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Life of SYN: A Story of the Digital Generation

Part Two

Work

For Australia Day weekend we all headed off to a school camp in Healesville. SYN was holding their Strategic Planning weekend in the complex, which consisted of bunk-rooms, a mess-hall, rope walks and a netball court. On the first evening we watched a debate, or more of an insult-slinging match, on the ‘radio is dead’ theme. Neither side won or took it particularly seriously. The second night was dedicated to a Karaoke competition, which was taken very seriously indeed. Our days were filled with work; we fought off gigantic beetles and march flies while trying to redesign SYN’s programming and training policies. There were lots of people who didn’t know anyone and I found myself immersed in conversations about school and work. A 16-year-old girl from the country talked to me about not fitting in at school and getting involved in volunteer work just to ease the boredom. We were looking out at the trees and hills. She described her school camps, where farm kids had to orienteer themselves through Melbourne’s CBD. One of their destinations was SYN.

Most of the older SYNners were trying to survive on casual work while figuring out what to do with their lives. Jason Hatcher, a talented graphic designer, was stuck working for a telephone directory. Georgia Ride, the Executive Producer of the news and current affairs program, was confused about her options and not sure how to attain meaningful work. She had just finished her first degree and decided to enrol in a postgraduate journalism diploma. By the time I left SYN Georgia would be working in East Timor, setting up radio stations in villages while Jason had a job in a major sneaker company. The younger SYNners at the camp weren’t thinking about their work prospects so much. I had a long conversation with a 17-year-old ‘newbie’ to SYN about the merits of the Spice Girls, her favourite retro band.

Strategic Planning camp was the moment I refocused my attention from school to work. Aside from their individual anxieties about making the transition into work, it became apparent that SYN itself was a real workplace and an important part of the broader media industries. The planning process was revealing. On the first day, 50 young people listed their ‘glads, sads and mads’ – the things that made them feel happy, regretful or frustrated about SYN. Under ‘glads’ they listed opportunities, under-18s getting involved, creative freedom, the new assistant manager, Sweet 16, SYN’s forward momentum and podcasting. They were sad about the lack of money, technical failures, volunteer time constraints and the constant loss of skilled people. Selfish people and no digital transmission for Channel 31 were also listed. At the top of the infuriating list was lack of computers for editing, followed by ‘dickheads’ (people who break equipment, sing over songs and steal CDs). They were also mad about the lack of follow-through on good ideas, not having a receptionist and the public perception that they were only a radio station. Karaoke made it onto all three lists.

Digital Radio

Digital broadcasting was making SYN sad; TIN radio felt the same way. I have to confess that, having followed the issue for some years, I was more mad than sad. The introduction of digital broadcasting was supposed to make spectrum scarcity a thing of the past. Despite the technical capacity to create more channels, in reality, community broadcasters were being squeezed out of radio and television spectrum. We had been told by government that digital transmission would deliver better quality, enhanced broadcasting with greater interactivity and more channels – and that community television would be given a channel to participate. A decade after that promise was made, the sector was still waiting for a channel to start transmitting to the digital television audience. Community television’s existing analogue audience base was eroding fast as more people bought digital sets and set top boxes. Meanwhile, the commercial stations had been given large portions of the airwaves – enough for four digital channels each – but at that point they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, do anything new with it. The folk that had decided to stick with their old analogue box could see that Melbourne’s community channel was getting good too. Reviewers began describing it as cult viewing. As the 2013 analogue television switch-off approached, Channel 31 continued to shed audience numbers, and the station’s sponsorship revenue declined.

In mid-2009 Greg Dee, C31’s station manager of eight years, left the station and became Executive Producer of Arts, Entertainment and Comedy at ABC TV. Dee’s successor as station manager, Richard McLelland, was instrumental in building C31’s revenue when the station started losing its sponsors. In November 2009, the Federal Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Stephen Conroy, announced at a community forum that Channel 31 would be allocated broadcast spectrum and given funding to enable digital transmission. After a protracted struggle and over a decade’s worth of lobbying and fundraising, Channel 31 was finally transitioning to digital. C31’s digital channel – Channel 44 – was launched on 11 June 2010.

However, some have expressed concern about a change in the station’s culture since the departure of Greg Dee and the station’s digital swithover. A few SYN TV volunteers said that they have felt less welcome at C31. Tahlia Azaria, a SYNner and former C31 staff member, expressed concern that C31 was neglecting its charter: ‘I do think that … it’s shifting away from what is good for the community and it is moving towards how we can make C31 an equal player in the commercial, digital world’ (Azaria 2010, interview).

While C31 made the digital switch, the station was only allocated spectrum that allows them to simulcast their analogue signal with, as yet, no room to develop and program new digital content. The licence was only granted up until switchover, partly due to a scheduled government review into the best use of the ‘digital dividend’ – the spectrum left over after analogue switch-off – and an impending decision as to whether a fourth commercial licence should be granted. The future therefore still remains unclear for C31.

As for radio, the government decided that the old analogue signal, received by your average transistor radio, should stay. There was no switch-off date as there was for analogue television; digital and analogue would co-exist. Unfortunately, that meant less free spectrum in the long term. Community radio was allocated only 20% of the available capacity on the commercial station’s multiplexes (transmission systems) in the cities. Sub-metro stations missed out completely while regional and remote areas would have to wait for their turn at digital. As Melbourne has nine citywide community stations, it was clear to those who bothered to do the math that the 20% allocation would not be enough for each station to simulcast their existing analogue content at FM or superior quality, let alone add-on features such as text or images. At the time, a possible scenario was that the community stations would share airtime and digital broadcasting studios, forming a new, combined digital radio channel.

To me, that sounded like centralisation in a sector that was setup to be diverse and independent. It seemed that digital community radio would fall through when the sector was unable to reach an agreement with the commercial transmission providers. The new Labor Minister for Communications, Senator Conroy decided to postpone the start-date for digital radio transmission.

It looked like a waste of time and energy for the community broadcasting sector. The peak body, the CBAA, was forced to stay on top of the issues, analyse their position in a changing and somewhat absurd scenario and find resources to devote to a battle they seemed unlikely to win. Craig Twitt attended the appropriate meetings and kept his volunteer army informed of the situation. He implemented a counter-offensive, feeding information to some high profile media journalists who were happy to give Minister Conroy a hard time.

SYN’s new President, Jess Crouch, made sure that SYN was seen to be above the whole messy business. She sent a letter to Crikey:

Unless the government pulls a few rabbits out of a few hats and Minister Stephen Conroy starts answering the phone, it seems highly likely that digital radio in Australia will fail. This will mostly be due to the community broadcasting sector’s inability to access realistic funding to utilise the technology and convert audiences. But, on the other hand, maybe none of that matters. At my station, a youth community station based in Melbourne, we think the kids have already moved on. There’s this other really great broadcasting tool we’ve stumbled across. It’s called the internet. It has moving pictures and everything – and you can get it all on your mobile phone. (Crouch 2008)

There was a question mark over digital radio. There wasn’t the same sense of urgency with digital radio as there was with digital television. Many people, like Jess, questioned what digital could offer radio that the internet didn’t offer already.

Unexpectedly, digital community radio got off the ground. The Federal Government funded the infrastructure and equipment for community broadcasters. The CBAA appointed a Digital Radio Project Manager – former station manager at Melbourne’s 3RRR, Kath Letch – to oversee digital radio distribution for the community radio sector.

Commercial and government stations started broadcasting digitally in 2009, and digital radio for the 37 metropolitan community radio licensees commenced in late 2010. Stations like SYN have the equipment, but spectrum allocation remains a contested issue. Metropolitan community broadcasters share digital multiplexes owned by the commercial broadcasters in each capital city, with community radio services in each city squeezed onto 2/9ths of each multiplex. In Melbourne, all nine full-time metropolitan community broadcasters had to divvy this small amount of spectrum between them. The nine stations, including SYN, were squashed into the same amount of spectrum allocated to four commercial broadcasters and at much lower bitrates. In some capital cities, like Perth and Adelaide, it’s an even tighter fit. For many stations, the share is only enough to simulcast an existing analogue signal.

While the take up of digital radio has been slow, the CBAA’s Digital Radio Project Manager (now CBAA’s General Manager), Kath Letch, emphasised that it is ‘stronger than most people in the industry anticipated’ (Letch 2010, interview).

The Digital Radio Industry Report states that although digital radio’s listener share is only 1.6% compared with analogue radio’s 97.2%, that more people are listening to digital radio than are streaming it through the internet. The report also highlights that the take up of digital radio has been highest among those aged 10–17 and 18–24 (Digital Radio Plus 2010).

SYN commenced digital radio broadcasting and digital radio is most popular in its target audience. Up until recently, though, the possibilities of digital had been overshadowed by SYN’s concerns about its website.

In 2007, while the community broadcasting sector lobbied for its right to digital spectrum, SYN’s online ‘discovery’ was producing new stresses for the organisation. At the time, digital radio felt like an expensive disaster waiting to happen, but online media also required resources and a strategy. In the broadcast world it was pretty clear that SYN was a youth community station. But what was their identity in the online environment? If Jess was right, the kids were moving on. How could SYN go with them? I was beginning to see cracks in SYN’s optimistic outlook.

Don’t Be Evil

Towards the end of 2007, Paul Culliver posted a message to the online team:

Just in case this has gone unnoticed, the SYN.org.au front page is showing: ‘Warning: Sablotron error on line 1: XML parser error 3: no element found in /home/website.syn/main/includes/show_onair_now_pict.php on line 8 XSLT processing error: XML parser error 3: no element found’. Any ideas?

PS. I want a Sablotron for Christmas.

Paul’s Sablotron was one of many tiny incidents that amounted to a significant problem. Technology and volunteers don’t always work well together, despite media theorists who tell us that technological advancement is fuelled by the goodwill of amateurs. Even in a basic radio studio, things go wrong. The headphones would sometimes fail during an interview and the microphone stand creaked on-air. One Thursday afternoon email from Tahlia warned us all not to touch the broken clock in studio 1: ‘Seriously, it’s all electrical and shiz. Someone tech-savvy will get onto it eventually …’

When it came to computers, even the tech-savvy people occasionally had to concede defeat. A few of the downstairs computers died long ago, their monitors like tombstones on the grey trestle table. Crashes were common on the working terminals and treated as a kind of omen, especially if caused by the Brontok computer worm, which inhabited The House for months. The SYNners made light of the situation. When it hit there would be a chorus of ‘BRONTOKKKKK’DD!’ followed by laughter as it wallpapered screens in bright green and pink words of Indonesian hacktivism. Seventeen-year-old Travis set up a Facebook site, ‘The Brontok Appreciation Society’, where people posted affectionate notes and marvelled at its simple disruptive genius. Georgia Webster wrote on its wall: ‘Oh man, when I went to join this group just now, Brontok came up RIGHT AT THE TIME I CLICKED ‘join’. It KNEW! Frickin scary’. Hilary composed an ode to the virus, which began with the words ‘My deep love of Brontok stretches across eternity and the universe …’

Even without the Sablotrons and Brontoks media convergence is not a seamless evolution. The messy side to it – media companies scrambling for an online presence and facing up to the problems of digital rights management – means that project managers and lawyers are a growing part of the media workforce. At the grassroots end, convergence means consumer-creators pursuing and pushing content across different media, between both the community and commercial spheres. Added to that, there are the issues that are only talked about on the margins of media culture, such as how social movements shift across different spaces and collaborative technological development. From the standpoint of an organisation like SYN, media convergence can also mean a convergence of problems or, at the very least, contrary aspirations knocking up against each other.

That said, nothing was going to stop SYN becoming a convergent media organisation. Their philosophy of allowing people to do what they liked meant that the SYNners would keep venturing into new media territory any way they could.

The easiest way to get in on the multiplatform act was to get a MySpace page, which is exactly what many SYN programmers did. At first, Bryce proposed banning all SYN-related MySpace pages in order to ‘protect the integrity of the SYN brand’. Many people agreed that ‘MySpace pages look like rubbish anyhow’ and that the syn.org.au site should be the primary place for producers to extend their shows. One girl pointed out that SYNners ‘should try to refrain from using something like MySpace, which is owned by Murdoch’. However, no-one really knew what to do with that, even if they agreed. Only a few months later SYN had succumbed to social networking’s mega peer-group pressure. The prevailing opinion was in favour of using MySpace, or any social networking media, as it would increase the hit-rate for SYN on search engines and enable them to reach more people. Nowadays, syn.org.au gets more hits from Facebook than any other social networking site. Craig Twitt stoically resisted getting a Facebook account but complained that he wasn’t getting invited to SYN parties anymore as a result.

An article in The Australian newspaper was bugging me: Rupert Murdoch, having purchased MySpace in September 2005 for $US580 million, had stated that ‘Community media is undoubtedly the way of the future’ (Hopkins 2006). He meant that sourcing and showcasing citizen-made content is the way of the future for large media corporations. But that was just a matter of semantics. Or was it? Wired magazine had reported that Murdoch smiled as he talked about power shifting from the media elite into the hands of the people (Reiss 2006). That really gave me the creeps.

There was a crisis of sorts occurring and I felt I was one of the few at SYN who could sense it. On the surface, the corporate media were becoming more like community media, or at least displaying a similar appeal due to its participative functions. That posed a series of difficult questions: Should SYN promote the use of commercial media tools? Do ownership and control matter? How could they make a difference in an online environment dominated by the likes of Google and News Corp? If I had articulated those thoughts at the time, I probably would have been shot down immediately. Social networking technologies were well integrated into the culture of this group and there was nothing particularly wrong with that. In fact, it was making publicity, fundraising and recruitment easier. The uncomfortable issue had to do with the role of community media generally. How could SYN, as an organisation, keep its identity in a sea of participatory media choices?

I sat down to map out SYN’s distinct qualities. My academic head-voice was telling me that the future of community media rested on definitions. The answers were obvious: community media is essentially very different from user-generated content and social media, even though it is fuelled by similar factors (altruism, social bonds, hobbyist technologies etc). SYN, unlike MySpace, is a community-governed, not-for-profit association. Both are ‘user-generated’ and provide a means to distribution, but SYN allows for participation in the running of the organisation and the development of technologies. Organisations like SYN are intended to serve identifiable social needs rather than market gaps. They don’t use personal information for marketing and tend to consider ethical issues when it comes to advertising. Not-for-profit media does not intentionally restrict the way we access information through technological gate keeping.

The problem with my definition was that it didn’t make a lot of difference to the situation at hand. In attempting to ‘keep up’ with the new media world, SYN wasn’t losing any of those qualities. The problem was that it had become a lot harder to differentiate the community media organisation from the corporate user-generated sites. SYN was losing its identity and getting confused as a result, but it had not lost its purpose.

Not-for-profit media doesn’t always get things right, but it behaves (or should behave) differently to commercial media simply because it was established for different purposes. In the same way that the methods and aims of charities differ from both government welfare agencies and private companies, community media has its own set of norms and aims (although not necessarily ‘charitable’ aims). Whilst corporate media may have become participatory, what they then do with our user-generated content needs to be considered and taken in context. Mostly, it is content that they can hook ads onto, or a means to drill into our lifestyle choices and consumption habits for the purposes of market research.

A growing consciousness that the net is not free from control was beginning to emerge amongst commentators. However, little thought had been given to the implications for media ethics. What are the implications of corporate ownership and control online? The issues are certainly different to those of broadcast media. YouTube, as most people know, is now owned by Google, the biggest success story of internet search and advertising. Today, 89% of Australians pour our intentions and desires into Google’s search engine. As John Battelle, tech journalist and co-founder of Wired magazine, writes in his book The Search, the information we provide ‘can be discovered, subpoenaed, archived, tracked and exploited for all kinds of ends’ (Battelle 2005, 6). The company with the motto ‘Don’t Be Evil’ launched its web browser, Chrome, in September 2008. The original licence agreement included a clause stating that Google would have access to every piece of information a user typed into the browser on any site, with the authority to pass that information on to partner companies. (The licence condition was revoked days after it was released due to public concern.) That’s not to say that everything Google does is necessarily evil. In the lead-up to the launch of Chrome, Google was fighting for privacy rights in a court battle with Viacom. Viacom had sued Google for $1 billion worth of damages for allowing users to upload clips of their copyrighted material onto YouTube. During the hearing, the judge ordered that Google had to turn over every record of every video watched by YouTube users, as well as their names and IP addresses – a ruling that Google argued went against privacy rights and threatened internet freedom. Commentators have pointed out Google’s pioneering spirit when it comes to open source software development. Ryan Paul writes that ‘The company is widely recognized as an important ally in the quest to bring software freedom to end users, but it still has much to learn about transparency and inclusiveness’ (Paul 2008).

It is generally the case that, in Battelle’s words, ‘we’re willing to trade some of our privacy – so far, anyway – for convenience, service, and power’ (Battelle 2005, 12). We still choose to participate even when we know the score. However, new media has created a new set of issues for audiences and producers to navigate – in terms of how the media exists within our lives and what it enables or closes off. Matters of trust, ethics and control complicate the empowerment we experience in user-generated sites or search.

In October 2007, a BBC program, Watchdog, set out to demonstrate the risk of social networking media by creating a fake Facebook user and asking 100 people to become their friend. Thirty-five people accepted the request and at least one gave the BBC enough information to open an online bank account and apply for a credit card in their name. There have been instances where users have also expressed resistance to privacy infringements. MoveOn.org conducted a Facebook campaign against one of the social networking site’s own features. In less than ten days more than 50,000 Facebook members signed a petition objecting to Beacon, a program designed to send messages to users’ friends informing them of e-commerce transactions (and spoiling a few Christmas presents along the way).5 Facebook now asks for permission before sending purchase tracking information to its newsfeeds. Whether these concerns are well founded or not they are part of the experience of the new media environment.

How is this different to other media? With broadcast and print media ownership the issues are less personal. Strangely, although the Watchdog/Facebook experiment was cited in newspaper reports, none questioned whether the BBC was acting ethically by creating a fake friend for real people – except maybe those it befriended. The ethical concern with broadcast media is that certain types of news and entertainment are given primacy; that we, as audiences, are not told the whole truth. But it is a more distant concern. In response to such fears, media ethnographers have uncovered a complex relationship between audiences and texts. Audiences can know that large media corporations sometimes produce good entertainment or useful information and commentary. They also know that they can tune out, or seek alternative sources, when they mistrust or dislike what’s on offer. Audiences rarely take texts as they were intended and read and use media in all kinds of unexpected ways. As Nick Couldry writes, ‘the structures of media production and particularly the dynamics of concentration and conglomeration, do not, of themselves, tell us anything about the uses to which media products are put in social life generally’ (Couldry 2006, 36). In other words, it is hard to see the causal connection between a media text and our daily lives.

In the online environment our own networks, purchases and personal interests are up for grabs. For social networking media in particular, the causal connection between ‘text’ and our daily lives can be felt in very direct ways. Making media might feel empowering but it doesn’t solve media ethics: whether the media acts in the best interests of society. Online media companies do have the powers of selection (using algorithms and bots rather than an editor’s control). But in a media environment characterised by ‘information overload’, tools that assist us to search and discriminate are not implicitly a bad thing.

Battelle observes that ‘as far as the internet ecosystem is concerned, Google is the weather’ (Battelle 2005, 183). And the thing about the weather is that it is invisible and often unpredictable. We can anticipate its impact, but we cannot control it. The only visible part of Google is its crazy font. The ways in which Google rates, collates and distributes information remains a trade secret. Maybe they should change their practices and motto to ‘Don’t Be Confusing’.

So if there is a role for community media in the online environment it must be to provide explicit alternatives – not just content but also in the way that organisations deal with information and source code. My realisation that community media was becoming lost in a participatory media landscape stemmed from a desire for ethical systems that are clear and recognisable. If we can’t see the difference between SYN and MySpace, then how do we make informed decisions about where to post our content?

Media ethics is usually dealt with in industry Codes of Conduct and training manuals for journalists. What’s missing is a way to navigate ethical media choices in a system characterised by abundant choice. Nick Couldry argues that journalist training is not enough and poses the following questions:

  • What are the ethical standards by which media’s own ethical standards should be judged?
  • How do those broader ethical standards relate to more general principles for judging how citizens (whether media professionals or not) should behave in relation to media? (Couldry 2006)

His approach to media studies is as a practice-based sociology, asking what people are doing in relation to media across a whole range of situations and contexts (Couldry 2006).

In their book on media ethics, Catharine Lumby and Elspeth Probyn conclude that ‘in the end, ethics comes down to use it or lose it. We need to practise ethical reflection, to ask and demand more of the public sphere, and to participate as consumers and producers – or else’ (Lumby; Probyn 2003, 10). But how do we do that?

Celia Lury, a sociologist at Goldsmiths in the UK, has written that brands are the currency of the contemporary economy because they are a qualitative marker. Where money reduces objects and cultural systems to quantitative measures, brands denote something that is essentially multi-dimensional, adding a more complex form of value. Brands, she tells us, both enable and inhibit relations and they can both reveal and disguise information. A brand asks for an action, or a response, creating an interface between producers and consumers (Lury 2004). Lury’s work is interesting because it opens up conversation about how we navigate through media and culture.

Ever since Naomi Klein’s No Logo, brands have had a bad wrap in the alternative media field (Klein 2000). But if we think about brands as systems that allow us to act and make choices, then brands are important. I suppose I am asking for a return to the consumption end of the equation. We have spent a lot of time thinking about production, ‘prod-users’ and participation to the point where the broader issues of agency – in relation to the field of available choices – have been lost.

In the end I had to concur with Bryce’s initial knee-jerk reaction to MySpace sites. He had wanted to protect the SYN brand – and branding was exactly the issue. Audiences navigate the online world through brands, recognising logos and what companies stand for, but banning MySpace pages was not the answer. Rather, what was needed was a brand to help people make informed decisions when it came to media use and distribution. Why can’t we have a ‘fair trade’ label for media? It works for coffee producers and distributors.

If such a system was introduced a decade ago, it might have impacted on digital radio and television policy too. Spectrum allocation was falling in favour of large commercial companies. Perhaps the government (like Murdoch) assumed that community media was a natural part of the online environment. For SYN, 2007 was the year when the online environment became much more complex than anyone had anticipated.

Incidentally, Paul Culliver did get his Sablotron for Christmas. He was made Online Manager for 2008, despite having just completed his high school certificate and admitting his lack of technical knowledge. He was, however, a very good online editor. And unlike many at SYN, Paul could spell.

Open Source

Clearly, having a dedicated SYN website was necessary. The executive turned their minds and talents to a new syn.org.au website, funded by a substantial grant from VicHealth. ‘Each program will be given their own page’, said Bryce. ‘The producers can upload and control the content shown on that page’. The difference between the new SYN site and MySpace was that, although the website would be visible to everyone, only the SYN membership would carry out content creation and distribution. It was an interesting idea: if it succeeded then the website would strengthen and expand the SYN community and give volunteers even more control over their content. VicHealth was attracted to the notion of healthy forums for young people to participate in. SYN had lots of young people and a good reputation, but the website turned out to be a real problem, although it had nothing to do with online communities or content in the end. Governance and control was the cause.

In May 2006, a company lead by former SYNners was awarded the grant by the Victorian Government (Vic Health) to research the impact of technology and social media on young people’s mental health. The company approached SYN to be part of the project, which would mean building a website for the SYN community and monitoring the process over a three year period. It seemed like a good idea; SYN would get a free website and the company would have the opportunity to build an impressive platform to add to its folio.

The process started off well with a great number of SYNners contributing their thoughts and views on what a website for a radio station in the age of MySpace would look like. However, a series of issues surrounding commercial relationships, internal leadership, project management and editorial control (particularly for the user-generated parts of the site) created tension and delays. One of the problems was that the commercial company found SYN’s unpaid executive difficult to work with. Many people within SYN had diverging views of how the website should function, what it should look like and what content should be included. SYN leadership of the project changed hands four times, which made it difficult for any one person to own the delicate series of promises and compromises that were made along the way. A series of technical issues surrounding SYN’s reliance on RMIT’s infrastructure delayed the process and made some elements of the website impossible to deliver.

The disintegration of the partnership was more than a clash of ideas and personalities. There was too much good faith wound into the project. Initially, the idea of former SYN volunteers developing a new website seemed unproblematic. SYNners who were involved in the project at the time were angered by the management style of the commercial company. They felt that the company perceived syn.org.au as their project, rather than SYN’s. Both entities continued to try to work together amicably and in late 2008 a completed and functional website was delivered to SYN to launch. However in January 2009 SYN decided to quit the partnership and to build a new website from scratch.

Meanwhile I witnessed the inklings of an alternative approach. A small team of volunteers had set about building an interim site. The online manager, Will Ockenden, made sure it included discussion forums, ‘syncasts’ (podcasts) and individual pages for programs. Will was completing an IT course at Monash University and had fallen into the role of IT manager by accident. He admitted there were still technical problems that needed resolving, that the functions were ‘bolted on’, but it was a decent site nevertheless. Will had a personal aversion to Microsoft, so he didn’t spend time making the site compatible with Explorer. If you scrolled to the bottom of the site it read: ‘This site looks crap in Explorer, get Firefox’.

I had never really associated SYN with the open source movement until that moment. That tiny detail on the interim site intrigued me because the open source movement was based on the idea of a ‘public domain’ or ‘commons’ on the internet – just as community broadcasting was a kind of commons on the airwaves. Will preferred Firefox because it is non-proprietary software, or ‘free software’. The issue was much bigger than his choice of browser; Will had ethical concerns about how media is made. The ‘free’ in free software means that the programming code remains visible to all and is therefore freely available, so that others can copy, adapt and share. Richard Stallman, who founded the Free Software Foundation in 1985, came up with a system whereby developers could keep software in the public domain, using a ‘copyleft’ licence. The movement was intended to counteract the growing trend towards proprietary software and other technical measures that prevented members of the general public from sharing or modifying source code, and therefore from participating in the ongoing innovation and development of the internet (Stallman 2002).

The free and open source software movement (FOSS) has developed its own particular rights discourse. It challenged media and law theorists to think about the architecture of the internet. Of particular concern was the commercial enclosure of a system which was, in its early days, largely driven by collaborative, open ‘end user’ effort, largely free from any kind of central control. The proliferation and yield of open source development (such as the Linux operating system) was proof that the regime of intellectual property, private control and having information in the hands of a few was not necessarily the most productive economic model. The ‘creative commons’ was coined – a term to describe a pool of ideas and technologies which we should all have access to. Creators could attach a CC licence to their work, making it free to be copied, adapted and reworked. This primarily legalistic safeguard was intended to ensure that much of the content and code on the net remained free and accessible. But the movement’s chief guru, law professor Lawrence Lessig, also argued that freedom and creativity in general would be curtailed if we didn’t act immediately: ‘Unless we learn something important about the source of that creativity and innovation, and then protect that source, the Internet will be changed’ (Lessig 2001, xxii). The online team at SYN agreed. ‘Lessig is my hero’, declared Ken.

SYN’s chief open source programmer was a young man named Tudor Holton. In Ken’s words, Tudor is ‘a quasi-genius and one of those people who have morals and stick to them’. Both times I met Tudor he was dressed in a suit that he looked too young to be wearing, like a magical, strangely named character caught between two worlds. Or maybe he just stood out at SYN. As an organisation, SYN is nothing like the alternative media groups I had encountered in the past, where media making is driven by ideology or causes. Mostly SYN is full of boys in tight jeans, or geeky school kids – people who are hard to categorise and whose politics is not obviously detected through their lifestyle choices. Tudor, on the other hand, is an anti-materialist vegan. But it is his media ethics, rather than his political beliefs, that make him useful to an organisation like SYN. If SYN needed a software solution and there was none available for free, often Tudor would just write it himself. In 2002 he started working on a new program to provide SYN with a no-cost solution to meet both administrative and programming needs. They called it SYNplayer. It was far from perfect, but it worked and it was free.

Any community radio station in the country could have used SYNplayer, except that it needed some serious testing and an ongoing help team. Ken put in for a grant from the Community Broadcasting Foundation, but the government-derived budget for community media was intended for radio, not code, and SYNplayer only received a fraction of what it needed. Convergence could occur inside organisations like SYN because they had access to IT students and a membership that was generally curious about new media developments. But it would never make it into the more old-fashioned stations without coordination, leadership and sensible resource allocation. Stations were reproducing technologies from scratch at vast expense or paying for commercial licenses. They should have been working with not-for-profit online community media groups to create shared solutions.

For instance, in 2007 a Melbourne-based group called Engage Media launched their open source video-sharing software, Plumi, which has similar capabilities to YouTube. Engage Media are an online community media organisation and are therefore not recognised in policy, do not have the ear of government and receive their funding through disparate agencies and fundraising strategies. Engage Media cannot join the peak body for community media in this country, the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia (CBAA), because they distribute videos online rather than over the air. They find it difficult to source funding for their projects in Australia, largely because Australian philanthropists rarely support websites, despite the fact that the not-for-profit sector as a whole could benefit greatly from their work. Engage Media are a wily bunch and have attracted substantial international interest and funding. That means that their work increasingly takes them out of the country.

I learnt two things about the media through this encounter with SYN’s rebel website team. Firstly, the gap between online and broadcast groups must be addressed or the sector risks obscurity. Community media had failed to unite across online and broadcast platforms when it came to important issues such as governance and technologies. As a result, it had become separate from the organisations that it should have been aligning with; groups that sought to give the same media qualities to the web as community media brought to the broadcast era.

SYN is a member of the CBAA, and many SYNners have a close history with the organisation. Three former SYN GMs – Jo Curtin, Bryce Ives and Craig Twitt – have sat on the CBAA board and Georgia Webster became a board member in 2008. At the start of 2009, the CBAA was reviewing its constitution. Georgia started an online discussion asking SYN volunteers if the CBAA should be opened to new members ‘who aren’t community radio/TV license holders (e.g. non-profit online media groups like vibewire.org)’.

A week passed and no one at SYN commented until the President, Jess Crouch, responded to Georgia’s question:

[The CBAA] … should be down on its knees begging for innovative non-licence holders to join. The fact that clearly no one at SYN cares about this issue (or even knows who the CBAA is) illustrates the image problems that the CBAA has and will increasingly continue to face.

In the online world, not-for-profit and community-based organisations are differentiating their work through open source code, Creative Commons licensing and other measures, both technological and governance related. Meanwhile, the broadcasters are being left behind.

Secondly, there are limits to the creative commons, even for community media organisations. As enthusiasm for the commons was growing within SYN, I suggested they speak to Jessica Coates from Australia’s Creative Commons clinic. During that consultation it became clear that copyleft licensing might create administrative burdens for SYN. As Jessica went through some of the issues that they might face, she uncovered some dodgy activities that SYN’s management had not even considered illegal until that point. The meeting ended in a somewhat confused and concerned manner. Perhaps SYN was better off not entering into legalistic territory to begin with. Law academic, Kathy Bowrey, summed up the problem: ‘It seems to me that this movement, despite its noble intentions as the foundation for a form of freedom, is also a global form of juridification of civil society. It is about securing an identity and consciousness that is expressed as a legal sensibility/subjectivity’ (Bowrey 2004). Sometimes it’s okay to avoid lawyers, particularly if they are going to make your life more difficult. The property-centred model of creative commons was only one way in which SYN could influence the media ecosystem and it needed to carefully consider whether it was worth it.

Although the public benefits of using Creative Commons made sense to the people present that day, Creative Commons was a narrow means of addressing communication rights. SYN was open in terms of its management structures, governance and through its accessible media distribution platforms. It was a multi-faceted ‘open source organisation’.

Leaving SYN

I was in my local coffee shop on a dreary Melbourne morning and spotted Hamish Blake, a leading comedy drive DJ whose show is networked across the country on commercial radio. Hamish and his co-host Andy Lee had a slot on SYN when they were students at Melbourne University. I tapped him on the shoulder, notebook and pen in hand, like a fan after an autograph. I wanted his story.

‘You want to ask me about sin? I know all about that,’ he said.

‘The radio station?’

‘Oh yeah, I know all about that too’.

For Hamish, the fact that ‘you can jump on air with no experience, and no pressure’ was the important thing; ‘otherwise a great show might never get a foot in the door’. He and Andy would use SYN to try out new ideas: ‘99% didn’t work – these days we’ve got that down to about 96%’. And the process?

‘I remember early days at SYN, we’d basically meet to drink at the Oxford across the road, get tipsy, do the show, break some headphones and consequently bring SYN closer to being bankrupt’.

So that explains the headphones.

‘Great times’, he mused.

Meeting Hamish was a reminder that nothing at SYN is permanent. The friends I had there would soon move on. Some might even be the next media stars, but getting there would not be easy. For most SYNners, finding work in the media involved working two jobs, studying and catching the train in from the outer suburbs at dawn to do a show.

I watched the 1700 crew get ready for the live television broadcast in the C31 studios. Two girls were ready on set, looking over notes and checking where the cameras were pointed. A mobile rang only minutes before broadcast and one of the girls answered it. She was already miked up so I could hear her conversation from the switching booth. The caller was a manager from a cinema chain: she was being interviewed for a casual job as an usher. The manager had no idea she was about to be on live television. ‘Hobbies? I play basketball … Oh, and I present a television program on C31’, she added, almost as an afterthought.

Ever since I had ventured into SYN the issue of work transitions had been in my face. Bryce told me that, from his observations, work experience was one of the primary reasons for getting involved in SYN and that an astounding number of SYNners were achieving their goal. In order to prove the point, he set up an alumni register – a list of the people who were known to have gone on to work in the media industries. He populated it with his friends and other folk he had kept in touch with. Then he asked others to do the same and gradually the list filled out. At the start of 2006 there were 60 people on the list. By the end of 2007 there were around 80, as more moved into paid media work. I decided to track some of them down. With the help of a research assistant I gathered stories from around 30 of the alumni. We found them in the press galleries, producing online media for the ABC, reading television news, writing comedy, running festivals, and even taking chances in entrepreneurial endeavours, such as mobile phone content development. In a kind of informal exchange program, a substantial number of them were working in regional commercial radio while the country kids (Bryce, Craig and Georgia Webster) were running SYN.

By talking to the alumni I hoped to find out whether SYN had really been a significant factor in them getting work in the creative industries. I figured that many would have been studying at the time, probably journalism or a hands-on media degree, and maybe that was a bigger factor. It was difficult to know exactly what worked at SYN when I was inside the whole messy business of it. The interviews surprised me.

When the station was just getting on its feet, only a couple of years back, today’s ‘alumni’ were the people who were in there, making shows, deciding how things would be done and hanging out. ‘Imagine in five years time when we’re all out of here and we’re all employed’ they would say to each other. A young woman working at a commercial radio station in Ballarat told me that there were half a dozen SYN people in that town and a few sitting in the same office as her. I was astonished to hear that four out of five of the ABC’s Victorian rural radio reporters at that time were former SYNners. One of them, Nikolai, never studied journalism and had produced music programs at SYN, not news. Although it was overstating it, I had to nod when one of the alumni said: ‘The whole reason there are people in the media now and they are skilled and trained is because SYN was there’.

I was told some extraordinary stories. A 22-year-old television comedy writer literally got picked off the air. A TV producer was sitting in his car while his wife was doing the shopping. Flicking through the dial, he came across a SYN program and found himself laughing. He tuned in the next week and the week after that and found it consistently funny. The kid was hired. I asked him what he learnt at SYN and he replied ‘to not be lazy, because it is such a great opportunity and you don’t want to waste it’. He appreciated the importance of preparation, the ‘discipline’ of making content and having an incentive to focus on his creative work. SYN helped him know what was funny and how to research: ‘You learnt everything that you would learn at another radio station except that there was no way you could get involved in another radio station’. Most of them spoke with the same level of conviction. SYN had changed their lives.

In February 2007, The Age broke a story about the eldest son of the Treasurer at the time, Peter Costello. Seb (age 20) was about to host SYN’s Breakfast program, Get Cereal, getting up at dawn for five days a week. The journalist, Daniel Ziffer (a SYN alumni himself) described Seb as ‘hyperconfident and frequently hilarious’. Seb claimed to have ‘the greatest show since Marconi invented the radio-thingy’ (Ziffer 2007). Other papers picked up the story. Seb, who had kept quiet about his famous family to everyone at SYN, became something of a poster boy for the station. As his dad contemplated a career change, Seb’s future looked pretty secure. He became a DJ at a regional commercial radio station and is now a producer at commercial talk radio station, 3AW.

Joanna McCarthy studied Journalism and Law at university, helped write SYN’s licence application and became SYN’s first President. She worked as a policy officer for the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia before deciding to pursue a more hands-on media career. In 2006, Jo took a job reporting and producing for the Asia Pacific program at Radio Australia and within a year had won the inaugural Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Elizabeth O’Neil Media Journalism Award.

Anthony Simpson and Anthony Toohey – or ‘Ant and Becks’ – met at SYN in its earlier years, around the time when popular commercial radio presenters like Hamish and Andy, Ryan Shelton and Jo Stanley were SYN volunteers. The duo were hosting a drive show on a regional station when they were picked up by a programmer from the Australian Radio Network, which operates MIX and Classic Hits stations in capital cities across Australia. Ant and Becks – the ‘new kids on the block’ – started hosting the drive show on Mix 106.5 in Sydney and Mix 101.1 in Melbourne in January 2010 (Javes 2009).

There were many who knew they wanted to work in the media and were enrolled in a journalism or media studies higher degree when they came into SYN. They sought practical experience and wanted to get an advantage in a competitive job market. In their minds, formal education alone was not enough to secure work. As one said, ‘I remember my first lecture [in a journalism degree course] and the lecturer getting up and saying “so many people want to be journalists and there’s so few jobs and you’re never going to get anywhere” and just walking out feeling so deflated and defeated’. A student who missed out on a place in a journalism course found herself ‘faking being a [public relations] student … and sort of freaked out and went “what do I do?”‘

Not all of those who ended up working in the media set out with that intention. A former aspiring fashion designer ended up working at triple j, the national ABC youth radio station. One SYNner had wanted to be a teacher at the time; another was studying to be a paramedic. The paramedic student ended up with a $13,000 debt from a degree that is no longer relevant to his career. ‘What I got from SYN I couldn’t have got from a media degree at Melbourne Uni,’ he said. ‘It would have been ten times better than a course. And as far as I’m aware industry experience counts for a lot more than a piece of paper. I’ve got no degree, no professional training but I’m producing a breakfast show for probably the biggest network in Australia’.

A quarter of those we spoke to came into SYN with no media career intentions, not expecting that it would lead them into work. The studios would be subdued at the beginning of a programming grid – just a lone DJ playing music. As the weeks went by, programmers would invite their friends in, ending up with ‘whole army of eight special correspondents popping in and out with their little segments and hanging out to do the show’. A young man whose father worked in radio had decided to steer clear of SYN, not wanting to follow in his footsteps. When a friend asked him to fill-in for him on a SYN program he realised ‘I actually like this’. Three months later he was working at a major commercial radio network.

Then there was the social alienation of leaving school. Someone mentioned feeling ‘cut-off’ from friends who had gone to university when ‘that wasn’t what I was doing’. Hooking up (in the dating sense) was also an incentive for some. A young woman made a chart of everyone she knew at SYN. She categorised them into ‘serious relationships, one night stands, that-one-liked-that-one-but-they-never-got-together, and all that kind of stuff’. According to her sample, a lot more than 50% of people at SYN had ‘hooked up’.

For this group, social lives and media participation are an easy fit. That blend of lifestyle choices and industry development has caught the attention of cultural policy makers. The growing creative sector is now seen as an integral part of post-industrial economies – essentially a means to jobs and a better GDP. Characterised as the ‘creative industries’, this knowledge economy spin-off is less concerned with the unique and transcendent aspects of culture and the arts, than the economic outcomes of creative pursuit. But it cannot be seriously investigated or supported without taking into account the intangible factors that motivate its labour force, as well as the currency (content) that it deals in. For instance, training and recruitment at SYN rely on social networks and occur because there is a cultural status attributed to media making. Formal training measures alone would not produce the same outcomes. It is not an easy area to map or grow. One consequence is that cultural theorists and economists have been raiding each other’s intellectual closets in an effort to describe trends and shifts. The mirrors to our identity and social complexity have become an issue of national prosperity, resulting, some would say, in the bizarre academic fashion called ‘creative industries research’.

Added to that, labour trends generally are changing. In her book Adult Themes, Kate Crawford, an Associate Professor at the University of New South Wales, writes that the traditional roles of childhood and adulthood are all mixed up and that education, work and recreation are no longer tied to specific age groups (Crawford 2006). The sociologist’s ‘standard biography’ has us all moving in a linear progression from childhood to adulthood to old age: ‘Education is associated with the stage of childhood, work with adulthood, and retirement with old age. But this standard edition has seen some substantial revisions in the last fifty years’ (47). Australians now undergo ‘life-long learning’, work to get through university and delay financial commitment.

SYN similarly made me reconsider what it means to be young right now and (overtly) challenged my assumptions around age, work and education. The organisation is achieving ‘graduate’ outcomes that many media schools would be envious of, but its success is due to the fact that it exists in the real media environment, with distinct industry qualities and boundaries. To get educated in the media, the SYNners I met had to go outside of their school or university environment and take on unpaid work. The labour transitions they will face are not straightforward and the industry is in a state of flux and confusion. Retirement from SYN occurs at 26.

As Crawford points out, the characterisation of Generation Y as ‘kidults’ or ‘adultescence’ disguise broader anxieties about how work practices are changing (Crawford 2006). Teens have the highest rates of unemployment. and non-standard employment such as casual, part-time and contract work now accounts for approximately 40% of all jobs. A former SYNner told me that he ‘went through probably ten to fifteen – not just jobs but industries, to find what I really liked’. He was only 23 when I talked to him and working in marketing at a commercial radio station. ‘SYN has given me a career’, he stated.

I suspect that SYN’s unconventional training system is successful because it encourages responsibility and initiative. The hyped comments of the alumni – their audacious belief in SYN as a life-altering experience – underscored the importance of preparedness rather than any particular skills set. Richard Riley, the US Secretary of Education in Bill Clinton’s administration, once said that ‘We are preparing our students for jobs that don’t exist, using technologies that have not been invented, to solve problems that we haven’t even considered yet’ (Riley 2006). The technologies at SYN might be crude or out-of-date in comparison to what they will find in the workplace, but that doesn’t matter so much when you are learning how to cope with change.

In contrast, doing work experience at commercial media companies sounded pretty mundane. Statements like ‘Well I had previously been working and volunteering at Austereo in more of a promotional capacity but they weren’t giving me any training or on air experience’, were fairly common. A young woman, who is now a newsreader, pointed out that ‘volunteering at a commercial station is a very strange concept. And at the time it was really overwhelming because you’re like “wow this is how a real radio station works and I’m actually in here getting paid in free movie tickets to sit and answer phones”‘. In her enthusiasm to be at a ‘real’ radio station she didn’t consider that a commercial media company was avoiding paying her for menial labour. SYN is very bad at answering the phones – perhaps a good indication that people have more interesting things to learn.

At the end of 2007, I surveyed approximately 350 media workers about their qualifications and transition into paid work. My intention was to find out what proportion of them had volunteered in a community media organisation. (As the community media questions were embedded within a larger survey, the participants would not have known that my interest was in their voluntary experience). The sample spanned workers in the commercial, public service and community media sectors. As I suspected, over half of them (53.5%) had been involved in some form of community media – mostly radio, but also TV, print and web. Interestingly, that figure rose to 64.2% of respondents in the Under 30 category, suggesting that community media is becoming an increasingly important training ground. Media workers under 30 were also twice as likely to have a bachelor media degree qualification and to have undertaken other forms of unpaid work experience. Getting a job in the media is no longer a straightforward path from school to work. Over 80% of the total group that had participated in community media said that it was either ‘important’ or ‘vital’ for getting paid work in the media industries.

As the media industries struggle with convergence, organisations like SYN may become increasingly important training providers. In August 2007, Fairfax announced that it was going to halve their cadetships to four at The Age and four at the Sydney Morning Herald. Of those positions, half would be university graduates and half fresh from school. All cadets would be paid the same, regardless of their level of education (although half will have a HECS debt to pay off) (Simons 2007). The cadet cuts were a forewarning of even greater losses. A year later, 500 Fairfax staff lost their jobs. Although ‘the future of journalism’ doesn’t necessarily rest on the future of large media institutions, the normal pathways to media careers are narrowing.

That said, young people don’t always choose the obvious pathways. A talented young SYNner was offered one of those rare school-leaver cadetships at The Age. He turned it down and decided to enrol in an arts degree instead – carrying, perhaps, that strangely idealistic belief that people should learn about the world before reporting on it. I ran into the former fashion design student at a party and discovered that she had left the rat race of triple j so she could pursue her visual art. The creative industries are not always the most creative pathways, it seems.

There was more leaving to be done. Around the time of their 2007 awards ceremony, Bryce announced that he had been offered a job at the ABC, running their regional youth web program, Heywire. It was not the first time he had been headhunted, but this time he chose to go.

Craig stepped up to be the General Manager and Bryce made the announcement to his inner circle: ‘Craig is now what I used to be’.

‘Yeah, skinny’, said Craig.

For a few months Bryce stayed on the Basecamp discussion list and got shot-down whenever he tried to influence the conversation. Many of his posts went unanswered. He came into the office regularly, only to be met with comments such as ‘you just can’t keep away’ and ‘haven’t you got a real job now?’ Everyone still loved Bryce and they were happy to see him at social events, to get him in as a specialist trainer or to MC fundraisers. He still commanded respect, albeit a different kind: Bryce was now part of the established media.

‘I haven’t seen you in the discussion forums’, I emailed him.

‘I think I need to stay away for a while’, he replied.

The two of us were sitting in a bar some months later, in a laneway off another laneway. Bryce confided that ‘the position at SYN was lonely, stressful’. Most of the volunteers didn’t understand the work he did or his aspirations for the place. He had been having a hard time with the board too. A succession of bad bookkeepers had disguised SYN’s financial position. When the extent of their debt was revealed, the board took it out on management. The three staffers had to raise money quickly. The public story was that voluntary student unionism had destroyed their income base, but that was just a convenient excuse. RMIT University sent a generous sum of money and the Victorian Government fulfilled a pre-election promise of $50,000 a year for four years. The income from the school tours and detention programs increased with Georgia’s restructuring of the education programs and a few new sponsors came on board. SYN recovered within six months. Bryce was already gone.

I asked Bryce if he still thought that ‘radio is dead’. He told me he never really thought that – he just said it to get the kids thinking. As for Pecado, he now thought that axing it might have been a mistake.

Bryce wasn’t running away from SYN. He had been steadily building up SYN’s profile and knew it was capable of massive expansion. ‘If I had managed for another year there was not a chance that someone under 30 could do the role after me’, he said. He had reached the point where his own ambitions would inevitably change the nature of SYN. With his typical charming immodesty, Bryce said that it ‘would have become so complicated – the partnerships would have been huge’. SYN could have been propelled into a different kind of youth organisation but he didn’t actually want that: ‘I was happy for the organisation to be how it was. Not many people will understand that. I want it to be a fresh, open eyes journey with something smart about it as well’.

Besides, ‘you start establishing bad habits, get too old’, he said. He showed me his collection of before and after photos of himself and other SYN staff members. Ironically, the flipside of a successful youth organisation is premature aging. Bryce wanted SYN to stay young a bit longer.

Children of the Creative Class

Dylan Leach produced and presented SYN’s football program, Kicking Behinds. Dylan was one of the longest serving SYNners. He had come into the organisation at the age of 14. In 2007 he was preparing for his Year 12 exams yet somehow managed to be present at the SYN offices two afternoons a week. He intuitively named me ‘The Spy’.

Although only 17 when I first met him, he was a big kid, with a booming voice and a thing for practical jokes. Dylan was also a formidable talent. Football stars were happy to talk to him and he was given a coveted press pass to the MCG. I am not sure if blokes like Sam Chisholm and Kerry Packer will dominate the media in the future, but it struck me that Dylan had the potential to be one of them. SYN, however, discouraged anyone from turning out like that. You had to be a team player, whether you liked it or not, and kids were regularly pulled up on discussion forums if they said anything remotely bullish. The SYNners even made Dylan wear a bear suit at their awards night and hug the winners.

Dylan and his co-star on Kicking Behinds, Tim Brown, began their media careers during aftercare at primary school. The Talking Pointless newspaper ran from 1998–2002 – Grade 3 to Grade 6. In total they produced 155 issues, entirely by Texta. ‘Talking Pointless was pre-pubescent media at its finest and a total empire within the school’, Dylan told me in his mogul-like manner. The paper went national when The Chaser began inserting issues into their own publication. In 2002, George Negus did a story on Talking Pointless for ABC television.

Dylan lent me a few random issues. Headlines included ‘Star Wars Fever Hits Aftercare!’ and ‘The 10 Dumbest Homework Excuses’. The main themes included banks, television programs and sport, plus a marginal gesture to lifestyle media called ‘The Girls Corner’. The paper came with coupons for ‘Beforecare Xtra Milo’ and ‘free sleeping bag while you are queing’ (sic). Talking Pointless was childish but you couldn’t blame them for that.

Bryce had warned me during our first meeting that SYN attracted ‘school captains and tertiaries’. Dylan wasn’t either of those, but he was part of a new kind of elite. He had been brought up in a household where making media is encouraged (his parents are well-known media names). Richard Florida, a professor who heads up a Prosperity institute, has identified an ascending creative class, consisting of knowledge workers and creative types who use their talents and technologies to get ahead (Florida 2002). The kids at SYN – or some of them, anyway – were the children of the creative class. Digital literacy might not have made it into schools, but it is becoming a form of class accomplishment in the home, like piano playing was in Jane Austen’s time.

The Salvation Army project – still in development at that point – was therefore addressing a class issue, albeit a slightly different one to their usual welfare mandate. SYN and The Salvation Army would work together to teach homeless and disadvantaged young people media skills. The project was not exactly unique; SYN already had partnerships with the Jesuit Social Services and other youth work agencies, although these were dwindling because of SYN’s lack of social work experience. It was still an under-researched area. We wanted to test some fairly wild claims: that media production could transform a life, or maybe intervene in structural problems such as basic economic need.

The slow development of Youthworx (or YWX, as it became known) was frustrating. At one point my research team speculated whether The Salvation Army had a problem with the fact that these kids identified themselves as ‘SYNners’. The researcher who was our liaison with The Salvos started calling the station ‘S-Y-N’ in their presence. When the project finally got through the cryptic administrative structures of the university and the Church it was up and running with impressive speed.

Reverend Craig Campbell, who was running Brunswick Youth Services (a wing of the Salvation Army) at the time, told us that most of the kids who come through his door live their lives ‘in 20 minute segments’. The past is too difficult to reflect on; the future is not something they give much thought to. Many of the SYNners, on the other hand, were making conscious decisions about their future. Perhaps the digital divide is not just about access to technologies (the classic definition of ‘digital divide’), but an awareness of how to get by in the uncertain knowledge economy.

My own time at SYN was up, just as the YWX partnership got going. I could see that it was going to be a different story to the one I had witnessed. There were youth workers involved, and adult ‘expert’ media-makers, and a certain top-down guidance that SYN never had. The studio and training space was located at Brunswick Youth Services, rather than The House of SYN, creating something of a divide between the SYNners and the new kids. The very first YWX group went and paid SYN’s $5 membership fee and signed up for training off their own bat. However, they never showed up for training, indicating that YWX would need to do more than simply introduce them to the station. I had expected a difficult marriage between a massive evangelical charity and the unpredictable, ‘open source’ structure of SYN, but things were working out okay. Maybe it is the nature of the third sector that such organisational differences can be overcome without too much trouble. SYN and salvation are not so far apart after all.

Bringing It Home

Rorie Ryan, the kid who started 3TD radio, enrolled in a university course at RMIT, which he never completed. SBS Radio offered him a job as a technician and he took it. Paul Van Eeden and Colin Thompson stayed at Thornbury High and now dedicate their time to Class TV, broadcasting school-made video content on Melbourne’s community TV channel. They have also started a new project, ClassNet,6 and hope it will encourage more schools to engage in media production and distribution. It’s fair to say that Paul and Thommo have done more for media education and digital literacy than any other teachers in the country. In 2007, Paul Van Eeden was awarded Victorian Teacher of Year.

Georgia Fox wrote a reflective piece for the end of year, post Pecado e-newsletter:

Given that the most creative and profound imaginings often arise through personal suffering, SYN would like to recognise the importance of failure; the strengthening power of loss, for it inevitably prompts reflection, rebirth and growth.

She was referring to the dismal performance of the Unisexicorns netball team. They finished on the bottom of the ladder of the lowest grade.

Aside from that, SYN was doing fine. A new kind of transformation was taking place. I had been fully aware that the boys were in charge at SYN; it was reflected in the culture of the organisation and the staffing. Then suddenly it flipped. Jess Crouch was elected as President towards the end of my time there (although not without controversy as she was dating the station manager, Craig, at the time). A new administration manager was employed, Emma Sharp, who had moved to Melbourne from Edge Radio in Hobart some years before. With Georgia and Emma on staff and Jess as President, the girls were gaining ground.

In early 2008 Jess sent out an email to the SYNners:

Craig has done so much for SYN – so much so that some people think he actually invented it. There’ll be time to sing his praises and give him shit about being born in the 1970s later, but for now, I just wanted to keep everyone in the loop about this. Craig’s last day will be Friday 16 May.

They organised a surprise party (easy, as he wasn’t on Facebook) and designed Craig facemasks, resulting in a room full of Twitts. One of Craig’s reasons for leaving was that he felt too old to be at SYN. He worked as a Grants Administrator at the Community Broadcasting Foundation for nearly two years, before moving to Tanzania to work for an aid organisation in early 2010.

Esther Anatolitis, whose time at Craft Victoria had come to an end, replaced Craig as General Manager, even though she was older. The House of SYN suddenly started to look different. Soft lighting replaced the harsh fluoro. The small meeting room was turned into the GM’s office and fitted out with groovy retro furniture and pot plants. The girls were definitely in The House.

I wondered whether Pecado would make a comeback with Esther in control, given her experience in print media, but Esther was offered a flash job at an arts festival and took it, having spent only three months at SYN. She had reviewed the organisation’s operations and made sure everything was running smoothly. Georgia Webster, by virtue of her age and history at SYN, had a stronger connection with the volunteers anyhow. Georgia was appointed General Manager.

Esther had left, but SYN’s experiment with having a highly qualified staff member over-30 was not over.

In late 2008, after Georgia became General Manager, the position of Education and Training Manager fell vacant. For the first time, a staff member was hired who had no previous connection with SYN. Nicole Hurtubise, a Canadian who ran the youth arts program at a local library and was a long-time volunteer at Melbourne community station 3CR, became SYN’s Education and Training Manager in late 2008.

Georgia credits the work of former GMs, including Craig Twitt and Esther Anatolitis, in stabilising SYN financially and operationally. With Georgia managing SYN, Emma working as assistant manager and Nicole steering the education and training programs, SYN has matured.

In her first months as manager, Georgia focused on fixing the SYN website. She worked with VicHealth to salvage remaining grant funds for the website after the fraught partnership with the commercial company was severed. The website was put to tender in 2009 and new developers were hired. The site went live on 3 February 2010. Georgia explains that engaging volunteers with the website means that the SYN staff ‘can’t dictate stuff and can’t force. There’s got to be an inherent value for volunteers in using the syn.org space’.

Demand for SYN training has increased. SYN trainers are now formally recruited and have to demonstrate a skill as part of their interview. One applicant taught the staff how to speak Polish. Another made mojitos. SYN Info Nights are capped at 40 people, with half of those places reserved for under-18s. At the House, technical mishaps and funding shortages are still the norm, but the phone gets answered a little more often.

In 2010, SYN celebrated the ten-year anniversary of its incorporation. A constellation of former SYNners is sprinkled over the Australian media industry: presenters, producers, reporters, techs, writers and editors working in commercial, government and community media organisations.

The prominent staff, board members and volunteers from the past few years have mostly moved on, though many remain close to SYN. Jess Crouch ended her term as SYN President in late 2009 and moved to London where she now works for Amazon. Bryce left the ABC for musical theatre but he sits on the SYN board. So does Will Ockenden. Will is a national rural reporter at the ABC – and he still hates Microsoft.

The SYNners are also moving into television.

Dylan Leach was producing a new footy show on Channel 7 called The Bounce, which was axed shortly after its debut. He works regular shifts at Melbourne’s sports broadcaster, SEN. Nikolai Beilharz now works as a television presenter on The Rural Quarter – a short program featuring on ABC’s new 24-hour digital news channel, ABC News24 – while presenting radio for ABC Rural in Mildura.

Get Cereal TV was something of a catalyst for television at SYN. Prior to the show’s pilot in 2008, there was a divide between radio and television. The expansion of Get Cereal into television and the influence of people like Get Cereal TV’s creator, Tahlia Azaria, and SYN’s current TV Manager, Tim Kennedy, helped many SYN volunteers realise that you didn’t have to be radio or television. You could be both.

SYN volunteers are currently producing 11 hours of live television each week and SYN has received funding from the Community Broadcasting Foundation to develop a TV training program. Increasingly, young people rocking up to SYN Info Nights ask about television.

The 2008 community radio ratings revealed a 21% increase in the monthly listenership over two years (McNair 2008). Community broadcasting, it seems, is the only broadcast media with growing audiences. ‘Can we now declare that new media is dead?’ my colleague Chris Wilson asked me.

While those ratings showed an increase in monthly listenership of community radio, SYN’s radio ratings fell. A 2009 survey showed that weekly listenership of SYN had dropped from 124,000 to 80,000 in people aged 15 and over (McNair 2009). SYN emphasised that these results show the station is reaching listeners where it counts. The SYN website reads:

Our target audience is 12–25 year olds, and this survey shows we’re hitting the mark – only 18% of all Melburnians fit in that grouping, yet 54% of the SYN audience are in that age bracket. We’re well skewed to the culture, ideas and perspectives of younger listeners. (SYN Media 2010)

Not all of the youth radio licensees survived. The regulator, ACMA, declared that Groove FM – a Perth-based licensee – did not perform ‘at the level and with the outcomes expected of community broadcasters’. Following a few warnings, ACMA decided not to renew Groove’s community radio licence. ACMA’s assessment was that the station lacked management expertise, failed to serve the youth community of Perth and that its’ programming was too ‘narrow’ (ACMA 2008). In a move reminiscent of the Hitz FM days, Groove maintained that it was kicked off the air because it was a threat to the commercial stations. Bryce liaised with Groove on behalf of the CBAA during the review process. He thought ACMA’s assessment was correct: Groove was not providing the level of access and participation that was required of a community broadcaster.

Despite the positive radio ratings, the fate of this large, odd sector of the media was looking uncertain. Some parts were falling off, or going in their own direction. The Christian broadcasters had been doing their own thing for some time. A number of regional radio stations and all of the television stations except Melbourne were defecting from the CBAA, carrying out their own lobbying. The Labor Government was holding back on digital broadcasting. Then Access 31, Perth’s community television channel, went insolvent. Indigenous Community Television, a satellite service for remote audiences, was kicked off the satellite channel it had been using.

‘I worry that it could be the end’, Bryce said at our last meeting.

SYN is now broadcasting digitally, but Georgia Webster says that for the time being SYN is happy, initially, to simulcast its analogue broadcast. For the forseeable future, spectrum allocation will limit what SYN can do with digital, but the arrival of digital radio presents a host of new challenges for the community broadcasting sector.

In the CBAA’s response to ACMA’s Digital Dividend Green Paper, the peak body calls for parity with the commercial and government broadcasting sectors, arguing that as additional spectrum becomes available over time, there should be ‘a process to prioritise community broadcasting licensee entitlements’ (CBAA 2010, 9).

There is the need for equipment and infrastructure that affords regional, rural and remote broadcasters the capacity for digital transmission. Then for metropolitan stations like SYN – one of a handful with a sliver of spectrum for digital-only services – resourcing becomes an issue.

How will SYN accommodate an additional radio service with one production studio? Will the station have the volunteers to sustain a digital-only service and if so, what forms will that digital channel take? Will it be an all-access based service with a handful of flagships like SYN’s existing analogue broadcast?

Commercial broadcasters have used their digital spectrum for varied purposes, though in many cases, not for varied content. Recently, ACMA exempted commercial digital radio stations from local music quotas until 2013. ACMA Chairman Chris Chapman stated that the exemption would allow broadcasters to ‘experiment with programming formats’ and gave examples of ‘niche services such as ‘event channels’ like Pink Radio and Radio Gaga’ (ACMA 2010). Both were Austereo digital stations that played non-stop Pink and Lady Gaga when the artists toured Australia. Local labels and independent music associations snorted at the suggestion that Pink and Lady Gaga were what passed for niche content in the digital radio era.

In mid-2010 Austereo launched U20 – a digital youth radio station for those aged 20 and under. U20’s website is bright and enthusiastic, calling the station ‘radio built by you … you don’t need a recording studio, just a computer and a microphone’. There are catches. One SYNner who looked into U20 says that you pick whatever music you like, so long as it’s from a list of music handpicked for U20 presenters. Conceptually, the station shows that DIY has gone mainstream, and what’s left is to distinguish genuine forms of participation from publicity stunts.

To me, it was all part of the same problem. Confusion over what community media meant in the online environment was spilling into policy arenas. The old battles over access to spectrum, licences and communication rights had made community media a distinct part of the broadcasting environment, albeit one that was subordinate within a mass media model. Now that the media as a whole had become more participatory, community media was looking lost. The online environment had produced its own communication rights movement – in the form of the open source and creative commons movements – but it was mostly the domain of techies and lawyers. The online groups were off doing their own thing while the broadcasters were beginning to look outdated and redundant.

Nonetheless, my time inside SYN led me to conclude that the community, not-for-profit media sector does have the potential to play a big part in the new media landscape. In the past it has been marginal in comparison to mainstream media. Now it has the capacity to provide structure, governance and ethical systems in a media environment characterised by abundance, participation and ‘information overload’.

Digital literacy will most likely be one of its core functions. Although schools will hopefully catch up, the real work will come from the media itself – the places where the languages, forms and colloquialisms of a digitally literate society are created. Organisations like SYN will transmit those developments back into the education system. They will continue to teach the teachers.

The SYNners also have another important role to play. As Gen Y, they know the value of image, of branding, of consumption and self-promotion – all of those things that community media was supposed to stand against. With that understanding, SYN might still manage to drag a complex and divided sector out into a different kind of media world and make it visible. I could see that a new system of media ethics was being built – ethics in the form of consumer choice and producer participation. New media ethics is not about telling people what they can and can’t do (SYN knows that better than most). But you can build awareness and get people involved – on a larger scale than ever before.

I said at the start of this book that SYN was a character. By the time I left I had gotten to know her well (SYN started as a boy but became a girl). SYN is a good citizen; ready to share her knowledge with other groups. She has run away from home and lives in a student share house where she is doing just fine. In that house there are squabbles over who left the door unlocked. She decorates the house with found objects and tries not to electrocute herself while fixing appliances. SYN is open minded – caring little for formal politics but concerned about the important stuff, like the future of the planet. She is smart – although she swears too much – but most importantly, SYN has a ‘licence to make things happen’ and she knows it.

5 MoveOn’s Facebook group now has over 200,000 members. The group’s page can be viewed at: www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=114387775262356

6 www.classnet.com.au

Life of SYN: A Story of the Digital Generation

   by Ellie Rennie