Radio Australia to survive, but with reduced services

After months of uncertainty, Radio Australia has been promised enough money to stay on the air, but not enough to maintain all its services. The Australian government will cut funding to the international broadcaster from AUD$20.5 million annually to AUD$7.4 million for each of the next three years. Donald McDonald, chairman of the state-owned Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), which runs Radio Australia, said the ABC will maintain “a significant broadcasting presence in the Asia-Pacific region” despite the cutbacks.

Transmissions to the Pacific in English and to nearby Papua New Guinea in Tok Pisin will continue, but programs to Asia in Bahasa Indonesian, Mandarin, Khmer and Vietnamese will be scaled back. Cantonese, Thai and French services will disappear.

Radio Australia (RA) will lose the most modern of its three short-wave transmitter sites, after having lost a fourth site last year.

In a change from past practice, the government will specifically identify funds for Radio Australia within the ABC budget. More than half the RA funding will come from the Department of Foreign Affairs although RA general manager Derek White, who resigned his position in mid-June, insisted that editorial independence would not be compromised as a result.

Unemployment for many of the 170 full-time Radio Australia staff appeared inevitable.

Controversial decision

The decision to slash spending on the 58-year-old Radio Australia followed months of bitter debate among politicians. There was vigorous protest from overseas listeners and RA supporters within Australia.

The Communications Minister, Senator Richard Alston, wanted to shut down RA as part of his plan to trim AUD$55 million (later changed to AUD$42 million) from the AUD$531 million ABC budget. Senator Alston cited the government-commissioned Mansfield Report into the ABC which recommended using money saved by closing RA and the international satellite service Australia Television to maintain domestic services.

Speaking in parliament, Senator Alston told his opponents they had to make a choice: “If your preference is to see ABC programming around Australia cut back very significantly so you can preserve a fully-fledged international service then stand up and say so. Because I don’t think that’s the view of the Australian population.”

After the release of the Mansfield Report in January, supporters of Radio Australia launched a campaign to convince the government that RA was highly valued by its overseas listeners and vital to Australia’s foreign policy interests. Radio Australia frequently carried messages of support from leaders and groups of all kinds in the Asia-Pacific region. RA staff protested in front of the ABC headquarters in Melbourne.

Pressure felt

Over several weeks, the government and the ABC Board obviously felt the pressure, and stopped speaking in terms of shutting down RA. Instead they raised a series of possibilities, which kept the issue alive until early May when the government would have to announce a decision on broadcast funding as part of the federal budget.

According to one scheme, RA would have continued serving the Pacific in English and Tok Pisin while dropping its Asian broadcasts, a move seemingly at odds with Australia’s attempts to build its profile in Asia.

Another time it was suggested that RA would abandon short-wave transmission in favor of satellites. Critics said such a move would deny access to listeners who could not afford satellite reception, as well as leaving RA vulnerable to censorship in receiving countries.

Australia’s deputy prime minister even floated the idea that RA supporters could buy the service and run it commercially, an idea nobody appears to have taken seriously.

The Senate inquiry

The greatest thorn in the side of the government, however, was the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Senate, Australia’s legislative upper house. In February, just a month after the release of the Mansfield Report, senators launched their own public inquiry into Australia’s international broadcasting services. They vowed to file a report by May 5, one week before the release of the federal budget that would seal the fate of RA.

The senators received 2211 written submissions. All but three supported the retention of RA.

Derek White, in a personal submission to the Senate committee, said that RA’s budget of AUD$20.5 million was money well-spent. “It is just one percent of the two billion dollars Australia spends on public diplomacy and foreign aid and [it] reaches many more people more often and perhaps more effectively.”

After days of hearings, the Senate committee concluded that RA should not only be maintained, but that it should receive an increase in funding to expand its Khmer language service and begin broadcasts in Burmese.

In their report, the senators described Radio Australia and Australia Television as “two great Australian success stories in the very competitive field of international broadcasting.” They said they found it “incomprehensible” that the government would even contemplate closing RA, and accused Senator Alston of “trivializing the issue by making misleading statements such as suggesting that short-wave radio is outdated.”

The Senate report took aim at Australia’s coalition government, quoting the policy it had announced before last year’s election, which said “the Coalition is strongly supportive of Radio Australia’s existing services and will ensure that they are not prejudiced or downgraded in any way.”

The senators noted their displeasure over the lack of cooperation by senior government officials who refused to answer the committee’s questions, and accused the ABC itself of failing to publicly support the two international broadcasting services under its jurisdiction.

The Senate committee dismissed the Mansfield Report on the grounds it had not examined “the foreign affairs aspects” of international broadcasting. The author of the report, businessman Bob Mansfield, was lambasted by the senators, who said he had done a disservice to the ABC and the nation’s interests “by mounting a half-baked justification for his recommendations in relation to Radio Australia and Australia Television.”

Throughout the inquiry, Senator Alston made it clear he would not be bound by the recommendations of his senate colleagues. In the end, however, public pressure was apparently sufficient to persuade the Communications Minister to allow Radio Australia to survive, albeit in a smaller form.

Australia Television did not fare as well, and the ABC is proceeding with its sale.

Shortwave still effective

Although its programs are now distributed by satellite, local rebroadcast and the Internet, most listeners still tune in Radio Australia on short-wave. Much of the debate over the future of RA centered on the question of whether short-wave is still an effective broadcast medium.

The Senate report concluded that short-wave remains viable, particularly in RA’s target areas: “For a vast number of people in Asia, radio is the only medium to which they have access. Many local services in some countries, such as Indonesia, also use short-wave for their broadcasts,” the report stated.

Derek White told the Senate committee he is optimistic about the future of short-wave: “Digital broadcasting is likely to take over within the next decade or two and deliver a short wave signal that is clearer and more reliable. It will reduce the channel space so there will be less crowding of the spectrum and you will get a clearer signal.”

Radio Australia short-wave transmission sites

Radio Australia uses 14 short-wave transmitters. There are three at Brandon and six operational at Shepparton. Darwin (Cox Peninsula) has five operational transmitters and another four had been planned but the budget cut means the site will no longer be used. 

More than AU$23million was spent on upgrading Radio Australia’s short-wave transmitter sites between 1991 and 1997. 

Under the new budget, Radio Australia will no longer use the largest broadcasting station in Australia, the NTA site at Cox Peninsula (Darwin). Ironically, the station is currently being upgraded. In 1994-95, two new Thomcast transmitters were installed and AU$12 million has been spent on upgrading computer systems. The station has seven multiband, slewable, curtain antennas arranged to deliver signals from Central Indonesia to India in one arc and north to Asia in another. 

The Shepparton Station is the original Radio Australia station established in 1943. Its current transmitters were installed in the 1970s and 1980s. The original antennas are being replaced with modern designs to serve the Pacific, PNG, and Indonesia. 

The Brandon station in Queensland is unstaffed and uses low power (10kW) transmitters to serve PNG and the Coral Sea. 

The Carnarvon transmitter station was closed last year, despite the fact that it provided RA with its best reach into Asia. 

Nigel Holmes, transmission manager for RA told the Senate committee “It has been Radio Australia’s aim in recent years – probably up to the closure of Carnarvon – to enter into transmitter sharing negotiations. There are other broadcasters, for example Radio Netherlands [who] were very anxious to broadcast into Indonesia from the Carnarvon site, and they were prepared to offer us access to some of their transmission resources in exchange.” 

During the last few months, as the future of Radio Australia hung in the balance, Nigel Holmes received letters from the Voice of America, the BBC World Service and Deutsche Welle expressing interest in leasing transmitter capacity. Ironically, he noted, this was at a time when Australia’s Communications Minister was saying that short-wave was no longer effective. 

Radio Australia has always been constrained by the fact that its transmitters and transmission budget are controlled by Australia’s National Transmission Agency (NTA). A former director of RA, Peter Barnett, told the Senate committee that the NTA understands international broadcasting only in terms of technology. Without an appreciation of RA’s programming objectives, it had resisted enhancing transmission into Asia, he said. 

Because the NTA is legally restricted to operating short-wave transmitters based in Australia, RA cannot lease or exchange time on transmitters in other countries. According to Derek White, this has prevented RA from improving its signals through the use of overseas transmitters. He also accused the NTA of not being interested in earning revenue by leasing Australian transmitters to other international broadcasters.

* First published 23 July 1997 in the International Edition of Radio World

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  1. […] The budget cuts of 1997 led to the closure of one of Radio Australia’s short-wave transmission sites, near Darwin in northern Australia. […]

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