Indigenous Broadcasting

Current Issues

Indigenous Broadcasting

E-Brief: Online Only issued 27 November 2003

Dr John Gardiner-Garden, Analysis and Policy
Social Policy Group


This e-brief provides an overview of the issues and developments in Indigenous broadcasting in Australia and overseas. It also provides links to useful electronic resources on this subject.

Impact of Television on Indigenous Culture

Since the early 1980s there has been much debate around the world about the potential impact of television (and other modern media technologies) on indigenous culture. For example:

  • In his article 'Ideas from the Bush', Dr Michael Meadows from the Key Centre for Cultural and Media Policy at Griffith University, quotes Aboriginal linguist Eve Fesl describing satellite television in 1985 (then imminent), as 'cultural nerve gas' unless broadcasts were in community languages, and Rosemarie Kuptana in 1988 describing the possible effect of 'southern' television on the native people of Canada as that of 'a bomb that kills the people and leaves the buildings standing'.
  • In 1992 Dr Michael Meadows looked at community perceptions of mainstream television on two remote Torres Strait islands and found that on Murray Island, with a speech community of around 1000 and falling, people perceived it as a threat to language and culture while on Boigu, with a speech community of around 3000 and rising, it was generally welcomed as way to find out about the world (see Craik, James-Bailey and Moran, 1995).
  • In 2000 Steven Mizrach wrote in 'Natives on the Electronic Frontier' that while some see television as a global homogenising force, socialising the remaining indigenous groups across the planet into an indistinct Western 'monoculture', others see indigenous groups as being able to use television for cultural revitalisation, linguistic revival, and the creation of outlets for the indigenous voice.

However the balance of benefit to danger is weighed, Dr Meadows reported in 'Ideas from the Bush', that:

Indigenous people in both Australia and Canada continue to perceive mainstream media representations of them and their issues as at best inappropriate, and at worst racist.

This perception has encouraged indigenous communities to adopt a variety of community medias to compliment the mainstream and adapt in a variety of ways mainstream media technology. There has been a realisation, for example, that television has the potential to both connect otherwise isolated communities and to offer people information in their own first language on health, education and social services which they can access.

The degree to which Indigenous people have been able to use modern media technologies for their own cultural purposes is, however, a mixed story. As Dr Michael Meadows has written:

The potential of the Indigenous media sector today can be accurately described as unrecognised and unrealised, largely as a result of ad hoc policy making. Unlike both New Zealand and Canada, the existence and importance of Indigenous cultures and languages remains unacknowledged in the Australian Broadcasting Services Act 1992. While it is clear that the Federal Government will have a continuing role in supporting Indigenous media infrastructure and program production and distribution, few government agencies are aware of the existence of the sector, let alone its potential for getting their messages across to Indigenous audiences. The Indigenous media sector is probably the only medium by which information can be effectively transmitted across these cultural boundaries. As with existing national and multicultural broadcasting services, government involvement should be interpreted as an investment in the cultural future of Australia, which must include the cultural and linguistic future of Indigenous Australians.



Excellent overviews of the early history of indigenous broadcasting in Australia are offered in chapter 9 of Tom O'Regan and Philip Batty, Australian Television Culture, and in Jason Gibson's article 'Indigenous Media'. Some key dates have been the following:


Throughout the 1970s Indigenous broadcasting began to grow at the grassroots, from the community sector and establish its own unique position in the Australian communications sphere.


The first Indigenous-produced community radio program aired on 5UV in Adelaide.


The first ever all-Aboriginal TV show produced, 'Basically Black', a National Black Theatre production, was broadcast.


A group of Tasmanian women started Wavee Radio (a half-hour program) in Hobart.


Australia's first Aboriginal owned and controlled radio station, the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association's (CAAMA's) 8KIN, started broadcasting, producing videos and making music clips.


Some Indigenous Communities in remote Australia started to adapt low-cost video, videoconferenceing and radio services to suit their needs, and some, such as Yuendumu and Ernabella, started 'pirate' community television stations.


With the release of the Task Force on Aboriginal and Islander Broadcasting and Communications's report Out of the Silent Land, the Commonwealth made its first attempt to address the lack of broadcasting services in rural and remote Indigenous communities.


With the launch of Australia's first domestic satellite in 1985, many remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders gained access to telecommunications, broadcast television and radio for the first time. The launch was seen as both a potential advance for Indigenous communications and a threat to the maintenance of an already diminished language and culture.


Based on the task force's recommendations, the then Department of Aboriginal Affairs developed a program to deliver radio and television services to remote communities the Broadcasting for Remote Aboriginal Communities Scheme (BRACS). BRACS, a small scale, community based system, designed to transmit over short distances, was first piloted in the remote communities of Ernabella (Anangu Pitjantjatjara lands) and Yuendumu (Walpiri lands). BRACS gave communities the ability to produce their own video and radio programs and re-broadcast or 'embed' this material in mainstream programming by turning off main signals and transmitting their own programs locally.


The Broadcasting Services Act 1992 included as one of its objects in Section 3(1):

to ensure the maintenance and, where possible, the development of diversity, including public, community and Indigenous broadcasting, in the Australian broadcasting service in the transition to digital broadcasting.


The establishment of the Australian Film Commission's Indigenous Unit which has provided funding and support for a range of Indigenous content creation.

The Breadth of the Sector

The Indigenous broadcasting sector in Australia today comprises of:
  • An Aboriginal-controlled radio sector
    • Approximately 120 capital city, regional and remote area community radio licensees (about 100 of these are remote area ex-BRACS radio licensees and also licensed for television, grouped into 8 regional media associations).
    • Many Indigenous groups are working towards independent station status (aspirants).
    • Aspirants are often already broadcasting, utilising temporary licences or test broadcasts or access to airtime through general community stations.
    • National Indigenous Radio Services (NIRS) distributes a national radio programming feed out of Brisbane. Most NIRS programs originate from 4AAA Brisbane, but the PAKAM Network, Broome, 4KIG Townsville, 4US Rockhampton, CAAMA 8 KINFM Alice Springs, Umeewarra 5UMA Port Augusta, 5UV Adelaide, SBS Radio, Bumma Bippera Media 4C1M Cairns also contribute programs.
    • Other bodies, while not being broadcasters themselves, produce content for radio broadcasts, e.g. ATSIC Radio produces a weekly Indigenous current affairs program for broadcast on over 60 Indigenous and community radio stations across Australia.
  • An Aboriginal-controlled television sector
    • Three Indigenous media associations specialise in film and television production: CAAMA Alice Springs, Mt Isa Aboriginal Media Association and Goolarri Media Enterprises Broome.
    • Imparja Television Alice Springs has an Indigenous owned and controlled broadcast-level film and TV studio. It delivers a single channel of commercial television, a single channel of business/closed circuit television and 6 Indigenous radio services. Its service area includes the Northern Territory and South Australia as well as parts of regional New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania. Its potential audience is 430,000, with some 40 per cent Indigenous. Indigenous television output is estimated at between 3 per cent and 10 per cent of total programming.
    • Imparja Television also maintains regional and remote area transmitters for the ABC and SBS while Mt Isa Aboriginal Media Association (MIAMA) manages regional commercial television transmitters in Queensland.
    • Warlpiri Media (WMA) and PY Media, both in Central Australia, work across sectors and do a lot of video production.
    • Townsville Aboriginal and Islander Media Association (TAIMA) Queensland has also been involved in video production This community based organisation in 1981, took on 4KIG (Kwangie) Radio Station and a Broadcast in Remote Aboriginal Community Service, and, in 1988, they began Big Eye Productions to make culturally appropriate product for communities, government, private clients, and television.
    • Some remote area (ex-BRACS) stations generates some local television programs.
    • ATSIC TV produces material for television broadcast throughout Australia. It also produces corporate information videos on Indigenous issues, audio services, including contemporary interviews and Indigenous music.
    • Goolarri TV is operated by Broome Aboriginal Media Association. It transmits limited TV service under open narrowcasting licence, draws some material from remote area (ex-BRACS) stations and is reticulated to a number of Broome resorts.
  • An Aboriginal-controlled non-broadcast radio/television sector. For example formal and informal video and film exchanges which create audiovisual networks at local community, regional and national levels, and the video teleconferencing organised by the Tanami Network. There is also TAPE, The Aboriginal Program Exchange, based in Melbourne, which duplicates and distributes radio program tapes to Indigenous stations. The ABC broadcasts Awaye and Speaking Out.
  • Aboriginal programming for mainstream television (for both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people). For example SBS's ICAM which began in 1996 (the only prime-time Indigenous affairs program broadcast nationally on Australian television) and its successor Living Black (currently in recess it will be back in production later this year and on air early in 2004) and the ABC's Message Stick TV menu.


ATSIC has been the principle agency funding Indigenous broadcasting. The level of funding offered has been relatively unchanged over the last 4 years between $12 and $13 million. Although exact amounts for the last 2 financial years are not readily available, Broadcasting Fact Sheet 3 on the ATSIC website offers the following breakdown of expenditure for the 3 years before that:


1998 99

1999 00

2000 01

Remote area (ex-BRACS)

882 504

878 878

2 039 866

Regional Council projects

7 177 164

6 476 030

6 355 431

NIMAA operational

505 020

590 000

555 000

Imparja Television subsidy

2 000 000

2 000 000

2 000 000

Other National

4 154 511

3 033 709

2 028 320


$14 719 199

$12 978 617

$12 679 151

In addition to the above funding, ATSIC's CDEP schemes provides the payment for much of the work done in the 'BRACS' stations. Its Office of Public Affairs has provided $380,000 for the National Indigenous Documentary Fund (NIDF) series and $265,000 in 1998 99 and $200,000 in 1999 00 to the SBS Current Affairs program ICAM. ATSIC has also been making a contribution of about $54,000 towards the $600,000 plus which the Community Broadcasting Foundation allocates each year, the balance being provided by the Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts.

Other agencies involved with supporting the sector include:

  • Australia Film Commission (AFC) which has an Indigenous Unit to assist Indigenous Australians participate in the film, television and interactive media production industry. The AFC's Indigenous Unit funds (by application) Indigenous filmmakers for drama and documentary development and production, and travel grants to international festivals. In addition, the Indigenous Unit runs specifically targeted workshops in areas that need expansion or development.
  • The Film Finance Corporation, Australian Film Television & Radio School and various state film bodies also provide a mix of funding (largely ad hoc) to program productions, script workshops, etc.


There are four issues which are common across the Indigenous-related broadcast sector.

  • Issues of funding, training and co-ordination. ATSIC's 1999 report, Digital Dreaming: A National Review of Indigenous Media and Communications, found that BRACS communities have faced difficulties arising from inadequate operational funding and a lack of training. Similarly, N. Turner in his 1998 National Report on the Broadcasting for Remote Aboriginal Communities Scheme, noted that all but one of the 143 paid BRACS operators in remote communities were employed through the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) under which they work part-time for their welfare benefits. Outside of the BRACS network and a handful of available places in the ABC or SBS there are few training opportunities. Besides there being little funding, little technical support, no central co-ordination, no regularised training regime, there is also no 'one stop shop' through which the stations can sell their airtime effectively and thus increase revenue from other sources.
  • Tension between imperatives to be Indigenous-specific and to be a mainstream substitute. For many Indigenous communities, the Indigenous broadcasting sector is not, as the community broadcasting sector is in metropolitan Australia, an alternative source of broadcast information or entertainment, it is their only source. This means the Indigenous sector finds it often needs to fulfil a 'first level of service' role. Communities can therefore expect that their local indigenous broadcasters, at the same time as advancing local/regional indigenous languages and issues, keep them in touch with the mainstream media and issues. A body such as Imparja Television has an added commercial imperative to become a mainstream substitute, so although it might not want to simply be a mainstream station that simply takes account of Aboriginal views, it carries 90 per cent mainstream content. Indeed, across the sector, Michael Meadows reported to the Productivity Commission in 1999 (p. C.13), 'lack of clear ideas on the role of media in communities; lack of understanding at both community and government level about the potential for community media to become true communication centres, tapping into services such as education and health'. P. McConvell and N. Thieberger provide some insights into the unevenness in the degree to which overall success has translated into support for indigenous languages.
  • The issue of Aboriginalisation of crewing, creative direction and management. This is not just an issue in mainstream indigenous programming sector, but also an issue in the Aboriginal controlled sector (perhaps not so much the small bodies in the ex-BRACS network, but certainly large media organisations such as CAAMA in Alice Springs).
  • Issues of Protocol (permission processes, negotiated guidelines, representation of Aboriginal people, intellectual property). This set of issues can make the work of non-Indigenous production teams working on programs for mainstream broadcasting very complicated and even act as a disincentive to such work. They are also important issues for indigenous production teams inside the Aboriginal controlled sector, as this sector is heavily involved in communicating across kinship, land and language groupings. There are even protocol issues at the level of whether a particular remote indigenous community wants a particular media. Some communities might prefer low-end but easily supervised video technology, over high-end but less-easily supervised superhighway of multi-media.


At the moment Indigenous broadcasting is classified by the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 as part of the community broadcasting sector, and burdened by the commensurate expectation that it will be non-profit, low skilled and only local coverage broadcasting. The need to reconceive the sector's role in order to reach its full cultural and commercial potential is discussed at length in National Indigenous Media Association of Australia (NIMAA) submission 'From Message Stick to Multi-Media in the New Millenium, Indigenous Communications Australia'. It is argued that the sector needs not just more funding but greater professionalisation, a broader reach and its own Code of Practice (just as the Commercial sector, the ABC and SBS have) indeed that there need to be a new national broadcaster, an Indigenous Broadcasting Service (NIBS), and that this needs to include two vehicles: Indigenous Television (ITV) as one of the ABC's Multi-Channels and a National Indigenous Radio Service (NIRS). The paper summaries its recommendations as follows:

  • the proclamation of an Indigenous Communications Australia Act to acknowledge Indigenous broadcasting as the third national public broadcaster in Australia
  • that the Productivity Commission urge the Australian Broadcasting Authority to develop a proposal to establish a National Communications Service for Indigenous media similar to the SBS and ABC TV
  • the establishment of a 'National' broadcasting authority Indigenous Communications Australia (ICA) to unite all Indigenous media
  • as the peak body representing this industry, NIMAA also seeks the support of the Productivity Commission to review the existing classification and positioning of Indigenous broadcasters under the Broadcasting Services Act

The last recommendation was later echoed in Recommendation 4 of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Communications, Transport and the Arts 2001 Report, Local Voices and Inquiry into Regional Radio:

The Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts should prepare amendments to the Broadcasting Service Act 1992 to establish an additional category of broadcasting service services.

The National Indigenous Broadcasting Service (NIBS) Proposal

In 2000 the final report of the Productivity Commission's Inquiry into Broadcasting recommended 'the creation of a new category of Indigenous broadcasting licence', that 'spectrum should be reserved for this purpose' and that 'the Government should examine the need for and feasibility of an Indigenous broadcasting service'.

Submissions from NIMAA and ATSIC, and a paper commissioned of Dr Michael Meadows, Appendix C in the Inquiry's report, supported the proposal. Dr Meadows recommended (p. C.12) exploring 'the potential in community radio and BRACS before a headlong rush into television which is far more expensive' (e.g. by encouraging linking of the former in with community social structures so that the former is not just used for watching mainstream television). He also argued (p. C.13) that there needs to be a permanent, named Indigenous production fund and a system devised for local media to increase their production capability by pooling resources as appropriate in regional production centres. Although he saw (p. C.13) commercial opportunities in Indigenous media he regarded continuing government involvement for some years as necessary and an investment in the development of the sector as an important communication network and cultural resource.

In 2000 ATSIC commissioned Owen Cole and Malcolm Long and Associates to do a National Indigenous Broadcasting Service Feasibility Study. The study was completed in December 2000.

In July 2001 a small NIBS Implementation Unit was established within ATSIC's National Policy Office to assist Commissioners with the development and advocacy of the NIBS proposal. In August 2001 ATSIC produced: A National Indigenous Broadcasting Service (NIBS): Broadcasting for Community Development. Among its many recommendations were that a NIBS should be established and that it would:

  • be the recipient of all future funding for Indigenous broadcasting and deal directly with government on Indigenous broadcasting (including issues to do with airtime)
  • oversee, orchestrate and fund an Indigenous media alliance made up of existing (and future) media associations and broadcasters
  • control a national specialist production unit, but would also draw on inputs from existing Indigenous media groups
  • move to create a national radio service, and, as soon as possible thereafter, a national television service and a NIBS on-line service

ATSIC proposed that if NIBS were established over five years, costs would begin at $15.6 million in year 1 and rise to $74.4 million in year 5. It was suggested that it would also be possible, however, to build NIBS in separable, but complementary, modules; e.g. NIBS Radio, then NIBS Television, then NIBS Online.

ATSIC also identified the need for spectrum acquisition to keep open the option of NIBS TV. The Cole and Long National Indigenous Broadcasting Service Feasibility Study (pp. 69 74) had recommended urgent consideration be given to this problem. Five possible strategies were identified, ranging from bringing Indigenous TV's needs into digital spectrum reviews, through forging an agreement with either the ABC or SBS for use of part of their national spectrum, all the way to leasing capacity from commercial broadcasters (more possible in rural than urban Australia, and only possible with legislative amendments).

For more on the NIBS proposal see the broadcasting page of ATSIC's website.

Prospects for a National Indigenous Broadcasting Service (NIBS)

A summit of Indigenous broadcasters convened by ATSIC in August 2001 endorsed the aim of establishing NIBS. An advisory committee which was set up at the summit started assessing the findings of the feasibility study and consulting with the Indigenous stakeholders on its recommendations (this later became a s.13 advisory committee entitled the Indigenous Communication Australian Advisory Committee). Support for exploring the possibility of a NIBS entered the 2001 election policy of both the major federal parties. Thus, in the Coalition's Putting Australia's Interests First:

Recognising the importance of Indigenous media for communication and art and cultural purposes, a re-elected Coalition government will explore with ATSIC opportunities arising from the outcomes of the National Indigenous Broadcasting Strategy feasibility study.

Similarly, the ALP's Indigenous Affairs Policy launched on 26 October 2001 includes:

Labor will support indigenous media by discussing with ATSIC the recommendations of the National Indigenous Broadcasting Strategy feasibility study.

After the November 2001 election the ATSIC chairman Mr Clark met with Ministers Ruddock and Alston to discuss the possibility of a staged introduction of such a NIBS, starting with funding just for the first of the 3 envisaged modules NIBS Radio. The Ministers proposed a still more limited start a commitment of $6.6 million over 3 years for a Regional/Remote Indigenous Radio Service (RIRS). ATSIC supported this believing it would at least:

  • establish a rudimentary NIBS
  • support existing remote area stations
  • create new remote area service where they are needed
  • provide technical and training support at a regional level, and
  • establish a national agency for selling airtime.
Despite apparent Ministerial support for the compromise proposal during the Budget negotiations, and its apparent compatibility with the opportunities and strategies discussed in the Department of Communication, Information Technology and the Arts' May 2002 Telecommunications Action Plan for Remote Indigenous Communities, the proposal failed to be accepted by Cabinet.

ATSIC's agenda for 2002 03, as set out in its 2001 02 Annual Report (p. 54) was to:

  • continue to consult with Indigenous broadcasters and seek government support for the National Indigenous Broadcasting Service, commencing with development of a national radio network over, say three years
  • conduct a national equipment needs survey for the BRACS units and regional coordination centres, and
  • review the effectiveness of the existing program with regard to the NIBS feasibility study.

ATSIC has continued to work towards the goal of a NIBS despite various developments including ATSIC's support for the National Indigenous Media Association of Australia (NIMAA) ceasing in 2001 02 due to NIMAA's failure to comply with grant conditions, the Government not committing to fund the proposed NIBS, ATSIC's NIBS implementation unit falling into abeyance and ATSIC having recently been reconfigured.

It has set up a company called Indigenous Communications Australia (ICA) to carry forward the NIBS plans when possible. It has facilitated the creation of a new peak body for Indigenous media associations, The Australian Indigenous Communication Association (with Interim Co-ordinator Wal Saunders contactable at or General work in the area is being carried on by the Broadcasting area within the Broadcasting, Language, Arts and Culture section of the newly configured Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Services (ATSIS).

Calls for rapid progress towards the creation of a NIBS and towards the creation of more Indigenous content, continue to be heard. For example, the submission by Indigenous Screen Australia, a Sydney based collective of Indigenous film makers and organisers, to the House of Representatives Inquiry into the Future Opportunities for Australia's Film, Animation, Special Effects and Electronic Games Industry, claims the support of SBS, the Australian Film Commission (AFC) and ATSIC. The first of several recommendations is that:

1. That the federal government initiates a migratory strategy now in building toward a television service for a National Indigenous Broadcast Service as outlined in Tools for Empowerment, a National Indigenous Broadcasting Service, a feasibility study prepared for ATSIC in 2000.


Many governments overseas support minority language broadcasting even television broadcasting. In Britain, Ireland, Spain, Canada and New Zealand, television services in Welsh, Gaelic, Catelonian, Basque, First Nation and Maori languages are supported. We might briefly look more closely at developments in New Zealand, Canada and the United States.

Developments in New Zealand


New Zealand, Maori broadcasters have access to a named, legislated fund. Section 53 of New Zealand's Broadcasting Act of 1989 established the agency, Te Mangai Paho (Maori Broadcasting Funding Agency) with the primary aim of promoting Maori language and culture by funding broadcasting and programs. The 1989 Broadcasting Act also established the Broadcasting Commission as an agency with a mandate to collect an annual Public Broadcasting Fee from television households. In addition, NZ On Air was responsible for promoting Maori language and culture through broadcasting, devoting 14 per cent of its 1998 99 budget to this and effectively setting Maori content of around 17 per cent on New Zealand television coverage throughout New Zealand on frequencies reserved by the Crown for the promotion of Maori language and culture.


The idea of a Maori Television Service was given impetus as a consequence of a Privy Council decision in a Broadcasting Assets case. The decision recognised that Te Reo M ori was in a state of serious decline and that the government had made a commitment, by Cabinet agreement in 1991, to set aside funding for the purpose of promoting Maori language and culture in broadcasting, and that part of that should be used to assist in the development of special purpose Maori television. The Crown accepted that the principles of the Treaty impose a continuing obligation on the Crown to take such steps as are reasonable to assist in the preservation of the M ori language and a pilot television channel was established in Auckland in the mid 1990s.


The pilot Aotearoa Television Network closed after governance and financial problems. However, in May 1998 the Government report, Maori Broadcasting: Television Services, estimated that the cost of maintaining such a channel would be NZ$6 7m for transmission and between NZ$12 13 million available for program purchase with around half of this aimed at pre-school and teenage programs. It was estimated that the government needed to set aside NZ$11.1 million in set up costs but that a Maori Television station could generate advertising revenue of around NZ$750,000 a year and sponsorship of around NZ$100,000 a year.


The Government set up the Reo Maori Television Trust (Te Awhiorangi), reserved the necessary UHF frequencies, and sought a suitable Maori broadcasting enterprise to operate a service on a contractual basis. In December of that year impetus was lost when the incoming New Zealand government put on hold the release of funds to the trust citing concerns that the service would be underfunded and wanting to review the proposal.


In December 2001 the Maori Television Service Bill was introduced. It established a statutory corporation that was to be a vehicle to broadcast programmes in Te Reo Maori as well as Maori and English programmes oriented to Maori culture and Maori issues. It was also to be a platform for broadcasting a wide genre of programmes to all New Zealanders and was to secure programming in prime time. The Service was to embrace sunrise, not sunset technology, and in time expected to be able to offer digital multimedia facilities.


The Service envisioned took a big step forward on 6 September when the Government announced in its press release, 'Maori Television Service Good For the Country', that a plans for a Maori Television Service were progressing: there had been progress on an appropriate transmission platform for the service; an assessment of studio and office requirements had been completed and specifications for a chief executive and senior management team had been completed.

Developments in Canada

Overviews of different stages of developments in Canada are well covered by Lorna Roth in 'First Peoples' Television Broadcasting in Canada' and 'Television Northern Canada'; 'The Birth of APTN'; and Cole and Long's National Indigenous Broadcasting Service Feasibility Study.

The following is a summary drawing on all of the above.


The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's (CBC) Northern Service was established, taking over the infrastructure of shortwave transmitters established by the Canadian Armed Forces and the Department of Transport, and in 1960 the first Inuit-language broadcasts occurred.


All three levels of government started to respond with money and programs to First Peoples demand for access to radio in the North. Culturally-relevant, native-language radio programming soon became an integral part of the Northern media infrastructure.


The Canadian federal government's public subsidisation of native-produced media formally began with the development of its Native Communications Program (NCP) and gradually First Peoples' community radio stations become operational across Canada (today there are over 100 such stations and most Northern regions have both a network of local radio stations and one publicly-subsidised regional service.


The advent of the first Indigenous television when CBC North began to share airspace with the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation.


The Canadian federal government established a Northern Broadcasting Policy which laid out the principles for the development of Northern native-produced programming for communities North of the 55th latitude line. With the policy was an accompanying program vehicle called the Northern Native Broadcast Access Program. This program was given $40.3 million to be distributed over a four-year period to 13 regional Native Communications Societies in the North in order to produce 20 hours of regional radio and/or five hours of television per week in First Peoples' languages, reflecting their specific cultural perspectives. Although funding has eroded over time, the policy and programs are still operational.


Canadian aboriginal and Northern broadcasters formed a non-profit consortium with the goal of establishing a Pan-Northern television distribution service.


The Canadian government gave the organisers $10 million to establish Television Northern Canada (TVNC).


Indigenous television received a big fillip with the provisions of Sections 3.1 (d)(iii) and 3.1 (o)of the Broadcasting Act.

Following a push for a dedicated Native television network spearheaded by the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation, Canada's regulatory agency, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) approved Television Northern Canada's (TVNC's) application for a native television network license to serve Northern Canada for broadcasting cultural, social, political and educational programming.


TVNC began broadcasting. Its network was owned and programmed by more than a dozen aboriginal broadcast, government and education organizations in Northern Canada.

Features included:

  • Programming in at least seven aboriginal languages, as well as English and French.
  • Listing as a charitable organisation with surplus revenue reinvested back into operations.
  • An audience of around 100,000, more than half of native ancestry.
  • Funding mainly through the Canadian Department of Communications (DOC) a separate line of funding from the Department of Canadian Heritage's Northern Native Broadcast Access Program (NNBAP), which funded production and distribution of native radio and television programming since 1983. The DOC allocated CAN$10 million over four years to establish TVNC and allocated around CAN$2 million each year for running the network.
  • Broadcasts spanned five time zones spanned covering an area of over 4.3 million kilometres (one third of Canada's territory).
  • The organisations involved broadcast approximately 100 hours per week to 94 communities. TVNC was not a programmer, but a distributor of its members' programming. Core Northern programming consisted of: 38 hours per week of aboriginal language and cultural programming; 23 hours per week of formal and informal educational programming; and 12 hours per week of produced and acquired children's programming, over half of which is in aboriginal languages.


In November TVNC is granted approval to be placed on the Revised Lists of Eligible Satellite Services to be picked up by cable operators throughout Canada. Availability of Northern-produced programming on Southern channels represents the completion of the Canadian broadcasting mandate permitting broadcasting to move in all directions. This is a leap forward from the unidirectional importation of Southern culture to the North allowing all Canadians to have an opportunity to acquire a more coherent understanding of the North and its residents.

In December the CRTC approved a deal between Arctic cooperatives Limited (ACL) and NorthwesTel to split up the northern cable TV market between them. At the same time, the CRTC noted that it expects, but does not require, ACL and NorthwesTel to pay 55 cents per cable TV subscriber into a special programming fund to be administered by TVNC. The money is intended to pay for the development and distribution of First Peoples television programs.


Funding for the NNBAP fell from around CAN$13 million in 1989 90 to about CAN$8 million in 1998 99. Despite funding cutbacks, TVNC continued to broadcast a high volume of programming from indigenous sources.


TVNC moved into the mainstream Canadian cable market. Following a landmark hearing by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), the Canadian regulator mandated that TVNC be carried as an essential national service along with the CBC and the commercial channel, CTV, on all cable networks. The expected annual income for APTN from this move into southern cable market is between CAN$15 18 million.

In September, TVNC became the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network and the Canadian broadcasting regulator, the CRTC, mandated that APTN should be carried on Canada's pay TV systems as a mandatory service in the basic tier.

Features include:

  • The program schedule is to be at least 90 per cent Canadian content, with the balance being Aboriginal programs from many other countries around the world, including the United States, Australia and New Zealand.
  • 60 per cent of the programming is in English, 15 per cent in French, and 25 per cent in a variety of aboriginal languages.
  • Content undertakings to the CRTC include over 120 hours each week of children's shows, educational programming, cultural and current affairs, drama, music, comedy, documentary features, discussion programs, legislative and political coverage, special event and programming about Indigenous people around the world.
There is a list of Native Canadian broadcasting organisations on the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission website.

Developments in the United States

Native American radio stations came on air in Alaska and North Carolina in 1971. By the mid-90s there were 22 stations across the country. In the 1990s AIROS (American Indian Radio On Satellite), a network of 53 affiliate radio stations across the United States, took shape.

Native American Public Telecommunications (NAPT) (the parent of AIROS), is a national non-profit corporation which promotes a Native voice in public broadcasting. NAPT is also an international distributor of Native American programming through the Public Radio Satellite System and has also become involved in film, television and video production. It makes its productions available for broadcast on PBS TV stations and for educational sale.

Features include:

  • Provides 'authentic Native American music, news, entertainment, interviews and discussions of the current issues in Indian Country and the world.'
  • Flagship program is Native American Calling, a live, daily, one-hour radio talking circle linking radio and internet listeners in conversation with Native newsmakers and personalities.
  • Syndicated programs include: AlterNative Voices, featuring native music, interviews and news reports; Different Drums, a weekly music program profiling individual Native artists; and Voices from the Circle, highlighting Native news and entertainment from reservations and urban communities. AIROS broadcasts its programs on a 24-hour rotating schedule, with both national and regional editions of some programs.

Also involved in television production has been Native American Television (NATV), a statutory body formed in 1988 to produce quality television programming, and video production services in support of Native populations across the US. During this past decade, NATV has also given video production support to organisations supportive of Native American issues and events.

There is no dedicated national Native American Television network.


ATSIC, A National Indigenous Broadcasting Service (NIBS): Broadcasting for Community Development, 2001.

Owen Cole and Malcolm Long and Associates, The Belonging Network: Tools for Empowerment: a Feasibility Study for the Development of a National Indigenous Broadcasting Service, report to ATSIC and NIMAA, 2000.

Department of Aboriginal Affairs, Task Force on Aboriginal and Islander Broadcasting and Communications, Out of the Silent Land, AGPS, Canberra, 1984.

Jason Gibson, 'Indigenous Media', Rouge States, viewed 5 November 2003.

Indigenous Management Australia, Digital Dreaming, A National Review of Indigenous Media and Communications, ATSIC, Woden, ACT, 1999.

Indigenous Screen Australia, Submission to the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, Inquiry into the Future Opportunities for Australia's Film, Animation, Special Effects and Electronic Games Industry, 2003.

P. McConvell and N. Thieberger, 'State of Indigenous Languages in Australia-2001,' Australia State of the Environment Technical Paper Series, Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2001.

Michael Meadows, 'Ideas from the Bush: Indigenous Television in Australia and Canada', Canadian Journal of Communications, vol. 20, no. 2, 1995.

Michael Meadows, 'Voice Blo mipla all ilan man: Torres Strait Islanders' struggle for television rights', in J. Craik, J. James-Bailey and A. Moran eds, Public Voices, Private Interests: Australia's Media, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1995, pp. 179 198.

Steve Mizrach, 'Natives on the Electronic Frontier: Television and Cultural Change on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation', M/C: A Journal of Media and Culture, no. 3.6, 2000.

National Indigenous Media Association of Australia (NIMAA), 'From Message Stick to Multi-Media in the New Millennium: Indigenous Communications Australia', Submission to the Productivity Commission's Inquiry into Broadcasting, 1999. Tom O'Regan and Philip Batty, 'Chapter Nine: An Aboriginal Television Culture:
Issues, Strategies, Politics
', Australian Television Culture, Allen and Unwin, St Leonards, Sydney, 1993, pp. 162 92.

Lorna Roth, 'First Peoples' Television Broadcasting in Canada', Encyclopaedia of Television, The Museum of Broadcast Communications, viewed 5 November 2003.

Lorna Roth, 'Television Northern Canada', Encyclopaedia of Television, The Museum of Broadcast Communications, viewed 5 November 2003.

'The Birth of APTN', Explore North, 17 September 1999, viewed 5 November 2003.

N. Turner, National Report on the Broadcasting for Remote Aboriginal Communities Scheme, prepared for NIMAA, NIMAA, Queensland, 1998, p. 9 as cited by A. E. Daly in 'Implications of Developments in Telecommunications for Indigenous People in Remote and Rural Australia', Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy, Discussion Paper no. 219, 2001.

For copyright reasons some linked items are only available to Members of Parliament.

Back to top