Two models of community radio

July 13th, 2005 | by aobaoill |

I’ve just finished reading Seizing the Airwaves, which charts the state of free or pirate radio in the United States. The book was published in 1998 so some of it is a little out of date – the LPFM has come on line since then, for instance – but much of it is still good.
What struck me most wasn’t anything specifically about pirate radio – that’s not my personal focus or area of expertise – but a fascinating essay by Jon Bekken titled Community Radio at the Crossroads. I had already come across the core of his argument, and some of the supporting evidence, elsewhere previously but it was good to see it articulated in a written – and cogently argued – text. Bekken, incidentally, is both an alum of the ICR, where I currently study, and seemingly a former volunteer with the local community radio station, WEFT, from which he draws many of his examples.
It has been obvious to me since my original experiences with Irish community radio that there are two greatly conflicting models at play in community media. That this is so may seem self-evident to many, particularly those who have tracked events such as the KPFA/Pacifica battles of the late 1990s. There is, however, little formal literature – to my knowledge – tracking and modeling the different approaches at play. Most authors are content to outline their understanding of what community/alternative/citizen media is, or perhaps, rather, should be, and to analysis examples that fall within that rubric. It is for this reason that Bekken’s piece – outlining an institutional approach (the professionalization model), the objections to it and the conflicts it has engendered – is so important.
Bekken’s sympathies clearly lie with one of the models. In defining community radio he talks in terms of participation saying it is (p30) characterized by access, public participation in production and decision-making and, predominantly, by listener-financing. Some points here deserve to be emphasized. First, many discussions of, formerly, alternative media and, more recently, ‘citizen’ journalism, elide the participatory decision-making processes, defining the medium solely in terms of content matter subjects (eclectic) and sources (volunteer labour). It is such weak definitions, I believe, that allows the emergence of debates such as that highlighted recently at Unpacking My Library about whether Indymedia activists have grounds to complain when their content, published on an Indymedia outlet, is appropriated and republished by a professional media outlet. [Incidentally, the fact that much recent attention has been focused on the individual-led formats such as weblogs has tended to similarly elide the decision-making processes at play in participatory outlets.]
A second item to note about Bekken’s definition is his assertion regarding the dominance of listener financing. This has indeed been a central feature of community radio in the United States, often mentioned as a central – perhaps the central – innovation in the development of KPFA, the first Pacifica station and generally recognized as the first community radio station in the United States. Outside the U.S. model, however, things are not so clear cut. In Ireland, the BCI, the regulatory agency, places emphasis on a desire that community radio stations not be over-reliant on any single source of funding and direct fundraising appeals, such as the pledge-drive are not as common as they are in the United States. (Of the sources they do turn to in order to diversify I will speak more later.) In defense of Bekken, however, listener financing is a general feature of community radio, commonly understood, in the U.S.A, and that particular feature is of particular importance in light of his later arguments.
In contradistinction to the access model Bekken posits the aforementioned professionalization model. What’s interesting about his approach, and where he brings a political economic sensibility to bear, is in identifying the institutional pressures that encourage movement towards this model. It is easy, for instance, to talk simply of a desire to serve listeners – the desirability of a uniform product – or to unquestioningly associate success with greater income, growth, and therefore professionalization of staffing. In contrast Bekken focuses on three institutional constraints on community radio.
First, licensing, especially the FCC decision to set a lower bound (100W) on station power. Further, Bekken, citing Barbrook, botes that:

FCC regulations for record-keeping , technical standards and uninterrupted service ensures that there will be a nucleus of professional workers and a division of labor between administration, engineers and programmers (Barbrook 1985, 73). (Bekken, 32)

Second, government financing encourages larger budgets (often having lower bounds on station budgets and staffing levels in order to qualify for grants, or requiring matching funding) and continued reliance on funding in order to maintain service – which can have a chilling effect on content. In Ireland licensed community stations have often relied on various government sources for funding.
The Community Employment (CE) schemes, for instance, while ostensibly providing training and experience that would assist the employed to the workforce also for many years provided community organizations, such as community radio stations, with both free labour (by way of scheme participants) and heavily subvented managerial staff (by way of scheme supervisors). When decreasing unemployment, among other factors, led the government to make heavy cuts to the program it caused serious problems for organizations which had grown reliant on the funding. When I was at Flirt FM in Galway we regularly employed students on a similar scheme – aimed at supporting students from low- to mid-income families – during the summer months. Although the agencies funding the schemes were nominally disinterested as regards the content on the radio stations, there are a number of ways in which such schemes can affect stations. First, the very availability of (and responsibility for) workers can lead a station to institute structures designed to make maximum use of the people on the schemes. Engineering can become a task reserved to CE workers, for instance – something that reduces the entry barrier to participation for others, but makes all volunteers dependent on, and in some sense subservient to, the scheme workers. Second, those who, because it is in essence their job, spend 20 or more hours a week at a station can come to dominate, to be seen as a clique (the perennial danger in any volunteer organization, especially one with a physical base).
Another state-funded source has been the New Adventures in Broadcasting scheme operated by the BCI, which provides funding for various once-off and new programming initiatives, particularly documentaries. As the funds available to such initiatives have increased they have represented an opportunity for the BCI to shape the content of independent Irish radio (the scheme is open to community and commercial stations) through a carrot approach as opposed to the usual stick of quotas and monitoring.
In terms of access to programming Bekken highlights satellite links, arguing that the economic and institutional arrangements governing satellite access and usage foster greater reliance on institutionally-sponsored, professionally-produced programming. (37) This displaces local content, increases budgetary needs, and pushes commuity radio further towards the public radio approach of catering to more affluent listeners. It also gives paid staff a stronger hand in setting programming (38) reducing the power/influence of volunteers, who are mariginalised in the broadcasting process. In this way we can see one factor (external content) driving another (finance), with both moving community radio away from an access model.
One of the interesting things about current technological developments is that they are making clear the potential for a separation of the functions of content creation and content dissemination. Satellite syndication is one obvious and relatively well established example. In radical media the audio streamed from Independent Media Centers at significant events (the G8 in Scotland, to cite a recent example), which is often ‘spontaneously’ and autonomously retransmitted by micro-radio broadcasters, is another. More generally online we can see the emergence of aggregation tools, many based on social software or, increasingly, tagging, techniques, and syndication methods like podcasting. In this context it is interesting to examine Bekken’s observation that the economics of satellite uplinks bar many small groups, as opposed the low entry-costs of tape exchange programs, for example. It is tempting to make a remark along the lines that the internet is making syndication cheaper and easier, but Bekken’s remarks remind us that low-tech solutions have existed, but have nonetheless been supplanted, to a large degree, by distribution channels such as satellite, which have high barriers to entry for distributors as well as consumers. As we move forward we may have more hybridity in possible distribution channels but the overall effectiveness for those who can only afford ‘entry-level’ distribution solutions will depend on the extent to which there are outlets that make use of content from these channels as opposed to privileging high-tech solutions.
The difficult question, of course, is how an outlet grounded in the access model comes to serve content that comes from an external distribution channel. When I heard Amy Goodman speak earlier this year she was asked what citizens could do to improve their local media. She said they should pressure their local stations to air Democracy Now. Of course, on one level, that’s what you’d expect her to say – as host of a much-admired syndicated show she is no doubt thinking that her show would be preferable to whatever other syndicated news programming might be provided on a station. Personally, though, I much prefer the admonition of King Daevid MacKenzie at the end of his daily podcasted of news and commentary: now go out there and make some news of your own today.
Update: Bekken’s text is available online as is the the complete Seizing the Airwaves.

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