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What's wrong with radio narrowcasting in Australia and how to fix it

By Philip Smith - posted Tuesday, 29 May 2007

Most mainstream media pundits dismiss the narrowcasting concept, and deride open narrowcast licences, particularly the low-power one-watt FM variety, as not being worth the paper they're written on. While I can't agree entirely agree with these sentiments, I readily admit there are shortcomings in the regulatory infrastructure for radio narrowcasting in Australia.

I dedicated my masters research project to investigating low-power radio narrowcasting in South East Queensland. When my study was completed last year, I had uncovered many interesting aspects - both good and bad - about this largely ignored, and perhaps poorly understood, sector of the media. My survey certainly showed that narrowcasting, as defined in the Broadcasting Service Act (BSA) has been given a stronger conceptual and regulatory foundation in Australia than in most other parts of the world.

This is no more evident than in the ACMA's (Australian Communication and Media Authority) recent discussion papers outlining a framework for narrowcast television in this country - a framework that is remarkably similar to that already in place narrowcast radio, as embodied in the “Narrowcasting for radio” (PDF 701KB) guidelines.


The purpose of this article is to highlight some areas in which I believe radio narrowcasting could be improved, so that the objectives of the BSA in regards to narrowcasting, namely, to enhance diversity in media in Australia, can be more fully realised. The information contained in this feature is derived largely from my own post-graduate research into and personal experience with radio narrowcasting. I suppose you could say I am writing a wish list of areas in which the government and ACMA could take action to make Open NarrowCast (ONC) licences more effectual and accessible to the public.


The biggest problem concerning radio narrowcasting is the extent to which licences are not being used. A government report investigating the problem of licence hoarding in 2000 suggested there was anecdotal evidence that up to 65 per cent of all Low-Power Open Narrowcast (LPON) FM were inactive. My own research shows that hoarding LPONs is still widespread, with some LPON licences having remained on the books but inactive for up to a decade.

Operators can get away with this because they often own several licences on a common frequency within close proximity to each other. They are thereby able to overpower one of those licences and create the illusion that all their LPONs are operating, when in fact they aren't.

The extent of narrowcast licence hoarding prompted the Minister for Communications in 2001 to issue a “use-it or lose-it” directive. However, the “use-it or lose-it” clause has in fact resulted in further concentration of ownership in this sector. Some larger narrowcasters, who were brazen enough to hold onto their existing portfolios, benefited from the ensuing “shakeup” when smaller owners sold their licences to avoid having then challenged and possibly cancelled.

The consolidation has left a few individuals and companies with very large holdings, and since these big players dominate the peak body ANRA (Australian Narrowcast Radio Association), it is unlikely that any of these mini media “moghuls” would challenge another other over the issue of hoarding.

The government's anti-hoarding strategem was only going to be truly effective if the ACMA had the gumption to initiate an audit in the aftermath of the directive's six-month start up timeframe. However, the ACMA was not and is not inclined to initiate any surveys of actual LPON and HPON usage, relying on a reactive public complaints mechanism to find and punish recalcitrant operators.


The end result is that the public is denied services that an owner has pledged to provide, thereby reducing the ability of narrowcasting to make a credible contribution to the broader media landscape.

The ACMA should initiate an audit of narrowcast licence usage in a key population area around a capital city - South East Queensland would be a good place to start - where there are many LPON FM licences allocated. An audit will reveal the extent of hoarding and other miscreant activities in the sector, and the ensuing widely publicised spate of licence cancellations and format breach notifications issued under Section 19 of the BSA, will make violators in other parts of the country more inclined to activate, trade or ultimately sell their licences to avoid the ignominy of having them cancelled.

LPON exclusion zones

The ACMA has established a mechanism or “planning model" (PDF 252KB) for allocating LPON FM licences. It includes requirements governing the spacing of licences depending on their frequency. The current Planning Model also creates “protection radii” around existing radio and TV stations, both for commerical broadcasters and the ABC, whose licensed FM frequency is close to the LPON frequencies - 87.6, 87.8, 88.0 Mhz.

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Click on this link (PDF 94KB) to read Philip Smith's submission to last year's "Meeting the Digital Challenge" Discussion Paper on Media Reform options, which included comments on radio narrowcasting.

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About the Author

Philip Smith is a freelance journalist with an MA in Mass Communications from Griffith University who specialises in radio and online media. He has trained radio producers in 15 countries across Asia and Africa and Europe, while being engaged in several fascinating 'tours of duty' for Adventist World Radio in the 1990s. He also worked as a sub-editor at the Lahore Bureau for the The News International - a leading English daily published by Pakistan's premier private media entity, the Jang group. Philip is married to a Pakistani, and he and his wife live quietly in a humble suburban home in Perth WA, where Philip owns and operates a growing LPON radio network - Trans FM 87.6. He is also a media consultant who buys and sells narrowcast licences, with clients based in every state.

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