A conversation, not a broadcast: how Indigenous radio stations are responding to the coronavirus crisis

Indigenous woman at radio station desk with headphones & mic in front

Many of us are incessantly checking our phones for coronavirus news. In remote Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory, it’s the radio that is helping to keep people safe, calm and informed.

This article is the first in our 3-part series sharing stories from clients, partners and friends in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, where people are uniquely affected by the coronavirus crisis. Part 2 investigates how the competing considerations of safety, service provision and a mining economy are being managed in a remote NT community. Part 3 explores how the pandemic presents an unlikely opportunity for some Aboriginal people to seek sanctuary on their traditional country.

Indigenous radio is a vital community asset – as we reported in our analysis for the Australian Government in 2017. Despite inconsistent funding, it achieves far greater impact than governments have recognised. During a crisis, radio takes on even more importance.

We recently spoke with two Indigenous radio stations operating in Groote Eylandt and East Arnhem Land, where SVA has been working for several years.

The current Covid-19 crisis highlights how radio enables people to engage with news in their own language, in their own way, through trusted voices.

“People are being bombarded with messages in English”

Bearded man with glasses & headphone on at radio station console speaking into mic.
Percy Bishop, Radio Program Coordinator and Radio Umbakumba Station Manager on Groote Eylandt (image: Groote Broadcasting)

Percy Bishop coordinates radio broadcasting on Groote Eylandt. Groote is a large island in the Gulf of Carpenteria, about 650 kilometres south-east of Darwin. Of its 2,500 residents, 1,600 are Indigenous, mostly Anindilyakwa Traditional Owners.

Bishop told us that for people on Groote, coronavirus updates from governments and local organisations have often missed the mark.

“People are being bombarded with messages in English. It’s a foreign language to most people on this island. And the messages are often long-winded. This stuff has to be talked about in local discussion, not just as part of a broadcast message.”

Bishop says part of the problem is the virus comes with its own new lexicon. “Terms like ‘self-isolating’ and ‘social distancing’, these terms mean nothing in community,” he says. “We need to break these down. If we can do that, it would go a long way to quelling this disaster.”

A different kind of conversation

Community members in Umbakumba convened a meeting recently to discuss the virus. “It was a different kind of conversation to the government meetings,” says Bishop. “It was in language, and the questions weren’t as pedantic, or stressed out.”

“People wanted to understand the basic facts. They asked ‘What is the virus? Where did it come from? How did it get here? Are we safe? How does it pass on? Can we control it?’”

“One of the big shifts we discussed was about family funerals. People are used to travelling to other communities to attend funerals – to Ngukkur, to Numbulwar, to Baniyala and elsewhere. But we talked about it, and people see that it’s logical – that culture is still important, but we need to make this shift.”

“We need to get these radios delivered”

Map of East Arnhem and Groote Eylandt showing Umbakumba and Angurugu
East Arnhem and Groote Eylandt in the Northern Territory

These conversations are now continuing on the radio, says Bishop. “We sit down and discuss it over and over, in different ways.”

Radio is now operating seven days a week. Bishop is broadcasting alongside trainee broadcaster Amathea Mamarika in Umbakumba. In nearby Angurugu, Lionel Jaragba, a senior Anindilyawka man, is on the microphone with Land Council anthropologist Hugh Bland.

“We give an update every hour from 10am-2pm, and longer if necessary. It’s not just a coronavirus show. It’s important to highlight successes and the normal beat of community, to show that life continues. Birthdays are still announced, song lists are still played, and we do shout outs to community members. However coronavirus is a major feature.”

With the virus spreading across Australia, the Anindilyakwa Land Council moved quickly to deliver nearly 400 radios across Groote Eylandt, one to every home. “We’ve been preparing for a while to send out radios,” Bishop says.

“I said two weeks ago, ‘we need to get them out, we need to get these radios delivered’. In a crisis, this is where radio steps into its own. No one has the access that radio has into those communities. Generally speaking in community no one’s carrying a laptop or iPad. But they can grab their dingy old radio.”

Overcoming fake news

Back on the mainland, Yolŋu Radio, run by ARDS Aboriginal Corporation, broadcasts radio across East Arnhem. Most of their programming is delivered in Yolŋu Matha, the main local language. The Northern Territory Government has engaged ARDS to deliver communications during the coronavirus crisis.

“We have to sit down and work together to translate, and then we have to put it out for people to listen,” radio host Sylvia Nulpinditj told NITV this week. “Because it’s an unknown virus, it needs to be told, [so people] take on precautions and preparations.”

Janos Kerekes is a cross-cultural communicator with ARDS and a broadcaster on Yolŋu Radio. He says that as people in the region have become more and more concerned, radio is helping to keep them calm.

“In Milingimbi over the weekend, they had a big worry that the barge wouldn’t be coming in,” Kerekes says.

Milingimbi is located on a remote island off the Arnhem coast, 450 kilometres east of Darwin. All goods – including food for the local store – arrive by barge from Darwin.

“We heard through the government that this story was out there. We were able to react to that, and put out local news that the barge is coming on Tuesday, it is confirmed, everyone can calm down.” 

“We’re leaving out the most disadvantaged of an already disadvantaged group of people”

A key challenge, says Kerekes, has been how to talk about self-isolation in communities and homelands where there are serious problems of overcrowding, due to a shortage of safe and quality housing. “We try to pass on the message about self-isolation, but it’s basically impossible to do here,”he says.

Percy Bishop has been struggling with the same question. “Senior women have asked ‘how do we keep our distance when our homes are already overcrowded?’ I don’t have an answer to that.”

Another frustration has been the lack of radio coverage across some communities. On Groote Eylandt, access is limited to the communities of Angurugu and Umbakumba. The signal does not reach the community of Milyakburra on Bickerton Island, or other satellite communities across the Groote Archipelago.

“There is frustration in communities not having that access,” says Bishop. The island of Bickerton has no access at all, and barely anyone has a telephone. I’m concerned we’re leaving out the most disadvantaged of an already disadvantaged group of people.”

The issue was last raised when Cyclone Trevor forced an evacuation of the island in 2019. Bishop says that radio played an important role in evacuating Angurugu and Umbakumba. “We didn’t have to wait for the formal message. It was calm, because we’d been updating them regularly beforehand.”

But the messages didn’t reach people outside those communities. “There is an outstation called 4 Mile. It’s just four miles outside Umbakumba, but has no radio signal. We had to go out there with the message in person.”

Bishop and the Anindilyakwa Land Council have written to the Australian Government to understand the reasons for the inaction to date, and to demand an urgent response.

“I want to know if there is a regulatory rule, some vague law, or is it a technical issue why we can’t extend a fuller signal strength to all community on Groote?”

“If you talk about duty of care, I thought the cyclone was good enough. What about an international pandemic?”

Main photograph: Amathea Mamarika, Trainee Broadcaster at Radio Umbakumba on Groote Eylandt (image: Groote Broadcasting)