Community TV charges into digital future in Adelaide

From station volunteer to general manager in a matter of months, Amber Cordeaux is on a mission to revive community television in South Australia – and beyond.

Amber Cordeaux is the general manager of the community television station Channel 44 in Adelaide. She first joined the station as a volunteer, producer and presenter, but was soon offered a job as operations manager and 2IC. In December 2012, Amber took over as general manager and at just 29, she became the youngest television station manager in the country. Bucking the industry trends, she steered Channel 44 away from potential closure in just a matter of months. Amber is also on the National Roundtable for Community Broadcasting and a founding committee member of Women in Media in South Australia. Amber was recently nominated in the Rising Star and Corporate Visionary categories of Folio Magazine’s Top Women in Media Awards in New York.

Amber spoke with the Walkley Foundation about her passion for community media, finding a business model to sustain it and the shift into the digital and online world.

Headshot Amber CordeauxWhat sparked your interest in community television?

I came from a community radio background. I was working at Fresh FM, which is a youth community radio station in Adelaide. It was while I was there that I really fell in love with community media. At a community station you get the opportunity to gain experience and build your skills. I worked in every area I could, from presenting, producing, admin to news reading and eventually becoming news director. I then wanted to build upon my skill base and learn everything I could about community television. I’m passionate about the community sector as a whole.

To me, community TV is TV with soul. Although we need to operate our stations with a business brain, we’re not in it for the big bucks. And you’ll find that this is a common thread amongst others working in community media. We’re passionate about the role that community plays. Those are the real motivating factors.

Community TV provides much needed diversity. It promotes tolerance and understanding in our culturally diverse communities, giving a voice to those who don’t necessarily have one in mainstream media. Local content is another big one. Especially in South Australia, where nearly everything is syndicated from the Eastern states, there’s something about community media that is really special.

What was your path to becoming the general manager of Channel 44?

I fell in love with Fresh FM and then I thought about moving into television. What I really wanted to do was produce a local TV show. I approached the previous manager at Channel 44 and expressed my interest in producing. He said “That’s great, but we actually need a presenter”. So I found myself presenting one of the TV shows at Channel 44. I thought if that’s what I have to do to get the producing gig, then I’ll do it. I was presenting for a few months and then the producing role opened. It was while I was producing that the 2IC at the time moved to Channel Seven. The manager asked if I was interested in applying for the position, to which I immediately said yes, and I was lucky enough to get the job. I felt like there was a lot of potential and I wanted to contribute what I could to the station and that all happened quite quickly. I started as a volunteer and then within about 3 or 4 months, I was hired as staff and then it was about 6 months after that that I became general manager.

Why did you feel so passionately about reviving Channel 44?

At one point I remember it was just me standing in the control room, thinking “do I let it die or do I save it”? I just felt a strong gut feeling that I need to save the station, because there were so many people that watched it, so many people that loved it and so many people that depended on it. It’s such a significant asset for Adelaide, because we need local content and we need local TV stations. A station like Channel 44 stands for community and diversity, which are so important. And it would be such a shame for that to be lost, not just for the local community, but for the strength of community broadcasting nationally. Together with our four other sister stations around the country, we reach a lot of people, 3million people. If Adelaide went down that would affect the other stations too.

Did you restructure the staffing at the station?

With the management change and staff departures, I was starting from scratch. I recruited a couple of key supporters; one in finance and the other with a strong media business and development background and negotiating experience. The initial goal was simply to keep the doors open. We set out to restructure the whole entity and rebuild.

We had bare bones staff and kept it to bare minimum while we grew. We were operating with 2.5 staff for a long time. We essentially do what the commercial stations do but with a fraction of the budget and staff.

The team we have is incredible and we wouldn’t be here without their hard work. Everyone is so passionate, and they need to be because everyone is doing multiple jobs. Producing more local content is very important to us. We are now growing the team and bringing back production, both in-house and outsourcing some production to other talented content makers.

We have about six volunteers currently. When we recruit them we look for passion and determination and perseverance. My goal is to create jobs in the TV industry in Adelaide through local production and we’re doing that.

7EDC399F-35B4-4F50-8733-388474FBC434[61]So the doors stayed open and the team was expanding, what other important goals did you set at the station?

We wanted to improve the quality of the picture. One of the investors from my team of three invested some money to pay for a new digital play-out system. We had this very dinosaur play-out system, seven TVs with about eight DVD players. So someone had to be there physically putting in the DVD and pressing play to feed manually. So we purchased a state-of-the-art digital play-out system. We are able to control the play-out from a mini mac computer – it’s incredible what technology allows us to do these days.

Other goals were to increase awareness. We did a complete rebranding and changed the logo. We also wanted to improve programming, and introduced themed nights for blocked content in order to suit viewers’ consuming habits. We obviously wanted to increase revenue and we designed the business model accordingly.

And we’ve seen huge successes across all areas. Daily viewership has increased by 28% between August and December last year alone. And we’ve seen income percentage growth year on year between 75% and 100%. It’s thanks to everyone’s hard work and Adelaide’s support that we’ve seen such incredible growth. And the feedback we’re getting both from viewers and others in the industry, even our competitors, has been incredible.

So where are you finding support and revenue streams for a community station?

We get our revenues through sponsorship, which is advertising, but we also get it from program providers. So it’s like a user-pays system, but it is quite minimal and it’s just to cover basic costs. We focus mainly on sponsorship with direct clients. There is a lot of competition out there with all the TV and radio stations, so it’s hard to compete when the commercial TV stations come out with ten dollar spot rates. We get about 75% of our income from sponsorship but we don’t get any from government funding. With the new digital platform we’re working on, we want to see if there is more support from bigger businesses that are willing to come on as foundation sponsors to really support the transition.

In September Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced that community stations would not receive broadcast licenses after the end of 2015. Mr Turnbull suggested that without access to the broadcast spectrum, community stations should turn to the internet. What does this mean for Channel 44?

This decision has huge implications for Australia’s five community TV stations. [Channel 44 plus C31 in Victoria, 31 in Brisbane, Sydney’s TVS and WTV in Perth]

At Channel 44, we agree that media is heading online, but for us to turn off the signal at the end of the year and to switch to a digital only method… We would lose most of our viewers and potentially have to start from zero. This would impact our revenue, advertising/sponsorship and programming. In a nutshell, we reach a certain amount of people, and program providers are making shows to reach those people, as are advertisers. And then similarly the program providers are supported by sponsors  to help them with their production. So if you take away the viewer element (right now we have 42,000 unique viewers a day), we would really be struggling, to put it mildly. We need time to grow this. We’re working on a new business model for the digital platform, but in the end it will always come back to eyeballs.

How are you approaching the impending switch to the digital media platform?

We’re currently developing the digital platform in the background. Creatively, it’s a great opportunity. And we’re working backwards with the end-user in mind first. What is going to make them watch and why? What are their passions and what are their pain points?

The business model is crucial, really getting that right to support everything else going forward is imperative.  However, the longer we can operate a dual platform (online and television) the better, because we do need time to migrate our collective 3 million viewers over to the new platform. And the longer we have to migrate those viewers, the better.

You’ve partnered with Hostworks to develop Channel 44’s digital platform. How does that relationship work and what is your vision for a digital Channel 44?

We’re working with Hostworks to develop our digital platform and they’ll be hosting it.  Hostworks is fantastic and we are lucky to be working with some of the brightest minds in the digital industry. They have been so supportive, receptive and very understanding of what makes community television special. This platform will open up a whole new world for us. We’ll have streaming, with the option of multiple streams, we’ll have video-on-demand, and apps across different genres. We’re also looking beyond this in terms of online communities and innovation – thinking outside the square and offering unique opportunities for views, content makers and advertisers. We are essentially developing our own Netflix or Stan, in a creative context, but with a minute amount of their budget!

Importantly we still need to retain local presence. People want to see locally produced content. In Adelaide, a lot of our content comes from Sydney and Melbourne, so for us here, local presence is especially important. The community angle will still be a main focus, as will production and local presence. We want Channel 44 to be everywhere. We’re revolutionising what community TV is currently, and that’s exciting.

Interview by Nathalie Meier, Walkley Foundation intern and journalism student at UTS. She tweets @nathalieemeier.