The capacity of country radio stations to broadcast emergency weather, fire and flood warnings has emerged as a key concern at a parliamentary inquiry into regional broadcasting.
House communications committee chairman Paul Neville said a gradual increase in networking had led to some stations being unstaffed overnight, at weekends or after midday.
Programs were broadcast from a hub sometimes hundreds of kilometres away, and emergency calls and faxes to the local station could go unnoticed, Mr Neville said.
“It’s a problem we didn’t expect to find and it’s confirmed wherever we go,” he said, as the committee wound up a gruelling program of public hearings in remote communities and regional centres.
“I don’t think it’s deliberately cavalier … it’s happened more insidiously. It’s quietly occurred over time as each program has dropped off … no protocols have been put in place.”
The committee heard evidence from the NSW State Emergency Service, the Country Fire Authority and the Bureau of Meteorology that it was harder to get emergency warnings broadcast since the advent of networking.
But Mr Neville said some stations had excellent emergency systems, with a staff contact list circulated to local authorities and the station remaining an integral part of the community disaster management plan.
While he could not pre-empt the committee’s recommendations, due in June, he said the main concerns lay with commercial stations, as the ABC had a policy of broadcasting live in cyclone regions.
“But the ABC listenership fluctuates between about 20 and 25 per cent … I suspect more come on during cyclone emergencies, but you’ve got to ask yourself, what are the other 75 per cent of people doing for information?” he said.
The committee has also been asked to recommend minimum local content hurdles, a return to enshrining service obligations in licence conditions and a freeze on new licences. Networked stations account for 86 per cent of the 251 commercial radio licences.
Operators have complained of shrinking revenues during a 65 per cent increase in licences issued during the 1990s.
Mr Neville said it was possible to have viable, locally-based radio stations and said many regional listeners were being short-changed.
“If you listen to a lot of the talkback, even on the ABC, you get the capital city problems, and why should you have to listen to the shock jocks when a local presenter talking about local issues would be equally relevant,” he said.
This article first appeared in Hangzhou Night Net.