Programs/Publications

Feature Article from the November 2013 AIRblast

Making It Down Under

By Jesse Cox

Twitter: @mrjessecox


Jesse Cox is an independent producer from Australia and one of the winners of this year's Third Coast International Audio Festival for a project called Keep Them Guessing. Jesse joined AIR after he heard Executive Director Sue Schardt speak about Localore at the Co-Creative Communities Forum in Melbourne. He says the idea of funding independent producers directly for longer-form projects is relatively unknown in Australia and hearing about Localore inspired him to think about ways Aussie producers might do something similar.

Jesse is part of a growing contingent of producers from 25 countries who are part of AIR's network. With this expanding overseas presence, we decided to ask Jesse to give us a sense of the landscape for indie producers Down Under.

It is an exciting time to be making radio in Australia. The "golden age of podcasts," as some have called it, has definitely extended to our shores, breathing new life into the medium. There are more producers wanting to make radio, and audience potential is growing. As writers, performers, and artists become aware of how they might use the medium, there are some really interesting collaborations going on.

At the same time, budgets across media are going through some significant belt-tightening, due in part to some of these same factors. For example, while we're seeing the potential for audience growth, our content is available for free and on demand. This means we need to think about how we can sustain production financially. While this isn't unique to Australia, there are some local challenges our producers face.

The first challenge any Australian producer faces in radio is our population — there are only about 23 million of us, a little less than the population of Texas. If you read certain tabloids or listen to conservative shock jocks, you will hear that Australia is "full." I won't get into the political argument going on in Australia about a big versus small population, but pragmatically it affects the size of a media maker's intended audience. I was reminded in a recent TV column that, in Australia, if you manage to reach 1 percent of the population, you have an audience of about 200,000. In contrast, if you reach 1 percent of Americans, you have an audience of 3 million.

In order to have a vibrant radio culture that outlives the current belt-tightening, I believe that we need to grab the attention of an international audience as well as our local listeners while there's energy and enthusiasm for radio and podcasts. We need to make sure they download Australian content as they mine the Internet for international programming. While we continue to tell our own stories, Australian producers need to find stories that are relevant to local audiences and find ways to make them compelling (and sellable) to international audiences too.

In Australia, we have three main streams of radio programming, with different broadcast aims and funding models. First, there's commercial radio, a combination of Top 40 hits, ads, shock jocks, and DJ personalities. There isn't a great environment for creative radio making there, so I'll focus on the other two: community radio programming and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (commonly known as ABC).

THE COMMUNITY RADIO LANDSCAPE

Community radio stations are granted a license to broadcast to their community with a particular focus — for example, youth, education, indigenous, or religious programming. The stations tend to have a small paid staff and large numbers of volunteers. Their funding comes primarily from listeners and a limited number of sponsorship announcements (limited by law to five minutes per hour). Stations often run supporter drives once or twice a year to raise money. For producers like me, community stations are where you begin learning how to make radio and where you do your first graveyard shifts. Resources are tight and you are unpaid. But because of this, you are also given a lot of freedom.

The majority of community radio programming is music-based. At FBi Radio, where I worked as a volunteer on and off from 2004 and then extensively from 2010–2012 (eventually being paid due to some grants), we played 50 percent Australian music and half of that from Sydney. The idea was to be playing great new music and giving emerging bands what was often their first radio airplay. There are also lots of specialist music shows mining the fringes of music subcultures to bring the unexplored and unknown onto the air. Talk-based programming such as arts, feature interviews, and politics have a similar local focus, but radio features and storytelling are less common because they are so time and resource intensive, which is what made All The Best unique.

All The Best is a short-story and documentary program founded by a small group of volunteers (I was one of them) in 2010. It launched at about the same time that American radio's influence was gaining momentum in Australia, in particular This American Life. A lot of our style was influenced by what was coming out of the U.S. After a few variations, we settled in as a 28-minute, weekly short-feature program. In our second year, we managed to secure $30, 000 (AUD) of funding per annum from the Community Broadcasting Foundation (CBF); we began distributing the program nationally to other community radio stations; we launched our own website; and we were recognized at the Community Broadcasting Awards in the category Best Spoken Word News & Current Affairs. The funding allowed us to cover our online costs, buy some much-needed equipment, and pay me a small stipend as the Features Executive Producer. Everyone else continued to work voluntarily, and I too continued to work large amounts of volunteer hours on top of the stipend. Nevertheless, having funding was a big deal and something that is very much the exception rather than the norm in community radio.

I left toward the end of 2012, and I take great satisfaction in what we created. There have been hugely talented executive producers, producers, and contributors who have continued to grow the program, and I'm really proud that All the Best can be a launch pad for young producers as well as a place to experiment with stories. But the current model of community radio, which relies on volunteer contributions, makes working within this sector a challenge for independent producers beyond your early days of making radio. While there are paid jobs within the sector as facilitators, there are far fewer as makers, and the natural progression of producers is from community radio into the ABC.

THE AUSTRALIAN BROADCASTING CORPORATION or ABC

The ABC is our national broadcaster — covering television, radio, and online. It's the major commissioner of Australian radio. You can think of it as Australia's NPR but it differs in its funding model. The ABC is entirely funded by the federal government. This means it's at the whim of the government of the day, and its fortunes have varied wildly depending on who controls the purse strings.

ABC News Radio is a nationally broadcast 24-hour rolling news channel, and ABC Radio National —RN — broadcasts a range of programs covering arts, science, health, and music. It carries long-form investigative features and is also the home of Radio Arts — features and creative radio. In addition, there is Triple J, the ABC's youth broadcaster, as well as ABC local. And online, one of the biggest projects is ABC Open, a massive investment in multimedia producers working in regional and rural Australia, and involving producers also being community media facilitators.

My first experience working as an independent producer with the ABC was on Keep Them Guessing. The story is about my grandparents, who had a mind-reading act on the BBC in the 1950s, and my search to uncover the secret of how they did it. The typical way you work with the ABC as a freelancer or independent is by pitching program ideas to executive producers who green-light them. Then you work externally on the rough edits and, finally, mix the programs in house at the ABC. In the case of shorter packages such as short arts features, you deliver the final story completed. Earlier this year, Mike Williams and I experimented with a new model for working with the ABC. We pitched Long Story Short as a 12-part series that would be co-produced with Radio National. It was something of a hybrid between how in-house and freelance programs were made. It was also significant because of the size of the commission. Instead of one story, we had 12 half hours to deliver over four months and the project was funded in full by the ABC. The series was a melding of our radio influences: a nod to American radio's conversational storytelling as well as a rich sound texture from Australian and European radio traditions.

These short-form commissions from the ABC are relative new, and there were a number of series in addition to Long Story Short produced for the ABC this year. At the moment, the Community Broadcasting Foundation only funds stations directly and relies on large volunteer hours as in-kind contributions to budgets. There is no independent producer fund, so to speak. If there were to be a shift toward this kind of funding within community radio and grants along a similar line to the ABC's short-form commissions, then the independent landscape in Australia would be incredibly exciting.

Regardless of whether you are working on a community radio or ABC project, securing funding from either the ABC or CBF as the sole funder is increasingly not enough. This is where there are some unique challenges in Australia. Unlike in the U.S., there isn't a widespread culture of foundations that support radio programming. I am always amazed to hear at the end of pretty much every podcast I listen to out of the U.S. that there is a foundation that has supported it to some degree. In Australia, the reason this isn't the norm is mostly because it is fairly untested territory and it hasn't been acknowledged that independent radio projects need independent funding. The ABC commissions new writing for radio with support of the Ian Reid Foundation, and I think there could be scope for independent producers as well as the ABC to chase further funding from foundations. Similarly, while there are a number of arts grants facilitated by government programs, there is not a radio foundation or board to apply directly to. Whereas film and television have been supported with very clear screen agencies, radio has been seen as almost solely the responsibility of the ABC, with community radio providing specific programming for their communities. In my perfect world, we would see a specific radio board established to which producers, broadcasters, and networks could apply in order to co-fund ambitious and creative radio projects.

Where there is particular scope for inter-agency funding is for radio projects that cross into other art forms. Earlier this year, I worked on a prototype for a geo-locative audio drama called Ghosts of Biloela set on Cockatoo Island in Sydney. It was presented as part of Underbelly Arts. We secured some early development funding from screen agencies, foundations, and crowdfunding. We are now developing a full-scale version with the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust. I'm also currently developing a live documentary — Wael Zuaiter. Unknown. — for the stage. It's a meeting of a radio feature, a graphic novel, and a theater show. The project grew out of a story I produced as part of Radio with Pictures last year, and the full version is being presented at next year's Next Wave Festival. Since we are working within the live space in an inter-arts capacity, our project is now able to access funding from arts-funding bodies. I am also working on some radio projects as a freelancer with the ABC.

It is possible to work in creative audio in Australia as an independent, but you have to juggle lots of balls. I enjoy being able to work with audio in hybrid arts and storytelling spaces. I recently met U.S. and English producers at Third Coast's Filmless Festival and realized independents across the world face similar challenges. It is through communities such as AIR that these groups can continue to connect. I believe that there isn't an either/or argument between the value of public broadcasting over independent production or vice versa. The independent sector and public radio need to collaborate on common goals of quality, creativity, and innovation. The idea of what constitutes a radio broadcast may have changed, but the modern media landscape means that collaboration is needed now more than ever. I am excited to explore these possibilities in Australia and to explore them across borders too by connecting with producers around the world through networks such as AIR.

 

Photo by Kate Joyce.