Charting the limits of "community media"

by Matthew Lasar, Lasar Letter

In a media environment increasingly segmented by ideology, class, or ethnicity, "is there an electronic place where people can convene as citizens? Can the new media create a public square where people can be heard, and hear each other?"

Yes, concludes the Benton foundation's lively and informative new study What's Going on In Community Media?: "Communities across the country are taking control of media, adapting new technologies to the social, economic, educational, cultural, and information needs of their residents."

This thirty four page survey, described by its author, Fred Johnson, as "the most comprehensive look at the breadth of US Community Media institutions and practices in the last 15 years," also outlines the challenges facing a medium that relies on uncertain sources of funding, volunteer power, and a lack of clarity on how to assess its own effectiveness.

But while the scan strives for a concise definition of "community media," I think that it overuses the concept to map out the non-corporate media landscape, extending the term to projects and institutions struggling to be something else.


The Benton report argues that community media share four characteristics: localism, diverse participation, "storytelling and deliberation," and "empowerment."

Localism: "Community media are created primarily with and by residents of a specific geographic place," Johnson writes. "They explore local issues. They help define the places where we live and how we relate to one another. They reflect local values and culture."

The report notes that the delocalization of mainstream media has forced many communities to fend for themselves for local information and news. In this context, Johnson identifies two kinds of groups that attempt to fill this gap: people with a specific geographic place in common and virtual online communities. Yet the author's characterization of the second group—"a social network of common interests that is not particularly associated with a geographic place"—might cause a reader to wonder why it is included in the local category.

Diverse participation: The Benton report describes community media as "mission driven, in service to the broader community." It also describes community media participants as seeing themselves as "accountable and accessible to the people they serve."

But the scan could more strongly acknowledge that the terms "accountable" and "accessible" are, in fact, highly contested concepts within community media. Some advocates argue that the effectiveness of their programming functions or should function as a form of accountability; others contend that representatives of "the community" should enjoy formal power over programming at a community media venue.

Johnson elaborates on the latter vision when he identifies the philosophy of community media as "often reflected in participatory management and governance structures." But in my work as a community media historian, I've encountered many people who see these structures more as hindrances than aids to the mission of producing effective programming, generating an oversupply of self-appointed managers and an undersupply of helpful participants.

"Storytelling and deliberation" and "empowerment:" "One goal of community media is to challenge notions conveyed in mainstream media," Johnson writes. Community media "empowers" individuals to do this through training and access to the tools to broadcast and publish. In this context, community media avatars engage in a kind of personal storytelling that mainstream media has largely abandoned.

"To frame the community’s stories and experience for civic discourse, community media often initiate public conversation and deliberation on important and complex topics," the report continues. "In this way community media organizations are assuming the role of conveners and authenticators of information sharing and dialogue, roles increasingly being lost locally in deregulated commercial media."

Certainly this aptly describes community media at its best. But such institutions often struggle with difficult questions that studies of this kind often bypass. Who exactly should a community media venue empower? This is no easy question in an Internet based society in which so much of reality is contested—from Darwinian evolution to Sadaam Hussein's non-involvement in 9/11.

Who gets access to community media? What about ethnic separatists? How about people who argue that the AIDS virus does not exist? Or that on September 11th, 2001, Vice President Dick Cheney attacked the Pentagon with a cruise missile?

The kind of institutions that Johnson describes as "community media" sometimes find themselves besieged by such advocates, aggressive individuals who often have no where better to go to promote their ideas. The "community media" concept, with its focus on "empowerment," "institutional democracy," and "accessibility," offers the organic leaders of these media centers few useful tools for effectively sorting out who they are, and are not, supposed to empower.

Sometimes it is difficult to assess Johnson's take on this problem, as when he identifies journalists, thanks to the blogging revolution, as "beginning to conceptualize themselves not so much as gatekeepers of news but as moderators in a conversation." Yet his next sentence acknowledges the risks in this transition, describing the new conversation as having "license and time to speak frequently and, hopefully, accurately."

Indeed, at the institutions that Johnson describes, hope is sometimes the only resource available for the accuracy task, since participants often dismiss editorial roles as "gatekeeping."

"Types of media"

What's going on in community media creates a strong taxonomy of community media institutions, beginning in the late 1940s with the creation of listener supported station KPFA in Berkeley. The study goes on to survey community radio, public access television, ethnic media, Low Power FM, and exemplary organizations such as the Manhattan Neighborhood Network, the Prometheus Project, and Sound Partners for Community Health.

But the scan reveals its own ambivalence about community media when surveying public broadcasting, which the author says "fall[s] short of the vision described in its founding documents." Johnson reminds us that the Carnegie Commission for Educational Television envisioned public broadcasting as "a forum for debate and controversy,” and a venue for "for groups in the community that may otherwise be unheard.”

Yet at the end of the paragraph, Johnson concedes that "it is arguable that public broadcasting would not have survived to the present had it insisted on living up to the participatory visions of its founders." This raises the obvious question: whether the "community media" philosophy enables oppositional media to credibly and effectively compete with mainstream, commercialized media. The report explores some aspects of this problem in its conclusion.


In a section titled "What's Working," the Benton scan praises a wide variety of public and some commercial media models for developing partnerships with community groups. The document notes that community media faces many external challenges, among them the lack of a stable system of public funding and big phone company attacks on crucial resources like PEG cable access.

Despite these obstacles and threats, Johnson finds many media institutions to congratulate, among them Twin Cities Public Television for extending one of its digital channels to local and regional programs for Somali, Hmong, Hindi, and Vietnamese community broadcasters. The report mentions numerous training programs, most famously San Francisco's Bay Area Video Coalition (BAVC), Portland Community Media (PCM), and other centers that offer extensive training to media newcomers, especially youth.

But the survey also concedes that community media faces many internal challenges, which "arise from structural tensions that occur in any attempt to create organizations and cultures that embody diversity, democratic expression, and equitable access," Johnson writes.

"Rather than being expressed as 'weaknesses' as is so often the case in mainstream media and academia, these internal tensions are more properly understood as predictable developmental problems and opportunities that practitioners should be prepared to grapple with in any community media setting."

Johnson aptly frames one important challenge as "Balancing Free Expression and Audience Development." The report notes that community media often offer producers enormous freedom of expression and autonomy. But he argues that "[t]he trade-off for a culture of activist volunteerism and free expression has been smaller audiences and lower levels of production and program support. Program producers carry an intense commitment to individual ownership of their programming initiatives that may not take the audience’s interests fully to heart."

The result, as the scan diplomatically acknowledges, are fragmented programming schedules that, in my experience, often broadcast to imaginary communities rather than actual audiences.

Ironically, in order to demonstrate that there is no inherent contradiction between the democratic values of community mediaism and effective programming, Johnson cites Amy Goodman's Democracy Now as an example of such transcendence.

"Free expression and audience development are not mutually exclusive;" he writes, "nor do participatory management structures, volunteer involvement, and producer training programs need to impede audience development."

But, in fact, Democracy Now does not fit very well into several of Johnson's definitions of community media. The syndicated program is not local, focuses largely on national and international stories, and, most importantly, came into existence in the mid-1990s, when its parent, the Pacifica Foundation, faced constant charges that the organization had abandoned the principles of democratic accountability and localism with which Pacifica was allegedly created.

Indeed, by 2001 as the Pacifica network underwent a crisis that prompted the organization to adopt the democratic practices that the Benton report praises, Goodman and her team fled Pacifica station WBAI in New York City. Democracy Now now partners with Pacifica as an independent service.

"I had to leave Pacifica in order to stay with Pacifica," Goodman told me in the interview I did with her for my second book on Pacifica radio: Uneasy Listening: Pacifica Radio's Civil War. I've always thought that her decision made sense, given the internecine chaos at WBAI, torn between those who see the station as a media vanguard, and those who see it as a democratic community venue.

As with Democracy Now, I think that in general the Benton report claims too much as community media. The essay describes terms like "public media," "alternative media," "independent media," and "citizens' media" as "overlapping practices that emphasize varying priorities, but all may also qualify as community media." The scan acknowledges that one of my favorite services, Link TV, runs on satellite television, which cannot be considered community media per se. Yet Link, among other venues, "consistently run programs produced by community media activists and independent producers and represent one possible way for community media organizations to develop a national programming reach that could facilitate 'local to local' communications while developing a national network of progressive community programming," the report argues.

Obviously the community media model is available to any group of people using any technology. But I hope to see scholars map out and emphasize the possibility of other, equally legitimate models—models less focused on process and place, and more focused on results, principal among those larger audiences. Johnson notes many experiments in partnering and networking going on in community media, but I fear that the objectives of those partnerships will be hobbled by attempts to hold them to the same goals as a single, local media institution.

My own survey of the history of community media over the last nearly 60 years has led me to different conclusions than the Benton report. I think that the scan very accurately defines community media, but is overly optimistic about its potential at this time. I don't want to sound too negative. I'm willing to concede that my focus on Pacifica may have skewed my perspective. I still think that if you want to build institutions that train people excluded from mainstream media or create venues that let activists connect with each other, community media praxis will serve you, and them, well.

But if you want to build media centers that target a broad audience and try to compete with mainstream media, the community media model can bog you down in process, micromanagement, and factionalism. Community media's often legalistic definitions of accountability and access will build you a restaurant with way too many cooks and far too few patrons.

To characterize this dilemma as a predictable developmental problem begs the obvious question: Where, after almost six decades of experience, are the predictable developmental solutions? If you can't find many on the community media landscape, it's probably because they aren't there.

And so if you are a funder or an organizer on the verge of some media venture, think honestly and hard about what you really want to accomplish. I suggest that you think twice, and maybe even three times, about whether you want to crown your project with the c-word. Because community power will get you off the ground, but how high up? That's the big question.

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