Christina Spurgeon: community broadcasting trailblazer

May 26, 2021

Dr Christina Spurgeon discovered community radio as an aspiring young journalist in mid-1970’s at Canberra’s 2XX. Set amidst the hotbed of politics that enveloped the national capital in the wake of the dismissal of the Whitlam Labor Government, Christina’s formative years in community media shaped a career in broadcasting and academia that spanned five decades.

In 2020, Christina was awarded the CBAA’s Michael Law Award in recognition of her outstanding and sustained contribution to community media.

As part of our series on community broadcasting trailblazers, Christina Spurgeon told her story to former 2SER colleague Tracee Hutchison.

When did you first hear about community radio?

I first came into contact with community broadcasting when I was growing up in Canberra in the 1970s. This was an amazing time of social experimentation. It felt as if every aspect of my daily life was transforming in the wake of the Whitlam Labor Government’s election. As a young teenager and the oldest daughter of a single mum, I was a legatee of the anti-Vietnam war movement and the social justice movements that were energised in its wake. Community arts began to flourish, and the role and function of formal education was being critically interrogated.

I gained confidence in my own voice through Canberra Youth Theatre and was encouraged to explore new fields of knowledge at the very progressive, government-funded School Without Walls. I became active in the anti- apartheid movement, women’s liberation, land rights and the anti-uranium movement. I was too young to vote for Whitlam in 1975 following his dismissal but this did not stop me from noisily protesting his sacking, or John Kerr and Malcolm Fraser’s role in Whitlam’s removal from office. I was unashamedly part of what the Canberra Times called the ‘rent-a-crowd’ of demonstrators who had become quite a Canberra fixture in the mid-70s.

Whitlam believed the media was important to the health of democracy and established a new ministerial portfolio, the Department of the Media. This stimulated a renewal of Australian media institutions and industries and opened up to public scrutiny questions of media diversity, ownership and control.

Important changes began to have a big impact, even in a place like Canberra. Despite its political status as the nation’s capital, Canberra was actually a small regional media market. Prior to 1975 it was served by one ABC radio station, one commercial radio station, one ABC TV station and one commercial TV station. When the ABC youth radio service 2JJ started in Sydney in 1975 the sense of ‘missing out’ was felt strongly by young people in regional centres including Canberra. Consequently, 2JJ was relayed through local ABC radio stations across Australia as the overnight service. I remember waiting up with my sister for the Double J relay to start at midnight. We would listen to youth-targeted music and commentary until the wee small hours, and smoke way too many cigarettes.

How did you start in community radio?

Around the same time as Double J became available in Canberra, ‘public’ (now ‘community’) radio also arrived. The Australian National University campus radio 2XX was one of the very first community radio stations to be awarded an experimental licence to broadcast to the whole of Canberra in 1975. Sometime during 1976 and 1977, I started presenting a weekly 15-minute segment on 2XX called Africa News, which summarised news headlines from southern African newspapers. It was then that I got acquainted with some of the community broadcasting early figures, including Walter Pearson, Brendon O’Dwyer and Liz O’Brien.

After I finished high school I made my way to Sydney and into a newly established media and communication degree program at the New South Wales Institute of Technology (NSWIT, now University of Technology, Sydney) led by former Rhodes scholar and libertarian Sydney ‘push’ identity, Bill Bonney. He was an incredibly important mentor to me, along with his colleague and later my PhD supervisor, Helen Wilson.

My studies exposed me to critical perspectives in media and cultural studies (think Humphrey McQueen, Stuart Hall, Raymond Williams, Bertolt Brecht, and Noam Chomsky) while also introducing me to professional communication disciplines of advertising, public relations, marketing, radio, film and television production. Initially I chose TV as my production major but quickly switched to radio when I realised that NSWIT owned and operated a community radio licence with Macquarie University – 2SER FM.

2SER gave me an immediate ‘learning by doing’ radio experience and the opportunity to think deeply about what voices and perspectives were marginalised or missing in the Australian media system and how people could work together to accommodate, understand and benefit from diversity.

Station Manager Keith Jackson did an amazing job of developing a programming schedule that helped 2SER staff and volunteers implement this vision. Morning week-day programs had a broadly educational focus and came from the Macquarie University studios. Programs in languages other than English featured in the evening line up, including the incredibly popular youth-targetted Italian pop music program, Musica Giovane (which can still be heard on Northside Radio). An incredible line up of community talents occupied the lunchtime slot, including a program that was produced and presented by a group of people who were blind and vision impaired. I recall that later Aboriginal broadcaster Maureen Watson also had had a regular program in one of the lunch time slots. Gaywaves had a late-night slot, and flagship women’s and news and current affairs programs Crystal Set and Razor’s Edge had weekend program slots. Country Music developed a huge midnight to dawn following and breakfast shows tended to favour independent Australian music.

A series of afternoon ‘magazine’ style programs were being established when I wandered up to the station and met Keith. Keith immediately introduced me to the remarkable Alaine Chanter who was putting together a team to produce the Thursday afternoon program, Media Magazine. The fit between my interests and Alaine’s vision for this program was perfect and I started work on Media Magazine immediately.

What did Media Magazine cover?

Media Magazine was probably the first regular program broadcast in Australia that specialised in critical reportage about the Australian media system. For this reason, it attracted terrific goodwill and support from university-based contributors, journalists, industry representatives, regulators, bureaucrats and commentators, and the wider community broadcasting sector. Even the then Australian Film Commission assisted with program production and national distribution costs for a number of years. Media Magazine covered the work of many very astute journalists working in commercial and public media whose reportage, as well as the work of academic and industry-based researchers and consultants. This included freelance journalist and academic Liz Fell, and later Henry Mayer at the University of Sydney and Julie James Bailey at the Australian Film and Television School who between them established, edited and published Australia’s leading media and communications journal, Media Information Australia (now Media International Australia).

Program topics ranged from developments in media arts, technology, content, services, and politics, including the politics of media representation, and participation. Media Magazine also reported on the efforts of a broad coalition of community organisations to make media organisations accountable and to improve opportunities for public participation in media and communications law and policy processes, for example through regulatory processes such as commercial television licence renewals. The program also offered critical perspectives on numerous government inquiries that advised on the restructuring of Australia’s digitising and globalising media and communications industries. Almost everything we did reflected an acute awareness of the community broadcasting context that made Media Magazine possible in the first instance. Developments in the community broadcasting sector also regularly featured.

News was another form of programming that was actively developed in the early years of 2SER. For a short time 2SER relayed ABC radio bulletins – a single journalist was employed to wrangle regular bulletins out of an AAP rip and read service, augmented with ad hoc input from other 2SER program makers. The SBS also supplied news to 2SER. A federal government work-for-the-dole scheme finally provided the opportunity to establish a fulltime newsroom at 2SER. I was extremely lucky to be appointed as a cadet journalist along with Trevor Thompson, and to work with news director, Nicola Joseph. We made the most of this opportunity to challenge the ways in which Sydney news agendas were assembled and shaped. We also contributed to thinking about a sector-wide news programming strategy.

It was a formative era for community radio, who were your mentors during that time?

I am very much a product of the people, places and times I interacted with especially in my high school years in Canberra, and then at university in Sydney. Beyond my family, my high school friends, their families and my teachers, were powerful formative influences. I recall one high school assignment on media representations of women, developed for me by Biff Ward, which ignited my interest in understanding the relationship between media and social power. In the course of another school project supervised by Julia Ryan, I met Marcia Langton who was CEO of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. Marcia transformed my awareness and understanding of the continuous struggle for social justice that Australia’s first nations people are engaged in.

2SER fostered a vital commitment to making better media and a better media system in a whole generation of Sydney broadcasters.

In the four years that I worked at 2SER as a volunteer on Media Magazine, as a paid casual producer for a range of community organisations, and as a journalist, I met and worked alongside an array of inspiring and immensely capable people, all of whom were important influences. This included the indefatigable Trevor Thompson and Michelle Brown who went on to become mainstays of ABC radio news in Sydney (and also my brother and sister-in-law). Other incredible talents to thrive in the early 2SER milieu included Tiga Bayles, Tony Collins, Rebecca Coyle, Sharon Davis, Jill Emberson, Tracee Hutchison, Richard Kingsmill, Virginia Madsen, Andy Nehl, Sue Spencer, Claudia Taranto, Maurie Taylor, and many, many other wonderful people.

By the time I finished undergraduate studies in the mid-1980s the step from radio production to media and communications policy and research was logical and surprisingly easy for me to take. I worked for the then Australian Broadcasting Tribunal in a variety of roles. I freelanced as a researcher and writer and then joined the Communications Law Centre at the University of NSW when it was established with funding from the NSW Law Foundation in the late 1980s. The CLC was the first community law centre to have a dedicated focus on media and communications. The CLC afforded me with fabulous opportunities to work with people whom I greatly admired on projects and issues of enormous importance to me. People such as Mark Armstrong, Kate Harrison and Paul Chadwick were incredibly important influences and mentors in this time.

While at 2SER I also discovered a passion for teaching in a range of formal and informal settings. I particularly liked learning in the process of supporting others to develop their own media skills and knowledge. I loved the informal community of radio practice that Media Magazine, 2SER and the wider community broadcasting sector supported.

By the early 1990s I had started on the long haul to combine interests in research and teaching and renew and re-make myself as a media and communications studies academic through higher degree study. I was generously supported by Helen Wilson, Liz Jacka and UTS. Stuart Cunningham also emerged as an important influence towards the end of my time at the CLC and in my early academic life, first at Southern Cross University then later at Queensland University of Technology (QUT). I was impressed by Stuart’s approach to cultural policy work. Stuart went on to be a lead thinker and advocate for the creative industries at the beginning of the millennium, and I was thrilled to find myself working with Stuart and many other very fine researchers and teachers in Brisbane by the time the world’s first Creative Industries Faculty was established at QUT in 2005 with John Hartley as Dean.

What was the social and political context of community broadcasting at that time?

Community broadcasting is an extraordinary outcome of contests hard fought since the 1970s to diversify, expand and liberalise the Australian media system. Its history overlaps and intersects with the development and expansion of SBS services which also occurred in the 1980s and 1990s. The sector’s fortunes have also been shaped by neoliberalism which took hold in the business and public policy logic of Australian media and communications from the 1980s as it already had in many capitalist economies around the world. For example, in a bid to free up capacity to plan for new digital services the policy bureaucracy started to rapidly wind up technical planning for new analogue broadcast media towards the end of the century.

As a result, the number of community radio stations around Australia almost tripled in this time although community television once again struggled to secure its tenure on spectrum (as it still does). The lack of political will to support community television with the grant of a continuing spectrum allocation continues to be a huge missed opportunity for fostering experimentation and innovation in creative expression and social participation. However, for me, the silver lining of the neoliberal period was the development and growth of Aboriginal-controlled broadcasting licences.

A swathe of community-based Indigenous media producers and organisations such as Koori Radio, CAAMA – Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association, Goolarri Media, and Brisbane Indigenous Media Association are part of this expanding engine of creativity and innovation in the Australian media system. This now also includes National Indigenous Television (presently auspiced by the SBS). There is a thesis to be written about the role of community broadcasting in the rise of First Nations media in Australia. In summary, it is fair to say that community broadcasting played an important role in this development even if contributions were not always positive.

There are many reasons why community broadcasters should be very proud of Australia’s first nations media and other trends in the ongoing development of the Australian media system and social innovation in general.

Community broadcasting has a very impressive track record of putting social change narratives into circulation, not only by enabling community access to broadcasting resources, but by also facilitating the social spaces in which these narratives can be articulated and tested in conversations between all sorts of individuals, groups and organisations.

There are the contributions to diversifying Australian media and society more generally that have come from gay radio, women’s radio, prison radio, radio made by people who speak languages other than English, specialist music buffs, and radio made by people with disabilities as well as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander radio. Many of these different types of voices were first amplified in community radio contexts or were initiated in or transferred to public service media contexts by media producers who had worked, trained or were otherwise informed by developments in community radio. This influence is also reflected in broader developments and ongoing debates about the practices of media self-representation and social inclusion. These include questions about how our various media and communications institutions express accessibility and diversity in contemporary Australia.

Community broadcasting is not just an important tool for experimenting with the ways in which our media system might do better for Australian society. It also improves individual and social capacity to listen to each other and to hear, reflect upon and come to understand the different experiences and perspectives that underpin social change narratives.

As UNSW scholar Tanja Dreher and her colleagues have demonstrated, it is difficult to get decision makers to seek out perspectives on important issues beyond those served up by sometimes self-serving agenda setting commercial media. This would be an impossible challenge in the absence of media that support self-representation of other viewpoints and social change narratives. Social innovation through enabling and facilitating social change narratives, and building listening capacity continue to be incredibly important parts of community broadcasting’s ongoing social value.

Why is education and training so important in community broadcasting?

I have had a long-standing interest in the ‘educational’ role of community broadcasting and am very grateful to have had the opportunity to support the development of training and training capacity in the sector.

I was the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia (CBAA) nominee to the Community Media Training Organisation (CMTO) for ten years (2011-2020). The CMTO is charged with the job of ascertaining the training needs of the entire community broadcasting sector and supporting the development of training activities that meet these needs. The CMTO also delivers training and as a Registered Training Organisation maintains a distributed national network of about 70 accredited trainers. The CMTO works with sector organisations and stations to enhance participation in community broadcasting through training.

The incredible capacity of community broadcasting to successfully engage with diverse, hard-to-reach groups is reflected in the successes of the CMTO.

In my time at the CMTO, most of the training activities and resources took place in stations located in regional, rural and remote areas of Australia. About one third of participants were women. A quarter of participants were young. Nearly ten percent of participants identified as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander. A significant proportion of participants were from culturally diverse backgrounds and spoke languages other than English. The retention and completion rates for accredited training consistently exceeded 80 percent and were achieved at very competitive costs. Indeed, I believe the overall performance of the CMTO was unrivalled. No other RTO in Australia came close to these outcomes, especially for marginalised and vulnerable social groups. Much of the credit for the CMTO’s outstanding performance is due to the commitment of Tiga Bayles and Nicola Joseph, the CMTOs first Chair and CEO respectively, to the CMTO’s vision of ‘media training for all’. The current CEO, Giordy Caputo, continues to lead the dedicated CMTO team in pursuit of this mission. One of my final contributions as Chair of the CMTO was to lead a renewal of the CMTO’s top-level governance arrangements to ensure that diversity considerations continue to frame decision-making about how the sector’s training resources are allocated into the future.

Even though digital social media grab most research and policy attention these days, there is a lot that educational policy makers and scholars could learn from community broadcasting about how participatory, user-driven learning environments work and why they are important to population-wide learning, creative industries development and social participation.

There is considerable evidence about community broadcasting’s role as a training and professional development pathway into Australian media and entertainment industries. With over 26,000 volunteers Australia-wide, the community broadcasting sector also generates considerable demand for formal media training. Overwhelmingly, however, knowledge transfer within the sector occurs informally, through the everyday social interactions that occur in the process of participating in station-related activities which include, but are not limited to, program-making.

Community broadcasting is an excellent platform for researching contemporary teaching and learning practices. It is filled with examples and potential case studies in connected learning, formal and informal learning communities and communities of practice. However, it would be a mistake to think of community broadcasting as principally an institution of learning. Learning is a by-product of the higher order purposes to which community broadcasting participants apply their media skills and knowledge. This insight became apparent in the early days of community broadcasting.

When community broadcasting licences were first established in broadcasting legislation there were apparently obvious synergies between educational and community broadcasting remits. Consequently, educational institutions (usually universities or colleges of advanced education) were encouraged to participate in community broadcasting licences as owners and operators. However, this relationship has not stood the test of time particularly well. Most educational stations parted ways with their auspicing educational institutions and new relationships have been few and far between for reasons that deserve further research. I think two important factors were at play. This included a misapprehension of the similarities between the businesses of education and broadcasting. Universities also later found that the internet was a better way to support research which is also part of their core business.

Reaching thinly scattered populations living beyond the eastern fringe of the Australian continent has always presented logistical challenges in the development of many services, including broadcasting and education. As the ‘education’ licence category suggested, education was often thought of as if it were a problem of transmission, much like broadcasting. Learning was assumed to occur when empty-headed students received messages from learned teachers. If you gave teachers microphones and broadcasting platforms then surely education could be made more accessible in a cost-effective way! The ABC’s schools radio programs showed that this kind of teaching and learning was effective and possible, but the costs of developing, maintaining and delivering engaging courseware for use in broadcasting-like modes of teaching and learning were easily underestimated (as many universities appear to still be learning).

At about the same time that community broadcasting was getting underway in Australia an international revolution was also occurring in the ways that teaching and learning were understood. Learning was increasingly appreciated to be a social process, not just a communication process imagined through the dominant transmission model of the time. The early histories of many education stations are punctuated by sometimes dramatic adjustments in approaches to managing the balance of community and educational interests. Educational institutions needed their community stations to be self-sustaining, and community broadcasting stations needed to be editorially independent. Over time, hopes that educational stations might have been worthwhile sources of training income, also faded.

By the mid-1990s universities were also beginning to invest heavily in IT infrastructure to support their research communities through the development of private computer networks (think AARNet). Internet infrastructure was also enabled by, and supported, new models of distributed, networked communication. These ideas also helped to further transform the theories and practices of teaching, learning and the role of community in these activities. However, the internet did not kill radio any more than the video star. Community broadcasting continues to demonstrate the need for, and value of, a diverse communicative ecology. Society benefits from all the platforms and architectures of communication in can sustain. It is important to note also that there are exceptions to the general failure of the relationship between formal education and community broadcasting that I have outline here. I am especially pleased to note that 2SER is one of these exceptions. It continues to be owned and operated by UTS and Macquarie University, and governed by a vision that reflects a social understanding of how learning occurs and how community broadcasting can promote and enable social participation and change.

What do you consider the greatest contributions and achievements of community broadcasting and academia?

Media and communications law and policy is a highly politicised field but the decisions of organisations in this field also need to be evidence-based. Community broadcasting has benefitted from research that critically accounts for both the political and empirical realities of the sector. For the last few decades research funding settings have encouraged partnerships with university-based researchers and delivered a range of outcomes for the sector. The impact of the first and largest research partnership between the CBF, the Department of Communication and Griffith University researchers, Michael Meadows, Susan Forde and Kerry Foxwell-Norton, continues to be felt nearly 20 years on. The legacy of this collaboration in McNair Insight research and other sector data collections and survey activities. This research also established the important and unique role that community broadcasting plays as an information source for vulnerable, minority and local communities that are not well served or reached by commercial or public service media. This continues to be the case as commercial newsrooms and news media have relentlessly contracted or withdrawn entirely from rural and regional communities.

I consider my research students to be among my greatest research contributions to the sector. I was so fortunate that people such as Ellie Rennie and Kim Stewart who came from community broadcasting and had research projects supported by the sector chose me as their supervisor. Their ‘scholactivism’ has significantly enhanced the intelligence and research capacity of the sector.

Ellie Rennie returned to the sector its contribution to her PhD research costs many times over. Her international study of community television supported a compelling case for permanent spectrum allocation for community TV. Ellie went on to demonstrate the ways in which community-controlled media built human and social capital, especially in marginalised groups, by supporting skills development for the creative expression of individual and collective identity and building leadership capacity. Ellie served in various community media management roles including nine years as a CBF Board Director and continues to be a strong advocate for digital inclusion.
Kim facilitates participation of people with disabilities in the sector and is a human rights advocate, 4ZZZ program maker and CMTO trainer. Her doctoral research has directly informed CBAA guidance to stations on best practice for working with people with disability, and CMTO protocols for training development and delivery.

I cannot do justice to the great work of the sector’s many other scholactivists here. I can mention that many are active in the Community and Alternative Media Research in Australia (CAMRA). CAMRA is an informal network of academics that meet on an ad hoc basis. CAMRA is currently convened by Tanja Dreher from UNSW and Heather Anderson and Bridget Backhaus from Griffith University. Tanja’s research into the ethics of media consumption has enormous value to community groups within and beyond the sector. Heather Anderson’s work on prison radio also documents how some of the most socially marginalised populations benefit from community broadcasting. Charlotte Bedford who presently runs the CMTO’s Leadership and Enterprise training program also has a research specialisation in prison radio for which she has been awarded a doctorate.

Advocates from within the sector have been crucial to the success of research, including the CEOs and boards of peak bodies including the CBF and CBAA. Over the years many people, including Mike Thompson, Barry Melville, Kath Letch and Jon Bisset have demonstrated through their support for scholarship their understanding of the importance of research to the sustainability of community broadcasting. The research outcomes mentioned here do not represent a systematic survey of research benefits to the sector. However, I do hope they point to the medium to long term, sector-wide benefits of scholarship, and recall that the sector has contributed to the development of a talented pool of clever, capable researchers and research leaders.

What does the Michael Law Award mean to you?

The Michael Law Award has many meanings for me. I am very nostalgic about community broadcasting, including the fact that I am old enough, and lucky enough, to have known Michael. I also have firsthand knowledge of Michael’s extraordinary achievements, and his commitment to shaping the values of community broadcasting.

I met Michael in the early 1980s shortly after he became the first Executive Director of the then Public Broadcasting Association of Australia (later the CBAA). He was incredibly generous with his time and I interviewed him many times for Media Magazine. He was a great communicator, listener and change leader across considerable social and cultural differences. He was also great networker and contributed enthusiastically to building political and bureaucratic support for a broad coalition of interests – ethnic, educational, fine music, community – that shared a vision for a distinctive sector of Australian broadcasting comprised of licences that were owned, controlled and operated by communities of interest, independent of government or commercial interests.

I knew from his accent that Michael was a Pom, but it was some time after meeting him that I also discovered he was a radio engineer, a yachty and a fine music buff and many other things. He arrived in Sydney in the late 1960s by boat and was able to settle in Australia. His love of fine music drew him to the group that became the licensee for Australia’s first full time FM station, 2MBS FM. It was through this association that Michael found himself at the forefront of a gathering movement that advocated an inclusive approach to expanding our media system.

The Michael Law Award also reminds me that it takes many, many people to build a movement. I am thrilled to be a part of the community broadcasting movement, and to have had so many opportunities to contribute to it in so many ways. I am also deeply humbled to have my contributions recognised through the Michael Law Award.

Watch the CBAA’s interview with Christina >

Know any community broadcasting trailblazers?

This story is part of a series of a in-depth interviews (scroll through our stories page to read others) with community broadcasting trailblazers and others who have made a lasting contribution to community media. If you’d like us to profile someone at your station, please get in touch.

Photo: Christina broadcasting at 2SER in the 1980s.