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Thursday, May 19, 2005 06:07 pm

Consider the alternative

Democracy Now! staffer Tamiko Beyer takes it to the streets in St. Louis during last weekend’s National Conference on Media Reform.

Like many communities, San Antonio, Texas, has a split personality, says Latina student activist DeAnne Cuellar. Although Hispanics account for 70 percent of the population, they show up time and again in local news not for their achievements or leadership but in stories portraying crime, drugs, and violence.

“We felt misrepresentation is erasing our history, making people forget we exist in society,” Cuellar says.

But instead of shrugging it off, Cuellar and others organized the Texas Media Empowerment Project to give Hispanics and “communities of color” the voice she felt they lacked.

Today the project monitors local news channels to increase awareness of unbalanced reporting, supports new perspectives and alternative media, nurtures minority leaders, and encourages the community to participate in the news and set media policy.

“It’s all about building personal community alliances and networks to share information,” says Cuellar of the organization, which was started on a shoestring. “If you don’t have money or funding, what you do have is people, and that’s unlimited.”

In fact, as newspapers lose readers and consumption of mainstream media continues to decline, independent media — often run by volunteers — is sprouting all over America.

Activists say communities are taking the news into their own hands to combat a corporate media that often replaces in-depth reporting with entertainment, personalities, and punditry.

“It’s not that I’m uninterested in the world; it’s the world as covered by this news outlet isn’t interesting to me,” says wireless expert Sascha Meinrath, who co-founded Champaign-Urbana’s open-source mesh network community wireless and Urbana’s soon-to-launch low-power FM station. “Let’s talk about stories that are not making it into our newspapers, are not on the radio and are ignored by the national press.”

In communities as far-flung as Champaign-Urbana and Bloomington-Normal to Brattleboro, Vt.; Asheville, N.C.; and Oakland, Calif., local advocates are bypassing corporate-owned media, using a variety of forms: alternative community-run newspapers, Internet news sites that follow an “open publishing” format, wireless networks, and low-power FM radio. Local activists say that media control is often necessary to ensure that community issues — from politics to zoning to the environment — are understood, addressed, and debated.

“What is really happening here is a dramatic democratization of the means of communication in our society,” says Dr. Mark Cooper, an expert on communication technology and policy at the Consumer Federation of America. “Computers, communication off the Internet, and the declining costs of digital production have transformed consumers into producers [and] listeners into speakers. We are putting the ‘mass’ in the mass media for the first time in our history — that is a revolution that is just beginning.”

A search for solutions

Cooper, Meinrath, and Cuellar mingled in St. Louis last weekend with 2,500 other journalists, authors, professors, filmmakers, politicians, activists, and advocates at the sold-out National Conference on Media Reform, sponsored by the non-partisan group Free Press. The goal: to identify media shortcomings and share solutions.

Many national figures at the conference, such as Amy Goodman, host of Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now!, praised grassroots media as “trickle-up” journalism that can alter corporate coverage. She singled out Meinrath’s efforts in Urbana-Champaign as part of a larger “indy media” movement capable of shining a spotlight on essential issues.

“It is our job to go where the silence is,” Goodman says. “It is absolutely critical that we have a media in this country that broadcasts the voices of those at the target end of U.S. foreign and domestic policy.”

On the national level, Goodman issued a call to “un-imbed” reporters from one-sided military positions in Iraq and restore dissent and debate as the cornerstones of a democratic society.

“We have hundreds of reporters imbedded in the front lines with troops,” she says. “What about in Iraqi communities and hospitals and in the peace movement around the world to understand the implications and repercussions of war?”

Two members of the Federal Communications Commission — Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps — also advised conference participants to demand that the FCC conduct community meetings and open debate before rewriting rules that regulate the public airwaves and media ownership.

“If citizens insist upon their rightful role in the decision-making process, the citizens will win, but that’s the only way we will win,” says Copps, adding that the FCC was shocked to receive 3 million letters on media concentration.

“If we roll up our sleeves — all of us advocates, creative artists, elected officials, consumers, citizens everywhere — we can settle this issue of who is going to control the media and for what purposes, and we can settle it in favor of airwaves of, by and for the people of this great country.”

But Adelstein and Copps tend to be the FCC’s dissenting voices. It took Meinrath more than three years of lobbying to win a low-power FM station license for WRFU (104.5 FM), which will launch June 19 with public affairs and local programming. First he had to fight off objections from the National Association of Broadcasters that Urbana’s 100-watt station would interfere with the signals of 100,000-watt commercial broadcasters.

“When they have you outgunned in Washington 100-1, it’s hard to even get the ears of the policymakers who make these decisions,” Meinrath says.

Unlike expensive radio conglomerates, low-power stations are often staffed by volunteers and are “incredibly cheap to build and to run,” he says, costing about $2,000 per year. The new station will tie into the local area network with media-production and storage capabilities and will be housed along with a resource library, audio- and video-production facilities, and other community resources in a downtown Urbana building recently purchased by the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center Foundation.

Radio Free Brattleboro, in southern Vermont, took a different route to community broadcasting. The station started with a single watt — later increasing to 10 watts — on the unused FM frequency 107.9 for almost five years before FCC agents knocked on the station’s door.

“In this case, we feel we are doing what we are obliged to do — that is, assert and exercise our rights to the airwaves,” says RFB organizer and activist Sara Longsmith. “Every community has the right to broadcast the voices of the community to itself.”

But the station was unable to produce the license or “authority to broadcast” that the FCC demanded, so Longsmith spearheaded an effort to demonstrate its “authority” through a petition drive, Town Council support, and a community-wide referendum. Hitting the streets for signatures, the drive connected the station’s volunteer staff to the town’s passive listeners, gathering widespread support along with 3,000 signatures that would be court evidence of the station’s right to broadcast. Although a final verdict has not been rendered, the station won a victory and remains on the air.

“The federal judge was not convinced by the FCC that we harmed the federal government enough,” she says. “Basically he said that shutting us down would harm the community more.”

Thinking, acting locally

Many activists say that they’re less alarmed about access to alternative national and international news, which can be found on the Internet. But what drove them to community media was a lack of information and insight on issues in their own back yards.

For John K. Wilson, founder of the Indy in Bloomington-Normal and a contributor to Illinois Times, community media can explore and continually update local issues long after that topic has faded from the pages of the mainstream press.

The print and Web versions of the Indy are funded as a student club within Illinois State University but were recently granted IMC affiliation because the open-access Web site invites community-wide opinions and participation. The newspaper is printed 25 to 30 times a year, entirely from community posts on the Indy’s Web site, and some 4,000 copies per issue are distributed on a budget of $10,000 annually, according to Wilson.

“I don’t have a problem with ‘infotainment’ news that some people do,” he explains. “My concern is not that that kind of news exists but that other kinds of news are dying away — the kind of investigative news, the kind of alternative viewpoints that are not getting heard.”

Wally Bowen brings a similar vision to Asheville, N.C.’s Mountain Area Information Network, which builds infrastructure such as low-power FM, free radio, and community Internet that links to alternative print media.

“Our vision is to be able to take the independent progressive voices that will appear on public-access television and make them available online 24/7, so if you have a group that does an independent program video on clean air or whatever the issue is, they don’t just get that one appearance on public-access TV but that voice continues to be online through video streaming,” Bowen says.

Conference speakers both national and local called for a free press that can withstand debate, help the public make sense of the issues, and enable the best ideas and solutions to emerge.

Journalist Bill Moyers joined those urging an independent press unfettered by partisan politics. He and his PBS news show NOW have been under continuous Republican attack even after he stepped down in December, he said. So he altered travel plans to address the conference and beseech PBS to stand by its charter of airing alternative and underrepresented viewpoints.

“An unconscious people, an indoctrinated people, a people only fed partisan information and opinion that confirm their own bias, a people made morbidly obese in mind and spirit by the junk food of propaganda is less inclined to put up a fight, ask questions and be skeptical,” Moyers observed in a speech that closed the conference.

“Just as a democracy can die of too many lies, that kind of orthodoxy can kill us, too.”

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