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Celebrating Community Access Radio

Fri, 15 Oct

Celebrating Community Access Radio

Speech by Steve Maharey to the Community Access Broadcasters' conference in Invercargill

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Thank you for inviting me to address you today, and to respond to your questions afterwards. I very much appreciate the opportunities I am given, as Minister of Broadcasting, to speak with people on the ground - on the ground and on the air that is, actually making broadcasts happen.

And, of course, I appreciate too the important work of the Access Radio stations. Your organisations and the programmes you make available are valuable parts of an effective broadcasting system, not to mention a democratic society.

As I am sure many of you will know, the work that this government has done to give New Zealanders a better broadcasting deal has been based on a set of objectives that we put together back in 2000.

These objectives emphasise access to broadcasting that represents: · the uniqueness and diversity of New Zealand life; · meeting the information and entertainment needs of as many interests as reasonably possible, including those that cannot be met by commercial broadcasting; · contributing to public awareness of and participation in the political and social debates of the day; · providing for minority interests and increased choice; · and encouraging innovation and creativity in broadcasting while aiming to continually increase audience satisfaction with the quality of the content. It is pretty clear to me that without the presence of Community Access Radio the achievement of those objectives gets more difficult. I acknowledge and thank you for the role you play, and for what I know is your strong commitment and hard work.

I have been asked today to talk to you about broadcasting policy and where things are going in the future. I would like, though, to look too at some aspects of the past and reflect for a moment on your own achievements.

Your past, as a collection of community access broadcasters, began in 1981 when National Radio carried out a community radio experiment using the 2YB transmitter. It was on air in Wellington for just three hours a week!

Radio broadcasting, previously the highly protected domain of professional operators and presenters, was forced to shed its cloak of mystification. It soon became apparent that with a little bit of training ordinary people could enjoy making radio too.

Other groups began to form to press for community access on radio. During the 1980s, groups in a number of communities - in the Wairarapa, Auckland and Christchurch -successfully established access radio time in their areas.

RNZ gave Access Radio Wairarapa three hours on Sunday evenings on its 2ZD frequency; in Auckland access broadcasts filled out the summer break on Auckland University's Campus Radio; and in Christchurch Plains FM shared the airwaves with Christchurch Polytechnic's broadcasting students.

These broadcasts had in common their explicit responsiveness to particular community needs. That drive to provide a medium for a diverse range of community voices still informs the operation of Access Radio today.

In 1989, new legislation was put in place following the restructuring of the broadcasting system. The Broadcasting Act of that year established NZ On Air and stipulated its functions.

Among these was Section 36c - 'to ensure that a range of broadcasts is available to provide for the interests of women, and children, and persons with disabilities, and minorities in the community, including ethnic minorities.' This section provided a rationale and impetus for NZ On Air to fund Access Radio.

The then Minister of Broadcasting issued a directive to NZ On Air that access radio stations should be available for a broad range of non-profit community groups. In the following years stations were set up in Dunedin, Hamilton, Motueka, Napier and Hastings and elsewhere. Technical arrangements continued to change and evolve, as groups sought increased airtime, coverage and security in an effort to best serve their communities.

I know the problems you experienced over that time; and that you continue to experience difficulties in relation, particularly, to funding and frequency allocation. I will talk about that more shortly. Despite these challenges, during the 80s and 90s you served your many audiences well, as you continue to do.

As part of my preparation for meeting with you, I've been looking again at some media clippings covering much of the period in which Access Radio has been operating. I have been reading about broadcasts by and for Pacific people, about shows supporting disabled people, elderly people.

I have read about the Cypriot news broadcasts, and playing the music of the Congo; the Dutch and Punjabi and Arabic programmes, and the fishing programme; the peer support services for young listeners; and the thrill of taking part in Kids' Radio.

I've also heard from a fellow who used to contribute to the GayBC programme in Wellington. "We were broadcasting to a community of interest," he said. "But we also knew that we were reaching people who couldn't publicly identify as part of that community - that we were the lifeline for the man who listened to our programme in his shed at the bottom of his garden."

Well, I know there are quite a few New Zealanders for whom Access Radio has helped forge that sense of connection that, indisputably, is an important part not only of the happiness of the individual, but of a viable society.

And along with that sense of connection goes the ability to contribute - to make your voice heard. Then comes the growing confidence and sense of self-worth, the nervous anticipation once that red light in the studio is switched on, not the least the fun of it all.

The hugely varied voices of our increasingly diverse country have been broadcast from Access Radio for nearly a quarter of a century now.

This all sounds like good public policy stuff, doesn't it? The problem was that for much of the history of Access Radio, government's involvement in broadcasting was being significantly diminished.

For almost fifteen years there was no context of public broadcasting development to support - in broad terms - the civic and cultural importance of what Access Radio was endeavouring to do, or the ongoing development of Access Radio itself.

1986 had brought the introduction of the State-Owned Enterprises Act. The Act indicated a new direction for government-owned trading organizations in which profitability was the primary objective.

Towards the end of 1987 the government had decided that this model would be followed for broadcasting. Social and cultural objectives were well down the list of requirements.

It is satisfying to me as a member of the Cabinet, and a huge relief to me as a citizen of this country, that the broadcasting landscape under this government has changed enormously.

We have refined and began to put into effect policies that had been born as we witnessed from the Opposition benches what was being lost. Government reclaimed the right - and the obligation - to actively involve itself in broadcasting issues.

We have done this in the context of a recognition that broadcasting is not just about commerce - about making programmes that attract advertisers that pay money. Government needs to be involved in broadcasting because of what broadcasting can do in cultural and civic terms - those objectives that I talked about earlier.

My own belief is that the best approach to broadcasting is to favour a 'mixed broadcasting economy' - one that has both public and private elements - where the market provides some of what should be available, and the government supplies what the market does not.

And our work in broadcasting has also taken place in the context of public policy that has emphasised to an unprecedented extent our own New Zealand culture. This government has been explicit and consistent about its support for 'culture' in general.

We are very keen to ensure that New Zealanders have a well-defined sense of their own cultural identity. We have recognized the need for government to play a stronger role if the cultural, social and economic benefits of the broad range of arts, heritage and broadcasting activities are to be realized.

The changing demography of New Zealand - the increasing diversity, the greater profile of people from many different countries and cultures - means that we must continue to make careful decisions to ensure that government's support is applied in the most appropriate, most effective way. Old understandings about what really reflects New Zealand culture, and how that culture is best supported, will need to be constantly tested and, where necessary, updated.

As Minister of Broadcasting I am particularly conscious of the power of the broadcast media. They can play an essential role in shaping nations - in the way that citizens develop and maintain a sense of the country they live in, and the way that country is perceived elsewhere. In a globalizing world, where CNN reports the news across the planet and internationally-sourced programming is cheaper than locally-produced material, we have a responsibility to ensure that New Zealanders have access to media that reflect New Zealand interests, tell New Zealand stories, and interpret foreign events through our eyes.

We have a responsibility to both acknowledge and exploit the capacity of television and radio to provide shared experiences, to make minority voices heard, to expand the range of topics presented to audiences, and to enable people to engage, actively, with the issues that concern them as citizens of this country.

So, as a government, we've taken broadcasting seriously. We've taken it seriously enough to think strategically about how we develop government's involvement in it in the future. We have taken it seriously enough to not make ad hoc decisions about individual initiatives, but instead to work towards a coherent approach that will best serve all the audiences of this country.

Which is not to say, of course, that thus far there has been more thinking than action. Let me run through some selected highlights of what we have done.

Perhaps most publicised has been the enacting of the Television New Zealand Act 2003, which incorporates the Charter, and the direct funding of TVNZ to assist in the implementation of this Charter.

We have also passed the Maori Television Service Act 2003 and the Radio New Zealand Amendment Act 2004.

Maori Television has been welcomed by New Zealand viewers, and is becoming an accepted part of the broadcasting infrastructure of this country. It has attracted viewing numbers that have silenced some who might have criticized it.

The RNZ Amendment Act was the outcome of the first review of Radio New Zealand's charter, and strengthened the organization as a public service broadcaster, emphasizing its relationship with its audiences.

We have established the pilot national Pacific Radio Network, Niu FM, and are conducting an assessment of its effectiveness.

The Radio New Zealand International digital transition is underway.

Cabinet has also made preliminary decisions on digital television. A working group of officials and broadcasters is addressing the complex issues raised by a switchover to digital services, to ensure a coherent approach.

We have supported local screen production through the establishment of a taskforce and consequential work by government in consultation with the industry. This has resulted in the creation of a coordination group, comprising the key organizations in the field, which will consider cross-sector issues, and which will enable co-ordinated government discussions with industry bodies. Such bodies include the Screen Council, the industry group charged with increasing foreign earnings, which was also established as part of this process.

We have commissioned a substantial report on the issue of TV violence, and are currently considering its recommendations.

We have amended the Broadcasting Act to extend section 36c, so that the special interests of youth are acknowledged, and to encourage a range of broadcasts that reflect the diverse religious and ethical beliefs of New Zealanders.

We have increased public funding for broadcasting by more than 70%. This funding has moved from $108 million in the 99/00 financial year, to $185 million in 03/04.

I think I can safely say that, despite the energy I have given to the Broadcasting portfolio, I have not at this point worked myself out of a job. The broadcasting sector is complex and dynamic. We must respond accordingly - and go on responding - if we are to ensure that broadcasting provides the range of information, in the fullest sense, that New Zealand needs.

Now that much of the programme the government came in with in 1999 is in place - with the TVNZ Act as the centrepiece - we have been turning our minds to the next five years. We want to secure what we have gained, and make sure that our policies are prepared for what is likely to be a period of significant change in broadcasting.

In the second half of last year through to earlier this year I consulted with public broadcasting agencies and private sector interests on what the government's priorities for the remainder of the decade should be. I issued a paper that took stock of the changes made to date and asked questions about future strategy.

That stock-take paper can be read on the website of the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, mch.govt.nz. The Ministry, in collaboration with others, staged an international conference on the Future of Public Broadcasting, in November last year. (The proceedings can be read - and heard - on the website newfuture.govt.nz.)

The result of this reflection and consultation will be a new programme of action - strategic in outlook - to extend the direction of our policies into an exciting but challenging future. I am still discussing the elements of this programme with my colleagues, but you can expect that measures to reinforce the place of our public broadcasters in the mixed economy of broadcasting will be prominent.

Regional and community broadcasting extend the principles of public broadcasting by serving and reflecting community audiences in ways that are outside the scope of national broadcasters. The programme of action will be exploring ways to enhance support.

This, then, is only the end of the beginning. As Minister I expect that I will continue to be confronted with questions of local content, of structure, funding, globalization, digitalization, independence, accountability, viability, feasibility, public good, merit goods, and whether, as a couple of people have wondered aloud to me, bro'Town's Jeff da Maori is an undesirable influence.

Let's look at some of these questions. Where, for example, is globalization taking us? The process of globalization will not stop, and its impact is felt, seen and heard most graphically in broadcasting. Global media ownership and new digital technologies might reduce the viability and focus of local programming - unless New Zealanders are alert to preserving and developing our capacity to reflect ourselves.

There are clear implications here for our policies on the strengthening of local content and local production, and the entrenching of the public broadcaster model.

What does the growth of subscription TV mean for New Zealand? Pay TV has now secured a base in 40% of New Zealand households. Its multi-channel, digital services and content selection (dominated by commercial, global offerings) are currently leading viewer expectations. Unless free-to-air broadcasting offers additional and eventually digital services as soon as possible, New Zealanders' access to public broadcasting may be compromised.

What is the 'right' level of funding for our broadcasting agencies, and how will we recognize it? I envisage that, notwithstanding the significant increase in broadcasting funding that has taken place under this government, more funding will continue to be sought.

I acknowledge, for example, that TVNZ is still highly dependent on advertising revenue, compared to its sister public broadcasters in comparable countries. I acknowledge the competing claims for NZ On Air funding, your own among them.

We must make certain that we have in place a robust rationale for making appropriate funding decisions.

Which brings me to the requests you have made of me in recent times. You have asked that sufficient funding be made available to allow for the lifting of the funding provided to you by NZ On Air in both absolute and percentage terms. You have asked that all Access Radio stations be allocated frequencies in the same range of the upper FM band.

I hope that you are convinced of the respect I have for Access Radio, and I know that it will disappoint you that I cannot give an immediate 'yes' to these requests. I do want to proceed with the broadcasting programme of action in a measured way, the better to ensure the durability of the decisions we take. Tempting though it may be to make decisions outside the coherent programme I envisage, I do not think it is desirable that I do so.

Access Radio is, in effect, a key part of that 'public' aspect of the mixed broadcasting economy I spoke of earlier - supporting the fulfillment of NZ On Air's obligation to those audiences outside the national mainstream. My Cabinet colleagues will recognize, as I do, that decisions made in relation to Access Radio funding and frequencies fall within the scope of the real business of broadcasting policy and operation.

I intend, then, to consider your requests as part of the broadcasting programme of action. The programme will include work on the wider issues relating to the allocation of the remaining FM band, and on the development of a new policy framework for regional, community and minority broadcasting.

Your operations and your aspirations are integral to an understanding of these issues, and it is within the context of this work that government can most appropriately consider the proposals you have made. And, therefore, it is within the context of this work that you stand the best chance of getting a positive response.

As our work unfolds, I will be looking to you to provide me with your perspective. I will be looking to you to help us address the right questions - the hard questions, maybe. Perhaps, in fact, we can kick that process off right now.

ENDS


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