24 Nov 2021 Supporting communities in sharing stories of climate change
By Bridget Backhaus, Anne Leitch and Kerrie Foxwell-Norton
“Warming Up” is an Australian research project to help adaptation to climate change by supporting community radio stations to amplify local stories of climate change and build capacity to engage in meaningful community conversations.
There were strong flows of water across the Wilcannia weir in April 2021 for the first time in three years following a prolonged and devastating drought. The people of Wilcannia, having run out of drinkable water months before, were there to witness the trickles that could help restore their community to some sort of new normal. The rains offer renewed options for the Wilcannia community, relief from years of dry and drought, and hope for some recovery of the Darling-Baarka River system that is the “Mother” to their community.
Wilcannia, a small remote town of about 800 mostly Indigenous residents in outback Australia, has been badly affected by long years of drought that wreaked its “slow violence” across north-west New South Wales and exacerbated the damaging water politics of Australia’s longest river system.
For the people of Wilcannia, the impacts of climate change are very familiar: their more pressing issue is to get the rest of the country, including the decision-makers in far-off capital cities, to pay attention. “We need our basic human rights. Our human rights to have this water that everyone else is stealing from us,” says Brendan Adams, manager of community radio station, Wilcannia River Radio.
The research project Warming Up is working with the community broadcast sector to build capacity to engage in meaningful community conversations and to amplify local stories of climate change within and beyond the community. Wilcannia River Radio is one of the research participants in this project.
Community radio tells local stories
In the Australian media landscape, community radio is vital as the third tier of broadcasting alongside commercial and government-run services. The community radio sector is the largest independent sector of the media, with more than 450 broadcasting services and its listener base is almost six million people, or roughly one in four Australians (CBAA, 2021). Formally legislated in 1978, the Australian community broadcasting sector is one of the longest running in the world.
Community broadcasting services in Australia are legislated to be not-for-profit, used for community purposes and freely available to the general public (Broadcasting Services Act 1992). Most of the sector’s funding comes from government sources – though support for the sector waxes and wanes based on the politicking of the day – and so the sector experiences fluctuations in funding and a chronic lack of funds and resources (Forde et al., 2002; Price-Davies & Tacchi, 2001).
Station income is severely restricted by limits on advertising (ACMA, 2008), therefore the stations rely on other sources of funding including selling airtime, sponsorships and subscriptions (Order, 2016). In general, the sector has proved remarkably resilient to these challenges, and through its “grassroots community engagement”, continues to act as an invaluable source of information and social connection for their communities (Anderson & Rodríguez, 2019, p. 236).
The Australian community broadcast sector services some communities of geography (from rural and remote areas through to cities), but also a range of communities of interest, including First Nations people, youth, senior citizens, religious and ethnic communities, specialty interests (music and fine arts), LGBTIQ communities as well as those providing services for people with print disabilities (CBAA, 2020).These interest groups are also communities that tend to be ignored by the mainstream media (Anderson et al., 2020).
Community radio, being deeply embedded within communities, is well-positioned to guide and support local responses to climate change. As a hyperlocal medium, they tell the stories of their communities, which means they are uniquely positioned to frame constructive dialogue around the local impacts of and responses to climate change. They also have an intimate knowledge of the prevailing attitudes, values and beliefs, as well as the local political, economic and socio-cultural context (Anderson et al., 2020).
Telling community stories plays an important role in community-building and information sharing at the local level, but also acts as a way of documenting how climate change is understood, experienced, and actioned at the local level. This is particularly important given the geographic spread of Australia: most community radio stations are located in regional, rural, and remote communities, while decision-makers and those in positions of power like politicians and funding institutions are located in capital cities on the coast. Community radio has significant potential to be a powerful ally for local, contextualized climate change discussions.
Community radio in Australia has a long history of pioneering initiatives that support marginalized and vulnerable communities. Often, it is these communities that are most at risk from the effects of climate change. For instance, globally, First Nations people have been identified as being particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change (Davis, 2013; Forde, 2012; Turner, et al., 2003). The land now known as Australia is home to the world’s oldest living culture. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have deep cultural and spiritual connections to land and sea. The Wilcannia region is a good example of such a community.
For the Wilcannia region, the impacts of climate change are being experienced through the recent droughts and the drying of the culturally significant Baarka River. The Baarka has been a reliable source of water, food, livelihood, and culture for the Barkindji people for thousands of years. In more recent memory, the Barka was even showcased in popular culture. In 2001 Indigenous kids – the Wilcannia Mob – captured the nation with a rap song “Down River” and images of cultural significance swimming and fishing in the nearby Darling-Baarka River that is the “Mother” to their community. Twenty years later, the kids of Wilcannia were unable to fish or swim: the Baarka was dry with major and widespread cultural, social and economic consequences for the community.
Wilcannia River Radio provides more than just chat
Wilcannia, located in rangelands 945km northwest of Sydney, was once a thriving port town, a link between the outback and the major rivers that lead to the coast. The Traditional Owners of Wilcannia are the Barkindji People whose lands extend along the Darling-Baarka River.
Wilcannia is typical of many remote and rural towns in Australia in that it is plagued by serious droughts, high temperatures, and low rainfall patterns. The region also suffers from the effects of water conflict and mismanagement (Mesikämmen et al. 2021), with thirsty cotton farms upstream disrupting the flow of water. Climate change has significantly worsened the seasonal fluctuations and weather patterns in Wilcannia and projections of future climate are that these conditions are likely to continue.
The baseline number of hot days (above 35°C) annually is expected to increase by 10 to 20 in the near future. There is also likely to be a decrease in spring and autumn rainfall in an area already prone to drought. Projections also suggest that severe fire weather will increase in the near future. With the memory of the 2019-20 Black Summer bushfires fresh in Australians’ minds, the threat of worsening fires looms large.
For Wilcannia, the community radio station plays a central role in community life in the town: for example, it organized boxed drinking water to be trucked into the town in 2019 when the town’s water supply dwindled. Established in 2009, Wilcannia River Radio was known originally by its frequency, 103.1 FM, until the community and broadcasters worked together to choose the station’s name (FNMA, 2021). The station takes an activist role, particularly around issues concerning youth, culture and the health of the Baarka-Darling River. The station’s slogan is “Keepin’ it alive” and the logo represents both “community of all ages” and the River through different colored dots (REDI.E, 2021). Wilcannia River Radio has also attracted national attention and received the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia’s top honour for excellence in community broadcasting in 2019 (Gooch, 2019).
Given the significance of the Baarka to the community, and the station’s role in activism, the impacts of climate change have been firmly on their radar. The community has experienced the impacts of a changing climate in their most extreme form through the drying of water supplies. The conversations about climate change are “ongoing daily”. In an interview, Brendan Adams called out the institutional arrangements, politics, and distant decision-making processes that are further exacerbating the existing climate-related risks:
“It is the humans’ and the governments’ decisions that shaped the Baarka, which is an entity that belonged to the people, that looked after the people. It is the government’s choice that turned this (river/water) into a commodity. There are even people…that don’t even own land but they own water rights.”
Unlike some other communities that are more resistant to conversations about a changing climate, Wilcannia River Radio has no need for discussions about handling climate sceptics or even about how to adapt to climate change. The station is calling for a broader, national discussion of water, climate and culture that sees their river returned to a new normal as an ecosystem that sustains life, livelihoods and culture. Wilcannia River Radio wants their community’s story of climate impacts shared with other parts of Australia and the world to help effect this change:
“Our community is already doing the talking… community leaders, young people, elders, families have already spoken to everyone they can possibly think of to keep the awareness (of) the devastation and the impact. But it has got to be from voice to action… We need people not just only to listen but to act and help us make the change… This nation, this country, needs to act on it. That’s what we need people to help us in making the government to see differently.”
The Warming Up project aims to amplify local stories of change
Warming Up is a research project supporting community radio stations by amplifying local stories of climate change and building capacity to engage in meaningful community conversations. By mapping the work already underway in the sector, then co-designing resources and training materials, Warming Up aims to both solidify the role of community radio in building community resilience and amplify local experiences of climate change. The project offers creative alternatives to the traditional channels and approaches to mediated climate change communication.
The first phase of Warming Up mapped the existing efforts across the sector according to three categories: disaster preparedness/recovery, disaster broadcasting, and climate change programming. The second phase of the research involved several pilot interviews with a sample of community radio stations across New South Wales, representing a mix of geographic locations and communities served. This phase aimed to explore the key barriers to communicating about climate change for particular stations and identify opportunities for building capacity within the stations and the sector.
It was through this second phase of the research that we were introduced to the people at Wilcannia River Radio and learned more about their experiences of living with the impacts of climate change on the local environment and their community. Through these discussions, it is clear that Wilcannia River Radio needs little support with their capacity to articulate the impacts of climate changes. What they want is to share their stories further.
Drawing on what we have learned so far, the third phase of Warming Up takes a storytelling approach, based on principles of practice-led research, knowledge co-creation, and participatory audio production. Participants will have access to training on climate change communication and community journalism to help them identify climate change stories within their local communities and will be supported to produce a 30-minute podcast episode about the impacts of climate change on their community.
Thanks to the support of the 2021 IAMCR New Directions in Climate Communication Research Fellowship, community producers will be compensated for their time and labour, as a way of recognizing and reinvesting in the local community. Wilcannia River Radio was instrumental in developing this idea and will be the producers of the first episode in what, we hope, will become a series of community radio climate action podcasts.
Wilcannia is just one community and one story of climate change impacts. There are many such stories to be told from across Australia and the world about the devastating local impacts of climate change, but also of communities’ resilience and adaptation: we hope to share those stories through this project.
A postscript on Wilcannia
At the time of writing [August 2021], the state of New South Wales is undergoing the worst outbreak of the Covid-19 virus that it has experienced in the 18 months of the global pandemic. Rolling lockdowns and closed borders are stymying not only the project but people’s lives and livelihoods. First Nations communities in Australia, until the current surge of the Delta variant, had been incredibly effective in keeping Covid-19 out of their communities through their strong leadership and effective partnerships with government agencies (Eades et al. 2020; Crooks et al. 2020).
As cases surge in Wilcannia, Wilcannia River Radio is once again taking a leadership role delivering locally relevant public health messages and encouraging the community to come together through these difficult times. This further highlights the importance of community radio to remote communities, especially in times of crisis. Like the Baarka, Wilcannia is resilient and will emerge from lockdowns to share their important stories with Australia and the world. ν
The International Association for Media and Communication Research (IAMCR) and the International Environmental Communication Association (IECA) awarded the 2021 New Directions for Climate Communication Research Fellowship to Anne Leitch and Bridget Backhaus of Griffith University, Queensland, Australia for their project “Warming Up: Exploring creative audio production for climate change communication on community radio.”
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Kerrie Foxwell-Norton’s research focus is environmental communication, media and journalism in Australia and the Pacific region. She was a co-author on early national studies of the Australian community radio sector (2003, 2007). Her work pursues local participation in environmental issues and climate change responses and action where she has specific expertise in community-based research and engagement.
Bridget Backhaus is a lecturer in the School of Humanities, Languages and Social Sciences at Griffith University. Her research explores the role of community media in social change with a particular focus on issues of voice, listening, and participation. A former community radio practitioner, Bridget has over six years of experience facilitating and conducting research into community media. In 2019, Bridget completed a PhD in Media and Communications, with her research exploring the intersections of participation, voice, listening, and social change in community radio through ethnographic fieldwork conducted across two sites in South India.
Photo: The Darling River in Wilcannia, New South Wales, Australia. Credit: Volodymyr Dvornyk