Nicola Joseph: community broadcasting trailblazer

March 30, 2021

Newly appointed CBF Board member Nicola Joseph has played a pivotal role in shaping the development of community broadcasting in Australia for over 40 years. A champion of diversity, inclusion and access to minority voices, Nicola’s trailblazing career includes formative years at 2MCE Bathurst, 2SER, 4ZZZ and Radio Skid Row/Radio Redfern working alongside some of the founding giants of the sector. She is a former CEO of the Community Media Training Organisation and has worked at SBS and the ABC as a journalist, presenter, executive producer and station manager. Currently a PhD candidate at UNSW, Nicola told her story to former 2SER/ABC colleague, Tracee Hutchison.

This interview contains the names and photos of First Nations people who have died.

How did you start in community radio?

The media degree I did at Bathurst was very much designed to get graduates into the ABC and mainstream media. At the same time, we were lucky enough to be in Bathurst where a pioneer of the community broadcasting sector, John Martin was station manager and Christian Burnat was the technician. Christian and John had built something like five or six production studios at the time and there were only about 15 students studying radio and TV. So, we had heaps of time to experiment with sound and we produced everything from interviews and documentaries to sound design and soundscapes for the drama projects. I left Bathurst with really good news writing and some great production skills.

You moved on to 4ZZZ in Brisbane during the Bjelke-Peterson era of QLD politics. What was the 4ZZZ’s ethos on political reporting during those heady political times?

Actually, towards the end of my degree and before I went to 4ZZZ, I worked as a production assistant and booking officer at the Paddington Video Access Centre (in Sydney) and it was here that I started to learn about the core values of the sector and was part of the fight for community television to be established. It was at Paddington that I met Michael Law who is often referred to as the grandfather of the sector. I also met many emerging documentary-makers like Tom Zubrycki and Martha Ansara who were making documentaries about Indigenous issues, workers’ struggles and various protest and liberation movements in Australia and around the world. This was probably my first experience in the politics of the community broadcasting sector. You have to remember though I was barely 21 and up until that point had been brought up in a reasonably strict Lebanese family – so I was very much wide-eyed and learning.

4ZZZ really changed the course of my career and got me hooked on the power of community radio. I worked with two amazing journalists, Shaun Hoyt and Linden Woodward in the newsroom which was primarily focused on state political issues at the time of the Bjelke-Peterson government. The issues we covered included the treatment of Queensland Murris by police and government, corruption in the government and the erosion of civil liberties in Queensland. It was heavy because at the time the government did not tolerate criticism, so you often found yourself being followed or singled out by police at public events.

Apart from the alternative news service, 4ZZZ was a brilliant music station as well as a major music promoter in Brisbane. It was also run collectively by 13 staff. So, I learnt a lot at collective meetings about how to run a newsroom, radio programming, radiothons and fundraising and generally how to stay out of trouble with ACMA (ABT back then). It was cool, a lot of politics with a lot of fun – just the way it should be.

From Brisbane you went to 2SER in Sydney in the early 1980’s. What were the defining stories of that time?

I got to take the 4ZZZ skills and bring them to 2SER and set up the newsroom there very much along the lines of what had been happening in Brisbane. 2SER was a completely different station compared to 4ZZZ which was a music station with great talk. 2SER used block programming where community groups would be trained and get a timeslot. It was a completely different way to organise a radio station. It was also managed from the top down and volunteers had started to push back against some of the decisions which affected them.

I guess it was here I started to build a national picture of the sector. I got to attend CBAA (PBAA back then) conferences and talk with other stations who were trying to establish newsrooms with paid journalists. The stories in Sydney were about many of the same issues – Indigenous, international struggles, prisons and women’s issues to name a few.

If I was to name a highlight, it would have to be the Commonwealth Games protest coverage in Brisbane. This was the first time, in my memory that we managed to link up the really progressive stations in the sector – 4ZZZ, 2SER, 3CR and 2XX to name a few and provide national coverage based at 4ZZZ. I went back to Brisbane with my 2SER colleague Jill Emberson and worked with the Zed team to co-ordinate a large group of volunteer reporters. Of course, the Queensland government was doing everything it could to silence Indigenous voices while the international media was in town – and it was our coverage which really made the difference.

Radio Redfern was also emerging at that time founded by the late Aunty Maureen Watson and her son  the late Tiga Bayles. It was a groundbreaking time to be part of. What are your reflections on this time?

I really want to make something clear because it is a part of history which is often represented wrongly. I actually met Aunty Maureen and Tiga at 2SER where at the time Aunty Maureen had a 15-minute timeslot on air. After the Commonwealth Games, Tiga was employed as a trainee journalist in the 2SER newsroom and I became his mentor and boss. It was while we were working there that I also became involved in an aspirant licence group called Radio Skid Row where I delivered training to volunteers. Tiga, Aunty Maureen and I had discussions about the barriers for Indigenous community which existed at 2SER. They included the limited timeslots available and its location on the UTS campus. So the idea of Radio Redfern really came out of the realisation that most community radio stations were inaccessible or not welcoming to Indigenous people and there was little of no chance of anyone from the nearby local community dropping in to 2SER to see if they could get involved.

Nicola Joseph and Tiga Bayles

So we set our sights on the sub-metro licence at Radio Skid Row because we saw the potential to set up Radio Redfern there as part of the station. It was quite a fight at Radio Skid Row because we were proposing something which was unheard of – a large slab of Indigenous programming on a general community radio station. Our aim was 30 hours a week but we were willing to accept 10 to start with.

The first Radio Skid row management was against the idea and it took us a year to take over the management of Radio Skid Row. Radio Redfern was never a station, it was the name we gave the Indigenous programs at Skid Row. At first, they broadcast at Skid Row and we made certain days Indigenous only at the station – meaning no non-Indigenous people were allowed in the station. We found there were still barriers to the local Redfern community accessing the station. So it was then that we decided to squat in two terraces in Redfern which were owned by the NSW government and build a studio there. We connected it to Radio Skid Row through a landline. So in effect, Radio Redfern was a satellite Radio Skid Row studio. Radio Redfern was managed by the Radio Redfern collective and broadcast 30 hours a week on Radio Skid Row’s frequency.

I think the Radio Skid Row-Radio Redfern Connexion (we actually renamed the station) is an important sector story because it is not only a story about the self-determination of First Nation broadcasters but also about how non-Indigenous people can be genuine allies. The collaborations and interactions between Indigenous, ethnic and white broadcasters at Radio Skid Row were exceptional, best practice examples of how to build a genuine and resilient diversity in a community radio station.

Many of the issues you covered are still yet to be resolved. Does it frustrate you that there is no progress, despite past efforts to tell those stories and address past wrongs?

This is a really interesting question and one which I am thinking about a lot while writing my PhD. As producers and people who have worked to get the unheard voices on the airwaves we’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about giving voice and far less time thinking about how Australians have to come to listen to radio and audio content – or any content for that matter.

It is clear that in community radio we play a role in voices being heard whether it’s through the stories we tell or the skills and training we provide to First Nations and ethnic communities.

However, other media – I would include commercial media, parts of the public broadcasters – are not doing their job of getting minority voices heard. In fact, they are actively encouraging their audiences not to listen to those voices. We live in divisive times where governments play on peoples’ fears often using myths about White Australia and our history to justify their claims.

I remember seeing a post you wrote at the height of the Black Lives Matter campaign. Why do you think there is often so little context in current reporting?

Not a lot of work exists in Australia on the history of protest, and many young people today are not getting the benefit of learning from that history. Gary Foley has done some brilliant work here, but even within our sector the stories in our history are full of lessons which we can learn from – particularly, in relation to diversity in our sector. Where is the review of our history of engagement with minorities? Where can we read about the really exciting times of the Commonwealth Games news coverage and the later, even better coverage of the Bicentennial march in Sydney? If we don’t know this history we just keep reinventing the wheel.

Understanding the impact of trauma on journalists and broadcasters is relatively recent in Australia. Do you think there needs to be greater awareness about the need for mental health support in the sector?

Definitely. I am writing right now about the emotional labour which one has to do as an ethnic or First Nations person in the media. I am not even talking here about war zones, but just the everyday pressures on people. Anyone working in an under-resourced station feels stress and pressure but for someone who finds themselves as the only ethnic or First Nations person on a board and committee – I can tell you that even I find this highly stressful. In my work I have also talked with producers who experience levels of trauma while producing stories. This was particularly the case for First Nations producers telling the untold stories of massacres, children being taken away or the removal of burial sites just to name a few examples.

Your long career as a journalist included long stints at the ABC & SBS covering national/international politics. Where do you feel your work has had the most impact, and why?

It’s about place and time I guess. At the ABC and SBS I was able to make intrusions into the mainstream without making huge and enduring change. At Radio Skid Row we actually had a lasting impact on First Nation’s media, ensuring that metropolitan communities had their own stations and were not confined to a few hours on general stations. This would have to be my top choice.

Nicola Joseph in the 1980s

You’ve been a formidable and influential leader in the sector and broken a lot of ground. Did you set out to lead, or did it just happen along the way?

No, I never set out to lead. In fact I don’t believe that I am considered good leadership material by many of the white, conservative parts of the sector. I think they see me as being a divisive person which is somewhat ironic because I am arguing for inclusion at all levels of the sector and they are the ones most likely to be excluding everyone who doesn’t think and see the world like them. Having said that, I come from a large family of leaders and people who see service to the community as being a really important thing.

How would you describe the role and importance of community broadcasting in the media landscape in Australia today?

The sector is increasingly conservative and moving away from some of the core principles which it was built upon. We’ve become more concerned with our business models than we are about where we sit in media landscape. Alarmingly, many stations operate and sound like commercial stations. Given that the ABC and SBS have become increasingly conservative – then it follows that community radio needs to ensure progressive voices, minority voices and stories not told anywhere else should become an even higher priority in our sector.

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.

Photos: (top) Nicola at the CBAA Community Radio Awards in 2018, (middle) Nicola and Tiga Bayles at Radio Skid Row, (bottom) Nicola addressing a crowd in the 1980s.

Stay Informed