During the pandemic and various lockdowns there’s no doubt the role of the media is greatly amplified. It provides vital information, often comfort and reassurance and a diversion from the stark realities of the health and economic climates. One section of the media often overlooked during the current restrictions is community radio. Surveys have indicated that well over five million Australians tune in to some 450 odd not-for-profit, community owned and operated radio services throughout the country each week. They not only provide music and commentary but a direct connection with a specific listenership.
In Sydney we are well blessed with a wide variety of community broadcasters from the smaller suburban operators to the larger Sydney wide stations like Koori Radio and FBi. All can be accessed on the internet these days, which means their audience is potentially worldwide. When it comes to ‘community’ it’s often argued that some stations offer greater access and a more open relationship with their listeners than others. A well known broadcaster once instructed its presenters not to use the word ‘community’ on air, as they considered it ‘daggy’, seeing themselves more as a kind of defacto Triple J.
One Sydney station that has had no problem embracing the community ethic is Eastside Radio, broadcasting out of its Paddington studios and now included on the digital radio network. I recently spoke with station director Tony Smythe to find out how Eastside was faring during the current malaise.
From a practical level Tony noted, “We’re very lucky to still be able to operate and be on the air while so many of our musician friends are out of work or all the venues, galleries, theatres and museums are currently closed. To ensure we remain open during COVID all staff are working from home and only presenters now come into the station, not crossing paths by using alternative studios. Some presenters are also recording from home.”
Tony also emphasised the morale boosting impact that stations like Eastside can deliver.
“Eastside Radio is the crucial companion to everyone stuck at home in lockdown. It’s a connection to the world outside your 5km isolation, whilst the music, art and talks allow our listeners to journey beyond their physical limitation to the theatre of their mind.”
Many community stations rely heavily on sponsorship for financial survival and the pandemic has seen much of this dry up. Tony explained how Eastside was surviving.
“We have been somewhat prepared for such a circumstance where one of our revenue streams falls off a cliff. The reduction in sponsorship has been offset by the support of our listeners as well as generous donors and of course our annual fundraisers. The Government has also been instrumental in helping many NFP’s survive thanks to JobSaver and relevant grants on offer.”
Like many at the forefront of community radio, Tony’s has been a long term commitment, from volunteering at 2RRR in 2002 to his appointment as station administrator at Eastside in 2007. In 2008 he was appointed Station Manager and in 2015 as Managing Director. That longevity is definitely fired by a passionate dedication to the cause, as he enthuses:
“Eastside Radio is there to give a voice to those underrepresented by commercial media. We pay particular focus to specialist music genres you won’t hear anywhere else including jazz, blues, reggae, gypsy, soul, funk, hip-hop, disco, dub, ambient, experimental, French, Irish, Latin, African, folk, alt-country and country just to name a few! We’re also the only station to devote five mornings a week to the arts with our arts programs. All of our presenters are fountains of knowledge with regard to their specialist fields be it music, arts, health, science, the environment, film, politics, queer culture or local news. Our audience has grown to love learning when listening to Eastside Radio.”
Despite the current struggle Tony sees a positive future for Eastside. Their inclusion on the digital network has not only expanded their listenership but met with a positive response from their established audience who love the digital sound, free of any previous interference. He concludes: “With the support of our listeners we’ll continue to grow and create engaging content across a multitude of digital platforms available anywhere in the world. If you’d like to make a difference to your community, become a Supporter of Eastside Radio at support.eastsidefm.org or you can make a tax deductible donation online at eastsidefm.org/donations.”