How Radio Skid Row has survived

Podcasters Lorna Munro and Joel Sherwood Spring. Photo: Radio Skid Row

Radio Skid Row FM 88.9, one of Sydney’s most significant independent media outlets, began its 38th year of broadcasting with renewed confidence after surviving a funding shortage related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since its inception in 1983, Radio Skid Row has given the marginalised a voice: the station’s first broadcasts were to Long Bay Jail and First Nations peoples and prison activists were among its first broadcasters.

Radio Skid Row continues to focus on cultural and justice issues related to New South Wales’ First Nations peoples. It also promotes migrant and refugee voices, giving airtime to migrant workers’ committees, refugee advocates, and members of Latin American and African communities.

Current highlights of its programming include: segments on cultural and environmental issues facing Sydney’s inner west; Workers Radio, a weekly program on national worker struggles; and Afrika Connexions, which has been producing programs about African culture and political struggles for more than 25 years.

The station is also a focal point in the community for mutual aid initiatives such as its Winter Drive campaign, collecting food, clothes, blankets and other essentials for the homeless, and G.A.N.G. Gang, a Black, Indigenous and People of Colour youth collective that teaches young people how to interpret and critique mainstream media and produce their own content.

Last year was very challenging for the station — as it was for many grassroots media organisations. Just after it submitted it annual grant submissions in March last year, the state went into COVID-19 lockdown.

Broadcasters decided to run the radio station remotely and, thanks to the hard work of station manager Raul Hernandez and his team, 16 of their 47 regular programs continued.

Gradually, operations seemed to be transitioning back to normal.

However, in July the station was informed that the Community Broadcasting Foundation (CBF) would discontinue its annual operational funding.

This was a shock as, for the past 30 years, the CBF has awarded Radio Skid Row substantial annual grants to cover the backbone of the operating costs.

“The decision makes no sense to us. They chose to kneecap the most historically and radically diverse station in New South Wales, maybe even Australia,” Radio Skid Row president Huna Amweero said in a media release.

One possible reason for CBF’s change of approach is that, over the last five years, it has adopted a new corporate model: self-appointed executives determine who receives funding and there is little accountability and connection to sector representatives.

According to the National Ethnic Community Broadcasters’ Council this new model “completely abandons [their previous] unique democratic participatory system.”

Moreover, although the CBF professes to be an independent non-for-profit charity, it nevertheless receives funds from the federal Department of Communications, which is then distributed by its grants advisory committees.

Rather than despair, however, the Radio Skid Row crew rallied and were successful in their applications for a range of smaller program grants and for individual program sponsorships.

More importantly, however, the station launched a successful barrage of supporter drives and fund-raising events.

Solidarity shown by community members, volunteers and workers at Radio Skid Row, and in the grassroots media sector, has raised enough money for the station to remain liquid until late this year.

[Radio Skid Row broadcasts on FM 88.9 from the Addison Road Community Centre in Marrickville.]