Keeping Our Story
The NFSA’s former Oral History Program Coordinator Chris Guster shares a personal perspective on the early days of remote Indigenous media groups, which in just 30 years have grown from small pirate stations into national and international media organisations.
Warning: This paper may contain names, images or voices of deceased Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Since the early days of remote community radio in the 1970s, Australia’s Indigenous communities, government agencies and the audiovisual media industry have come together to embrace satellite technology. While technology facilitates much-needed communications in the most remote regions of Australia, it also presents an ongoing challenge to Indigenous communities who are fighting for an Australia-wide platform to broadcast their own grassroots productions.
Situated 250 kilometres north-west of Alice Springs in Central Australia, Papunya was a Federal Government settlement established in 1959 for the Aboriginal people of Australia’s central western desert region. The aerial photograph (left) was taken while I was living and working there as a nurse, in 1968. Back then, desert communities like Papunya received few visits from non-Indigenous people, other than the Royal Flying Doctor Service, the weekly mail plane and a supply truck – all of which turned up only when the weather or the condition of dirt roads and airstrips permitted.
The traditional owners had strong cultural connections to land and culture that they have fought to maintain to this day.
The NFSA is recording oral histories of the people associated with the history of Indigenous media in remote regions of Australia, capturing their stories and voices.
Talk of something called a ‘satellite’
The idea of satellite technology was introduced to remote communities in the late 1970s, albeit in a rather crude form. Dr Philip Batty was teaching at Papunya during that period. In 2008, during an oral history interview conducted for the NFSA by Dr Wendy Bell, Batty recalled a visit to the settlement by government officials:
I heard about the development of a domestic satellite probably … before I had anything to do with CAAMA [Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association, founded by Batty, John Macumba and Freda Glynn] … in about 1978–79, a delegation from the Federal Government … came out to Papunya on a fact-finding tour, as they called it, through remote communities in Australia and were asking people about their views on a national satellite and what sort of things they wanted from it. And I remember strolling up to this meeting that was being held under a gum tree in Papunya with Aboriginal people sitting around with very little understanding of what was going on. Very little English for a start … And these bureaucrats from Canberra, blabbing on with all this technical jargon about a national satellite. I mean, most of the white people could barely understand what it was about, let alone the Aboriginal people. I remember thinking then, what a complete absurd situation, you know, asking Aboriginal people what they wanted out of this satellite service.(1)
For the people living in communities such as Papunya there was a very real fear about the ‘coming of the satellite’ as told by Dr Bell in A Remote Possibility: The Battle for Imparja (2008):
The satellite threatened the very isolation that had helped to preserve what remained of traditional language and culture … There were even fears that the satellite might be a threat to Aboriginal Law with the ‘possibility, however remote, that satellite cameras could spy on men’s business in the remote desert’, watch initiations or zone in on sacred sites.(2)
The birth of Indigenous community television
During 1982 and 1983, Aboriginal communities at Yuendumu in the Northern Territory and Ernabella in remote South Australia set up pirate television production units using domestic video equipment to record footage of daily activities and events. The footage, shot mostly in local language by local school children and adults, was copied onto VHS tapes and stored in cupboards ready for screening to residents on the production unit’s television monitor.
At Yuendumu, American anthropologist and researcher Dr Eric Michaels collaborated with Kurt (Leonard) Japanangka Granites, Francis Jupurrurla Kelly, Adult Educator Peter Toyne and others to develop a Warlpiri owned and operated community television unit, later known as Warlpiri Media Association (WMA).
The first introduction to video technology for the Ernabella community was when school teacher, Rex Guthrie began using a video camera as an educational tool in 1982 to assist the local school teachers to better communicate with their pupils, and to break down the barriers between local Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in the community. In an interview with me in 2010 Rex Guthrie recalled:
I started using video with the kids and we’d go around the community and film … I’d get the kids to do the camera work and all that, you know. Get them to hold it steady on a tripod, the whole thing. And we’d record various things that happened in the community, or objects, you know, like for instance, the clock tower. They would film the clock tower and then there’d be a voice saying, ‘Clock tower’ ... I was using video just as a tool for them to learn English. That’s what it was about. It wasn’t about taking video … Also used it for numeracy, as well, in the same way … So we did some sort of counting or working out some simple mathematics using video … and put voice-overs onto it with a microphone and different kids and they would play it back and get the reward of seeing the images with the sound and their own voice doing the English.
It was not long before members of the community saw the value of video technology. The video unit at Ernabella was brought into being in 1983 by local elder, Wally Dunn and Guthrie in his new role as Community Adult Educator. Dunn and Guthrie held a series of community meetings about the coming of satellite television. As a result of these meetings, 'The Ernabella Video Project’ was formed with six local ‘video production trainees’: Wally Dunn, Colin Brown, Simon Tjiyangu, Pantjiti Tjiyangu, Sandra Lewis and Joseph Tapaya. Guthrie explains:
... starting off that project, it was about training people in the skills of video production in order that they can make productions about their own culture that would be a long term skill that they could take up … I had hopes that some of them could go onto to other places and work in film and TV … the main aim was these trainees were learning the skills of video production and we were actually making productions as we were learning … We would film anything we considered that people would be interested in seeing played back. Meetings, gatherings, events, sporting events, you know, like the races and the football and whatever. And then on top of that we made productions which were scripted, worked out. We did story boarding because that’s part of these lessons.
The recordings heralded the birth of the community’s own local television station.
In November 1984 EVTV conducted its first test TV transmission and by April 1985 EVTV began regular television broadcasts. In its first year EVTV produced 17 productions including Bush Medicine and the re-enactment of the dreaming story The Seven Sisters.
The programs being produced proved to be entertaining and educational and members of the community gathered around the TAFE centre to watch local productions on the unit’s small television monitor, this being the first time they had seen their own community of the television screen.
In September 1985, local school teacher Neil Turner took over from Rex Guthrie and remained with EVTV (later PY Media) until he moved to Broome in 1996 to manage the Pilbara and Kimberley Aboriginal Media (PAKAM) Network. Turner recalls his memory of the early days of EVTV:
The original concept for the TV station in Ernabella was that it was a community participation model, that it wasn’t just the video crew who would run the service for the community, but the school, the health clinic, the police, the church, the footballers; everyone would get involved in contributing to the community programming, and the video production crew could go and record things with them if they didn’t have their own cameras, and so on.
The Yuendumu and Ernabella video units were carrying out groundbreaking work and it was new and exciting for members of the community to see and hear themselves and their stories portrayed for the first time on a television screen. Local Ernabella artist Colin Brown, a Yankuntjatjara man from Coober Pedy and long-time resident of Ernabella, joined the team and became an enthusiastic video camera operator, broadcaster and promoter for the EVTV project.
Concern felt in the communities about the coming of the satellite continued, particularly around the sort of western-style programming the technology would bring, such as soap operas, dramas, sitcoms, violent movies and, of course, advertising. Such programs would present a way of storytelling very different from that handed down by community elders. What impact would these new images and storylines have on remote communities?
Black-and-white drawings by Colin Brown were used to show Ernabella community members how the satellite technology would work. As seen in the the following video, Brown’s drawings and a painting by another artist drew much discussion. The group voice their preference for community television over that of external programs via satellite technology.
It was during this time that the catchphrase ‘fighting fire with fire’ was adopted. Neil Turner:
I believe [the phrase] came from Warlpiri Media and possibly even Kurt Granites [Yuendumu elder] has the intellectual property on that slogan, which was directly related to the imminent satellite invasion and the development of community television as a sort of patch burning analogy of creating your own small fire, if you like, to prevent yourself from being engulfed by the forest fire that would come … that analogy was further extended by Anangu Uwankaraku Tjukurpa TV-tjaraa painting that Pantjiti Tjiyangu did and which I [later] bought from her and donated to ICTV [Indigenous Community Television Service] as a sort of ICTV painting.
Indigenous elders seek local control
In light of the fears Indigenous elders held about the coming of satellite technology and the impact it would have on their culture, community leaders decided to follow the example of, and expand on, the work done by video units at Yuendumu (WMA) and Ernabella (EVTV). They voiced their concerns to the Federal Government, explaining their desire to take some control over what programs they and their children would watch in order to retain their own identity, traditions, and languages.
During 1983 and 1984, as the launch of the satellite drew closer, and as a result of concerns voiced by Indigenous leaders, the Federal Government appointed Eric Willmot, from the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, to lead a special taskforce to look into the possible impact of satellite television technology and western-style programming on remote communities.3
The government review, and the 1984 Out of the Silent Land report that followed, led to the development of the Broadcasting for Remote Aboriginal Community Scheme (BRACS).4 The scheme would empower Indigenous communities across the country to produce and broadcast their own television and radio programs locally.
The scheme involved placing a BRACS production unit in a community. Each unit contained equipment for the users to produce and transmit, under special class licence, their own semi-professional local video and radio programs to homes within their community. To qualify for a unit the only requirement stipulated by government was that a community must have more than 200 residents and provide a secure and lockable air-conditioned hut to house it. In the first roll-out of the equipment in 1987, 74 communities received units. By 1991, this number had increased to around 150.
The BRACS scheme was not without its problems. The sheer distances between communities meant that non-Indigenous manpower was not always available to train local people to use the equipment, or to provide technical and general maintenance support. Resident training programs were introduced at Batchelor College in Darwin and James Cook University in Queensland for BRACS operators, who were then encouraged to take their skills home and train other community members. This worked well on the whole, but it was (and still is) difficult for trained tutors to maintain the ongoing support and mentorship when the course participants returned to their communities.
In 1993 the Federal Government announced a BRACS Revitalisation Scheme to provide funding for training and technical support to individual BRACS communities through existing Aboriginal media associations (or hubs). This led to the formalisation of eight Remote Indigenous Media Organisations (RIMOs), with each RIMO to serve its own immediate regional network.
In 1999, while I was working as the NFSA’s Television Acquisition Officer in Canberra, a friend contacted me from the Warlpiri Media Association (WMA) at Yuendumu, suggesting I might be interested in what was happening there. I visited Yuendumu in 2000 and was able to see for myself the BRACS system in action.
Inside the BRACS complex, I came across a cupboard full of VHS tapes made available for screening within the community. The contents of the cupboard represented just a small part of the collection WMA had produced. The footage (mostly in local language) included: local community news; traditional song and dance ceremonies; school outings; community meetings; bush food and medicine collecting trips by women and children; local music band performances; and craft workshops. Videotapes containing restricted footage were stored separately, with access controlled by community elders.
Commercial programs versus community programs
Running parallel with, and in contrast to, the Federal Government’s 1980s and early 1990s roll-out of the BRACS equipment, was another important local initiative. In late 1983, the Alice Springs independent Indigenous community radio network, later known as CAAMA, responded to a Department of Communications advertisement in the Alice Springs newspaper the Centralian Advocate.
The advertisement called for interested parties to place a submission to the Federal Government for a Remote Commercial Television Service licence (RCTS). The service was to be linked directly to the new AUSSAT domestic satellite communications system to be launched in 1985. According to Philip Batty, the radio station’s main interest in the licence at that time was to ‘extend CAAMA’s [radio] broadcast range outside the fairly restricted area in Central Australia … the only way to do that was using the satellite’. As Batty pointed out, his interest was ‘not so much in the television side, but in possibly using the satellite to distribute CAAMA radio to all these communities throughout the [Northern] Territory’.
Philip Batty and the board of CAAMA soon learned that the licence bid meant much more than just expanding their radio broadcasting capability. The complex submission process covering commercial television broadcasting was to last just over four years. Their bid was successful and the Alice Springs television network Imparja was established. The television station was set up on Leichhardt Terrace, overlooking the Todd River. Imparja went to air in 1988, three years after the satellite was launched and ten years after the government’s visit to Papunya, where officials had sat down under a gum tree to ask a group of elders what they wanted out of a satellite service.
Obliged under the new RCTS licence to broadcast commercial television programming, Imparja began to select its programs from the free-to-air commercial Seven and Nine networks down south. Satellite receiving dishes were installed in the remote communities that had BRACS transmission equipment and, virtually overnight, commercial and non-commercial (including ABC TV) programs that had concerned Indigenous elders a few years earlier became available. A new and different culture arrived via the television screen – in the form of western-style television programs.
A whole new world opened up to Indigenous people, and life in the remote communities changed forever.
After receiving its RCTS licence, Imparja made an informal social commitment to include Indigenous content on the network. It is not clear what percentage was finally agreed upon. Apart from the very popular magazine-style television series, Nganampa Anwernekenhe produced by CAAMA and broadcast on Imparja, very few other CAAMA-produced television programs eventuated at that time, due to a lack of resources.
BRACS programs reach far and wide
In 2000, Imparja’s Chief Engineer, Tim Mason, began exploring the possibility of splitting its allocated satellite space and creating a second and separate narrowcast community satellite channel (Channel 31). Tim Mason, in a 2008 interview:
I always had this vision, right from the start, that we could squeeze two TV pictures in the space where we originally had one. By using digital technology we could carry a main [commercial] Imparja picture and a channel on the side which could become an Indigenous TV channel so that you can carry more than one TV picture on that transponder … and the move to digital provided Imparja with the opportunity to do more than just be a single remote TV service … could become much more than just a single TV channel … could achieve its social aims in a much better way. And technically it’s not hard. What’s hard is to persuade other people that your dream is actually a physical reality and that they can make use of [the broadcasting service] for health, education, for entertainment, for cultural purposes all [those] sorts of things.
By 2004, after a lengthy testing phase as an information channel, the second narrowcast channel, which would come to be known as the Indigenous Community Television service (ICTV), was officially up and running. Imparja provided the transmission technology for the new channel and the media associations took ownership of the content that went to air.
For the BRACS communities that produced radio and television, this new channel meant that their locally made programs could be broadcast across the country to all fellow BRACS communities on a regular basis. For Imparja, this meant that the network could at last meet its original social obligations to broadcast Indigenous content, which it had been doing very little of since its inception in 1988.
With the introduction of ICTV, life became even busier for staff at Imparja – as Tim Mason put it, ‘like Topsy, it just growed’. At that point, there were five main remote media associations: PY Media, WMA (now PAW Media), CAAMA, TEABBA and Ngaanyatjarra Media, each representing BRACS communities in their respective regions. The associations provided local radio and television programs to Imparja for broadcast via the new second narrowcast channel. For example, PY Media (formerly EVTV), took on the role of collecting and collating programs from BRACS communities across the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara lands of South Australia’s central desert regions.
Imparja accepted all programs offered and broadcasted them unedited, irrespective of the level of technical quality or video format supplied. The programs were all considered as local community content to be shared.
Media associations from as far afield as Broome in Western Australia (PAKAM) and later in Queensland (QRAM) and Torres Strait (TSIMA) also sent programs to Imparja for broadcast on ICTV. In addition to sending copies of video productions, Goolarri Media Association in Broome produced and contributed radio programs, via PAKAM, to outlying communities in the Kimberley region. Robert Lee, Manager of Goolarri Media, in a 2009 interview:
[PAKAM] send a signal from here, via telephone, all the way to Alice Springs … through Alice, through Imparja … [via] satellite [to] towns such as Fitzroy [Crossing], Halls Creek, sometimes Kununurra, then all the communities: Beagle Bay, Lombadina, Djarindjin, Looma – right through … At times we hook up with PAKAM, then at other times NIRS [National Indigenous Radio Service]. They take the same feed off PAKAM, so what happens is some of our programs actually go national … and they go up on satellite and then some communities in Brisbane or Adelaide or South Australia, they actually pick the service up.
A new era begins for Indigenous media
Although mostly running on a limited budget, the ICTV channel was, from inception, working well for both Imparja and the communities. However, in 2006, things changed dramatically for ICTV. The Federal Government announced that the service was to be closed down and replaced by a National Indigenous Television (NITV) service, with some broadcast space being allocated to ICTV for their local programming. The future looked very exciting. Dr Wendy Bell:
… the ‘caterpillar’ suddenly had a new and exciting opportunity to become the ‘butterfly’ … In 2006 Imparja made a deal to play a major role in the [Federal Government] planned National Indigenous Television (NITV) service from mid-2007. NITV was designed to build upon the existing Indigenous Community TV initiative transmitted on Imparja’s second satellite channel 31 narrowcasting service (Channel 31) using the Imparja uplink facility in Alice Springs.(5)
On Friday 13 July 2007, the ICTV service ceased to be. It was replaced by the new NITV service being broadcast from Imparja and controlled by a board established and administered in Sydney. Program content would be selected by a committee in Sydney, and the ICTV community content in its raw form would need to go through a program selection process before being accepted for broadcast on the new service.
Asked during his 2009 oral history interview how the communities responded to the cut-off on 13 July 2007, Turner told me:
ICTV kept broadcasting right up to the switch-over date … There has been a lot of concern expressed, especially by language speaking groups and Central Australian Ngaanyatjarra Media, and so on, who saw a very different style of television … And just the fact that there was no language suddenly – from 70 to 80 per cent – and Ngaanyatjarra and Pitjantjatjara people and Warlpiri people hearing and seeing people speaking language on their television and suddenly total cut-off … There was just a feeling like they no longer had a say, there was no community control over what was being put up there.
From Imparja’s point of view, the change was a positive one for the future of Indigenous television, and for future program production material created in the communities. In a 2008 interview Tim Mason recalled:
What happened was, as part of a productivity commission report into broadcasting … a proposal that the government should set up a national Indigenous television service … And then almost out of the blue the government announced they were going to provide funding for four or five years for a national Indigenous TV service which would take over the infrastructure [ICTV] … and yes, it was sad to lose contact with those community groups because they really did … they flogged their little guts out to get that system up and running. And I am aware that they were disappointed and I think it is probably fair to say they have not received the same outlet from NITV that they kind of expected they would receive but I see now more community programs going out on NITV. In my discussions with the community groups they are now being commissioned by NITV to produce programming for the national Indigenous service.
Mason went on to add that ‘ICTV probably had reached the limit of its capability as an Indigenous cooperative, unfunded, running by the seat of its pants; and in all honesty NITV was the next logical step on from the ICTV operation’.
In 2008, in preparation for the present Federal Government’s conversion to digital technology in 2013, the Imparja network moved down the road to a new, purpose-built, more efficient facility that could meet the demands associated with advanced technological change. According to Tim Mason Imparja became ‘the largest single television station market in the world, with one signal across six states and territories and five different time zones’. Mason, in a 2008 interview:
The TV transmitters I look after are bounded by an area of Thursday Island up in the north of Queensland, Weipa and Cooktown, down through northern NSW, Walgett, Lightning Ridge, Bourke, Brewarrina, Cobar, Kangaroo Island, Ceduna, Bathurst Island, to the far corners of the Empire … everywhere except the major cities and the Gold Coast, Wollongong and Newcastle is Imparja Southern Cross licence area.
Shortly after the 2007 cut-off of ICTV from the Imparja second channel, ICTV staff realised that sharing the narrowcast channel with NITV was not an option. In 2009 ICTV management began experimenting with streaming their collection of community television and radio material on the internet via the Indigitube website. This meant that the few BRACS community viewers who were able to access the internet, could watch community footage and listen to radio programs online. But this was merely a stopgap measure until a better solution could be found for broadcasting the ICTV material.
ICTV re-emerges on a satellite platform
The next chapter in the story of the remote Indigenous community television service began a few months after the April 2009 launch of Indigitube, when ICTV manager Rita Cattoni was alerted to the possibility of gaining free access to a spare community satellite television channel in Perth, run by the Western Australian Government’s Westlink satellite service:
Daniel [Featherstone, Media Co-ordinator, NG Media] found out about [Westlink] … and that Access 31 [free-to-air community television] had gone under and they [had been] using, on the weekend, this spare channel that the Western Australian government had to go out to communities … I approached [the community channel] and went backwards and forwards for quite a long time … we needed to demonstrate we had a strong Western Australian audience and so we got a lot of support from PAKAM, from Goolarri, and Ngaanyatjarra Media [NG Media] …
We finally brokered an MOU [memorandum of understanding] with the WA government … we made a decision to launch [ICTV] at Djarindjin, on November 3  … right up on the Dampier Peninsula, up from Broome – because it coincided with the 25th anniversary of the Djarindjin BRACS … there was a band happening that night and there were speeches and there was turtle being killed and eaten as well. So it wasn’t just ICTV that was being celebrated, it was also the BRACS that had been there, I think, for 20 or 25 years.
ICTV had recommenced broadcasting, but only through the determination of its staff. The Westlink satellite platform enabled them to screen community television material in the short-term and to a limited audience, from 6 pm on Fridays to 6 am on Mondays. The organisation was again ‘running by the seat of it’s pants’, as Tim Mason put it.
Commercial television media in the central desert has come a long way since 1983, when the board of CAAMA responded to an advertisement in the Centralian Advocate calling for interested parties to place a submission to the Federal Government for a Remote Commercial Television Service licence (RCTS). Initially, organisations could only offer a single-channel, analogue television service. Since then, we have seen the launch of the successful Imparja Television network in 1988 and the arrival of the National Indigenous Television (NITV) network in 2007.
But what of the grassroots Indigenous community programs? Where and how will they be broadcast in the future? What will happen to the community videotapes, mostly in language, that may not meet the ‘professional standard’ of production required by NITV? What will happen to these locally produced programs now that the only available delivery platform is the commercial, national Indigenous media television network?
The aim of Indigenous Community Television service (ICTV) is to regain what was lost, and strive to again have their own dedicated satellite television channel to broadcast community productions Australia wide.
It will be interesting to see what the future holds for Indigenous community television material as the Federal Government’s National Broadband Network rolls out, with increased internet access and the possibility of more television channels becoming available.6 The ongoing challenge will increasingly be one of maintaining a balance between community and commercial needs, especially when the lure of television and new media draws children away from traditional face-to-face models of community storytelling.
There is, however, exciting potential for both radio and television media to complement traditional ways of storytelling, and introduce new ways of passing on and retaining community traditions and languages in program formats that meet the needs of their Indigenous audiences.
It is important to capture the personal stories behind the history of media in remote Indigenous communities. During his oral history interview in 2010 Colin Brown reflected on his time with Ernabella Video and Television (EVTV) in the mid-1980s and on the importance of video as a tool for recording and retaining local culture, language and traditions:
I’d say it’s a very powerful tool. I think it’s really important, really relevant, you know, I’m glad I was involved in that. And it’s once in a lifetime … That will never be repeated again … the old people they’re going be passed on, they’re getting a lot older now, a lot of them are getting sick … so it’s really important, you know, it’s going to stay recorded the rest of the life. And I think the next, you know, the older people that have got it now … they got the knowledge in their head. When they’re gone they will take the knowledge with them. In 30 years time and 50 years time … EVTV is unique and it’s different – it was people that was together as one. That’s sort of like a family I’d say, really … [EVTV] was really interesting … we went out bush and went out to the weir, went and done a lot of things and kept us really excited. It was good working behind the camera.
Chris presented a version of this paper at the Oral History Association of Australia’s (OHAA) 16th National Conference, ‘Islands of Memory: Navigating Personal and Public History’, in September 2009. The conference paper was published in the OHAA journal, Islands of Memory – Revisited, Number 32, 2010.
The NFSA’s RIMO Oral History Project was initiated in 2007 to focus on recording and preserving the stories of the work carried out by Indigenous media associations in Alice Springs, the Central Desert and Broome in north-west Australia. The oral history interviews quoted throughout this paper help in the telling of this unique story, but they reflect only a few of the many more voices that need to be heard. We need to record now, while we have the opportunity, the very important stories and experiences of individual community members who have pioneered and contributed to creating Australia’s remote Indigenous media history.
More about remote Indigenous media in Australia
1 Batty, Philip 2008–2009, Interviewed by Wendy Bell, Oral History, NFSA: 774192, p 44 of transcription.
2 Bell, W 2008, A Remote Possibility: The Battle for Imparja Television, IAD Press, Alice Springs, Northern Territory, p 48.
3 Bell, W 2008, A Remote Possibility: The Battle for Imparja Television, p 100.
4 Task Force on Aboriginal and Islander Broadcasting and Communications August 1984, Out of the Silent Land, Department of Aboriginal Affairs, Report of the Task Force on Aboriginal and Islander Broadcasting and Communications, AGPS, Canberra.
5 Bell, W 2008, A Remote Possibility: The Battle for Imparja Television, p 328.
6 Australian Government 2011, National Broadband Network, viewed 25 October 2011.