Knitting a cultural blanket for the nation
Where would Australian music be without community radio?
While trying to find this out one of my interviewees got all rhetorical, with Dan Zilber - the music director of Sydney’s FBi - asking me if I “really want[ed] to even consider this,” aptly followed with exclamation marks aplenty.
If I were to answer my own question, it’d probably include shoe boxes stuffed with cassettes under beds, or the technologically advanced equivalent – maybe a hard drive stacked with mp3s. Something like that. I have no doubt that the music would still be being made, but that we’d get to hear it is unlikely. That is, if the “it” were different, or challenging, to the typecast that majors favour through any season – in other words, to hear anything grassroots or underground you’d have to keep your ear firmly to the ground, and not the more comfortably posited speaker beside the radio dial.
So is that why community radio is there? To service the underground? There’s more than that. It’s to uncover the underground, to dig up these great moments of Australian culture and deliver them, at least the musical ones, amidst their international peers. To take the underground from the unknown and make it known, give it an audience and make it a cultural player. The Community Broadcasting Association of Australia sees it as providing “independent broadcasting services and to build and strengthen local communities.” Struggling musician Matthew J Toohey (Kid Cornered, The Woods Themselves, El Mopa) sees community radio as being “able to give exposure to all the bedroom musicians who are removed from the apparatus that is the music 'industry'. It is able to give recognition and tickle egos just enough to make you think that someone out there might be listening and hopefully you might sell a few more records which will help in making the next one...” Each of these reasons is true.
The importance of independent media is so incredibly huge, I’m not going to even start on that rant, but what about that facets of building and strengthening local communities, and providing a space outside of the cultural/ commercial norms.
Dan Zilber reckons it’s got everything to do with those communities, and sees so much significance in supporting them at every stage of their existence. “Local music can have so much more relevance to the people living in the place where it's made. This music deals with the situations, climates and attitudes that we are living through, as people who live in Australia.”
Still shuddering at the thought of a parallel universe without the virtues of community radio, I find Zilber reaches moments of clarity far more concise than my own. These situations, climates and attitudes craft a consciousness in our own worlds and minds, and having people creatively translate that into music is one of the most indefinably awe-inspiring things. It’s like it creates a tangible “us”ness far more effective than the false patriotism that politicians try to inspire come war/election/tax time. “If it's not played on radio, how can anyone even attempt to engage with it,” Zilber continues, “and decide if it's great, awful or somewhere in between? I feel FBi gives it's listeners the opportunity to discover a wide variety of local music which they can then investigate, ignore or at the very least, hear on their radio.”
Throughout Australia we’re blessed with more than 300 community radio stations, each unique to their own communities. They involve rich histories, innumerable volunteers and immense support from their listeners, these communities, and the social context that allows them to exist. When you think everything in this country has gone to shit switch on your wireless and enjoy that forms of independent media like this still exists – it’s like there’s been some weird altruistic glitch in media policy that’s enabled it. Make sure the next time you take a tip from one of the thousands of clued in broadcasters, about a show, a record or an artist you mightn’t have heard about otherwise, that you take similar enjoyment.
Bruno Brayovic is the presenter of the Australian music show on FBi, The Streets of Your Town, an employee of the body set up to support the hundreds of community broadcasters nationwide, the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia (CBAA), and a member of Sydney rock stalwarts Peabody. Due to his multiple involvements in community radio, he’s developed a heightened awareness of its importance. “In an increasingly globalised world, the community broadcasting sector stands alone as an independent voice for music in both a macro and micro capacity,” and ultimately that’s what we’re talking here: it’s independence, and what independence enables on the micro level and how that impacts on the macro level.
While commercial anythings, be they print publications or radio stations or websites, all have vested interests, community broadcasters have their community of interest as their primary concern. They don’t have to play something ‘cos a record company PR type is breathing down their neck, and they don’t have to plug a show because the advertising dollars mightn’t be there next time if they don’t. It’s rare you get a media source that is able to function like that, or even remotely like that, the closest thing I can think of is a zine, but the audience of photocopied ramblings comes nowhere near to the numbers a good broadcaster can reach. Plus community radio has so much more going for it than some self indulgent/ obsessive rambling. At worst, it’s a compilation of several tens of self indulgent/ obsessive ramblers, where you’re most likely going to find someone whose ramblings you dig. At best it’s a space for exciting, innovative media making to take place, a forum for ideas to be both expressed and shared, and an open slate where community is foregrounded. And it goes for twenty four hours a day. Every day. How do they do it? I’m still in awe.
You might be reading this and listening to your local community radio station, shaking your head at these words because you can hear an ad right now – interspersed between two tracks of questionable worth.
Here’s the break down.
That ad is a kart, a sponsorship announcement – paid for, yes, like any ad but different because the advertiser is a sponsor and buys what limited time is set aside each hour primarily as a supporter of a station. Usually the karts will be of some interest to the community, but granted this isn’t an ideal world and sometimes the stations you love need cash as much as they need your love. But the compromises are minimal and the benefits maximal. Remember those twenty four hours a day? They’re expensive hours when it comes to running costs. But still, there are few sponsorship announcements every hour and you reap the advantages of that.
What about the two tracks of questionable worth, I hear you say? Hey dummy, community radio is there for everyone – just because you don’t dig something doesn’t mean someone else isn’t going to. Find the announcers you like and stick with them, they’ll be your guide through this thing we call culture today.
While there are over 300 community broadcasters in Australia today, let it be known I’m dealing with a very specific few – the ones that probably align themselves with the very specific few that you, dear reader and fine music connoisseur, do too. They’re the ones that deal with the communities we’re a part of – although we’d call them scenes and academics would call them subcultures. 4ZZZ in Brisbane, 2SER and FBi in Sydney, 2XX in Canberra, PBS, RRR and 3CR in Melbourne, Radio Adelaide and ThreeD in Adelaide, RTR in Perth, The Edge in Tassie. . . the list goes on. There are plenty. 2SER and FBi are my jam, so I’m sticking with them as my examples. But how does it work? What’s the role of these stations on their corresponding scenes, subcultures and communities?
At 2SERHQ, or the coffee shop down the road where I take 2SER music director and deputy program manager Andrew Khedoori to talk radio, music policy isn’t music policy, per se. It’s station policy.
“For me it’s really important that 2SER [Sydney Educational Radio] is a stand alone cultural hub and therefore the music itself kind of represents that, so for me it’s providing a true alternative,” Khedoori states quite confidently. “I don’t mean that in a marketing sense – the word alternative is bandied about as a marketing term by your major labels and I think what we’re doing is offering something quite different in terms of listening. I like to make sure what we’re providing, when you flick over, is that you are going to hear something relatively different.”
How does that fit in when you’re dealing with Australian music? It doesn’t. “I don’t really like to ghettoize Australian music in that regard, I think it’s important to place it within the world context. I don’t like that term world class, I think it’s just the flipside of the Australian cultural cringe,” Khedoori reasons. “When someone says that something from Australia is world class it’s because there’s a cultural cringe there that there isn’t much else that is. It’s part of the world, this isn’t WAKO, we’re not in a compound recording Australian music.”
2SER’s license (and, in fact, its name) is concerned with providing educational radio. With a program grid that is predominantly music or magazine (part talks, larger part music) shows it means that educational facet has to apply to the musical elements as much as to the talks content. And it’s achieved, through offering something that’s sonically different. With priorities rested in “education” the concern focuses in on challenging audiences, or expanding their horizons, or – as is mostly the case – both. That’s something that is consistently present when dealing with music from both Australia and abroad, where the focus isn’t defined geographically and doesn’t need to be to achieve 2SER’s ultimate goal. “I don’t think it’s up to us to develop talent, I think it’s up to us to find ways of getting music from everywhere onto the air that fits into that ideal of being a real alternative,” Khedoori states in a moment that isn’t dispassionate towards new Australian artists, but rather places seeking that alternative above the arbitrariness of location.
“I do see a lot of Australian bands who want to get on to community radio as a kind of stepping stone – to Triple J, or (Austereo’s) Triple M, stuff like that - and I don’t really see what they’re doing musically as something that fits with the ideal of what we do, and it’s kind of hard to knock them back,” Khedoori continues. “I’ve had phone calls from bands where they say ‘we’re an independent band, we’re an unsigned band can we send you our demo’ and I’ll go, yeh cool – what does it sound like? ‘Oh it sounds like a cross between Sepultura and Faith No More’ and I sort of go ‘Well, you can send it in but we don’t really play that kind of stuff here’ and they go ‘uhh, but we’re unsigned.’ Well, yeh but people who listen to 2SER are looking for a different sound, they’re not looking for the next sepultura, or the next Faith No More, the next Powderfinger . . . and I think it’s up to us to ferret around and find the bands that aren’t necessarily fitting into some more formatted radio station. That’s why we have experimental music programs, that’s why we have hip hop music programs, that’s why we have jazz music programs, and the country and roots things that we do.” I used to think there was a line, an arbitrary distinction of what was and wasn’t suited to community radio, and that music directors or people in similar positions became tastemakers, to an extent. But the beauty of community radio is that that’s not the case – there are limitations established by individual presenters, and while they might all set out to establish an alternative there’s no universal sieve that qualifies everything that gets an airing. The subjectivities of taste are left out in the open and, in a rarity for music media, are relished.
It’s a cliché to say that everything changed after Nirvana, and I apologise for evoking it, but it’s true. When alternative became a marketable commodity independence in a musical context became co-opted yet, ironically, even more important. The underground became a breeding ground for superstars in the making, and kids working at maccas in Sydney’s south aspired to omnipresence on MTV through “indie” pathways. Yes, indie became adorned by inverted commas.
How, then, is it possible to provide an alternative in musical terms when the alternative is so quickly snapped up? For musicians it’s about maintaining focus, ideals and passions, just doing what you do and not following, or opposing, or pre-empting fashions, fads or styles. And not caring about ‘em either, just existing, doing what you do and finding comfort in existing as your own entity. For community radio, as a medium unto itself, it’s the same story. The “alternative” isn’t an oppositional alternative, it’s an alternative that establishes its own language, one that appreciates what else is out there but doesn’t need them to rub up against or bounce off these others. Sure, there are crossovers in content, but community media engages in an entirely different conversation, one that is aware but not obsessed with commerce, and thank god for that. And so the content reflects that.
How’s music going to progress when it’s all about new rock groups aspiring to major label deals? Surely some kid working with a four track, or pro-tools, or audiomulch in their bedroom is of much more worth in a society preoccupied with progress? And without the medium to explore those ideas publicly and facilitate a community the extent to which ideas can develop is limited. It’s about agendas, and the kid on audiomulch has some very different agendas to the fashionistas courting EMI. There’s plenty of support for the latter in a media sphere, but if that was all that existed wouldn’t you start to get bored, and think that maybe the end of music was looming? Community radio lets you know that it’s not, like a relic from a past where indie meant more than a pair of cons and a stripey tee.
Bruno Brayovic, from Peabody, The Streets of Your Town, etc etc also acknowledges the parallels between bands and radio – seeing that great cultural divide being relevant to both. “[Community radio] is like many squares being knitted independently, but eventually forming one big cultural blanket. . . I don't see it as a stepping stone [to greater things] because I don't see music on community radio as the beginning of something, but rather as part of something as important as the medium itself. As a musician I see myself as being part of that ‘cultural blanket’ just like community radio, therefore I don't see the need to position it against mainstream forms of media which to me serve a completely different purpose. [It’s] Like comparing apples and oranges…”
So community radio, how d’you like them apples? Obsessively, I like ‘em obsessively. But what about oranges?
The role Triple J plays in the hypothetical cultural blanket of Australia is almost indefinable. Richard Kingsmill, music director and programmer of 2006 over at the J’s cites “its creation was to offer the audience an outlet to listen to music and a way of making radio that was different to all the other things that they were subjected to i.e. commercial radio. It was created to give the audience an alternative to what they were hearing through mainstream media,” and it does, to an extent. But when what you’re defining yourselves against is as stagnant as it is (non stop blocks of rock, or manufactured pop, on repeat 24-7) the space offered to create an alternative is huge, and the places you can posit yourself are endless. I don’t want to be a hater, because I’m not – I think Triple J occupies an important space in Australian culture and the luxury of having a national youth broadcaster shouldn’t be undervalued – but I do feel that there are unnecessarily imposed limitations to the music that Triple J covers. According to my interviewees I’m not the only one.
Sitting face to face with Richard Kingsmill in the Triple J offices is, to be honest, quite daunting. He’s not a man I want to offend, because the task of playlisting a national broadcaster is mammoth and that anyone can handle doing that and remain sane, let alone as passionate as he is about his role in Australian music, is a phenomenon. But given my foot-in-mouth disease, from minute number one of our interview I can tell offense is not far off.
I hate that they still have a place on Triple J because I feel that a station that has relative independence and such a large audience base should use that to engage with their audience. Of Powderfinger, Kingsmill sees their worth. “They’re still, even though they’re a very popular band, they’re still essentially a rock band that our audience relates to and is interested in, so that’s the reason why we’re still interested in their music.” Fair call, but I still don’t see it. I don’t think for a second that Triple J should dictate to their audience what they should and shouldn’t like, but I think that in providing an alternative it’s important to keep the ideas of an alternative fresh – so that the alternative of 1997, when it’s been subsumed by the mainstream, should perhaps lose it’s alternative status, and that a national broadcaster shouldn’t be afraid of losing listeners because it develops its playlists as music and music-makers themselves develop.
You say that to the King, and that’s when you start embracing that foot in mouth thang.
“I think there’s a lot of people who will ignore the great work we do. They’ll never look at the effect that we’ve had and the bands that we’ve championed… I think there’s a certain amount of jealousy about Triple J and what we do. There are a lot of people in the press who are jealous of what we do who would like to work here who don’t work here who kind of think they could do a better job than what we do and so they’ll criticise us.” Kingsmill knows his words most likely apply to me, and they do in part. Although I don’t think I’d do a better job, just different.
Triple J, in theory, is radio Utopia where money (while limited) exists without the obligations commercials generate, and with a potential audience that exceeds the reach of a community station’s transmitter. They don’t answer to anyone outside of the ABC and for the most part only answer to their own mission statement (“to entertain and inform”), and there’s an amazing freedom in that (given the way the ABC board is developing I may be overstating that freedom, but what the hell). Plus the role they have in influencing culture is massive. Or could be. But I think there’s an element of safety, a reluctance to challenge the 13 year olds too much or scare rural listeners with the unfamiliar, which I think underestimates their audience, or at least limits the impact that the station can have. But when you have such a massive target audience, them’s the breaks I guess. With the J’s I think there’s a desire for accessibility which is both admirable and limiting: serve up something that the commercial listeners won’t be afraid of embracing for a bit of alternative culture which, in turn, limits the impact the station can have on alternative culture. But it also guarantees some level of impact too. So Ben Lee could easily act as an entrance point to Grand Salvo, Something For Kate fans might dig on Laura Jean, and hell – it’s not too impossible to imagine a Wolfmother lover sharing a bit of love with My Disco, and each of these things would be truly awesome.
In short: Triple J is different. It’s not a commercial station, but due to its audience base it doesn’t have the straight out freedom of a community station. “Triple J is just a beast that has existed for 30 years that has never altered the way it looks at whatever it does.” Yes, Kingsmill is right. Things changed when it went national, but for the better on a nation scale – in the eloquent words of Joseph Leonard (Sydney solo artist, Founder, The Woods Themselves) “Triple J moves on to the bigger guns, the small stations pick up the trash. Trash is always of more value.” The J’s also make the bigger guns, which is good – and healthy – to not leave that all to the commercials and their canoodlings with majors and money, and while I’m not so sure of the trash being of more value, it’s definitely more interesting.
Nestled between variety shops, premium take away stores and one stop rock shops is Sydney’s newest inclusion to the community radio sector – FBi. Not so new, the impact that FBi has had on Sydney is close to phenomenal, the perfect cure to a 10 year hangover following Triple J’s nationalization.
Owen Penglis, member of The Holy Soul, and part time thereminer for Youth Group, has enjoyed the semi-revival Sydney music has had over the last couple of years, and attributes it at least partially to the existence of a broadcaster concerning itself with the community he is both a part of and contributes to. “Triple J going national destroyed a large part of the Sydney local music scene. Sydney was left without a major local independent broadcaster until FBi finally were awarded their full-time license, and is still recovering. Whereas you look at somewhere like Melbourne which has had two very strong community stations for over 20 years; PBS and RRR - with these in force and a void in Sydney, the local music scene in Melbourne has flourished and continues to, while the Sydney music scene has floundered in comparison,” Owen reckons. Don’t worry kids – it’s changing. “Since the launch of FBi in Sydney, the musical output has seemingly doubled.” Hallelujah.
The fruits of a commitment to Australia’s, and particularly Sydney’s new and emerging artists can be seen everyday, and it’s a testament to the value of community radio. So while 2SER explores music a little more and does so irrespective of origin (which has its own merits and impacts culture accordingly), FBi offers a space for local artists unlike any other, and a local knowledge to listeners that is similarly unique.
2SER and FBi occupy two vastly different positions on the alternative spectrum in Sydney media that it seems ridiculous to identify one point of difference, but for mine it comes down to the local music content, and more specifically the definite quota that FBi have written into their license agreement. A station for local youth culture, FBi plays 50% Australian music, with half of that from Sydney. They have to, but rather than treat the potential limitations of this with disdain, they embrace it. Music director Dan Zilber even loves it. “50 is a high percentage, but the point is that once you make that commitment and work to achieve it, you're forced to not only find more music, but a broader range of sounds. If you have an interest in local music, that can only benefit you… It's probably one of the favourite parts of my job. The mechanics of taste really interests me and I love hearing people’s opinions on a track, artist or album. The perfect way to achieve this and to address the 'limitations' of the quotas is to play something that hasn't been heard before. But I don't see it as a limitation. I see it as an opportunity. We can regularly take a chance on a demo, unreleased track or independent release. These releases haven't built up what the major labels call "a story". It's just music on a cd, made by a local band or producer. If it sounds promising or interesting we play it.”
“The idea is that you can be in our city of Sydney, armed with that info and discover something new. We'd like to think that benefits a large portion of the Sydney music community,” Zilber engages with the topic of choice passionately. “There are so many people slaving for little or no return just to contribute to our local music community. FBi is one of them and we endeavour to help those like us as a natural byproduct of what we do - playing their music, plugging their gig, event, release, exhibition, whatever. Now that we're streaming through the website, we're also pushing out the local sounds all over the world. And people are very interested in what they're hearing.” Zilber’s is a passion that’s shared by everyone I’ve spoken to in community radio, and perhaps the most obvious common theme among the stations in this country. The passion that comes from obsession, and the joy that comes from sharing that. The majority of these people do it for no money, like buddy in his bedroom with audiomulch raring to go, which makes no claims on creating something more authentic, it just means there’s more urgency or honesty in the mode of communication their using. Ugh. Honesty? Authenticity’s a difficult one to tie down, but you get what I mean. There are no ulterior motives and the passion and obsession is obvious. Music, radio, whatever. Being independent, not “indie” as a genre or a fashion but truly independent, means freedom. And freedom means the freedom to get creative, subversive, experimental, exploratory and endlessly entertaining. You. There. Reading this. Go do it. Volunteer at your local station, or at the very least tune in and support them. You need them as much as they need you.