Community Media

views updated

Community Media

Between 1906 and 1922 radio amateurs—who referred to themselves as "distance fiends"—ruled the airwaves. In their enthusiasm to share common concerns, forge friendships with distant strangers, and explore the expressive potential of the new medium, the radio enthusiasts championed democratic communication through electronic media. By the mid-1920s, however, commercial sponsorship of radio programming and corporate control of the newly developed broadcasting industry stifled the participatory potential of the "wireless." At the end of the twentieth century, the rapid commercialization of the internet poses yet another threat to the democratic possibilities of a new communication medium. Although the distance fiends are largely forgotten, their passionate embrace of the communitarian potential of electronic communication lives on through the work of community media organizations around the world.

Community media play a significant, but largely unacknowledged, role in popular culture. Unlike their commercial and public service counterparts, community media give "everyday people" access to the instruments of radio, television, and computer-mediated communication. Through outreach, training, and production support services, community media enhance the democratic potential of electronic communication. Community media also encourage and promote the expression of different social, political, and cultural beliefs and practices. In this way, community media celebrate diversity amid the homogeneity of commercial media and the elitism of public service broadcasting. Most important, perhaps, worldwide interest in community media suggests an implicit, cross-cultural, and timeless understanding of the profound relationship between community cohesion, social integration, and the forms and practices of communication. Despite their growing numbers, however, community media organizations remain relatively unknown in most societies. This obscurity is less a measure of community media's cultural significance, than an indication of its marginalized status in the communications landscape.

In the United States, the origins of the community radio movement can be traced to efforts of Lew Hill, founder of KPFA: the flagship station of the Pacifica radio network. A journalist and conscientious objector during World War II, Hill was disillusioned with the state of American broadcasting. At the heart of Hill's disdain for commercial radio was an astute recognition of the economic realities of radio broadcasting. Hill understood the pressures associated with commercial broadcasting and the constraints commercial sponsorship places on a station's resources, and, ultimately, its programming. Hill and his colleagues reasoned that noncommercial, listener supported radio could provide a level of insulation from commercial interests that would ensure challenging, innovative, and engaging radio. Overcoming a number of legal, technical, and economic obstacles, KPFA-Berkeley signed on the air in 1949. At a time of anti-Communist hysteria and other threats to the democratic ideal of freedom of speech, KPFA and the Pacifica stations represented an indispensable alternative to mainstream news, public affairs, and cultural programming.

Although listener-supported radio went a long way toward securing local enthusiasm and financial support for creative and provocative programming, this model presented some problems. During the early 1970s demands for popular participation in and access to the Pacifica network created enormous rifts between local community members, Pacifica staff, and station management. Con-flicts over Pacifica's direction and struggles over the network's resources continue to contribute to the divisiveness that remains somewhat synonymous with Pacifica at the end of the twentieth century. Still, KPFA and its sister stations consistently broadcast programs dealing with issues considered taboo by commercial and public service broadcasters alike.

Equally important, the Pacifica experience generated remarkable enthusiasm for alternative radio across the country. For instance, in 1962 one of Lew Hill's protégés, Lorenzo Milam, founded KRAB, a listener-supported community radio station in Seattle, Washington. Throughout the 1960s, Milam traveled the country, providing technical and logistical support to a number of community radio outlets: a loose consortium of community stations that came to be known as the KRAB Nebula. By 1975, the National Alternative Radio Konference (NARK) brought together artists, musicians, journalists, and political activists with an interest in participatory, locally-oriented radio. Within a few months the National Federation of Community Broadcasters (NFCB) was established to represent the interests of the nascent community radio movement. Committed to providing "nonprofessional" individuals and marginalized groups with access to the airwaves, the NFCB played a pivotal role in the rise of community radio in the United States. Still active, the NFCB continues to promote noncommercial, community-based radio. Organizations such as the World Association for Community Broadcasters (AMARC) provide similar support services for the community radio movement worldwide.

While Americans were exploring the possibilities of participa-tory radio, Canadians turned their attention to television. In 1967, the Canadian National Film Board undertook one of the earliest and best known attempts to democratize television production. As part of the experimental broadcast television series Challenge for Change, The Fogo Island project brought the subjects of a television documentary into a new, collaborative relationship with filmmakers. Embracing and elaborating upon the tradition of the social documentary championed by Robert Flaherty and John Grierson, Challenge for Change undertook the ambitious and iconoclastic task of systematically involving the subjects of their films in the production process. Senior producer Colin Low and his crew invited island residents to contribute story ideas, screen and comment on rushes, and collaborate on editorial decisions. By involving island residents throughout the filmmaking process, producers sought to "open up" television production to groups and individuals with no formal training in program production. Initially conceived as a traditional, broadcast documentary, the Fogo Island project evolved into the production of 28 short films that focused on discrete events, specific issues, and particular members of the Fogo Island community. The Fogo Island experience stands as a precursor to the community television movement. Not only did the project influence a generation of independent filmmakers and community television producers, the use of participa-tory media practices to enhance community communication, to spur and support local economic initiatives, and to promote a sense of common purpose and identity has become the hallmark of community media organizations around the world.

The dominance of commercial media in the United States made democratizing television production in this country far more challenging. In response to criticisms that American television was a "vast wasteland" the US Congress passed the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 which sought to bring the high quality entertainment and educational programming associated with public service broadcasting in Canada and the United Kingdom to American audiences. Throughout its troubled history—marked by incessant political pressure and chronic funding problems—the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) has provided American television audiences with engaging, informative, and provocative programming unlike anything found on commercial television. However, rather than decentralize television production and make television public in any substantive fashion, PBS quickly evolved into a fourth national television network. Although PBS remains an important outlet for independent film and video producers, the level of local community access and participation in public television production is minimal at best.

Significantly, the early days of public television in the United States provided the early community television movement with some important precedents and helped set the stage for public access television as we know it today. Throughout the mid-1960s, the development of portable video equipment coupled with an urgent need for programming prompted a unique, if sporadic, community-based use of public television. Media historian Ralph Engelman notes, "Early experimentation in the use of new equipment and in outreach to citizens took place on the margins of public television in the TV laboratories housed at WGBH-TV in Boston, KQED-TV in San Francisco, and WNET-TV in New York." These innovations, most notably, WGBH's Catch 44 gave local individuals and groups an opportunity to reach a sizable, prime time, broadcast audience with whatever message they desired. These unprecedented efforts were short-lived, however, as public television quickly adopted programming strategies and practices associated with the commercial networks.

Recognizing public television's deficiencies, an assortment of media activists turned their attention away from broadcasting to the new technology of cable television. These media access advocates hoped to leverage the democratizing potential of portable video recording equipment with cable's "channels of abundance" to make television production available to the general public. In the late 1960s, New York City was the site of intense, often contentious, efforts to ensure local participation in cable television production and distribution. George Stoney—often described as the father of public access television in the United States—was a leading spokesperson for participatory, community oriented television in Manhattan.

Stoney began his career in the mid-1930s working in the rural South as part of the New Deal. Through his training as a journalist and educational filmmaker, Stoney understood the value of letting people speak for themselves through the media. The use of media to address local issues and concerns and to promote the exchange of perspectives and ideas pervades Stoney's work as filmmaker and access television advocate. Following a successful term as executive producer for Challenge for Change, Stoney returned to the United States in 1970 and, with the his colleague, Canadian documentary filmmaker Red Burns, established the Alternative Media Center (AMC).

The AMC's legacy rests on its successful adaptation of the Challenge for Change model of participatory media production. Like the Canadian project, the AMC gave people the equipment and the skills to produce their own videotapes. Through the AMC, individual citizens and local nonprofit groups became active participants in the production of television programming by, for, and about their local communities. In addition, the Center provided the technical resources and logistical support for producing and distributing community oriented programming on local, regional, and national levels. One of the AMC's primary strategies was to train facilitators who would then fan out across the country and help organize community access centers. Over the next five years, the Alternative Media Center played a crucial role in shaping a new means of public communication: community television. Organizations such as the U.S.-based Alliance for Community Media and international groups like Open Channel, were created to promote community television through local outreach programs, regulatory reform measures, and media literacy efforts.

Like previous technological developments, computers and related technologies have been hailed as a great democratizing force. Much has been made of computer-mediated communication's (CMC) ability to enhance social interaction, bolster economic redevelopment, and improve civic participation in local communities. However, for those without access to computers—or the skills to make efficient and productive use of these tools—the Information Age may intensify social and political inequities. Community networking, like community radio and television, provides disenfranchised individuals and groups with access to communication technologies.

Early experiments in community networking date back to the mid-1970s. In Berkeley, California, the Community Memory project was established specifically to promote community cohesion and encourage community-wide dialogue on important issues of the day. Project administrators installed and maintained terminals in public spaces, such as libraries and laundromats, to encourage widespread use of these new technologies. Somewhat akin to public telephones, these computer terminals were coin operated. Although users could read messages free of charge, if users wanted to post a message, they were charged a nominal fee.

By the mid-1980s computer bulletin boards of this sort were becoming more common place. In 1984, Tom Grundner of Case Western University in Cleveland, Ohio created St. Silicon's Hospital: a bulletin board devoted to medical issues. Using the system, patients could ask for and receive advice from doctors and other health professionals. The bulletin board was an unprecedented success and quickly evolved into a city-wide information resource. After securing financial and technical support from AT&T, Grundner and his associates provided public access terminals throughout the city of Cleveland and dial up access for users with personal computers. The first of its kind, the Cleveland Free-Net uses a city metaphor to represent various types of information. For example, government information is available at the Courthouse & Government Center, cultural information is found in the Arts Building, and area economic resources are located in the Business and Industrial Park section. In addition to database access, the Cleveland Free-Net supports electronic mail and newsgroups. By the mid-1990s, most community networks typically offered a variety of services including computer training, free or inexpensive e-mail accounts, and internet access.

Through the work of the now-defunct National Public Telecomputing Network (NPTN) Grundner's Free-Net model has been adopted by big cities and rural communities throughout the world. In countries with a strong public service broadcasting tradition like Australia and Canada, federal, state, and local governments have played a significant role in promoting community networking initiatives. In other instances, community networks develop through public-private partnerships. For instance, the Blacksburg Electronic Village (BEV) was established through the efforts of Virginia Tech, the city of Blacksburg, Virginia, and Bell Atlantic. A number of organizations such as the U.S.-based Association for Community Networking (AFCN), Telecommunities Canada, the European Alliance for Community Networking (EACN), and the Australian Public Access Network Association (APANA) promote community networking initiatives on local, regional, and national levels.

Like other forms of community media, community networks develop through strategic alliances between individuals, non-profit groups, businesses, government, social service agencies, and educational institutions; it is the spirit of collaboration between these parties that is central to efficacy of these systems. The relationships forged through these community-wide efforts and the social interaction these systems facilitate help create what community networking advocate Steve Cisler refers to as "electronic greenbelts": localities and regions whose economic, civic, social, and cultural environment is enhanced by communication and information technologies (CIT).

Due in part to their adversarial relationship, mainstream media tend to overshadow, and more often than not denigrate, the efforts of community media initiatives. The majority of popular press accounts depict community media organizations as repositories for depraved, alienated, racist, or anarchist slackers with too much time on their hands, and precious little on their minds. Writing in Time Out New York, a weekly entertainment guide in New York City, one critic likens community access television to Theater of the Absurd and feigns praise for access's ability to bring "Nose whistlers, dancing monkeys and hairy biker-chefs—right in your own living room!" Likewise, entertainment programs routinely dismiss community television out of hand. For example in their enormously popular Saturday Night Live skit—and subsequent blockbuster feature films—Wayne's World's Dana Carvey and Mike Meyers ridicule the crass content, technical inferiority, and self-indulgent style of community access television.

Although few community media advocates would deny the validity of such criticisms, the truly engaging, enlightening, and provocative output of community media organizations goes largely ignored. Yet, the sheer volume of community radio, television, and computer-generated material attests to the efficacy of grassroots efforts in promoting public access and participation in media production and distribution. Furthermore, this considerable output highlights the unwillingness, if not the inability, of commercial and public service media to serve the distinct and diverse needs of local populations. Most important, however, the wealth of innovative, locally-produced programming indicates that "non-professionals" can make creative, substantive, and productive use of electronic media.

Community media serve and reflect the interests of local communities in a number of unique and important ways. First, community media play a vital role in sustaining and preserving indigenous cultures. For instance, in Porcupine, South Dakota community radio KILI produces programming for local Native Americans in the Lakota language. Similarly, in the Australian outback, Aboriginal peoples use community television to preserve their ancient cultural traditions and maintain their linguistic autonomy. Second, community media reflect the rich cultural diversity of local communities. For example, some of the most interesting sites on Victoria Australia's community network (VICNET) are the pages celebrating Victoria's multicultural heritage ( These sites contain information of interest to Victorian's Irish, Polish, Hungarian, Vietnamese, and Filipino populations. Likewise, Manhattan Neighborhood Network (MNN) features a variety of programs that showcase Manhattan's eclecticism. On any given day, audiences can tune in to a serial titled Glennda and Friends about "two socially-conscious drag queens," unpublished poetry and fiction by an expatriate Russian writer, a municipal affairs report, or Each One Teach One a program dedicated to African-American culture. Finally, community media play a decisive role in diversifying local cultures. Aside from celebrating the region's rich musical heritage, WFHB, community radio in Bloomington, Indiana, exposes local audiences to world music with programs like Hora Latina (Latin music), The Old Changing Way (Celtic music), and Scenes from the Northern Light s (music from Finland, Norway, and Sweden). What's more, WFHB brings local radio from America's heartland to the world via the internet ( As corporate controlled media consolidate their domination of the communication industries and public service broadcasters succumb to mounting economic and political pressures, the prospects for more democratic forms of communication diminish. Community media give local populations a modest, but vitally important, degree of social, cultural, and political autonomy in an increasingly privatized, global communication environment.

—Kevin Howley

Further Reading:

Barlow, William. "Community Radio in the U.S.: The Struggle for aDemocratic Medium." Media, Culture and Society. Vol. 10, 1988, 81.

Cisler, Steve. Community Computer Networks: Building Electronic Greenbelts., November 11, 1998.

Engelman, Ralph. Public Radio and Television in America: A Political History. Thousand Oaks, California, Sage, 1996.

Lewis, Peter. Media for People in Cities: A Study of Community Media in the Urban Context. Paris, UNESCO, 1984.

Milam, Lorenzo. Sex and Broadcasting: A Handbook on Starting a Radio Station for the Community. San Diego, MHO & MHO, 1988.

Schuler, Doug. New Community Networks: Wired for Change. New York, ACM, 1996.

About this article

Community Media

Updated About content Print Article


Community Media