Archive for April 6th, 2009

Like the phoenix coming back from the ashes

By David Parkinson

Stark branches of a mulberry tree at the demonstration garden in Powell River stand against the blue sky of early spring

Stark branches of a mulberry tree at the demonstration garden in Powell River stand against the blue sky of early spring

You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.
(Attributed to Buckminster Fuller.)

In last week’s column (“The decline and fall of community radio”), I discussed some of the challenges behind the struggle to keep our local community radio station (CJMP FM) on the air. This effort continues up to the time of writing. As long as there is a signal at 90.1 FM, we can continue to hope. Once we lose that signal, it will take a great deal of will and work to bring community radio back.

But whether or not we manage to save our local community radio station, I am becoming much more hopeful lately about the possibilities of genuine grassroots media. Here’s why.

1. We have the stories

I was recently listening to the radio program This American Life, which was covering the impact of the current economic downturn on regular Americans. It was incredible radio: slow-moving enough to contain the details that tell the story; compassionate, intelligent, funny, and sad. And it occurred to me that here we are, in the midst of some very important changes in this region and worldwide: the mill is in decline, the forestry industry is in crisis, and the fate of the local economy is uncertain. Like other regions, we’re trying to figure out how we’re going to continue functioning in the face of a global economic recession. Where are the documents of this time? Why are we not recording the thoughts and impressions of the people who live in this region? What are people experiencing as we move into times of such great uncertainty?

And even if we weren’t living through exciting times, shouldn’t we be creating an archive of the stories and memories of the people — especially the elders — in the region, who have so much to say about where we have been, how we got here, and where we are going? This sort of oral history project is exactly the sort of thing that is perfectly suited to radio as a medium. Print is not quite right, because you need a lot of time to let the stories unfold and many people do not have the time or patience to read so much. Video and film are not quite right either, because story-telling is mainly an auditory thing: you can sit in the dark if you want, and the sound of the voices and the stories they are telling are enough to hold your attention. You don’t need the distraction of visuals to get the message.

I’m convinced that everyone has a story worth telling and hearing. But the commercial media, with their need to attract advertisers and hold a paying audience, cannot often afford to stretch out and report those stories. We are surrounded by people who have no voice in the commercial media. They are neither glamorous nor important nor accomplished in the ways which we consider worth reporting on. And yet these are our friends, neighbours, and fellow citizens. How can we let ourselves believe that their stories are not worth telling, not worth hearing?

2. We have the technology

Traditionally, the capital and operating costs needed to get up and running for print publication or broadcasting were so high that only those with plenty of money could get started. And even though it is now easier to get started in publishing with relatively little capital, the ongoing operating costs are such that it is a constant task to get money from purchasers, subscribers, and advertisers. Printing paper copies costs a lot of money. Radio and television broadcasting require considerable costs in equipment and maintenance. Reporters and DJs cost plenty.

The commercial media are classic examples of economies of scarcity. A newspaper can only carry so many articles. A radio or TV station has only so much time set aside for the views of the community. There is a layer of expertise and editorial control between the potential contributor and the audience. Don’t believe me? Submit an article to the local newspaper. Send a song you recorded to the local commercial radio station. Try to get your video on TV. Because you are just a member of the public, no one will feel obliged to give you an audience.

Enter the internet. Nowadays, it is possible to start a blog like this one for free or very close to it. No printing press, relatively little technical expertise, no paper costs, and no shipping. No workshop, no studio, no typewriters or mixing board, no transmission tower. No rent, no insurance, no lawyers. If I hadn’t paid for the domain name, this blog would have had a startup cost of precisely $0.00 (excluding my labour, which I contributed freely and gladly). Likewise, to begin an audio or video podcasting project would cost very little: mainly some gear and the time it takes to film or record, edit, and upload the finished product to the internet. You can buy a decent digital sound recorder now for a hundred dollars; sound quality approaching professional levels is yours for under $500.

There are free platforms for blogging. (WordPress, which we use, is one of them. There are many more.) There is software freely available for sound and video editing. Archiving sound and video files is free or very close to it. Once on the internet, these files can be accessed by anyone in the world who has access to the internet. If need be, they can be transferred to media such as compact disc or DVD so that they can be heard or watched in any context.

And we can do all of this with no restrictions on content except the ones which regulate freedom of speech and common decency. We do not need to defer to the gatekeepers of the commercial media, the ones who determine whether their readers, listeners, viewers, or (most importantly) advertisers will want to see what we have to say. We can bypass them altogether. Liberation!

3. We can build our audience

This is what I have been thinking while we wait to find out whether CJMP FM is going to survive — and if so in what form. I’ve been thinking that I need to find means of expression which are as independent as they can possibly be. The older I get, the more I chafe under arbitrary control.

I believe that there are people out there who are as dissatisfied as I am with the state of the commercial media. I don’t blame the media; they are doing the best they can under conditions which are not conducive to free and open expression. They are trapped in an economy of scarcity, and their operating costs are continually rising. When I look at TV, which is very rarely now, I can scarcely believe that what I’m looking at is happening on this planet. Likewise commercial radio and much of the print media. It says nothing to me about my life.

And to be very clear: I’m not complaining about the lack of counterbalancing political opinion from the left end of the political spectrum (which is anyway a ridiculous oversimplification, but that’s a story for another time). I’m talking about the fact that the commercial media very often remove the humanity from the stories they tell simply because of the constraints they operate under. Stories need to fit space and time limits, need to have some kind of narrative arc or moral, and need to conform to the opinions and mindset of the largest possible section of the population. In other words, these stories have to behave like nothing in real life.

We need to create an audience for stories which are like real stories: too long, too short, rambling, open-ended, pointless, contrary, upsetting, or just plain weird. Because that is what life is really like. And for too long we have had to put up with media which try to convince us that life is neat and tidy and by the way please buy this box of cereal. Life is about so much more. I demand more. You should too.

4. A call to action

So, let’s recap. Free (or inexpensive) software and gear (computers, cameras, audio recorders) means that we can create media products of high quality with relatively little technical expertise. We can publish these works to a global audience thanks to the internet. We are not hampered by arbitrary or absurd restrictions on format or content. We can follow our passion to find the stories we care about. We can use these tools to tell the real stories which are going on around us all the time, and we can share those stories easily, freely, with anyone who wants to read, hear, or see them. We can do this fast and cheap.

And here’s the kicker: by doing this — by engaging in guerrilla story-telling outside the confines of the commercial media — we can connect together a group of local artists, reporters, documentarians, and musicians who want to use the new media tools to tell the story of a community. And by telling these stories, we will strengthen the community. People will be able to hear and see themselves in the stories of the region. They will be caught up in stories told by people they know, stories they never heard because they weren’t ‘fit to print’ or ‘ready for prime time’. We can be part of creating a culture of honouring all of the stories and all of the people who make our region what it is.

So if any of this interests you, please come out for a public meeting on Tuesday April 21 at 7:00 PM at the Unitarian Hall in The People’s Republic of Cranberry (Powell River). We’ll be talking about how to kick-start a collective of like-minded media guerrillas and start telling the stories we want to tell by whatever means available. See you there.

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