From pirate radio to 14 currently licensed Community Radio stations and 3 Community TV channels and beyond.
Pirate radio has a long tradition in Austria. Already in the 1st Republic there were pirate radio stations run by the social democratic Community Radio Association. The first pirate radio stations of the 2nd Republic produced Ö-Frei, which first aired in Graz in December 1979 with four broadcasts.
Following these brief “interruptions” to the ORF monopoly, further pirate activities did not occur until 1987 when Radio Sozialfriedhof and Radio Sprint in Vienna reported on student strikes and the demonstrations against social cuts. Radio ÖGB-Österreich dealt with the situation of nationalised industry in Linz and in Upper Styria. Radio Rücktritt reported on the anti-Waldheim rally on Stephansplatz in Vienna under the slogan “Go, Kurti, go”. Behind these different names was a single group of pirates, which was already in close contact with the FERL (Federation of European Community Radio). The Pirate Day organised on 31st March 1991 set off the longest pirate phase so far. Proponents such as Radio Boiler, Radio Filzlaus, Radio Hotzenplotz and Radio Breifrei were launched with the aim of achieving political goals, such as legally regulated financial support for non-commercial stations. In the summer of 1992, there were already 25 radio groups in Vienna alone, producing a total of 40 hours of programming per week. In Carinthia, AGORA was broadcasting from Italian soil, in Graz Radio there was ZARG, Salzburg had Radio Bongo500, and Linz the Offene Radiofrequenz. Vorarlberg had Radio Free Gsiberg, Radio Föhn, Radio Mikrowelle and Radio Lästig actively broadcasting and Innsbruck had the Radiator broadcast. The state response to these diverse activities was disproportionate: helicopter operations, homes of activists being searched, expansion of radio surveillance, severe fines and confiscation of broadcasting equipment. This exhausted the financial means of the radio pirates and in the autumn of 1993, regular operations were discontinued and the focus turned to legalising their radio work.
The fight against the broadcasting monopoly was waged on many levels. As early as 1991, the Greens and FERL together presented a draft law which would divide the available frequencies equally between commercial and Community Radio and would ensure sustainable financing for Community Radio. In 1992 and 1993, various associations were founded with the aim of operating non-commercial radio stations as soon as it was legalised under Austrian law. A further step in this direction was when AGORA, accompanied by four other plaintiffs, issued a complaint against the broadcasting monopoly before the European Court of Human Rights. In November 1993, Austria was indeed condemned, and the Court declared that the broadcasting monopoly did indeed interfere with the right to disseminate information and ideas.
The pirates were heavily involved in the ensuing discussion about the upcoming legal reorganisation of regional radio stations - and came away empty-handed when the license was granted. After a successful lawsuit against this licensing at the Constitutional Court, a new regional radio law had to be drafted, and was finally passed in March 1997. There were more than 300 applicants for the regional and local radio frequencies, and the Community Radio stations did extremely well: of 12 Community Radio applicants, 8 were granted licenses or were allocated a transmission window.
The Regional Radio Act set a deadline of April 1st 1999 for licensed radio stations to go on air. If the stations were not broadcasting by the deadline they would have their licenses revoked. The first Community Radio station to go on air was Radiofabrik in Salzburg in July 1998, broadcasting in a weekly five-hour transmission window on the commercial Radio Arabella channel. Radio Orange 94.0 in Vienna was the first independently licensed Community Radio station to air in mid 1998. This was followed by Radio FRO in Linz and the bilingual station AGORA 105 I 5 in Carinthia. Despite the financial challenges, particularly for stations in rural areas, all of them finally made it: Community Radio Salzkammergut, Freequenns in the Enns Valley, Proton - the Community Radio station in Vorarlberg as well as the multilingual minority radio MORA, today known as Radio OP.
The legal beginnings of broadcasting were subject to an exceedingly high financial risk to the editors. Although individual radio projects were funded by the Federal Chancellery, there was no legal basis for financing radio operations and the high investment costs to set up broadcasting studios. Some individual radio activists took out large loans for which they were usually personally liable.
Consolidation and expansion
The financial situation remained precarious - particularly where there was no local or state government support, as was the case in Vorarlberg and at Radio MORA, which had to cease its multilingual broadcasting operations when their federal funding was cancelled in 2001 - yet the existing Community Radio stations were in a phase of consolidation and expansion.
Program production volume grew steadily, and new Community Radio stations were established. Radiofabrik in Salzburg has been broadcasting on its own frequency since 2002, which was when FREIRAD Community Radio Innsbruck also went on air. Stations such as Radio Ypsilon in Hollabrunn, Radio Helsinki in Graz and Campusradio and Cityradio St. Pölten, initially had temporary educational licenses, but gradually all acquired full private radio licenses. The most recently established Community Radio station is B138 in Kirchdorf an der Krems, which obtained its full license in 2013.
In 2005, Community TV stations also began enriching Austria’s media diversity. Vienna-based Okto TV was Austria’s first Community TV station, offering all interested parties the opportunity to bring their topics and concerns to television in a self-determined manner. In February 2012 FS1 started broadcasting episodes of “FS1 Preview” on Salzburg’s AG cable network and in June 2012, they went live with a station party at their new studio on Bergstraße in Salzburg, and have been enriching the TV landscape ever since. Since June 2010, the non-commercial regional station DORFTV has been broadcasting in central Upper Austria.
Legal recognition and funding
In 2009, a combination of confidence, strategy and luck proved successful in convincing the legislature of the relevance of non-commercial private broadcasting within the Austrian broadcasting network. Legal recognition was granted (§ 1 PrR-G), and in conjunction, the Non-Commercial Broadcasting Fund was established (§ 29 KOG).
In the digital age
At the beginning, community broadcasters only had analog working methods. They emerged in Austria alongside, networked and in solidarity with cyber culture and political initiatives. They have always been abreast of new technologies. In-house software development for program management, archiving, or On Demand programming have thus been an integral component of community broadcasting. Thanks to the active participation of thousands of volunteer radio producers, the Cultural Broadcasting Archive, which was created in 2000, has developed from a program sharing platform into Austria’s largest podcast provider, and thus a major public media platform.
Today, the Community Radio Library freie-radios.online offers nationwide programs and over 20 years of documentation of social movements. It includes convenient playback options and improved usability for users. The national Community TV stations supply the On Demand video section.
Vienna-based Okto TV is available live on cable and DVB-T2, but also worldwide via livestream and shows can be viewed in the Oktothek On Demand service from any location.
FS1 in Salzburg also makes their TV shows available via livestream, a media library and their own YouTube channel, in addition to cable. Linz-based DORFTV broadcasts are also available on their website at users convenience.
To be continued...
(based on a text by Wolfgang Hirner from 2006, revised and elaborated by Helga Schwarzwald, 2015/2020)