AMRAP & the Digital Radio Project

Senate Supplementary Estimates - Environment and Communications Committee - 16 October 2012

Senator LUDLAM: I am not sure whether to put this question to the officers or to the minister; I am just going to bowl it up and hopefully someone can help. AMRAP-Australian Music Radio Airplay Project-is pretty popular with community broadcasters and pretty popular with local Australian bands. Minister, last time we spoke on this you disclosed it had been punted back into your portfolio from Minister Crean-

Senator Conroy: 'Reallocated' was the word I am sure I used.

Senator LUDLAM: Reallocated-and that that had occurred sans funding. So you got the line item but just did not get any money. We are talking about $600,000 to connect local artists with community radio stations. Can we get an update as to whether that funding has been restored.

Senator Conroy: At this point there is no final decision. It is still something the department and ourselves are reviewing. It is obviously a challenging budgetary time at the moment, but we are conscious that it is a very worthy program.

Senator LUDLAM: Is the government committed in principle to maintaining the program?

Senator Conroy: We have to be able to fund it adequately if we are going to go down that path; that is something we are looking at. We believe emergency funds from the Community Broadcasting Foundation are in place at the moment-

Senator LUDLAM: That is my understanding.

Senator Conroy: and we are investigating what our options are.

Senator LUDLAM: You have been able to keep it on life support, I guess, until the end of 2012-is that financial year 2012 or calendar year 2012?

Senator Conroy: Calendar.

Senator LUDLAM: I trust that you can at least give us an assurance that you believe community radio is essential to media diversity on digital platforms-don't treat that as a dixer.

Senator Conroy: As you well know-you have long been a supporter, as have I-we do believe it is a very important forum, particularly in the new digital world. We are working through the challenges at the moment. If we are able to make an announcement we will make it as early as we can.

Senator LUDLAM: But you are not in a position to inform the committee tonight?

Senator Conroy: I cannot cheer you up today, is probably the best way to describe it. But you should never give up hope.

Senator LUDLAM: No. That is sage advice, and I won't. I hope that before little program closes its doors there is some better news. Can I bring you to the Digital Radio Project, which is larger in scope and, if anything, probably more complex. It is allowing the community broadcasting sector to transition across to the digital stream. Can you give us an update about funding in that regard-there is a shortfall rather than a cancellation.

Ms O'Loughlin : The government provided $11.2 million over three years-2009-10 to 2011-12-for the establishment and maintenance of community digital radio. As you mentioned, there is still funding available. From 2012-13 the government will provide $2.2 million ongoing to support digital community radio.

Senator LUDLAM: Is it your understanding that there is a shortfall of roughly $1.4 million a year to keep on the air all the stations that are currently broadcasting?

Dr Pelling : Yes, my understanding is that the community radio sector has sought additional funding of approximately that amount, which relates to providing additional transmission capacity in the capital cities relating to infill transmitters to extend the coverage of the service. That matter is still under consideration.

Senator LUDLAM: That is under consideration as well. What happens if that funding is not found?

Ms O'Loughlin : The $2.2 million for the maintenance of services is ongoing funding, so that would still be available, but the extension of services that has been requested by the sector would not take place at this time.

Senator LUDLAM: It is my understanding that it is not actually an extension of services; it is to make sure that everybody is covered.

Ms O'Loughlin : Sorry, by extension of services I mean gap-filler type services.

Senator LUDLAM: I am just trying to get to the consequences if the extra $1.4 million per annum is not found. Does that mean stations drop off air or just that reception is a bit crap in some parts of town?

Ms O'Loughlin : It will be that some areas of a particular location, because they are not serviced by a gap filler, may not receive the digital radio service. So the reach would be less.

Senator LUDLAM: We are not talking about stations dropping offline, just the reception?

Ms O'Loughlin : Not as far as I am aware.

Dr Pelling : My understanding is that, essentially, it will impact on their capacity to provide those additional services. Exactly how the community sector chooses to respond to not getting the funding it has sought will be a matter for it.

Senator LUDLAM: So it is not your call to make, then. If the funding is not forthcoming either transmission quality across the board may be degraded for the amount of-

Ms O'Loughlin : Transmission reach.

Senator LUDLAM: Yes. Or stations could fall off the edge of a cliff but quality would be improved for those that remained.

Ms O'Loughlin : I think it does also depend, as Dr Pelling said, on the choice by the community radio sector. Some of them are introducing services which might be short-term services: they might go on air for a while and then come off. That is a feature that we find with digital radio services in the commercial area as well, that some might be just a time sensitive service that lasts, for example, for the tour of an international performer or a festival or something like that.

Senator LUDLAM: It was my understanding-and I presume you have been briefed on this by the sector-that we are not just talking about patchy transmission quality and temporary events that we might one day find they have not got the spectrum that they need but we are actually looking at, potentially, stations just falling off the air.

Ms O'Loughlin : We are happy to take that on notice, but in a general sense the base funding is still there and any increase in funding is subject to consideration by the government, as with Amrap.

Senator LUDLAM: You have offered to take some information on notice. I am particularly interested in the fact that my information is that we may lose some stations if funding is not secured.

Ms O'Loughlin : We will take on notice whether we have any information about programs going off air.

Senator LUDLAM: Good, thank you.