Can Richard Branson save a battling Aussie radio station?
“Hi … uhh…. So you know times are tough for me right now…. (awkward pause) … well, I’m a couple of weeks behind on rent… I swear I’ll pay you back…”
Have you ever asked a friend for money? It’s an awkward conversation that community radio stations have with their listeners every year during their annual supporter drive.
The only problem is that when a global financial crisis hits, posing the question this time around seems to border on the absurd.
“Hi, you might’ve lost your job last week, but we need you to support us or you’ll lose your favourite radio station too.”
Luckily most community broadcasters have learnt that in 2009 as the end of the financial year looms, they need to be a savvy with their pitches.
SYN Radio in Melbourne is currently asking their listeners to “pay what you think we’re worth”, others suggest instead of spending K Rudd’s bonus on those return flights to Los Angeles you should go and ‘stimulate your station’. PBS has a $50,000 prize pool include a $10,000 European holiday. 3CR’s website even encourages listeners to “make a bequest in your will”
I’ve been a broadcaster at community radio station FBi for nearly six years, almost as long as the station is old. In February we lost more than half our revenue, mostly due to big corporate sponsors pulling out… but also because with youth unemployment is rising, and our core audience figures that we can probably survive without their spare change.
Community radio stations receive a small amount of funding from government bodies, but they rely on listeners becoming financial supporters. At FBi, financial struggles at are something we are more than familiar with – it took 10 years of lobbying, court battles and half a million dollars just to launch our station.
The bottom line isn’t pretty: FBi needs a million bucks to get through this bad patch. We know that it’s a figure that our loyal supporters simply can’t cover.
So we decided that we’d go straight to the top of our favourite philanthropists’ list and ask Richard Branson for it (hey, if anyone has a spare million floating round, it’s Sir Dick, right?).
Well, we didn’t just call him up. He’s not listed in the Yellow Pages, and funnily enough, there’s no direct contact number listed on the Virgin website. So we asked our listeners to get him to notice us. The prize? $50,000 for the person who convinces him to hand over the million - see http://www.askrichard.com.au.
So far supporters have jumped out of planes in wedding dresses, had a dick-flash mob on Sunrise, created computer games and held marathon busking sessions on King St in the hopes of getting his attention.
But he’s a busy man and this is no easy feat. Between saving rainforests, building a spaceport and buying Formula One racing teams; Sir Dick has so far eluded us.
Some community stations have applauded us for our tenacity with this campaign. Some have said our business model must be wrong to lose money so rapidly, and others have turned up their nose and said we’re trying to make a deal with the devil-in-a-hot-air-balloon. And maybe we are.
But our decision to ask a billionaire for financial support shouldn’t be the concern. What’s really concerning is this: a station commanding a listenership of nearly a quarter of a million can’t rely on the community to put their money where their preset is.
Community radio isn’t just the about what’s being broadcast right now. It’s also about what will be on your radio, on your television, and posting on your favourite blog in the future. So many members of the present mainstream media had their own first heart-pounding moment live on air thanks to community radio.
Let me dazzle you with just a handful: Kate Langbroek, Eleanor Hall, John Safran, Santo Cilauro, Robbie Buck, Marieke Hardy, Hamish & Andy, Julie McCrossin, Jane Gazzo, Dave O’Neil, Helen Razer, Peter Helliar and Marc Fennell.
Not a bad list, is it? Community radio has long been viewed as the breeding ground for the next generation of broadcasters. A teething ground for the movers and shakers of the future. On top of those names you can add the countless producers, researchers and writers that fill studios and newsroom across the country.
FBi has 219,000 people tuning in every week. 2% of these are financial supporters. The other 98% assume we’ll be fine. This is currently the battle of one station, but we’re certainly not the only station feeling the tightening of the financial belt.
On one level, a global financial crisis means that listeners become too nervous to reach into their hip pocket. To the future broadcasters of this country, it may deprive them of that crucial foot in the door.
If the station with the largest community license in Australia has to contemplate switching off, what does this mean for the future of independent radio in this country?
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