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Radio Adelaide ushers in a ‘new era’ of democratic governance

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Following a turbulent transition to independence, Radio Adelaide supporters and board members say they have renewed optimism a new membership structure will lead to stronger community engagement with the station.

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Australia’s first community radio station hit troubled waters in 2015 when the University of Adelaide, then the owner and operator of Radio Adelaide, sold the station’s North Terrace site and later announced it would cease funding to the station formerly known as 5UV.

The decision sparked a grassroots campaign to save Radio Adelaide, with some calling into question the feasibility of running the radio station without the university’s financial backing.

After a tumultuous three years – including co-locating with fellow community station Fresh 92.7, some controversial programming changes, an abandoned legal fight over branding with the ABC and a passing interim board – the Radio Adelaide community believes the station has finally found its independence with the election of a new member-based board.

“Over the last couple of years we’ve gone from a situation where [Radio Adelaide] was wholly owned and operated by the University of Adelaide to a situation where we’re now on our own,” new board chair David Heath says.

“It’s been an arduous process but what the station really needs now is that clear direction on the station’s future.

“The board is committed to providing that direction and making sure the station not only survives but also thrives.”

Heath, a former radio journalist and current departmental media adviser, was elected chair in February after the station’s former board of directors invited Radio Adelaide supporters to become members.

Of the approximately 100 people who signed up to become Radio Adelaide members, seven were elected to sit on the board.

“We (the board) have very wide and broad experiences across marketing and communications, community radio, media, politics,” Heath says.

“We made it clear to the members at our first AGM that the operation [and] the management of the station would be different – we would be much more inclusive [and] transparent.”

In the eyes of some members of the Radio Adelaide community, inclusivity and transparency had been lacking from the station as it transitioned away from the university.

Programming changes, including former general manager Rob Popplestone’s decision to introduce a short-lived “Midday Sport” show featuring SA sports personalities KG Cunningham and Phil Smyth, raised a few eyebrows in the community.

The station was also rocked by the announcement by management in August last year that it would drop five of its paid staff, leaving just two staff members to keep the station afloat.

“It’s fair to say the mood at the first AGM was… robust,” Heath says.

“That was the first time for the members to air their views [and] there were clearly members and volunteers who had grievances about the decisions that were made by the interim board.”

Board member and Radio Adelaide producer Annie Hastwell agrees that the station travelled a “rocky road” to independence, but says now there is a renewed sense of optimism among the station community.

“I think they (the station community) had felt that they were shut out – that was the problem.

“The fact that they can have a say again… that has given them heart.

“We went through this horrible time and now, to me, it seems like we’re still working, we’re still functioning, we’re down to two staff but nevertheless we’re still here.”

Nicky Page, who formerly headed the Radio Adelaide Station Workers Association during the station’s transition to independence and who now meets with an “informal group” of station members, says she is “very pleased” with the new board.

“It is something that we have been pushing for a very long time,” she says.

“The big challenges of transitioning have meant that our public profile needs to be revived.

“[The board members] understand the station and the current challenges and the strategies that will work for Radio Adelaide.”

Some of these strategies include a renewed focus on the station’s educational training programs, exploring new podcasting ventures and engaging more with the local community.

“I’d like the training of aspiring journalists to be a much bigger part of what we do,” Radio Adelaide station manager Chris Leese says.

“We’re working on some new ideas for original content podcasts and we’ll be looking to invite people to get involved in the station, even if they are looking to do podcasts rather than radio.

“We’ll also be looking to increasingly engage with the arts sector, with the music sector [and] the education sector to work with organisations within those areas to provide better content and to engage them in what we do.”

Radio Adelaide still maintains what Leese describes as a “strong relationship” with the University of Adelaide through its training of Bachelor of Media students and the Adelaide University Union’s student radio time slot.

The board is now looking to use the station’s radio equipment and facilities as a potential source of revenue.

“We’ve got the studios, we’ve got the equipment, we can make podcasts and we can do training,” Heath says.

“There’s massive potential out there for organisations, whether it be corporates or educational institutions, medical companies or schools to come to us and we can help them with their broadcast needs.”

However, these plans will have to operate within what Heath describes as a “lean and professional” financial operation.

“I don’t think it (Radio Adelaide) will be back to the level it once was.

“Even commercial radio stations these days are running with not many more people than what we once had and they can advertise whenever they want to.

“One of the things that we’re tossing around at the moment is getting volunteers more involved in the operational side of the radio station – possibly even creating some job descriptions for volunteer roles.”

Currently the station is supported by approximately 250 volunteers, including those who took on the added responsibilities of hosting the broadcaster’s breakfast show and music program Local Noise following the staff sackings.

Radio Adelaide is still heavily reliant on sponsorship to fund its operations but, for now, the station manager says the “ship has steadied.”

“We’ve had some well-documented financial difficulties but things are looking much more positive now,” Leese says.

“It will continue to be a challenge for some time yet – we are largely dependent on listener support and on sponsors and those things are harder to come by now more than ever before.

“It’s a matter of building the station into something people want to support and adapting to suit the changing media landscape.”

Despite the challenges ahead, Heath says he is “nervously excited” about his new role at the station.

“There are a lot of challenges that this board and future boards will face and will need to respond to but it’s an exciting time when you think about a new board, new membership at the very start of a new era for the radio station.

“We can guarantee that the Radio Adelaide community will be engaged in the future.

“Everybody will be on board and everybody will be part of the process.”

– Stephanie Richards is a former volunteer at Radio Adelaide

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