Community Media Discussion – Community Media Non-Negotiables

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This week in our Community Media Discussion, we’ll be chatting about the ‘non-negotiable principles’ of community media, that ensures we can participate in making our own media, and have access to platforms that fosters inclusivity, diversity through self-governed, community owned media platforms. I work with these principles, and I enjoy working with other community media makers and advocates who are committed to the UNESCO principles for alternative options in a pluralistic media world.

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Last weekend I attended a talk about the Community Media Toolkit held with Professor Vinod Pavarala, UNESCO chair of community media at the University of Hyderabad at SoundArt Radio in Dartington, Devon. The event was organised by Lucinda Guy and Alice Arnold, and took place at Dartington Hall and was supported by the University of Bath. Professor Pavarala walked us through the process of evaluation that is outlined in the Community Radio Continuous Improvement Toolkit, which is designed to help community radio producers, volunteers and advocates, maintain a sense of value about and appreciation of the work that we undertake.

Vinod explained that community media around the world has certain non-negotiable characteristics, which if watered-down and diluted, runs the risk that community media will lose its distinctive characteristics. These ‘non-negotiable principles’ are, according to Vinod, applicable across both the Western world and the global south. So, while the context may change, the need to represent people who are marginalised doesn’t change. Vinod explained that in his role of Chair of Community Media at Hyderabad University, it is his role to remind people as he travels around the world, that the purpose of community media is to support the voices of underrepresented people. According to Vinod, this is a universal need in which, as Nicholas Jankowski states, “community radio is meant to serve a local population, to encourage expression and participation, to ‘give voice to those without voices’ (Girard 1992, 13)” (Jankowski, 2003, p. 7).

The Toolkit focusses, then, on the working practices and principles of community radio, and while they are applicable across many other media forms and platforms, the general principles of self-determination, non-professionalism, and community relevance, mean that other forms of community media can be easily assimilated into the approach the toolkit takes to community-focussed communications. Radio retains it’s central importance for community communication, however, because it has a number of baked-in affordances that are unique to its characteristics as a broadcast platform.

Put simply, radio is sound and voice oriented, thus avoiding the preoccupation with visual appearance that dominates much of mainstream media. Radio is also a broadcast media, which offers the possibility that those who listen are engaging in a common experience – one to many people across widespread geographic areas. Lastly, radio is said to be the most intimate medium because when done well, radio programming and content enables the establishing of deep relationships with listeners. As Kate Lacey explains

“At the heart of this relationship remains the advantage that radio has as a medium that enters the private sphere and that can be listened to while doing other things. It is especially well suited to reaching women who are potentially quite isolated in the home. It is also an intimate medium, well suited to the treatment of sensitive issues, the telling of stories and the building of communities, both real and imagined” (Kate Lacey in Crisell, 2004, p. 150).

Moreover, as Simon Order notes, “the definition of community radio, and the determination of its value in this context, refers to an alternative free space for community participants to produce their own media without the normal constraints of the mainstream” (Order, 2012, p. 66). Vinod repeatedly emphasised in his talks, how community radio is most effective when we break down professional barriers, and we eschew studios and platforms that are overly technical.

Many people, Vinod reminded us, are not confident with broadcast technological systems, though they do have incredible stories to tell us. Avoiding overly complex interfaces and studios is an effective way of ensuring diversity of voice. As Kevin Howley reminds us, “the value placed on community radio’s participants and audiences is not based on a commercial contract but on a civil one” (Howley, 2010, p. 25).

Community radio, then, can be thought of as being largely purpose-driven. The purpose is to foster and build an enduring sense of community, a sense of belonging, and a sense of identity through the participative and access-focussed principles, practices and processes that shape community media. If community radio is manifested and channelled as a vehicle for empowerment and self-representation, secured through participation and access to the means of production, management and governance, then it’s possible to foster a greater sense of community that binds together, and goes beyond, the people and institutions that we might encounter in our daily lives.

Raymond Williams called this the search for a ‘knowable community’ (Ana Clara Birrento in Seidl et al., 2009, p. 12), which reflects the notion that we are always searching to situate and place our social and mediated experiences in the context of the associations we form in our lived world. As Kevin Howley reminds us, “community radio highlights difference within the sameness of community; gives voice to this difference, and cultivates a greater understanding and appreciation of the constructed nature of community and community relations” (Howley, 2005, p. 125).

To assess and evaluate how effective community media is at bringing together our understanding across different domains of experience, is multidimensional and dynamic. A useful starting point, however, is to recognise that listeners are not simply consumers, nor are they simply audiences, but are people who form a complex web of needs, drives, associations, symbolic relationships and mutual associations. We can’t assume that listeners, who form communities of interests, identity and practice, live in fixed forms of social relationship.

Rather, our emerging and reflexive view of community is defined through a set of interacting symbolic and interpretative forces, social practices and conceptual principles. So, when we come to evaluate the services and content that we produce in the context of community radio, we must be prepared to, as Etienne Wenger reminds us, to take a fresh look at our own assumptions because it is at this intersection of our manifold experience that “radically new insights often arise at the boundaries between communities” (Etienne Wenger in Lesser & Prusak, 2000, p. 12)

As Simon Order points out, there is a need to “develop assessment tools and quality indicators that highlight the value of the social impact of community radio on individuals and communities, on both the producers and the listeners.” The subsequent challenge, then, is to come up with “concise and clear assessments demonstrating the social impacts of community radio would be vital tools for aspiring broadcasters” (Order, 2012, p. 64). Which is what Vinod proposed was the intention of the toolkit.

According AMARC (the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters) and UNESCO, community radio stations are characterised by the work they do to promote community development and empowerment. “They:

  • Serve a recognisable community;
  • Promote access to media facilities and to training, production and distribution facilities as a primary step towards full democratisation of the communication system;
  • Offer the opportunity to any member of the community to initiate communication and participate in programme making and evaluation, encouraging local creative talent and foster local traditions;
  • Use technology appropriate to the economic capability of the people, not that which leads to dependence on external sources;
  • Are motivated by community well-being, not commercial considerations;
  • Facilitate full interaction between the producers and receivers of messages;
  • Are managed and owned by the community members. Community or their representatives have a voice in the financing of radio programmes;
  • Promote the right to communicate, assist the free flow of information and opinions, encourage creative expression and contribute to the democratic process and a pluralist society;
  • Are editorially independent of government, commercial and religious institutions and political parties in determining their programme policy;
  • Provide a right of access to minority and marginalised groups and promote and protect cultural and linguistic diversity; and
  • Follow management, programming and employment practices which oppose discrimination and which are open and accountable to supporters, staff and volunteers.” (Pavarala et al., 2014, p. 2).

Radio’s programming, according to Susan Merril-Squier embodies “interwoven communities” (Merril-Squier, 2003, p. 3), through which people are linked and associated in different ways, across different sets of social relationships, and within different fields of social experience. While the recent drive for homogeneity in much of the industrial forms of mass radio production has weakened the iconoclastic nature of many parts of the cultural repertoire of radio programme making, there remains parts associate with community radio that are “aesthetically transgressive,” and which resist the “imposition of hierarchical management models, and an increased emphasis on programming as the exclusive domain of paid, professional staff” (Steve Wurtzler in Merril-Squier, 2003, p. 52).

Evaluating community radio, then, has to be understood and undertaken, as Vinod reminded us, on its own terms. We must try to escape, if we can, the gravitational pull of the instrumental requests for information that accounts for ‘impact’ or ‘engagement, by funders, government agencies and commercial sponsors. Instead, we should seek to prioritise and manifest observations and recollections by the people who engage and listen to radio as citizens and fellow members of communities. To achieve the necessary clarity of expectation, then, we must also remember that “the democratisation of media allows citizens to be active in one of many (micro-) spheres relevant to daily life, to organise different forms of deliberation, and to exert their rights to communicate” (Bailey et al., 2008, p. 24).
It was a timely reminder to listen to Vinod’s message. The call for a back-to-basics approach is significant. The changes in community media policy development, research and advocacy over the last decade, has resulted in a shift away from these core ideas and practices. Here in the UK, we have seen advocacy groups morph into trade associations, abandoning their role as the leaders of a movement purposed with bringing about social change. The currents in which ideas about community media circulate have become stilted and narrow.

There remains some committed advocates who wish to use community media as a vehicle for social change – both levelling up and social justice. The challenge is to listen to the call that Vinod has spoken, and to respond in a way that inspires people to want to reignite the fire of the progressive purpose of community media. To counterbalance the global, industrial media producers with local opportunities to access and participate in community media to tell, make and share stories that are defined in our lived experiences, rather than those that are told about us.

Bailey, O. G., Cammaerts, B., & Carpenter, N. (2008). Understanding Alternative Media. Oxford University Press.
Crisell, A. (Ed.). (2004). More than a Music Box – Radio Cultures and Communities in a Multi-Media World. Berghan Books.
Jankowski, N. W. (2003). Community Media Research: A Quest for Theoretically Grounded Models. The Public, 10(1), 5-14.
Lesser, E., & Prusak, L. (2000). Communities of Practice, Social Capital and Organisational Knowledge. In E. L. Lesser, M. A. Fontaine, & J. A. Slusher (Eds.), Knowledge and Communities. Butterworth Heineman.
Merril-Squier, S. (Ed.). (2003). Communities of the Air – Radio Century, Radio Culture. Duke University Press.
Order, S. (2012). Community radio and the notion of value: a divergent and contested theoretical terrain Cultural Studies Association of Australasia Conference 2011 “Cultural ReOrientations and Comparative Colonialities‟, Adelaide, Australia.
Pavarala, V., Malik, K. K., Belavadi, V., Deshbandhu, A., & Raghunath, P. (2014). Community Radio Continuous Improvement Toolkit, Version 2.0. In C. E. M. C. f. Asia (Ed.). Hyderabad: UNESCO Chair on Community Media, University of Hyderabad.
Seidl, M., Horak, R., & Grossberg, L. (Eds.). (2009). About Raymond Williams. Routledge.