The control of public media is a life-or-death struggle fought by diverse communities working toward social change against corporate-owned or undemocratic, government-sponsored media and professional journalists. The participation of marginalized and oppressed communities in shaping media systems is the only way forward for a democratic system of communication, and experiences from South America show this to hold true not only on the page, but in the field as well.
This was the message of the USSF workshop Control of Public Media as a Social Justice Issue: Lessons from Latin America and the US, which highlighted the availability of media as a racial and economic justice issue and what steps activists must take to bring media into the hands of the people.
“Who produces media systems?” asked panelist James Owens, an organizer and media coordinator with Chicago Media Action, who called for movement-based media producers organized in a network to lead the fight. “The answer to that question will largely inform us as to the culture and politics that that system will produce.”
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“If we seek the survival of our communities and our movements, we must win two essential communicative capacities: communities in struggle must win the capacity to communicate with each other as well as the capacity to project their perspectives across society,” said Owens. “No community can effectively reproduce culture or defend their material conditions if they lack the ability to communicate internally as well as project their perspectives across society.”
According to Owens, the alliance of commercial media with corporate power makes it inherently untrustworthy, and the lack of democratic control of government-sponsored, national media networks such as the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and National Public Radio (NPR) has the same result.
Even nonprofit news is not immune, because of its “basically undemocratic nature. They are not run by the people … too often public broadcasting outlets have boards populated by elite and corporate representatives, who historically have used their power to filter out the very perspectives we seek to extend.”
The elitist nature of professionalism in the journalism industry, Owens said, further serves to foster elitism by keeping out “unauthorized practitioners” and, thereby, continues control over the social message.
He called instead for democratically elected boards for NPR and PBS, much like those governing libraries and other recipients of public money. To fill the role of professional journalists, Owens says, the community will control the media and use it to enable the powerless “to shape the larger social life” through its broad-reaching tools. He calls this choice “commercial journalism vs. active journalism.”
Scott Sanders, a Chicago-based media organizer also with Chicago Media Action, identified Pacifica Radio as the existing model closest to his and Owens’ democratically run ideal. Founded in 1946, Pacifica reformed its board member system in 2003 after two years of national debates among thousands of listeners, sponsors and activists. The system it came out with gave listener-sponsors the responsibility of electing new local station boards at each of the five Pacifica stations. These local boards, in turn, elect the national board of directors.
Media outlets have been under the large-scale control of corporations since about 1975, Sanders said, but the deep cuts in budgets and credibility that news outlets across the country are suffering from mean “we now have a rare and historic opportunity to wholly re-invision our public media system. We could use it to create stories, produce culture, change conditions, but will we? We must listen to our friends down South.”
Allan Gomez with Radio Populares works with communities primarily in South America to build low-power FM (LPFM) community radio stations. Because radio is the most accessible communication technology, Gomez says, it is particularly adept for use by disenfranchised and often isolated groups.
LPFM radio uses electronic broadcasting, but at a very low power and low cost. An antenna and a transmitter for the average LPFM station can cost between $2,000 and $5,000, while the cost to for the average FM station can run into millions of dollars. As part of his program, Gomez teaches activists and communities in rural areas to build and operate the radios themselves.
A particular success for Gomez was building a radio with a group of women in a small, isolated village in a sea of Contra activity in Nicaragua. The women had begun a cooperative, which then went on to found health clinics and education programs focusing on conflict resolution.
“The women were hailed as amazing and everyone in the region loved it. Then they started addressing domestic violence and suddenly not everyone loved the women, in fact they started denouncing them,” he said. “The other station in the community, actually the only other station in the community, was an evangelical radio station that promoted women as the property of men and would denounce women as witches.”
Having their own radio station allowed them to counter these accusations. According to Gomez, this experience helped the women “identify how important is it to actually be your own messenger, be your own voice” and not give up that power to anyone else, “however well-intentioned they may be.”
The second panelist from Latin America, Gerardo Torres, experienced first hand the move from the neutral network and professional journalism to community-based activism. When President Zelaya of Honduras was ousted in an Army coup in June 2009, Torres, a Honduran journalist, sprang into action. He went from editing the arts and culture beat of a national newspaper to working with the International Commission of the National Front of Popular Resistance of Honduras on underground news ventures.
“After June 28 we stopped being journalists and started to work with the resistance,” said Torres. “You are not an 8-hour person, you are more than that,” he said of his move away from the so-called neutral network of mainstream news to the resistance.
Such a rejection of common media conventions for the common good are what Sanders hopes to see increasingly in the future.
“Public media’s elite offer us an unequal relationship in which they are the parents and we are the children, anxiously waiting for information to be spoon-fed to us. We can let this happen, let go and do nothing. It will continue.” To combat this, says Sanders, “social justice movements need to radically re-invision the US public service media system. It would be almost unrecognizable alongside the current version – alternative democratic structures to govern public media and radio.”
“Democratic participation in cultural civic production only occurs,” Sanders said, “when the powerless speak to themselves and to wider audiences.”