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Developing Dialogues reviewed by Michelle Johnston for the Australian Journalism Review

'In the past 10 years there has been growing recognition of the value of community media to a democratic public sphere. This recognition has brought with it an increasing number of publications, both in Australia and internationally, about community and participatory media. In the same period of time, the authors of Developing dialogues have been regular contributors to thegrowing number of academic books and articles on the topic, but this book represents something different. The focus of previous publications has been on community media producers, community policy, the process of production, and comparisons with mainstream media. Forde et al have, in this book, recognised the collapse of producer/audience boundaries that is typical of community media and their focus here therefore is audience. The book is the result of an extensive qualitative survey of national community media audiences – something not done before. 

The authors have had long-term involvement with all sectors of Australian community media but have chosen Indigenous and ethnic community media as the focus of this book. Michael Meadows, in particular, is well qualifi ed, having published extensively in the area of Indigenous media, including his co-authored 2001 book Songlines to satellites: Indigenous communication in Australia, the South Pacifi c and Canada. The authors explain that one of the main reasons for choosing this sector is the important role community broadcasters play in contributing to social cohesion and in recognising the cultural diversity of Australian society. Nowhere else do the processes of production so clearly demonstrate the ability of community media to empower its participants and, in doing so, to highlight the failings of mainstream media.

 

Their research required the authors to travel all over Australia and visit a range of communities where they have conducted interviews and focus groups with individual community media participants and audience representatives. The diverse nature of the communities surveyed required a carefully considered approach to arranging visits and conducting interviews. In appreciating the difficulties of travelling such vast distances and communicating with so many culturally diverse communities, it is little wonder that qualitative research such as this has never been done before. Rather than just collecting statistics on audience numbers, the team aimed to find out how and why audiences engage with community media. Their audience survey seeks to better understand the role community broadcasters play in individual communities and how this relates to community media in a global context.

 

Each community media organisation is unique and aspires to represent the culture of the community it seeks to serve, but there is commonality in the role these broadcasters play and how their respective audiences value them. The authors explain community media’s ability to contribute to a sense of identity, to contribute to cultural maintenance, to empower, and to serve as a “cultural bridge” and how this is evidence of why these broadcasters must be seen as more than just alternative media. The book provides individual examples of how audiences in diverse 132 Australian Journalism Review ethnic and Indigenous communities value their local broadcaster and participate in the process of program production. The relationships individual stations have with their audiences is the focus of the book and chapters are dedicated to each sector – one chapter to Indigenous community media and one to ethnic.

 

While focus groups were conducted in the metropolitan centres of Brisbane, Melbourne and Darwin, there are only a small number of references to these city-based communities throughout the discussion on Indigenous community media. Special mention is made of the Indigenous television services, specifically ICTV, the Indigenous media service that Indigenous broadcasters provide to remote central Australian communities, and the problems they face with the loss of their broadcast channel to the Sydney-based NITV. The ways in which ethnic audiences value their community media services are discussed in similar terms, with the noted difference that all the services represented here are radio programs. Cultural maintenance and the creation of community connections are acknowledged as important services provided by the ethnic broadcasters. The frequent use of quotes from many of the focus group participants is a feature of the book that maintains a firm connection with its grassroots subject matter, adds colour and a change of pace to its reading, and provides a sense of the genuine enthusiasm audiences have for their community media services. Quotes such as, “Radio is one of the coolest things that they can do …” and “… they’re excited, they’re excited about what’s happening in the community …” are examples of the passion captured by these audience interviews.

 

Developing dialogues concludes by assessing the breakdown of the producer-audience barrier that is so typical of successful community media. The way in which the producer-audience relationship contributes to identity, empowerment and cohesive community is theorised and discussed in detail with attention drawn to mainstream media’s failings in this regard.

 

It should be acknowledged that as this book is about community media audiences there is no discussion of the sector in terms of the challenges faced in the establishment, management and funding of community media. It presents a perspective that is very positive and encouraging – one that leaves no doubt as to the immense value of community media and the important role they play in contributing to a cohesive and democratic Australian community. Developing dialogues represents important research that will hopefully contribute to better funding for community media organisations and to an acknowledgement of their value by government and the wider Australian population.'

 

By Michelle Johnston

 

Reference

Molnar, H., & Meadows, M. (2001). Songlines to satellites. Indigenous communication in Australia,

the South Pacific and Canada. Annandale, NSW: Pluto Press Australia.

 

Find out more about Developing Dialogues.

 

 

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