Community Media Makers Drop-In – Validating Local Media

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This week at the Community Media Makers Zoom Drop-In, we’ll be chatting about our experience of local media, and if we are satisfied that we get media services that are genuinely produced locally, and which satisfy the needs of fellow residents and citizens because the content that is produces in newspapers and radio station is relevant because it is made from and with the community, and not afar from it. Do we need to limit and regulate the way that we use the term ‘local’ and ensure that there is a quality threshold that we can trust when media content is presented and sold to us as local?

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What makes local media genuinely local? Is there a significant and overriding designation that will tell us if a media product or story is of genuine local origin and character? The European Union has been regulating food and food production for decades, with its Protected Designation of Origin scheme (PDO), ensuring that consumers know that individual foods and food products are going to have a significant local characteristic, such as sheep and cattle that are grazed on specific fields and arable land. This is asserted because it is recognised that each unique place gives products that are produced from the land in that place a unique quality and flavour. This is applied to many products across the EU, including wine, cheese, meats and so on.

Once a product has been designated, it is protected against other similar products being passed-off and sold as an approximation of these products. For example, it’s impossible to sell Feta cheese that isn’t made in Greece. We often see products on our supermarket shelves here in the UK that purport to be ‘Greek-Style’ cheese instead. The same principle applies to wine, with Champagne being the most famous example of a product that designates wine only grown in a certain region in France entitled to use that name. This means that while English sparkling wine is held in high regard, but it can never be called Champagne.

The argument behind the movement for the PDO scheme is simple. The investment that is required to produce these products at the standard that is recognised internationally, as unique derivations of that place, is multi-generational, and requires investment and stewardship well beyond the limits of the short-term business cycle. Generations of people perfect these foods, with long-term support from both members of their local community, and from the local government and civic society in that area. These products are the embodiment of a way of life and a people. They represent significant agricultural knowledge and know-how, that has been formed around and part of a delicate ecosystem, which is then tied in with a culture of cuisine and food that is interconnected with local traditions, identity and the quality of life.

Many places have become famous for their unique exports, even becoming recognisable international brands that signify quality and a respected food heritage. Knowing that Parmesan cheese or Bordeaux wine is produced in a specific area, with high levels of care, suggests that these cheese and wines are of a higher-standard than foodstuff that has been mass-produced in factories to generic recopies, using industrial production systems, and marketed in mass advertising campaigns. These campaigns pass-off these products with a promise of the exotic, health or novelty so that unwitting consumers can’t make a clear distinction about what they are getting. The simulation of authenticity by association with symbols of nature, for example pictures of cows on a carton of margarine, is often a warning that a product is not authentic or healthy at all, and despite what the health claims on the box might be.

If someone wants to try to pass-off an inferior copy of these products, they have to be careful in the EU, and places that have trade deals with the EU, not to. They would be open to prosecution and legal action. Hence, in the UK, for now at least, Cornish Pasties can only be produced in Cornwall. Melton Mowbray Pork Pies and Stilton Cheese can only be produced in a designated area around Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire. As these products are established in the public mind, they become assets to the local tourist economy, as they indicate something that is unique about where they come from, and the way they act as an expression of the cultural fit between the people, the land and the food – cuisine, agriculture and local culture working together.

The question, then, is why is this line of thinking not applied to our media here in the UK? Why is it that media producers can pass themselves off as local media, when in fact, they are nothing of the sort? It has become normal for industrial media producers to offer a watered-down version of local media programming. Suggesting that their industrially produced ‘local’ content is somehow relevant to our lives merely because it is dressed up to look like it is local. It’s the equivalent of the packaging and the images on the box, but it is at odds with the origins of the product inside, which comes out of a factory.

As our media becomes more fragmented and distant from the citizens, it’s important that we can trust and value the media content that we accept into our lives and minds. If we have an expectation that what we are getting is a local product, then we should expect that that product is produced and distributed with a number of guarantees about the authenticity of that product in mind: such that the product can demonstrate it has been produced for a community of people in a specific place, and fundamentally, alongside and with those people. The term ‘local media’ has a cachet to it which has been abused by industrial content producers for far too long. Is it time that we reclaimed the local in local media? Most people would expect certain things to have been undertaken for local media to be able to use the term local.

Unfortunately, and with the pressures of global market competition, the international industrial media producers are not sensitive to the needs of local communities in the way that they once were. The expensive part of running a newspaper or radio station is paying for an office or studio in a specific place, and keeping it running. Employing local producers, writers, presenters, and editors to work there is expensive. Being able to bring enough commercial revenue into a media business to finance and develop it is a massive challenge. We’ve seen over the last decade how commercial radio and newspapers have consolidated their production to regional centres. The Leicester Mercury, for example, is produced in Derby. Capital FM, which replaced Leicester Sound, is now a network with the nearest production office to Leicester in Birmingham.

Industrial media obviously recognises the value of calling something local because it keeps cropping up in marketing and promotions. Local has a ring to it that says, ‘this is for you!’ I’ve seen large supermarkets in my neighbourhood, however, similarly calling themselves our ‘local grocer,’ even though they are one branch among many in a complex supply chain that is managed by AI, and which has increasingly less human input. The same can be said for much of the format-driven radio that we listen to as we cook our breakfast or drive to work. Auto-generated playlists, auto-generated scripts and pre-packaged stories taken from social media dominate some stations.

We may as well have auto-generated presenters, and given the way voice AI is advancing, this is not too far off. We have been pushed into using self-checkouts at the supermarket, with that friendly automatic voice telling us to ‘scan the next item’! Not only that, but we don’t even get a moment in a shop to interact with a real person. Yes, it’s efficient, but it’s also lifeless. We could be in any supermarket, anywhere in the world. We never have to interact with people, and we can buy safely simulated food-like products from around the world, all conveniently cooked for ten minutes in a microwave. It’s many people’s idea of hell, and it could be the way that our broadcast media is heading.

It is worth noting that broadcast media regulation in the UK does actually have specific designations for local media provision and content. Ofcom states that

“Legislation requires Ofcom to secure that local commercial radio stations provide an appropriate amount of:

  • programmes including local material; and
  • locally made programmes

and to provide guidelines as to how the above requirements should be met.”

Increasingly, however, many people are concerned that when applying these regulations, Ofcom tends to look downwards to local communities, rather than upwards from local communities. Over the last decade and more, the rules that designate format changes have been relaxed, and that Ofcom now exercises less delegated power to compel the commercial operators to define their local content in accordance with tight interpretation of the legislation. Ofcom have been relaxed, as programming formats and station have been consolidated. The large radio networks no longer want to be shackled to specific local formatting requirements by the regulator, thereby having to explain what changes they want to make to their programmes and stations. They would like to be free to merge programming so that it is relevant across broader regions, and to be viewed by marketing designations of lifestyle and demographic identification, rather than by citizenship, residency or local needs.

The Annan Report of 1977 argued that broadcast spectrum is a valuable resource here in the UK, and that it shouldn’t just be given away by the government without the state asking for something in return from commercial broadcasters. The expectation was that radio would be produced by and from communities in specific places, and not for and on behalf of communities from a distance. Until the 2000s, then, it was assumed that radio provision would be tipped in favour of local production and service delivery. Subsequently, however, we’ve seen wave upon wave of consolidation in the UK commercial radio industry, to the point where Bauer and Global are the de facto national networks, with only a handful of independent stations hanging on.

To some extent, this is understandable, given that the global media market has become so competitive. Radio is now competing with international tech companies who are providing integrated packages for music streaming, media storage services, gaming, video on demand, podcasting, and so on. All at an unparalleled and unimaginable (ten years ago) rate of supply. The global market model of media, however, has not led to a renewal of local media, which are still highly dependent on forms of relevant, trusted and shared local news and stories. Local media isn’t able, in the present set-up, to fill in the gaps that have been left by these consolidated industrial content production giants. Competition for our attention is not just between a handful of local radio stations, but is intensely competitive between Netflix, Disney, YouTube, Spotify, as well as our local radio stations.

Where we should be critical, however, is the extent to which the content that is produced by these international industrial conglomerates becomes so generic and copy-cat. BBC local radio stations are tightly bounded by a defined format and model of presentation that is very difficult for producers to innovate and build an audience from the bottom up. The BBC has a role that is different from the commercial operators. Part of the reason that we pay for the BBC by its licence fee, is that when there is an economic downturn, the BBC won’t simply drop services that are no longer affordable. The market-driven industrial media producers, however, can simply shut stations and services down. They can get rid of presenters and programmes in the same way a chain of coffee shops or a bank can close its local branches when they are thought to be no longer profitable. All with no consultation with local communities who might be dependent on those services.

This leaves an obvious question. To what extent can we attest that our media is serving our local needs and interests? To what extent can we be assured that the broadcast media that purports to be local, is indeed made locally, and is part of the local civic infrastructure, and is meeting the cultural and social requirement of the people who live in a specific place? How do we know that the decisions that are made by large corporations are being taken locally, and in a way that considers the interests of the people who live in those neighbourhoods, towns and villages that are effected?

This is before we even start to think about the capacity that local people have to access and interact with the people who are making these programmes. When we start to ask how we can get involved, locally, where would we even begin? Well, that’s where community radio comes in, with the commitment to local social gain, access and participation in the running and governance of all community radio stations. We are still left with the question, however, how do we know that a commercial or a community station is meeting the needs of local people? How do we know that a service is meeting the interests of the public and not just representing the views of a few ‘radio enthusiasts’? How can we be assured that citizens and residents are having our voices heard, our points of view explored, and our cultures represented in our local media? Where is the research that demonstrates how well this is happening here in the UK?

One of the ways newspapers have learnt to pass-off their content as local is to scan social media in specific places for stores, and then use those posts as the basis of a story. They regurgitate commercial press releases, along with news bulletins from the emergency services, which can all be done from anywhere. The real knowledge of a place, however, comes from living and working in the same area as the readers of a newspaper or the listeners of a radio station. How many radio presenters send their children to a local school, use the local health services, travel on the same buses? The bar of any test of whether a radio station or newspaper is local has to be more, surely, than what can be regurgitated from Twitter and Facebook?

Remarkably, the publications that are feeding into the new Broadcasting Bill don’t make any reference to the Levelling Up What Paper. This has been government policy in the UK since 2019, so one would have thought that there might have been some connection in the drafting process with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. But then, the Levelling Up White Paper doesn’t mention the role of media either. At no point does the white paper indicate how media will be used to support the levelling up agenda. How will media be repurposed to help support the redistribution of human, financial, social, physical, intangible, and institutional capital?

Instead, the burden for levelling up has been placed purely on economic and governance reform, and therefore omits the need for genuinely local input through our media systems. The Levelling Up White paper calls for government policy to be oriented around five pillars:

  1. A mission-oriented approach to setting policy.
  2. A reorientation of central government decision-making.
  3. Greater empowerment of local government decision-making.
  4. A revolution in data and transparency at the subnational level.
  5. Enhanced transparency and accountability of this new regime.

At each stage, then, it would be possible to build a case for a levelling up as a primary purpose for local media. Building outwards from local media provision into democratic, civic and social life because local media is given the clear purpose and mission to positively contribute to levelling up.

The White Paper, for example, also calls for increased devolution and local decision-making as a prerequisite to the process of levelling up. The paper recognises that there has been too much focus in the past on centralising policies, which then under-utilise local knowledge and expertise. The paper also recognises that past attempts to impose redevelopment on communities, without proper accountability or democratic involvement, had negative effects on the trust that people felt about how investment and redevelopment has been implemented in the past. For effective accountability, the paper argues, there needs to be “a clear and common understanding of what is going on in places currently.” How this clear and common understanding can be achieved without a storing, effective and trusted local media infrastructure, isn’t addressed.

There is some fear, moreover, that with the looming economic squeeze, many of the locally provided services that we need will be put under further pressure. While large conglomerates may find a way through the projected recession, the smaller, local and independent media operators may not be so lucky. One thing that could be done to help those operators, perhaps, is to limit the way that media can be defined as local. If we put a test in place that must be met by those calling themselves local media producers, which will guarantee that citizens and consumers know exactly what content they are getting, and who the people are creating that content, and where they are based, then it may be possible to address many of the challenges of local media sustainability.

The market for locally produced food products has been massively enhanced and expanded over the decades that the EU operated its PDO scheme. Imagine how local media here in the UK could be developed and expanded in the UK if similar protections and regulations are put in place so that no one, business large or small, community or commercial, can pass-off a regurgitation media service as a local service. This is more than just about where consumers can pick up a copy of a newspaper, or tune into a radio station, it’s about who makes this media, and where they are embedded. It is about renewing the link with place for our media.

The media market must be made to work for producers and suppliers at all levels. International, national, regional, and local. This will mean the government offering protections to the smallest and weakest providers, the local commercial and the local community, so that they are free to develop and establish trusted services that endure, and which people in towns and neighbourhoods right across the country can value, contribute to, and find useful as the process of levelling up gets underway.