How community radio performs community identity

The study “‘Just like us’: community radio broadcasters and the on-air performance of community identity” by Bridget Backhaus from Griffith University looked at an understudied sub-area in community media studies: community identity. The study is situated in Australia, a country with rich and diverse scholarship on the topic. 

The concept of community is foundational in community media studies. This third sector of media is separated from state-run and commercial models by being run by and for specific communities. Communities here can refer to geographical, demographic, cultural or interest-based communities. 

The traditional understanding of the term community encapsulated geographic and interest-based communities, while the more modern interpretations include communities of practice, interpretive communities and online communities. There appears to be no consensus on how the term should be understood, while the emphasis on community is clear. 

Collective identity, in order to become salient, needs to be performed by the community. The perception broadcasters have on their audience affect how they perform collective identity, which then feeds community building and the effect of community radio itself.

A key notion to defining community in this context is social contact. Carpenter, Lie and Servais (2007) consider it a defining feature of community. However, there is limited social contact from the community to the broadcasters, as the former are often merely in the audience role. 

How then, is a sense of community maintained by the broadcasters? The answer may lie in the concept of imagined communities, as explained by Anderson (2006). Anderson argues persuasively that all larger communities exist in the minds of the members, as most have no contact with each other.

This study was conducted by using critical discourse analysis (CDA) on the broadcast content of ten Australian community radio stations that were transcribed for the analysis. They were all from the Brisbane area in Queensland. 

The findings highlighted the key differences between the stations and two themes were identified: commercialization and the performance of local. Half of the stations were rather similar to their commercial counterparts, closely echoing their repertoires. 

In the study, music was the main marker of commercialization. The four local stations under analysis all opted for a mixture of 70s and 80s pop with some more recent hits in the mix. The author suspects this is due to the older demographic of the stations.

The other stations under the study had a much more specialized music selection. 4MBS is a classical music special interest station, 98,9 played more country, while 96,5 FM played more family-friendly fare with religious songs mixed in. 4ZZZ had an eclectic playlist combined with news on the music scene, and Switch FM played almost exclusively new music from the last couple of years. 

It was shown that stations with more clearly defined communities were able to more effectively target their audiences with music selections, while local radio stations serving an area were closer to commercial channels. The tendency toward commercial selection is termed by Forde, Meadows and  Foxwell–Norton (2002) as ‘creep of commercialism’.

The sense of localness was performed in several ways. The first way was overt repetition and reinforcement of place. This was seen in traffic and weather reports and advertisements. However, in addition some channels opted to use phrases like ‘Narangba, this is your station’ and ‘Toorbul, this is your station’.

According to the author, this emphasis on the local reinforces the radio’s role as a rhizome in the community. For example, in discussing building a business, local businesses were mentioned. 

Despite this local focus, however, in majority of the cases the engagement with localness remained superficial, in the level of traffic and weather. Eight of the ten syndicated news services produced out of state or even overseas. One channel had their own news service and one had no news at all. 

The second area for performing locality was the on-air discussions that took place on the channels. Of course, stations that had a disembodied broadcast role were ruled out. Stations with more than one presenter performed better in this regard, but even with one presenter it was possible to have on-air discussions. 

In the conclusion, the author raises an uncomfortable question: if a local station shares “no local news, does not create space for community voices and discussions, and echoes mainstream content, is it a community radio station at all?” Nevertheless, the results do not entirely support this negative view.

Through mediated self-disclosure, the local stations manage to sound ‘just like us’ and thus reinforce their localness and community identity. They build relationships and camaraderie through the discussions. 

The study ‘Just like us’: community radio broadcasters and the on-air performance of community identity” by Bridget Backhaus is in Continuum. (free abstract).

Picture: Untitled by Brisbane Local Marketing

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