Tune in to the power of community

Posted on 15 Nov 2018

By Matthew Schulz, journalist, Our Community

If anyone doubted the power of community to connect us, keep us healthier, and battle disadvantage, they'd need look no further than community radio.

Researcher Dr Simon Order, from Murdoch University in Western Australia, says there is strong evidence that community broadcasting is a powerful antidote to loneliness and much more, as spelt out in his 2017 report Community Radio: The Joy of Social Connection.

With 450 radio and television broadcasters across Australia catering for every demographic, ethnic group, age and sexual orientation - and with an estimated five million listeners each week - community sector media holds valuable lessons for every not-for-profit and the way they go about governance.

Community media also caters for LGBTIQ groups, prisoners, artists, new migrants, people with visual impairments and other disabilities, remote and urban indigenous groups, and many who would struggle to find a forum in mainstream media.

Environmental groups, feminists and alternative political groups, who are often sidelined on commercial stations, also find a voice on community radio.

"Community broadcasting in Australia should be valued as a medium to reduce social isolation and enrich community cohesion," Dr Order says, in the report commissioned by the Community Broadcasting Foundation.

His research references several other studies revealing that community radio participants and listeners are strongly motivated by wanting social interaction, participation in networks, and "the joy of social connection".

Dr Order's study found similar patterns applicable across a range of media outlets, from the Melbourne youth station SYN, to stations such as 6RPH in Perth, which caters to people with visual impairments.

"The results show that community radio, as an antidote to isolation, functions effectively across a range of ages and irrespective of gender," the study says.

Dr Order also found community media played a significant role in strengthening the cultural identities of a variety of ethnic communities, with programs broadcast in almost every language spoken in Australia.

He found that ethnic broadcasting provides "a valuable service to ameliorate social isolation and support community cohesion", particularly for new migrants, and that radio services for prisoners connect some of the most isolated people of all to the "outside".

Of course, the engine of community media is volunteers themselves, and Dr Order carefully explores the need to understand their motivations and rewards.

He highlights the benefits for organisations of bringing volunteers into the inner circles of operations and decision-making processes.

Dr Order's contribution to the body of knowledge about the power of community radio continued this month with the release of the study Social Impact at RTRFM, which he co-authored after being commissioned by Perth radio station RTRFM. The project was funded by Lotterywest and backed by the WA Council of Social Service (WACOSS).

His social impact analysis of the Perth community radio stalwart, which pitches itself as "the sound alternative", found "significant social impacts in each of the areas we investigated".

Com Rad Speak
RTRFM in Perth is tapping into a better understanding of their audience to boost their social impact. Picture: Cam Campbell

His social impact analysis of the Perth community radio stalwart, which pitches itself as "the sound alternative", found "significant social impacts in each of the areas we investigated".

The station's impact can be felt strongly across the areas examined in the study: local representation, influence and change, community impact, representation of diversity, education, creativity, economic impact and personal impact. The impacts in each of these areas were overwhelmingly positive, and there was widespread agreement from study participants about the nature of those impacts.

RTRFM chair Rewi Lyall says RTRFM's board commissioned the study "to thoroughly understand the breadth and depth of our influence in and importance to our communities".

And the results have been well worth the effort.

"The study shows us the diversity and plurality of our communities, and the importance of RTRFM as a locus for connection between people with disparate interests," Mr Layall says.

"We believe that this document will provide immediate support for the story we tell supporters and potential supporters about why we exist, and will provide an important benchmark for future research we will do to see what changes over time."

Dr Simon Order academic
Dr Simon Order says community radio can be a force for good, if organisations properly value their volunteers.

A quick Q&A with Dr Simon Order

Here's what Dr Order has to say about the lessons for other community organisations from how community radio operates.

CDI: Apart from community groups making good use of their local stations and contributing to them, do community radio station hold lessons for other community organisations?

Some of the biggest lessons seem to be around governance. Effective participatory governance tends to empower volunteers and staff to be proactive in the station and the wider related community.

If volunteers and staff feel their ideas are validated, heard or actioned, that leads to personal or group empowerment. There's a purposeful sense of self that's created. In a sector where no one is earning big bucks, the feel-good factor is so important, to retain and develop staff.

Participatory governance (as largely employed in the community radio sector) has been termed "collective governance". The paradigm is entirely different from corporate hierarchical governance, where decisions at all levels are made by the few.

Instead, collective governance tries to include staff at all levels in decision-making. It can take a little longer to make decisions, and there are always trade-offs, because sometimes, you need to move quickly in an organisation for survival.

CDI: What's your view about the accessibility of community radio compared to other kinds of media?

Australians have traditionally spent a lot of time in the car and that means radio is king. Community radio is "radio in your backyard", so to speak, so it has a certain localness not found elsewhere. It deals with very local issues not often found elsewhere. Audio-only consumption allows the listener to do other things and still receive valuable information about their community. Websites etc need your full attention. You can't be driving or looking after children [while looking at a website]. Radio will always have this advantage.

However, on-demand audio-only media (podcasts etc) are now also in this space and community radio should be in this on-demand space to survive, while continuing to offer their local flavours throughout the usual linear listening radio schedule.

CDI: In terms of creating community links, do you think there's a difference between the way community radio works, and social media such as local Facebook groups?

My involvement in the social impact studies of community radio suggests that the medium is far more personal and almost visceral as a connecting medium, compared to social media.

There are real voices talking to community listeners. Community radio shows extend like intangible social ripples into the community. It's only when you start talking to stakeholders such as listeners, broadcasters and sponsors that you realise the social impact value is huge. Stakeholders talk about the representation of diversity, social engagement, positive community impact, creative hubs, education, positive influence and change, economic value, local representation and personal impact.

CDI: Appropriately for a researcher working in the field of audio transmissions, you're also known as ambient electronic music producer Liminal Drifter. We did happen to listen to some of your grooves while writing this …

Yes, Liminal Drifter has been creating musical waves since 2015. I'm really enjoying the making. A lot of fans and colleagues tell me the tunes are perfect for writing, designing, or anything requiring thoughtful reflection. They certainly are chilled sonic moments.

Become a member of ICDA – it's free!