ACMA released its report Australia in the Digital Economy: Online participation[7], a report which reported on how various segments of the Australian population used the Internet. The report found that 2.6 million Australians do not have Internet at home, 13% of Australians over 14 have never used the Internet, and that half of that 13% are over 50 years of age.  It’s also worth noting that they found 77% of those who are not currently connected at home don’t plan to connect.

Taking those number into consideration, is Public Sphere 2.0 all that much better than the traditional model?  When you dig deeper into the figures to find those that seriously engage online, of the 87% of those who do use the Internet, only around 40% are heavy users, while roughly another 30% are medium users, accounting for somewhere in the region of 60% of the population.[8]

So while some sections of the community become involved in this new public sphere, can community broadcasting help to bridge the public sphere gap?  Absolutely!

Community Broadcasting and Technology

Looking at the sector, the young sector has a comprehensive understanding of how they can leverage their content in a multiplatform environment, and Rennie considers this in her Digital Radio paper in the context of SYN.  The old sector contains a lot of knowledge about the processes involved in the production of broadcast media.  Here we can see the potential to educate both parts of the sector: can the young teach the old about multiplatform publishing, the art of separating content from media; can the old mentor the young with their experiences in the public sphere?

We can only hope so.

With the announcement of the Rural and Regional NBN Initiative by Stephen Conroy as part of the 2009 Budget:

The ABC will receive new funding under this initiative to encourage and assist the development of user generated content and create online avenues for local communities to connect and collaborate. The ABC will establish community websites and portals, and create ‘virtual town squares’ for communities to share experiences.[9]

Is the government leaving the community broadcasting sector behind, locking them out of the new public sphere?  Perhaps, but the ABC is still the ABC and is subject to its policies and position as a wide-appeal national broadcaster.  Community radio and television remains more effective at the smaller, community level. Most importantly, these media allows communities to represent themselves.

Is part of the oncoming role of Community Broadcasting then providing a bridge between the old and the new?  The traditional prosumers allowing others access to items which they are unable to access?  It’s certainly a niche that the sector is in a position to play, and play well.

Let’s look at some examples of how Community Broadcasting is already involved in promoting a public sphere agenda online.  In a broad sense, the sector has a number of initiatives that can be used in this type of agenda:

  1. Posting Audio Online : program audio from stations from around the sector can be posted online as podcasts from the CBAA service C pod, and the CMA service MediaPoint.  Additionally two stream-on-demand projects are underway with PBS and RTR.
  2. Blogging : a wide variety of programmers across the sector are blogging to accompany their programs.  This provides the broadcasters the opportunity to further enhance their programming, by way of background material and additional commentary, along with notes about the broadcast program
  3. Public Social Networks : Various parts of the sector use parts of the public social networks along with their programming.  There are a number of Facebook groups and fan pages, MySpace profiles and Twitter accounts from around the country.
  4. Web Sites : other programs maintain their own websites, which combine aspects of the podcasrs, blogging and social networking options above.

There are a number of examples of the contributions.

The Wire is a daily Current Affairs program produced by a consortium of Radio Adelaide, 2SER and 4EB/QUT.  The program is distributed nationally via the Community Radio Network.  The program has been running for 5 years, and each story is available as a summary and MP3 download from the program web site at www.thewire.org.au.

Allegro Non Troppo is a community issues program produced by Melbourne’s JOY 94.9 and has been distributed via the CRN since 2008. As a magazine format program, it offers a wide variety of information particularly aimed at the GLBTI community but also of wider appeal.  The program is also blogged and podcast, which can be accessed via allegro.org.au.

And Allegro Non Troppo is just one example of this multi-platform production from JOY.  The station website joy.org.au aggregates program and station blogs, podcasts and other materials, which are hosted across a number of platforms, into one seamless site.  The ability of JOY to promote the needs and interests of the GLBTI community of Melbourne as the GLBTI community of Melbourne provides for creative, innovating and above all involving audio and text content.

JOY isn’t stopping at the radio broadcasts, with the station producing two podcast only programs The Cubby House and The PodCraft.

As the access to broadband technology grows, and as education in the sector increases, more and more items that impact the public sphere are being placed online in formats that are accessible to all.  With the introduction of accredited podcast training and future technology based units, the capacity for the sector to interact as traditional community broadcasting and online media increase.

Community Broadcasting as a Bridge

There is potential for community broadcasting to act as a bridge between the traditional and new public spheres, however as with most things in community broadcasting it relies upon the energy of volunteers, and having them engaged in the new forums.

However, community broadcasting does seem like a potential ideal fit for this backchannel function, interfacing the traditional public sphere of which it is already a part, with this new version.

Community broadcasting can be effective.  The McNair Inginuity National Listener Survey 2008 found that nationally 57% of those aged 15 or over listen to community radio each month.  It’s an impressive reach, showing how community radio engages with its listeners.[10]

With digital radio starting this year, and acting as a green fields platform, there is potential to further increase the diversity of programming.  The additional data-carrying capacity of digital radio can potentially have some further role to play in terms of engaging the community in discussions.

While the future for the digital carriage of community television remains up in the air, the ability of the medium to engage its viewers actually lessens.  While there are those stations streaming online, and the oft-mooted talk of IPTV as an alternative non-broadcast distribution mechanism, the carriage of CTV on the digital platform is essential to keeping communities engaged.

Conclusion

Community broadcasters are well versed in the access issues of the traditional public sphere, but there are still plenty of barriers before public sphere 2.0 lives up to its name.  Community broadcasters speak to their communities as part of their communities, and are an important mix in the upcoming public sphere conversation.

With the challenges of digital broadcasting, training, online publication, podcasting, streaming, IPTV and public debate, the sector and stations have a task to find where they best fit in the mix and we need to educate ourselves, each other and the community to keep everyone on track.

However, through the access afforded by the traditional media model, coupled with involvement in new forums of content, community broadcasting has the potential to provide an important bridge to keep all of us engaged in the public sphere.


[1] See the Wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public_sphere

[2] Wowsers beware: Public Sphere 2.0 is here, de Percy, Michael; ABC Unleashed website:  http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/stories/s2566119.htm

[3] ibid

[4] ibid

[5] Community Broadcasting Codes of Practice http://www.cbaa.org.au/content.php/20.html

[6] Digital Radio in the Prosumer Era, Rennie, Dr Ellie; http://www.cbaa.org.au/content.php/556.html

[7] Australia in the Digital Economy: Online participation, Australian Communications and Media Authority,  http://www.acma.gov.au/WEB/STANDARD/pc=PC_311716

[8] Ibid, p12

[9] Media Release: Rural and Regional NBN Initiative, Sen. Stephen Conroy, Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, http://www.minister.dbcde.gov.au/media/media_releases/2009/043

[10] 2008 McNair Community Broadcasting National Listener Survey, http://www.cbonline.org.au/media/McNairListners2008/FullNationalListenerSurvey2008.pdf

Advertisements