By Karen Fredericks
"We don't want to encourage pale imitations of the ABC or commercial radio broadcasters. We want to preserve the spirit of community radio ... the unfiltered voices of real people telling their own stories."
This, according to operations manager Stafford Sanders, is the mission of ComRadSat, a national community radio satellite network launched by the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia (CBAA) in March.
"Comradsat is a means of program exchange between community radio broadcasters", Sanders explained to Green Left. "It replaces the tape exchange service we have been running for many years, by which broadcasters sent programs into this organisation [CBAA] and we dubbed them and distributed them to other stations."
The 82 community broadcasters who have been supplied with the satellite dishes and receivers required to link into the ComRadSat network now have immediate access to a huge range of programs produced by their fellow community broadcasters. Besides this CBAA-run service, ComRadSat, via the Optus B1 satellite (the one they didn't lose), also carries the BBC world service and the multilingual SBS radio station 2EA.
Stations can pick and choose from the programs offered on all three services. They can play them direct to air or can them for later broadcast, or they can play one channel direct to air while recording another.
One of the advantages of the network, says Sanders, is that it frees up the mostly volunteer staff at community radio stations so they can concentrate their program-making energies on local information and culture. In this way, CBAA hopes to strengthen the most distinctive and important characteristic of community radio — a base in the local community.
An example of the type of program Sanders sees as ideal for networking is the 2SER Voices from the South, a current affairs show focusing on third world issues and produced and presented by people from third world backgrounds.
"On the ABC and commercial networks you get reporters talking about the people of the South, such as the rubber tappers in the Amazon", says Sanders. "On programs like Voices from the South you get the people speaking for themselves. That's what community radio is all about, and that's why I feel so passionately about this network."
Voices from the South and a range of other programs such as Public Radio News' daily current affairs half hour, Undercurrents, 3CR's Women on the Line and 2SER's gay and lesbian show, Out and Out, have regular timeslots on the CBAA satellite channel.
The channel also supplies one-off items such as the recent Tiddas Talk, a satellite link-up of Aboriginal women from around the country for International Women's Day. The network will even have its own live simulcast with SBS TV when they broadcast the 1993 ethnic business awards on October 13.
Sanders says there is currently very little controversy surrounding programming on ComRadSat, but as the number of stations providing programs grows, competition for timeslots may increase. While he, as operations manager, currently makes most of the programming decisions, control ultimately rests with the organisation's 115 member stations, exercised through an elected national committee and the annual conference.
CBAA raises revenue for the operation of the service from subscription fees which broadcasters pay for use of the channel (commensurate with their size and ability to pay) and from fees charged to organisations which wish to broadcast community information by way of ComRadSat. Sanders says CBAA hopes to restrict this second revenue-raising method to government departments, QANGOS and community-oriented organisations such as Greenpeace, although, he says, "commercial sponsorship is already a fact of life for most community broadcasters".
Some contributors to the network, such as Public Radio News and Melbourne's 3CR, charge an individual fee for use of their shows. The cost of establishment of the network was met by a federal government Ethnic Radio Current Affairs grant.
Sanders says Australian community radio is among the most, if not the most, highly developed and extensive community radio networks in the world. Through CBAA member stations have now gained access to satellite technology, an important technological advance which, Sanders believes, should not be restricted to government and commercial use but should be available to broadcast the voices of ordinary people.
"People listen to community radio because we are different to all the other stations, not because we are the same", he says. "That's what we have to remember and that's what we have to continue to provide."