25 Years of CAAMA

Another one of the things I appreciate about ABC Radio is the fact that they make radio programs like Awaye! available (for too brief a period of time it’s true) on the internet, so that if I’m paying attention, I can catch up on indigenous programming from the other side of the world. They also make it possible for me to pay attention by offering an email newsletter, Message Stick, that provides links to these stories. Programs from Awaye! are generally put online one week after they air on the radio, and remain available for four weeks after that. And every once in a while, they offer a retrospective program. Right now, the web site is offering access to CAAMA’s 25th, which was originally broadcast on July 8, 2005 in celebration of the silver anniversary of the founding of the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association.

The interview features the three founders of CAAMA, John Macumba, Phillip Batty, and Freda Glynn, along with current CEO Priscilla Collins spinning history, anecdote, and music from the quarter century of the Association’s operations. CAAMA began in 1980 by offering half an hour of programming on a commercial Alice Springs radio station at 10 PM on Sundays (“There wasn’t a lot happening at that hour”). CAAMA received a broadcasting license in 1984 and began operating 8-KIN Radio in 1985. Originally offering music and programming in Arrernte, Pitjantjatjara, Luritja, and Warlpiri, today they broadcast in half a dozen more indigenous languages, reaching communities from Bathurst Island to Kangaroo Island. CAAMA is now the largest multimedia organization in Australia. In addition the the 8-KIN FM radio network, CAAMA operates a music recording studio, a record label, film and television production companies, and Imparja Television, as well as a retail shop in Alice Springs and on the internet.

The early days of the radio station were a struggle, as would be expected for any such enterprise. There wasn’t much money, and none at all from the Department of Aboriginal Affairs. In fact, the founders give credit to the generosity of ABC Radio (John Newsome and John Hartley in particular) for providing them with production facilities early on. Before that, Freda Glynn noted, they had space out back of the Legal Aid office and “we’d have to stop recording whenever someone flushed the toilet.” A typical half hour might have consisted of an Aboriginal country and western singer, followed by a recording of the Hermannsburg Ladies Choir singing hymns, a Legal Aid announcement in several languages, Tammy Wynette’s “Stand by Your Man” followed by a Land Rights announcement translated into Pintupi, and finally a recording of a local Alice Springs band.

Not all the challenges were technical, and two of the funniest moments in the broadcast deal with cultural challenges. Often times, news reports were translated on the fly into language by a speaker reading from a text in English. On one such occasion there was a fair amount of consternation when it was discovered that the Shadow Minister for Aboriginal Affairs had been described as “the priest who sits under the shade.” In another excerpt, a female technician describes the difficulties she encountered while working on a project to record sacred men’s business. She was responsible for the sound recording but, along with all the other women and children present, was huddled under blankets during a moment in the ceremony when only initiated men were allowed to see what was taking place. Given the stop-and-start nature of the singing, she often wasn’t quite sure what was occurring, or where. Deciding to poke her head out from under the blankets to determine if her microphone was pointing in the right direction, she found herself whacked on the head (“a very gentle whack”) by a boomerang.

Reaction from the media establishment was often hostile. Newspaper articles decried the broadcasting of news in Aboriginal languages. There was certainly a sense of unease that the radio was presenting the Aboriginal side of the news. A story about the shooting of two Aboriginal men in Ti-Tree offered a perspective not covered in the “mainstream,” while a feature on the Pitjantjatjara Land Council originally set to air on the local 8AL station in Alice was rejected repeatedly for including a recording of the Pitjantjatjara Land Rights Song. But for Aboriginal people in the area, the sense of community pride was breathtaking. Freda Glynn told of walking down streets in Alice Springs and being able to hear broadcasts continuously as each house she passed had 8-KIN Radio pouring out the open doors and windows. Imparja TV has produced over 100 episodes of Nganampa Anwernekenhe (“Ours” in Arrernte/Pitjantjatjara), the only Aboriginal-language television series in Australia.

Another popular feature of Aboriginal radio pioneered by CAAMA was the request line that offered a chance for people to maintain connections with family who were far away by “sending out” a song, often to a family member jailed in an urban center far from home. Certainly gives new meaning to the concept of songlines crossing the Australian continent, doesn’t it?

The request shows were not without their problems though, and the panelists laughed over incidents wherein a man might send out a song to a sweetheart, and CAAMA would suddenly find their offices besieged by a jealous husband. And it wasn’t only men who stormed the studios; one angry kungka caused them to ban a particular song from the airwaves for months.

The story of the early days of radio at CAAMA is also the subject of a dramatic film by Warwick Thornton called Green Bush, which won the the prize for Best Short Film at the Berlin Film Festival. “Green Bush” is a term that refers to the colors of prison walls, and the film is the story of a young disk jockey at an Aboriginal radio station who comes to realize that his job means more than spinning records on a turntable.

Today, CAAMA is much more than a media outlet and entertainment. Over 75% of its employees are indigenous people, and its archives are the largest outside the National Library of Australia. It has taken up the cause of Aboriginal education and community support by operating training centers in several communities where youths, especially those at risk from grog and petrol, are taught production skills in radio, music, and television. These courses require the completion of a video or CD as a final project and these products can be offered for sale through CAAMA shops, with royalties going back to the community of origin to help underwrite continuing education efforts. Sometimes the artists have a chance to build on those demos to make commercial recordings and win contracts.

To celebrate its 25th anniversary, CAAMA last year released a four-CD compilation of music recorded since 1980 and I can only say that if you’re not familiar with the breadth and variety of contemporary indigenous music, there’s a hardly a better place to start. CAAMA 25 Years offers almost 5 hours of music, 82 tracks from artists across the spectrum, for the bargain price of A$100. There’s the soft, sad sound of Puntji Thompson’s “Patrola Song” and the traditional country of Isaac Yamma’s “Pitjantjatjara Boy” or the more contemporary country of Isaac’s son Frank (“Make More Spear” and “Solid Eagle”). The classic rock bands like Coloured Stone and Warumpi Band get their due, and speaking of classics, there’s Bob Randall’s mournful “Brown Skin Baby.” Regional bands from the Centre, of course: Lajamanu Teenage Band and the North Tanami Band adding Warlpiri flavor to the mix, in company with Alice Springs’ own Ilkari-Maru, and the Santa Teresa Band (Ltyentye Apurte). The Top End is represented too, with Bininj and Yolngu bands like Blekbela Mujik, Wirrinyga Band, and Letterstick Band. If reggae stylings are your specialty, don’t miss Chris Jones’s “Get-a-Grip” or Tjupi Band’s “Petola Wanti.” It’s a great sampler, and the only complaint I can muster is that many of the artists represented here seem to be otherwise out of print. Although maybe that’s not an entirely bad thing for this collector, as a couple of hours in my Alice Spring motel playing these CD’s on my PowerBook’s tinny speakers were still enough to send me back to the CAAMA Shop to part with a good chunk of a week’s wages for more CD’s by artists included in the compilation.

At the end of the radio program, the panel was asked what question they are most often asked about CAAMA. The question: “What’s the difference between indigenous media and mainstream media?” With good-natured laughter came the answer, “All the difference in the world.” 

Do yourself a favor, and help CAAMA make all the difference in the world: check out the CAAMA Shop online.


Me, in front of the CAAMA Visitor Centre (and shop) at 101 Todd Street, Alice Springs, July 2005.

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