Community Media: Scholarship, Policy Advocacy, and Power Tools

Introduction

I was once quoted in a magazine article saying that I never wanted to attend a conference again if it didn’t involve power tools.  At the time, I was likely holding a soldering iron in my hand.  In my ideal world I would have the time, resources and commitment to be a  scholar, a policy advocate, and a community media volunteer.  In reality of course my interventions vary in their efficacy. 

What I do take away from these experiences of helping build (literally) community radio stations with the Prometheus Radio Project and train volunteer producers is what I hope to be a deeper understanding of what goes into building and sustaining independent, not for profit media; what some of the practical research needs are related to increased pressure from funders to measure impact (as well as a desire to better understand one’s audiences and communities being served); and a desire to see the sector grow and evolve.  The question is how can I translate this into meaningful research.

Background: Low Power Movement and Policy-making

The movement for Low Power FM Radio (LPFM) in the United States in the was fought and won by activists with groups like Prometheus and what was then the Microradio Empowerment Coalition with little if any academic research to draw on for support.  Many case studies and scholarly pieces have been written about the success of stations on air and the model of communities coming together to collectively build their own stations pioneered by Prometheus called “Radio Barnraisings.” 

At the same time as authors have derided Congressional legislation that blocked implementation of the LPFM service in approximately 75% of the country at the behest of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) and surprisingly National Public Radio (NPR) on disproven  (see FCC engineering and Congressionally mandated MITRE studies) grounds of broadcast interference, few have produced the research low power radio advocates sought to demonstrate the community value and benefit to localism while they continue to labor eight years later to have the legislation overturned. 

The impact of pirate radio on debates around concentration of media ownership also went under-acknowledged in the academy for many years. In this exploratory essay, I will attempt to address some of the challenges and opportunities I have encountered through my research and efforts at intervening in the policy making process.  In doing so, I will divide this piece into three distinct sections with the aim of identify some key sites for policy intervention related to community media; explore efforts to develop research methodologies that better reflect the kinds of media under investigation; and conclude with some informal findings of suggestions from advocacy groups as to research needs for the field. 

Researching Community Media Policy: Balancing Acts

My research is focussed broadly on community media policy and practice, especially as it relates to media democracy, pluralism and localism. I am concluding a multi-year study of community media policies in Europe, and the role of advocacy groups and civil society in moving forward agendas for community media policy.  I am also examining the issue of sustainability in community media and recently contributed to an Internews-produced handbook on the subject.  It is exciting to be part of a growing and dynamic field. 

At the same time, I recognize the need for scholarship that addresses the policy and practical needs, as well as research that pushes the theoretical landscape of what it means to talk about community media and why, in an era defined by globalization, transnational networks and rapid technological  innovation is there is a resurgence in one hundred year old analogue, local radio?  Clearly social needs are driving the uses of technological as much as they are mutually reinforcing.  But how to balance the conceptual impulse with the desire to produce timely research related to policy concerns in a system where academic rewards such as tenure are driven by scholarly publication in peer reviewed journals that operate on a timeline different from the more immediate needs of policy advocacy?

Opportunities for Policy Intervention in Europe – Multi-stakeholder Approaches

Community broadcasting has developed asymetrically around the world – and across Europe – at different times and under different conditions. There are countries with well-established sectors for community radio and television; there are countries with either no legal or enabling environment for community media or countries where community media operate in dangerous or hostile environments; and there are countries that fall somewhere in between (for example, where there exist opportunities for licensing but no means for stations to support themselves financially, or countries where there exist a few strong stations that are supported by international aid agencies but with no means of self-sufficiency). 

However, recognition of community media as a formal ‘third sector’ of broadcasting (alongside public and private broadcasting) is gaining momentum and pressure is being exhorted from community organizers, international aid agencies and policy advocates.  UNESCO and the World Bank Institute have supportive positions on community media as an important site for citizen engagement and cultural practice. The European policy agenda increasingly recognizes the role of community media, including efforts by both the Council of Europe and the European Parliament to consider development of enabling regulatory frameworks.  The political will to create and protect community media are fundamental to long-term sustainability. 

Breaching the Knowledge Gaps

According to the World Association of Community Broadcasters (French acronym AMARC), the lack of proper enabling legislation is the single largest barrier to community media’s social impact and sustainability.  The lack of a cohesive policies across Europe related to community broadcasting is compounded with regards to digitalization, in large part because there has also been an uneven development of digital radio itself, including across Europe.

As part of this research, I co-ordinated (along with Arne Hintz and Mojca Plansak) an Exploratory Workshop funded by the European Science Foundation to investigate the impact of digitalization and convergence on community broadcasting and consider the gap of policy-related knowledge within the framework of a broader perspective on convergence, communication infrastructure, social and democratic concerns.  The workshop took a multi-stakeholder approach and included academic researchers, station organizers, European policy makers, communication regulators, and NGO leaders and activists, especially people involved with the Community Media Forum Europe (CMFE) and AMARC Europe. 

This mixture of participants was noted as a strength of our funding application and was integral to the success of the workshop. A telling moment came towards the end of the workshop when we were breaking off into working groups on research and policy advocacy which is where the multi-laterialism broke down.  For the most part, the groups self-organized in such a way that the research group was comprised of academics, and the advocacy group of everyone else.  So what does this say?  That practitioners don’t care about research and academics don’t care about implementation?  Perhaps simply that when the rubber meets the road, the function of organizing and designing strategies and methods fell to these divides, but with the aim that each would inform the other.  Also worth noting that only the academics seemed self-conscious of this division.

Emerging Prospects

In Europe, opportunities for policy intervention are taking place and there seem to be positive examples of collaboration in many directions.  As mentioned above, policy makers have shown an interest in participating in workshops on community media research and the Council of Europe recently commissioned scholar Peter Lewis to study the social impact of community media.  The European Parliament also recently commissioned a private research firm to study community media policies across EU member states. 

Although at first scholars were concerned that the commission was not given to an academic institution, the researcher took it upon himself to involve a range of stakeholders in the study.  Additionally, a large EU-funded study to develop indicators for media pluralism across Europe has also provided an important opportunity to further establish community media as one small but significant ingredient for pluralistic media systems.  These efforts at the European level have been instrumental in helping support the development of policy advocacy at the member-state level, especially in the East and South East regions of Europe where there are few examples and licensing of community radio and television.

Digitalization and Convergence: Threats and Opportunities

The transition to digital technologies offers both opportunities and challenges for community broadcasting. With more efficient use of the spectrum, more space is opened up on the radio dial. Changing technologies also opens up room for new regulatory regimes which could open the door for community radio to benefit from the so-called “digital dividend” through set asides for non-profit media.  At the same time, challenges include new gate keepers, market-imperatives driving the debate, a lack of emphasis and research on public interest objectives and consequences. 

For community broadcasting to have a strong future, active policy intervention in support of the sector is needed and the knowledge gap around issues and impact of digitalization must be addressed.  One difficulty is the lack of research methodologies for assessing the impact of digitalization itself beyond the issue of penetration and number of users and devices.  Perhaps this is an area where community media researchers can borrow from public and private media research in adopting methods, or by partnering with industry researchers to include sections related to community media in their existing studies.

Community Media and Research Methodologies

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s measurement for assessing the merits of a station’s application for funding are driven primarily by two criteria:  how many listeners a station has and how much money it raises.  These measurements smack with contradiction to the ways in which the value of community media are seen, both in international, European and African charters and frameworks.  What has been developed elsewhere are research methods that

Especially in the field of community media research, there are also calls to move beyond case studies and seek to produce relevant quantitative research, especially that related to impact assessment.  At the same time, there are important ongoing investigations into developing research methodologies that better reflect the values of community media, such as queries by researchers like Jo Tacchi, Birgitte Jallov, and Clemencia Rodriguez and Amparo Cadavid (such as participatory action research and Jallov’s Barefoot Impact Assessment). Overall, there is an expressed need for more studies – both quantitative and qualitative that address sustainability and social impact of community media.  

Challenges

This brings me to one of the many challenges I face as a scholar engaged in policy research that seeks to have a positive impact on social change.  As the field of community media research continues to grow, academics are playing an increasingly vital role on providing valuable research, and opportunities for multi-stakeholder collaborations.  This is a very positive development.  The challenge is what could get – if not lost – at least given a backseat – is the critical evaluation of the growth and phenomenon of community media.

My theoretical background is grounded in alternative media studies.  This is a field that itself is stagnating from a critical standpoint at the same time as there has been a welcomed explosion of fascinating case studies.  Literature in the first half of the 00′s was defined by an almost defensive tone of having to both  justify that alternative media was an important field and criticising media and cultural studies for failing to adequately take seriously the historical persistence and geographical pervasiveness of radical alternative media. 

Alternative Media – Moving Forward

The topic of alternative media is all the more critical in light of encroaching media conglomeration and consolidation.  The field was dramatically moved forward through the work of John Downing , Clemencia Rodriguez  and Chris Atton, whose works have helped define the field around debates of citizen participation, radical social movements and alternative practice.  Nick Couldry and James Curran weighed in on the value of this media to contest the dominant sites of media power. However, few studies since then have moved the field forward at a conceptual level, despite important interventions in tactical and autonomous media.  One short but significant essay by Downing seeks to push the normative position of alternative media studies in which he rightly raises concern over the dirth of audience studies and how little is known about the consumption of alternative media.

It’s my guess that many academics working on community media research were either heavily influenced or at least informed by this field of studies, but perhaps civil society advocates not as much since these theoretical debates took place largely within academic journals, texts and conferences.  Gabi Hadl recently launched an innovative forum for  a selected group of scholars to think through these issues called the Civil Society Media Policy Consortium with the express attempt to offer ‘civil society media’ as a framework for conceptualizing participatory media. 

Even the Our Media/ Nuestros Medios network –one of the most important spaces for alternative and community media researchers to connect, and itself organized as a forum to bring together academics, practitioners, activists and advocates – is looking to incorporate some critical roundtable discussions at its next conference with the aim of moving the field forward (full disclosure – I am helping co-organize these efforts).  

Seduced by Community Media?

Perhaps many of us who started on this path have been seduced by community media (!)  The field offers a more defined set of practices and frameworks than alternative media as concept, it is perhaps where many of us have and do participate in as volunteers, and moreover, it offers explicit avenues for policy intervention.  Thus, for engagement with both theory and policymaking, it offers the best of both worlds, so to speak.  My point here is to raise the issue that we need also be mindful of the role and value of critical theory and inquiry.

The last decade has produced substantive scholarship that well-places alternative and community media on the media studies landscape as well as in the media policy environment.  The defensive positioning that our work matters is thing of the past.  What is at stake is to move forward in our intellectual curiosity about why these citizen-based and participatory media matter, what is at stake, and what do the shifting tensions, definitions and practices have to tell us about the world.

Conclusion

By way of a conclusion, the following findings are culled from a workshop session entitled Global Context and Connections: The Transnational Relevance of Our Work co-convened by Becky Lentz and I as part of the SSRC’s Necessary Knowledge for a Democratic Society conference at Annenberg in early 2008. The aim was to articulate research needs and challenges that would better enable the work of advocacy groups and better foster collaborations between advocacy organizations and academic researchers. 

In order to have an impact on policy making, academic researchers need to be able the need to be able write for different audiences from academic journals, popular pieces and civil society handbooks; to produce quality research with quicker turnaround times than those within academic publishing since advocacy groups have immediate knowledge needs and require non-static resources, including access to academic research and resources (even things like Lexus nexus access); help support transnational collaboration, comparative studies;  source materials form other countries (to this end I should mention the Media Law Assistance website being developed by the Center for Global Communication Studies at Annenberg); case studies, strategies and tactics employed elsewhere; and tools for identifying knowledge needs and knowledge gaps.

 

Kate Coyer is post-doctoral research fellow with the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and the Center for Media and Communication Studies at Central European University (CEU). In addition to teaching at CEU during the spring term, during her fellowship at Annenberg, she conducted a comparative study of community broadcasting policies among European Union member countries, with specific focus on Central and Eastern Europe. Kate has taught at the University of California, Berkeley and Goldsmiths College, University of London where she received her PhD in Media and Communications. She has been producing radio and organizing media campaigns for the past twenty years and has helped build community radio stations in the U.S. and Tanzania. Her recent publications include Handbook of Alternative Media (Routledge 2007, co-authored with Tony Dowmunt and Alan Fountain), a media policy brief in Global Media and Communications, and chapters in Global Media, Global Activism (Pluto 2005), and News Incorporated: Corporate Media Ownership and its Threat to Democracy (Prometheus 2005).

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