Author: Ross James, November 12 2015 - Media research can cost thousands of dollars and many hours, or very little. It all depends on the question being asked and the data needed to answer that question.
For example, the not-for-profit organisation with which I am most involved, Health Communication Resources (HCR) Incorporated, has undertaken both inexpensive small scale surveys for small non-profits and large scale surveys costing our partners thousands of dollars - for example, in Mongolia (to find out media ownership and consumption patterns); in Indonesia ( to find out how media can prepare people to be ready for an earthquake, flood or tsunami, thereby preventing death or injury); in West Papua (evaluating the effectiveness of HIV AIDS education using audio programs played on solar-powered MP3 players) and in Pakistan (evaluating training programs).
Then, there are the small-scale, low-cost studies such as that completed recently in Meekatharra in Western Australia for a community radio station. HCR has been supporting the struggling community radio station with non-financial support such as training, coaching, technical help and governance. Meeka FM 98.3 wants to build partnerships between the radio station and community organisations to promote health and well-being in the town. It’s on air profile is connecting the community.
The town’s name, Meekatharra, is the Yamaji word for place of little water, off-putting to some, perhaps, but not enough to prevent the local government proudly promoting a town with golden prospects.  The Meeka FM volunteers were becoming discouraged. What, they asked, were the golden prospects for Meeka FM in this place of little water? It seemed more like a place of little interest as far as the community radio station was concerned. Appeals for new members, offers of shout-outs or requests, any request for any response at all never resulted in a listener phoning, emailing or writing the radio station.
Is anyone listening?
The survey wanted to answer a simple question: did anyone listen? And so HCR constructed a 20-question interview of basic demographics, prompted and unprompted awareness of radio stations that could be heard in the town, basic patterns of listening to radio, a perception of what town issues concerned people, and what people had to say about Meeka FM - if anything.
With no budget, we took advantage of the Meekatharra Festival on the weekend of 26-27 September 2015 when adults could be recruited at various events through convenience sampling. Various authorities and operators gave interviewers permission to approach adults at the Meekatharra parade and the fun-but-messy colour run, when entering the town’s only supermarket, at the circus, and on a shuttle bus taking people from the town centre to the iconic September horse races.
Five interviewers from Perth, a day’s drive away, volunteered to spend the weekend in Meekatharra, as long as they could have time off to watch the Aussie rules football preliminary finals broadcast on late afternoon television! The temperatures, it must be reported, were 31-33 degrees Celsius over both interviewing days, earning the locals’ admiration for dedication!
We followed the usual ethical protocols and qualifying questions when recruiting respondents. Meeka FM was not identified as being involved in the study until the end of the interview when respondents were asked if they were interested in learning more about volunteering at the station.
The questionnaire design followed similar low-budget but valid designs used by HCR in other community settings in Western Australia. In turn, those questionnaires had been based on best-practice questionnaires used by HCR and partners internationally.
Assigning responses to four open-ended questions into categories for coding consistency, designing a coding spreadsheet for data entry and developing coding instructions to guide data entry took two days to prepare. Three volunteers took 5 hours to code the 54 completed questionnaires.
Were the results as expected?
We found out three of every four people mentioned Meeka FM (without being prompted by mentioning names of radio stations); those who listened liked the music; peak listening time was 10.30 AM to 2.30 PM. Those and other results will be used to guide decisions, but the value of the survey was in the unexpected knowledge that the radio station could be confident in what was learned, that the audience was happy to talk to the radio station, and that there was a good deal of community connectedness in this remote town.
Of the 131 people approached over two days, 43 refused to be interviewed, another 34 did not qualify (they did not reside in Meekatharra) and 54 questionnaires were completed. The sample was 7% of the community based on a population of 734 people (2011 ABS  Census). There was an even spread of the 54 recruited respondents across genders, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal descent and age (half were aged 35-54 years), a profile that reflected Meekatharra’s 2011 ABS Census for those demographics without interviewers being instructed to achieve specific demographic quotas.
A small survey of this scale without customary quality controls on interviewers and data collection cannot be regarded as statistically significant but the agreement of the random sample with ABS census figures does allow for a good deal of confidence in the representation of the sample to the broader community of Meekatharra. Without resources for a broader research design available, the radio station volunteers needed this confidence and were delighted to get it through the convenience sample.
Happy to Talk
Station volunteers were delighted to find that far from people being disinterested in Meeka FM, the three out of every four people aware of the station were happy to talk about Meeka FM. That the local people were more aware of the resource-poor local community radio station than they were of the resource-rich external commercial and government (public) broadcasters is another valuable indicator of local ownership that was not expected prior to the survey. They listened regularly and - despite saying they liked the music - had firm suggestions of genres to add to the playlist (as well as to avoid!). But the radio station had to go to into the streets where the listeners were to get this information. The radio station didn’t expect the listeners would happily talk face-to-face when approached rather than respond through the technological channels offered.
Fly-in fly-out workers who work for the pastoral and mining industries, and workers from other sectors transferred to the town for a short-term assignment, tend not to get too involved in town activities. Radio station personnel tended to get the official perspective of the town through visiting service providers or service providers residing in town for 12-24 month terms, but not the community’s view of their home. Unexpected responses to two different questions changed that.
Unexpected was the response to a question asking about issues of concern in Meekatharra. Big picture items that preoccupied the attention of service providers, such as the lack of employment or public services and the high cost of living, were ignored. The respondents spoke with insight, baring their concerns about issues that affected community cohesion and unity (such as antisocial behaviour by unsupervised children or more people getting involved in community life), and family stressors such as inadequate leisure facilities for family and domestic violence fuelled by alcohol and drugs.
The second unexpected response was to the last question: Would you like an information sheet about how to get involved with Meeka FM? If the respondent accepted the offer (six out of ten did so), interviewers were instructed to explain that Meeka FM would be in danger of losing its broadcast licence if it could not demonstrate community interest or involvement. Animated discussion led to people realising that tangible engagement - not just passive listening - was important if the station was to remain a valued part of the remote community.
These responses demonstrated that people were sensitive to and could articulate connectedness to their community. Far from being disinterested in Meeka FM - a conclusion drawn from no response to previous efforts to get engagement - local people who called the remote township home did in fact regard the station as being connected to their community.
What can we learn?
The survey gave station volunteers lots of ideas to change the way they engage with the community and promote the radio station, as well as strategies for programming. What we all came to value, however, is what we learned.
We learned a tiny little radio station in a remote township could conduct a small survey at little cost with few people and still get basic but reliable information. As long as the sample is recruited randomly and reflects the broad profile of the community and the target audience we can be confident of the data.
We learned that far from being disinterested in Meeka FM, the community wanted to talk to the radio station, just not in the way the station expected. The station had to go to them and not expect the community to come to the station. We learned that a relationship with the listeners in the Meekatharra community was to be valued as a one-to-one relationship, not mediated through the ubiquitous and impersonal technology that radio stations are inclined to use because, well, “That’s what we do in radio”.
We learned community-level perspectives were being expressed that could well be relevant for future mobilisation strategies leaning on social capital and social ecology frameworks to, for example, highlight the central idea of “many of us think (such and such) so what can we do about it?” Prior to this survey, it was easy to buy into the counter-approach of government and nongovernment agencies that argued for more money, more specialists, more interventions. It was not so long ago that a small group of Meekatharra women took the initiative to organise a protest march against domestic violence. Participation was high as was a palpable sense of pride in having organised something for themselves, not by an outside service provider.
We learned that the community regarded the tiny radio station as a valuable asset, connected to the community they called home despite the challenges of remote living. The radio station just hadn’t asked the right questions in the right way before. We learned that Meeka FM had a role in supporting social cohesion and social capital in Meekatharra if strategically carried out.
Based on months of no response from listeners, Meekatharra seemed like a place of little interest as far as the community radio station was concerned. But, after this simple little survey, the radio station now knows a lot about its audience and even more about itself. Meeka FM is encouraged and motivated to pursue the goal of connecting the community in a town with golden prospects.
Ross James is Director of Development, Health Communication Resources (HCR)
 Meekatharra is a major supply centre for the pastoral and gold mining area in the Murchison region of Western Australia, is located about a day’s drive north-east of Perth, and is a key re-fueling and re-provisioning point for tourists and freight trucks travelling the route of hundreds of kilometres through isolated country to the major iron ore mining region of the Pilbara.
 Australian Bureau of Statistics