Media: by the people

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by Susan Gleason and Jonathan Lawson, A Matter of Spirit

In a time when newspaper circulation is dropping nationwide and commercial radio stations are bracing against perceived competition from new technologies such as satellite radio and podcasting, many news consumers are choosing nontraditional sources of news to augment or even replace mainstream newspapers and network broadcasts. Community-run radio stations are drawing new and dedicated listeners to alternative news programs like Democracy Now!. Community media audiences seek out and support media that are unafraid to challenge corporate and state power - media that serve the public's right to know over and above the interests of shareholders or advertisers. Fortunately, independent media is on the rise.

These media alternatives are on the rise for a number of reasons. Critical viewers and listeners seek respite from the cheap reiterations of sensationalistic stories which crowd out more substantial news on commercial networks. At the same time, all news outlets are suffering from increasing public distrust, which has been fueled in part by (mostly disingenuous) cries of "liberal bias!" from the political right, but also by the media's own frequent failures to address marginalized constituencies, such as working class people, people of color and women, on their own terms.

Community-based alternatives provide a venue for information relatively free from commercial concerns, and from the indistinct but ever-present filters of the largest corporate-owned media networks. Independent media journalists are often more inclined to freely criticize powerful interests, particularly government and corporate power, than in corporate media institutions.

Corporate media make billions of dollars in advertising, syndication and ancillary revenues. In contrast, independent and community media are generally funded by the passionate, appreciative reading/viewing/listening audiences they serve. Many of these media organizations are non-profits and must supplement their audience support with donations and foundation grants. Many independent media producers volunteer their labor or work for negligible compensation.

Northwest Independent Media

Our northwest region enjoys a long history of diverse, enterprising, independent media voices, including groundbreaking labor and radical publications like the Union Record, La Expresion and the Helix. Dozens of community-based publications, radio shows, and public access programs today serve ethnic communities, neighborhoods, and community networks in our region. Northwest-based YES! Magazine, Grist, and Eat the State! serve national as well as local audiences���the same goes for weblogs such as David Neiwert's Orcinus and Jeff Reifman's CommonBits. The region also contributed to the birth of the freeform radio movement with the now-defunct KRAB-FM (to which Portland's KBOO and Everett's KSER trace their lineage).

Today, the region's community radio stations - noncommercial, listener-supported, nonreligious and often volunteer-staffed - provide the most diverse programming and much of the best public affairs programming. Stations like Vancouver Coop Radio, Bellevue's KBCS, and Spokane's KYRS offer community members the chance to make their own radio to entertain and inform a diverse range of listeners, and to train a new generation of citizen media makers. Dozens of new local, noncommercial Low Power FM (LPFM) stations are on the air already in our region, with many more under construction or awaiting permits.

Yet, for their valued diversity, many of these stations are chronically under-resourced - lacking the network structure of NPR stations or the funding base of commercial stations. A new project, spearheaded by Reclaim the Media and KBCS, hopes to raise the profile of community radio in our region, by helping regional stations establish a Northwest Community Radio Network - the first such collaboration in the United States. The result will be another step forward in the expansion of a citizen-based, grassroots media system geared for participation, collaboration and democracy.

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