Melbourne's non-profit community radio stations are a much-needed support network for the disenfranchised as well as purveyors of decent tunes, discovers Andrew Starkie
3CR CHAMPIONS OF THE UNDERDOG
Bill Deller rolls a cigarette, adjusts his fedora – his “one concession to capitalism” – and settles back in his seat. It’s a sunny weekday morning and Bill, long-term 3CR volunteer and broadcaster, meets Time Out in the studio’s tiny courtyard on Smith Street, Collingwood. Inside, tattered festival and protest posters hang from the walls while dreadlocked staff and volunteers make instant coffee, discuss the weekend’s football and plan the day’s programming. A foreign-language community programme broadcasts from a studio in the rear of the cramped terrace building.
“3CR prides itself on being the voice for the voiceless,” Deller states with conviction, “for isolated communities who can’t speak for themselves.”
Community radio stations put any money they make back into the station. They rely on some federal funding, fundraising, subscriptions, donations and advertising, and couldn’t survive without the work of their small staff and their volunteers – who receive on-the-job training in return.
A defiant “left-leaning revolutionary”, Deller is co-presenter of 3CR’s Keep Left and Solidarity Breakfast, which view the spread of global capitalism through the eyes of the working class and Marxists. “Our typical listeners are the disgruntled; those looking for content they can’t get anywhere else.”
Since 1976, 3CR has championed those discriminated against by mass media: Indigenous Australians, women, the working class and foreign cultures. Its 400 volunteer broadcasters – many of whom, like Deller, are political activists – present more than 120 music, talk, community and current affairs programmes each week in approximately 20 languages. Music Sans Frontieres offers listeners world music rarely heard on commercial radio; Brainwaves is hosted by and for people living with mental illness; and Palestine Remembered presents the untold stories of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Each July during NAIDOC Week, 3CR joins Indigenous station 3KND to present Beyond the Bars: a community project giving voice to the experiences of Indigenous inmates in Victorian prisons. This year it visited six prisons, with over 100 inmates telling their stories through song, poetry and discussion.
“The purpose is to allow community observation of what life’s like in prison and to allow Indigenous inmates to give a shout-out to their families,” says Deller. It’s hoped Beyond the Bars may help explain why Indigenous Australians are one the most imprisoned people per capita in the world.
PBS MUSIC TO WRITE HOME ABOUT
At PBS, a few blocks away in Collingwood, the station’s charter ‘Home of Little-heard Music’ means delivering its listeners the most curious unearthings from every genre – even running club nights such as Soul-a-Go-Go at Bella Union and family-friendly Rock-a-Bye-Baby events.
PBS also offers a leg-up for local artists. David Heard, host of weekly roots show Acid Country, invites around 100 acts a year to drop in, play and have a chat. “Local acts often don’t have the resources to record their work,” he says. “Acts who appear on Acid Country can record the performance that went to air. I know of several acts who have then pitched those recordings to bookers and venue operators to secure gigs.”
Jenny O’Keefe, host of Homebrew, cites the example of local award-winning musician Clare Bowditch, who has never received much commercial airplay yet enjoys a large following due to stations like PBS. “The station has remarkable credibility in the local music scene,” O’Keefe says.
3KND FREEDOM AND THE FIGHT
3KND, known as ‘Kool ’n Deadly’, is Melbourne’s only Indigenous radio station – and it plays a large role in the lives of the local Aboriginal community. The station’s mission statement is to “journey into the dreamtime, to inform, educate, entertain and promote Indigenous Australians creating their dreams”.
Launched about a decade ago, 3KND first broadcast from an old shop on Plenty Road, Preston. Passing trams and creaking floorboards could be heard by listeners. These days it’s situated in larger, more state-of-the-art surrounds, opposite the Cramer Street football oval a few kicks from Preston Market.
Unlike other community stations that cater for a variety of cultures, 3KND is specific to the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. Peter Grace, veteran of Melbourne’s radio scene and broadcaster and trainer at 3KND, believes the station’s greatest value comes from allowing listeners to communicate and share information. The station serves as a reference point, allowing families to keep in touch and send greetings.
“Aboriginal culture is spoken culture,” Grace explains. “Word of mouth is very important.”
Community service announcements remind listeners to enrol to vote while also offering health, financial, educational and legal advice. The Men’s Group programme offers instruction on how to create Indigenous tools and art, and results of Fitzroy Stars football games are broadcast.
3KND regularly connects with its community through outside broadcasts, including from the Elders’ Luncheon during NAIDOC Week, or from parkland near the Collingwood high-rise flats. On Australia Day, or Survival Day as January 26 is also known, 3KND broadcasts live from the Share the Spirit Festival festival in the Treasury Gardens.
A major goal at 3KND is to promote Indigenous music – “Country and western, reggae… the music of rebellion, freedom and the fight,” says Grace – which it believes is routinely ignored by commercial radio. Artists use the studios for rehearsals and recordings before being played for listeners.
TRIPLE R MUSIC FOR SAVANTS
It may have started life as student station 3ST, but these days Triple R is regarded as a specialist music station – with 70 per cent of its airtime devoted to unearthing new finds, with no decreed playlists. Its reputation as an authority on all genres is such that commercial stations see it as a breeding ground for up-and-coming talent, and many of its broadcasters are also music journalists.
Station manager Mick James remembers fondly listening to Triple R in the living-room on his parents’ three-in-one-stereo, having explored the FM band and discovered this station that sounded like “nothing I’d ever heard before”.
He came on board as a volunteer in the early ’90s, taking on the graveyard shifts and stacking shelves in the CD library. He left to pursue producer roles at the ABC in South Australia and Melbourne, before returning to the Triple R fold as programme manager in 2006. As well as satisfying the itch of discerning Melburnians for decent music, he sees Triple R as “providing inquiring minds with credible alternative perspectives on the life of this city, be it regarding music, art, politics, or any other cultural activity.”
It’s positively encouraged that locals interact with the station, and they do. “Our listeners are in constant contact with show presenters, be it seeking more information on a song, adding extra info to what has been presented or to correct something they think isn’t quite right,” says James. “But mostly people get in touch just to say how much they appreciate the efforts of the volunteers and the quality of the programmes we produce.”
The station has eschewed corporate sponsorship and has increased its regard in the public eye by enterprises like the annual Community Cup footy match – established by former programme manager James Young in 1997 – which spurs top local musicians to lace up their boots and raise thousands of dollars for charity.
So how does James feel about stations like NOVA and Triple J stepping in to poach Triple R’s top talent? “Triple R has had a pretty good relationship stations like MMM, NOVA and 3AW over the years,” he says diplomatically. “They know we produce great broadcasters. It’s important to note that most of the people who have gone on to commercial careers arrived at the station with a deep commitment to making radio for Triple R listeners. Only after years of doing so did they get tapped by commercial media and decide that they could actually make a living out of it. It’s a great feather in our cap when that happens and people moving on creates the chance for someone new to get a go.”
3ZZZ MULTILINGUAL RADIO
Providing a valuable service to Melbourne’s minority cultures, 3ZZZ is the largest ethnic community radio station in Australia. Based in Fitzroy, it broadcasts in 75 languages to over 100 nationalities, ranging from Italian and Spanish to Somalian and Sudanese. Often setting up OBs – outside broadcasts – at community events and festivals, it aims to keep people in touch with their home countries and aware of Australian legal requirements and social conventions.
“We strive to support language and culture for ethnic community groups whilst supplying information, news, settlement information and guidance and community group news,” explains station manager Mar tin Wright. And he’s well placed to do so, having received a Medal of the Order of Australia for services to the community and local government, including the founding of Plenty Valley FM, a community radio station, in the northern suburbs.