Community Radio: A Love Letter

Homespun local radio provides a grassroots cultural, social and educational contribution to the fabric of our communities that you cannot put a price on… And yet, the sector has been left in the cold by the Federal Government. In the freshly delivered 2013 Budget, community radio was denied the $1.4 million in funding needed to help community stations like 3RRR, 4ZZZ, RTR, SYN, 2SER and FBI meet the cost of transitioning to digital broadcasting. Now the future of community radio is up in the air, with some stations facing the very real possibility of having to switch off services. Melbourne musician and broadcaster Tim Shiel illustrates the necessary and vital role the sector plays in this heartfelt love letter to community radio…

It’s an understatement to say that community radio has been kind to me. Coming out of high school, obsessed with music and possessed of a voracious appetite for consuming every bit of musical knowledge available to me, I scanned the radio dial for a station that could keep up with me, and found 3RRR – an ‘independent’ radio station that, I was soon to learn, was almost entirely run by volunteers. Its broadcasters (also volunteers) played whatever they wanted to, from whatever genre and from whatever era. They went to great lengths to contextualise and demystify the music they were playing, spoke with a degree of respect and thoughtfulness I’d not heard on radio before, and crucially – as I was an aspiring bedroom musician myself – they seemed to give particularly generous airtime to local musicians. Melbourne’s live music scene was rich and diverse; growing up in the outer suburbs, I’d had no idea.

Community radio seemed like a revelation to me – I thought that music was a thing that happened on the other side of the world, in big cities, and that culture was a thing that happened in museums and art galleries and not in my own backyard.

Not long after this I found myself on the rooftop of the 3RRR studios, watching Cut Chemist and Jurassic 5 perform live-to-air. A suburban boy on his first trip to the wilds of Fitzroy and somehow I’d found myself right in the inner sanctum of a lively arts and music community. I was surrounded by beards, tattoos, checked shirts, families, prams, friends. A motley crew indeed, but somehow everyone seemed to know each other, or at least acted like they did – they approached each other with mutual respect and openness. It was bewildering. How could I possibly have stumbled (quite literally) into the heart of Melbourne’s music scene, simply through a lucky turn of the radio dial? Somehow I shook Cut Chemist’s hand. I was in no doubt as to the power of community radio.

A few weeks later I’d signed up to a training course at my local community station out in the northern suburbs, Plenty Valley FM in Mill Park to be exact, and soon after I was on air, wedged in the grid between the jazz hour and the weekly ska show. My show’s playlist of electronic music drew equally from the increasingly fertile playground of the blogosphere, and the stack of local CDs that arrived to the station each week, apparently out of thin air.

Melbourne’s collective musical output was staggering but I devoured it, internalised it. Mill Park had never heard a radio show so visionary, so ground-breaking, or so I told myself. And every hour on the hour, I announced the weather! On the few occasions over summer that the fax machine in the corner of the studio whirred and spat out a sheet, I relayed emergency bushfire warnings with whatever gravity I could manage – realising as I did, that however few, there were people in my neighbourhood who relied on our station for access to this information, that could save their homes and/or lives.

My love of music grew. I befriended a guy in a philosophy lecture at uni. He had a ponytail, so obviously he loved Icehouse and Depeche Mode. He also loved community radio. We became co-conspirators.

We’d both started fooling around with music software and making demos, so we compared notes. We started to attune ourselves to the delicate landscape of local and independent music by inhaling street press and community radio. We learned the language of our local grassroots music scene largely by tuning into our local stations to hear actual musicians discuss their actual experiences of recording, releasing and touring music around town and beyond.

Community stations like 3RRR and PBS were literally the only places we could hear these people speak to their actual experiences of the local music industry. And little did we know at the time that the volunteer broadcasters handling these interviews were often themselves independent musicians, or ran record labels, or booked local venues, or owned record stores around town. We were essentially eavesdropping on conversations between heavy-hitters in our local scene; tuning in to the thoughts and opinions of those who were most passionate and connected in town. Community radio painted a picture of a local music scene that was diverse and vibrant but, above all, real.

We both printed homemade CD-Rs full of our fledgling music attempts and sent them to all of our favourite presenters, scouring the internet to find email addresses of community radio broadcasters not just in Melbourne but such exotic far-flung locations as Brisbane and Hobart. It worked – people responded with enthusiasm, even when replying to let us know that it wasn’t for them. “I don’t really play this on my show, but you should try sending it to so-and-so.”

Broadcasters engaged us as peers. Albeit with some naivety (or despite it, perhaps), we’d worked our way into an established national network of passionate, and fiercely independent music lovers, making connections that would remain true for the next decade.

My music got airplay both at home and across the country, and listeners responded. I got emails not from “fans” but from fellow aesthetes, other members of this creative community that a couple of years earlier had been completely invisible to me. Other musicians reached out to swap stories, trade remixes. I released a couple of albums, and with community radio support, my music became self-sufficient – the modest dream of any independent musician. Meanwhile, my ponytailed friend’s music carried beyond community radio and into more mainstream channels. (Years later, impossibly, he’d be on stage accepting a Grammy from Prince.)

Eventually I found a home at 3RRR as a volunteer, welcomed warmly into the fold as have literally thousands of volunteers before me since the station was founded in 1976. I’ve been a broadcaster at 3RRR for six years, and have come to think of it not as a radio station but as a public space – twenty-four hours a day the stations halls are filled with enthusiastic volunteers, music lovers and musicians, journalists and thinkers, artists of all stripes. I’ve met countless musicians in the corridors of 3RRR but also elite sportsmen, comedians, politicians, activists, authors, artists, soldiers. Passionate and informed conversations about all things – politics, creativity, sport, gardening, architecture – take place on air; even livelier conversations take place off air, as connections are formed, and often unlikely friendships are made.

3RRR acts as a town square, daily, a physical space where the city’s most creative and passionate are drawn in to rub shoulders and share ideas, providing an IRL focal point for a culture increasingly taking place in disembodied online spaces. 3RRR is not a frequency on a radio dial, its a real place – its on the corner of Blyth and Nicholson, in East Brunswick. You could go there, now – the door is always open to those who are passionate about their art and about their community, just like the 361 other licenced community radio stations around the country.

Community radio stations are real places – real buildings, full of real people, who live and work and create in our neighbourhoods, sharing ideas and forming the connections that themselves become the foundations of a larger, broader culture. Over 20,000 volunteers are actively engaged at community stations across Australia; over 4 million Australians tune in every week.

If the Federal Government truly cares about maintaining Australia’s diverse culture, they should be allocating more funding to community radio, not stripping it away. Strong, diverse cultures are built from the ground up – and community radio stations are part of that foundation. I can’t put it better than a friend put it to me, soon after the budget was announced: If you cut the roots, nothing will grow.

Maybe I owe community radio more than most, but we will all be worse off if its influence were to recede due to a lack of foresight from our government. Neglect community radio and you cripple arts and culture at its most nascent stage – diversity will wither, vital creative communities will break down, and you won’t notice they’re gone until its too late.

Tim Shiel, also known as Faux Pas, is a musician and radio broadcaster. He can be found on Twitter at @timshiel or at

If you care about community radio join the campaign for digital radio funding at