Community media in a global knowledge economy: a chat with Nolan Bowie

by Michael Weisman, Community Media Review

Reclaim the Media, in partnership with the Alliance for Community Media’s Equal Opportunity Caucus, hosted a luncheon conversation with Nolan Bowie. Bowie is known for his expertise in communications law and policy; he is a frequent public speaker on media policy. We invited Bowie to help us start a discussion about new policy paradigms for community media, drawing on his exceptional talents as a futurist and avuncular conversationalist.

The small group consisted of invited participants, self-invited participants, and curiosity seekers who sensed something unusual. Karen Toering (co-director, Reclaim the Media), introduced Bowie, who quickly began spinning our thinking about the future of community media in a ninety-minute conversation that seemed too short.

Considering recent efforts at telecom reform, Bowie reminded us to think about common carriage. Common carriage is an ancient doctrine, not a new one, and originally applied to roads and ferries. The basis of common carriage is non-discrimination, and non-discrimination must be the basis of telecom reform, in his opinion, if we are to preserve the tradition of common carriage that has lead to the incredible development of the communications network.

Broadcasting and buggy whips

Change in the communications industry is inevitable, says Bowie, and no one should be so presumptuous as to stand in the way. At the turn of the century, he said, people bemoaned the end of the buggy whip manufacturers when cars began to replace horse-drawn carriages. But the concern was misplaced; the end of the buggy whip was as inevitable as the end of the horse-drawn carriage, and there was no turning back.

Digital convergence, the internet, and other changes mean that the broadcasting business is also headed for change, and there is no turning back. Like the buggy whip, there will be changes that we cannot avoid, and sentimental concern for some of the old-fashioned and comfortable aspects of the old paradigm are not worth the bother. Bowie encouraged us to look forward, not back, and leave our mental buggy whips behind.

The message for community media is to let go of the comfortable reliance on the old broadcasting industry models. Although the broadcasting companies will continue to be around, the future of community media will be independent of these dinosaurs.

The future of IT

Bowie says that in the future people following the information technology industry must be “hyper-adaptive.” Trends will continue to change, and the frequency of major changes will speed up; the message for community media is to adapt to change by continually seeking to keep up and ride the wave. Bowie referenced a recurring theme in his talk: community media must adapt to new challenges to remain relevant and to serve its important goals of bringing overlooked voices to a wider audience. Relying on old technology, and old ways of thinking, will leave the community media movement out of touch and irrelevant.

“What is our time horizon?” Bowie asked the group to think about how we plan our future. Are we thinking many years out, or in terms of months? With a hyper-adaptive IT sector, and new challenges and opportunities appearing and disappearing all the time, community media organizations will have to think about how to adapt to short, shifting time horizons.

The future will bring a Global Knowledge Economy, says Bowie. It follows that community media will have to find a way to exist in this new environment. What does ‘local’ mean anymore? What is the audience for a local community media center in this new milieu? How does a local community media center contend with a global audience?

Our conversation with Nolan Bowie contained more questions than answers. As a teacher and futurist, Bowie put the issues before us and challenged us to think in new ways about the role of community media.

The interests of the community

Bowie was asked what a new communications framework would look like that incorporated the values he sketched for us. The first thing he mentioned was “ubiquitous broadband” – the proliferation of publicly owned or publicly accessible networks, whether wireless or not. Universal service reform, he said, should include the goal of ubiquitous high-speed broadband as an essential public service, and government has an affirmative role to play to subsidize and direct its deployment as a public good. It is a quality of life issue. Networks must include rights of interconnection between networks, and rights of access by end-user to end-users.

Communications laws should require a bandwidth set-aside for community use. There should be a community access ‘license’ that requires commercial broadcasters to meet identified public interest goals. Sydney Levy of Media Alliance gave an example from his recent experience in Venezuela. License periods should be shorter, and there should be more frequent auditing and enforcement of public interest requirements. Bowie noted that the United States once had many of these requirements, but they were eliminated by the Reagan administration. Today, there is virtually no accountability, he said.

Community media advocates must be able to describe a new philosophy of media based on the new emerging landscape described in Bowie’s talk. In Toering’s words, they must “be the media they want to see.” Accountability is imposed on community media, but not on the commercial sector that uses the public space. We must find ways to bridge the interests between different elements in the media policy movement. We must decide what we want and negotiate from strength, not from weakness.

Finally, what we mobilize around is the commons, according to Bowie. Bowie says we worship private property, and that is how the debate in Washington is framed. You can’t have “E-democracy” and “E-government” unless E-veryone has high-speed broadband connectivity.

Michael Weisman is a policy advisor to Reclaim the Media.

article originally published at .

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey