Voices in the air – 40 years of community radio

By Jennifer Little

Reading time: 12 minutes

Most Kiwis probably haven’t heard of – or heard spoken – Gujurati, Khmer, Konkani, Tagalog, or Telugu. But they are among the 49 languages you can tune into on Aotearoa’s 12 community Access Radio stations that span the length and breadth of the country from Auckland to Invercargill.

And for those who listen to these stations – whether in English, Te Reo Māori, or any of the foreign languages spoken in our increasingly diverse society – the experience is a powerful way to feel connected to the places, people, ideas, and customs they identify with.

Community radio menus are alluring – and not only the programmes in other languages, but personal and poignant stories and issues in English too. You can gain revealing insights into the hidden lives of prisoners or prostitutes, or discover garage punk, or Parisienne jazz. You might learn about gardening, golf, books, magazines, Buddhism, finance,

By Jennifer Little

Reading time: 12 minutes

Most Kiwis probably haven’t heard of – or heard spoken – Gujurati, Khmer, Konkani, Tagalog, or Telugu. But they are among the 49 languages you can tune into on Aotearoa’s 12 community Access Radio stations that span the length and breadth of the country from Auckland to Invercargill.

And for those who listen to these stations – whether in English, Te Reo Māori, or any of the foreign languages spoken in our increasingly diverse society – the experience is a powerful way to feel connected to the places, people, ideas, and customs they identify with.

Community radio menus are alluring – and not only the programmes in other languages, but personal and poignant stories and issues in English too. You can gain revealing insights into the hidden lives of prisoners or prostitutes, or discover garage punk, or Parisienne jazz. You might learn about gardening, golf, books, magazines, Buddhism, finance, farming, philosophy, or film. The range of topics is eclectic and abundant.

Access Radio is by definition low-budget, niche, grassroots, hyperlocal and superdiverse. It allows people – particularly minority and marginalised groups – to produce and broadcast programmes for their own communities. By doing so, community radio stations fulfil a mandate to cater to audiences whose interests are under the radar of mainstream broadcast media.

As its tagline states, the station is “broadcasting by, for, and about the community.” That means programmes and podcasts are made by and for women, children, people living with disabilities, ethnic communities, and all Kiwis with stories, experiences, and voices to share that aren’t traditionally catered for in mainstream media.

Community Access Media Association (CAMA) – the national coordinating body for the network – celebrated 40 years of community radio this year. Programmers and supporters marked the occasion at Parliament with the launch of Sharing the Mic: Community Access Radio in Aotearoa New Zealand (Freerange Press), written by Brian Pauling and Bronwyn Beatty who trace the history of community radio, its people, its challenges and its increasingly vital role in a rapidly changing media landscape.

Each station gets a chapter, with interviews and stories from those behind the scenes and behind the mic. Co-author Bronwyn Beatty told Stuff in an interview that something which struck her about the sector was the passion and “incredible effort” put in by the people involved. During the last year, New Zealand’s Access stations produced more than 25,000 hours of content in almost 50 languages.

Sasha Borissenko, CAMA’s national coordinator, is a passionate champion of community radio. The daughter of migrants from Russia and Ireland, she’s grown up here, is educated in law, performing arts and journalism, and has worked in mainstream media. She put together CAMA’s recent nationwide awareness campaign, Find Your Station. Find Your People to mark the 40-year milestone.

Sasha Borissenko, national coordinator CAMA

In her work, she gets to travel the motu (country) to meet people running the stations and delivering content to find out what support they need. She also explores funding and infrastructure as well as being an advocate and promoter – for example: to government agencies who want to provide multi-lingual information on important issues, like COVID-19 and civil defence emergencies.

“Coming from mainstream media, I now think ‘this is where it’s at’,” she says. “The principle, the integrity and the authenticity behind it is something I certainly was craving. Community radio is something that’s actually really genuine and beautiful at a time and in a climate that’s really hard.

“Community radio is also about diversity of thought as much as it is a platform for diverse cultures to share news and information,” she emphasises. “And if this means ideas that are controversial or confronting, that’s fine, as long as it doesn’t breach broadcasting standards and meets the criteria under Section 36c of the Broadcasting Act, which says it must “ensure that a range of broadcasts is available to provide for the interests of women, youth, children, persons with disabilities, minorities in the community including ethnic minorities and refugees, and to encourage a range of broadcasts that reflects the diverse religious and ethical beliefs of New Zealanders”. “No hate speech, and the content must fit our kaupapa (values) and obligations under section 36c,” Borissenko adds.

Since starting her role last September, she’s marvelled at the talent and quality of programming, including the likes of award-winning podcast for Best Documentary at the New Zealand Radio Awards this year: Widows of Shuhada. It tells the stories of four Muslim women widowed by the 2019 Christchurch mosque attacks and what they found themselves facing afterwards.

The series was broadcast on Radio New Zealand earlier this year and was made by student broadcaster Asha Abde at Christchurch-based Plains FM. It’s not the first time Plains FM has had national recognition, according to a RNZ report. “The lead producer of Widows of Shuhada – Lana Hart – won a New Zealand Radio Award in 2015 for a series on Filipinos living and working in Canterbury.”

Borissenko points to other stand-out podcasts, including one about the lives of sex workers – again, on Plains FM – which she says helps to break down stigma about that sector, while a Wellington Access Radio programme on the daily lives of people with disabilities was “subversive and well-crafted.”

Community radio offers numerous opportunities for youth programming, as well as education and training in broadcasting through links with schools ­– an area Borissenko sees plenty of potential for further development.

“It would be amazing if every household in New Zealand knew what community radio was,” Borissenko muses.

Access Radio origins

Funded by NZ On Air since 1989, community radio predates government support with Wellington Access Radio first going to air in 1981, followed by stations in Wairarapa, Christchurch and Auckland, writes Karen Neill in the introduction to Sharing the Mic: “Each station is,” she says, “a reflection of its community. Population density and diversity vary between these stations’ communities – from the pastoral backdrop of the rural Wairarapa to the big city melting pot of Auckland’s multicultural urban ecology.”

Listen up

The variety of material is mind-blowing – there’s something for everyone, with the bulk of content in English.

Along with appointment listening, there’s more content available via streaming and podcasts as community radio finds its place in the digital and on-demand era.

Consider Auckland’s Planet FM, which caters to the largest, most ethnically diverse audiences. In a one night snapshot, Wednesday’s scheduling has programmes by Tamils, Tongans, Samoans and Korean Catholics, a slot on Chinese Buddhism, as well as content about Niue, Ireland, Sri Lanka, and Kiribati.

There’s Two Sugars – entertainment and musings on hobbies, travel, golf, food and wine and living off the land hosted by four women with backgrounds in communications, marketing, psychology, business, and education.

As well as AA Meeting on Air to support people dealing with alcohol addiction, you’ll find Youth Voices, Garden Planet, This Way Out – an international gay bulletin – and Utu For Workers, which “raises awareness of workplace injustices and exposes inequities in our systems of redress for mistreated workers”.

If you’re awake in the wee hours on a Friday there’s Blue Moon Music, and if you’re from Nepal or Romania, you can catch news from home later in the day. On The C Word, host Helen King speaks to people whose lives are affected by cancer.

Along with Christian and gospel slots, music geeks with substantial collections share their eclectic or eccentric tastes on shows like Stone Cold Sober, Mike’s Soul Music and Vinyl Revival while three Auckland librarians host a book club on air.

Elsewhere, on Taranaki’s Access Radio you’ll find enlightenment by the listening to CAB Time (Citizens Advice Bureau), or The Law Lady (Angela Solomons manages to de-mystify the legal issues around buying into a retirement village, noisy neighbours, immigration, divorce, buying a house, surviving a zombie apocalypse, and just about any other situation you can think of) or learn about politics, property, or the world of art in Arty Farty Hour (from Otago Access Radio (OAR). One of the most popular spots is Cheryl Nomvula Mudawarima’s Friday music show, Cool African Grooves.

Manawatū People’s Radio offers Blockbuster Backrooms to take you behind the scenes of horror movies, as well as specialist topics from speedway and wrestling to flatting and fat-friendly discourse, along with every musical genre invented – gospel, garage punk, metal, and disco to country and Brazilian jazz.

A mere fragment of the choices available are mentioned here; CAMA also hosts links to hundreds of richly diverse podcasts available globally and provides tips and training for aspiring broadcasters and podcasters on its website.

Speakers of Gujarati, Khmer, Konkani, Tagalog or Telugu (languages from the Indian state of Gujarati, Cambodia, the western coastal region of India, the Philippines and the Indian states of Andhara Pradesh and Telangana respectively) may be among your neighbours or colleagues.

Access Community Radio stations:

Auckland – Planet FM
Waikato – Free FM
Taranaki – Access Radio Taranaki
Manawatū – Manawatū People’s Radio
Hawke’s Bay – Radio Kidnappers
Wairarapa – Arrow FM
Wellington – Wellington Access Radio
Kapiti – Coast Access Radio
Nelson/Marlborough – Fresh FM
Canterbury – Plains FM
Otago – Otago Access Radio/OAR
Southland – Radio Southland

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