By ALEC SMART
Marrickville-based community radio station RSR FM, better known as Radio Skidrow, is facing a financial crisis that may well see them end up on, ahem, skid row.
The station, which can be found among the community arts and cultural organisations in the heritage-listed former Army depot at Addison Rd, launched an appeal for financial help after the Community Broadcasting Foundation (CBF) announced they wouldn’t provide funding in 2020.
For community radio that doesn’t rely on advertising or corporate ownership to sustain their programming, CBF grants are a lifeline.
CBF is a not-for-profit organisation whose mission is “to support independent, community-owned and operated media to tell vital local stories, connect people around the country and strengthen Australian democracy through greater participation, engagement, inclusion and cohesion”.
This they do by approving annual grants that the CBF board, supported by grants advisory committees and assessors, oversee.
CBF themselves receive income from a variety of sources, including the Australian Government’s Department of Communications and the Arts, the Foundation for Rural and Regional Renewal, the Australian Communities Foundation, plus private donations and bequests, and corporate sponsors like News Corp Australia.
In the 2018-2019 financial year, CBF oversaw the distribution of over $19.7 million, in which Radio Skidrow were allocated $150,000.
In 2020, CBF revealed: “We granted a total of $9,602,529 for 537 applications, and have also offered five applicants multi-year funding.”
Unfortunately, CBF assessors bypassed Sydney’s Radio Skidrow in its 2019-2020 round of funding, leaving the small Inner West broadcaster in a crisis.
Radio Skidrow President Huna Amweero responded angrily in a public announcement: “They chose to kneecap the most historically and radically diverse station in New South Wales, during a global pandemic and a civil rights movement. No money to keep the lights on, no money to keep the transmitter running or people in stable employment. They gave us nothing, so we knew we had to speak up and fight.”
On 26 October, in an appeal for public support, Radio Skidrow revealed, “The [CBF] decision, which affected about ten stations around the country, has resulted in community radio stations with only a few hours of ethnic programming each week receiving substantial funding increases, while stations like Radios Skidrow, which broadcasts 47 hours of community language programs a week, received no operational funding at all.”
Radio Skidrow launched in 1982 and received a broadcast license in 1983 to broadcast at 88.9 FM. For a while, the terms of the license specified it was obliged to switch off at midnight. The station attracted a fascinating assortment of characters from all walks of life, and covered social issues like the brutal evictions of long-term squatters from Glebe during the suburb’s gentrification in 1983-4.
A crisis began in 1984 when the then-management attempted to commercialise the station, unsuccessfully applying to change its name to ‘Radio Sydney’. However, after hiring security to lock out DJs (this reporter joined a graffiti campaign to protest their actions) their reign abruptly ended and the station was replaced by a new community-oriented management.
I was a DJ on 2RSR FM during 1984-1985, firstly on a Friday evening punk program, followed by an overnight ‘graveyard shift’ on Thursdays. I can remember when the station broadcast from graffiti-strewn studios beneath what is now student kitchens at the Sydney University campus on City Rd.
In 1985, it shared the premises for a short period with new station Radio Redfern, whose Indigenous DJs arrived at midnight on Friday and broadcast for 10 hours, when the programming reverted to Skidrow.
Then, because of the lack of women in public broadcasting, Skidrow dedicated Fridays as women’s day, when only females hosted shows and managed programming.
Colin Hesse, Marrickville Greens councillor and volunteer presenter of a local government focused community radio program on Thursday mornings on Skidrow, ‘Close to Home‘, confirmed that the station now faces a crisis. In an interview with the Sydney Sentinel he said, “For reasons I don’t understand, for the first time in three decades the Community Broadcasting Foundation refused to give us funding. The grant goes toward rent, electricity bills and overheads … It’s more than disappointing.
“We’re running on the smell of a once-oily rag!”
Previously, Radio Skidrow has hosted fundraising events, including live music, to help sustain the station. However, in the current Covid-19 climate, these are restricted with limits on crowd size and other social distancing regulations.
“40,000 people gathered to watch the State of Origin football match at the ANZ Stadium and yet we can’t book a decent sized venue to host a benefit concert,” Hesse said.
Hesse acknowledges that radio, particularly community-focused radio, doesn’t attract the same listeners it once did.
“Podcasting has possibly taken audiences away, and people listen to music differently now with digital streaming and downloads.”
Hesse’s own Thursday morning radio program is what he describes as “magazine format”.
“I try to represent local stories, particularly since Covid-19 has contributed to the loss of regional newspapers. But I mix up the talk and politics with music. On my last show, I read a poem welcoming NAIDOC week [the annual event celebrating Indigenous achievements and culture].”
Hesse despairs that independent media is on the decline while genuine community news is overlooked by the dominant few organisations that monopolise Australia’s communications industries.
“There’s not enough funding in community broadcasting. We have three dominant media organisations that control almost all local and national news, which is not very diverse – and yet diversity is really important.
“The strength of Skidrow is that it is very diverse – in no way, shape or form is it a monoculture! Skidrow represents the best of community pluralism. However, diversity can be seen as a weakness when it comes to attracting funding..”
To donate to the Radio Skidrow financial appeal, which closes on 4 December, visit Start Some Good:
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