Canned radio: It's not exactly a recipe for democracy. Nor is it that nice community feel you get from discussing politics at your local coffee shop. From one end of the FM dial to the other and across the AM spectrum it all tastes about the same, media critics say: Pre-programmed pop, bland commentary, tasteless menu options and too few voices delivering a rotten media for the masses. Radio watchers have scorned local radio programming options for decades, likening the on-air options to a newspaper chain that takes its marching orders from an out-of-state-based parent company. Scorn still surrounds radio talk, but this time, some folks are doing something about the limited radio fare in the name of community, democracy, art and just plain fun. They say one station could even change the fabric of politics and the meaning of community in the Treasure Valley.
Jeff Abrams works in an almost naked, seemingly way-too-large office in the back of a building that among other things, houses a furniture store and a massage therapist's office. It looks as though Jeff and company barely unpacked, or at least didn't unpack much: An old table, chairs here and there. A computer. A table of bare-bones audio equipment. A human-sized bar graph. The Boise Community Radio Project lives lean these days. The large bar graph-tracking incoming funds to the project aimed at putting local voices on the air-sports just a baby-sized bar. The Project hasn't had time to add height to that bar lately or to their current $45,000 operating budget. They're still knee deep into making the most of two recent accomplishments: The acquisition of office space that doubles as a production studio and an up-and-running Web site that broadcasts an early version what they hope soon becomes part of the local airwaves. Boise Community Radio aims to broadcast on air sometime in 2006.
Community media supporters consider the office and Web site a major feat for the group that spent their initial years visiting coffee shops, university classes and street fairs drumming up support and cash for a media concept Boiseans had never heard the likes of on a local radio frequency. Some of the committed threw in $150 here and there or just chipped in what they could, while Abrams ditched a cushy state job to assume the position of executive director and wear just about every other hat that comes with the insane workload of any start-up, non-profit organization. So far, it's paid off in the form a dedicated, albeit small listener base. Abrams navigated the computer at the office/studio on a recent afternoon and counted the number of listeners plugged into the Boise Community Radio Project Webcast: Five.
Abrams knows all about counting things: donation dollars, grant money, listeners, fish. He considers the latter responsible for the Boise Community Radio Project as we know it today. The story begins at a Fish and Game hatchery, where Abrams worked as a biologist:
"I tell people I'm working for the fish, just in a different capacity. I felt much more passionate about being an advocate rather than an objective observer."
Who's media is it anyway?
Orthodox journalism practices would deny Abrams' lean toward fish advocacy. "Remove yourself from the story and tell both sides of the issue," reporters hear in journalism school. Never mind that such attempts often polarize issues and deny readers and listeners the depth of individual experiences. An objective media just doesn't exist, critics say. Calls that decide which reporters are hired and assigned to the stories editors select and the questions journalists ask all entail some degree of subjectivity. Or as idealist philosophers put it: You can't remove the knower from the known. And objectivity has little to do with mass media and democracy, says Matt Dewey, Treasure Valley Public Access Television (TVTV) program production coordinator. You'll find an agenda behind almost any medium, Dewey says, whether it's the people's agenda, a producer's agenda, a CEO's agenda or the agenda of one of the five chains that own the bulk of the nation's media outlets.
"We should just get rid of this whole objectivity thing, and let's just have a liberal radio and let's have a conservative radio. And let's just call it these things," Dewey says.
Can we call the Boise Community Radio Project progressive radio? Yes, volunteers say. Can we tune into Boise Community Radio for show after show of dogmatic preaching? Not likely. Can anyone get on the BCRP Webcast and air, much like the folks at TVTV, and broadcast whatever they want-or as Dewey put it, aim the camera at a wall and hum? Not likely. The public can get on the Webcast and call the medium their own, but their programming must first align with the community-oriented mission of the Boise Community Radio Project before gaining free rein over the mic.
But now that we're over this idea of an objective media, we can dig into what Abrams says media should be all about: community and democracy.
A MEDIA FOR THE PEOPLE AND BY THE PEOPLE
"A free and vibrant media full of diverse and competing voices is the lifeblood of America's democracy and culture, as well as an engine of growth for it's economy," goes the preamble of the "Bill of Media Rights," a document nearly a hundred organizations and businesses, including including newspapers, churches, universities and writers' guilds signed last winter.
The Boise Community Radio Project subscribes to the document, which calls on the media to serve the public interest, reflect and respond to the local community and provide an "uninhibited marketplace of ideas." The Bill of Media Rights speaks of promoting diversity in media ownership and the facilitation of democracy by media outlets.
If you align with Matt Dewey in his assertion that "Democracy in my eyes is access. I think it's the media's role to facilitate that access," or with the Golden Age notion of democracy as a rule of the people by the people, it's hard not to make the connection between media and democracy. Thomas Jefferson was among the early American leaders who wrote of it, noting, "When people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government." Folks from Jefferson's camp considered the free flow of information so important to democracy that they established free shipping rates for newspaper and magazines through the U.S. postal service.
But the well-informed turned into the well-entertained. A series of massive media corporate consolidations has, according to the Media Bill of Rights, "dangerously contracted the number of voices." We live in a time of unprecedented media access with dish TV, cable TV, thick Sunday newspapers and voices up and down the radio dial. But according to the Bill of Media Rights, the vast majority of the nation's news is commercially produced and controlled by a handful of media conglomerates seeking mainly to maximize profits.
As Dewey observes, "250 channels does not mean you have democracy."
Abrams says community-controlled media may be the only resemblance of that "free and vibrant" media.
Creating community via airwaves
Journalism school grads usually enters medialand idealistic and full of public service sensibilities. Their philosophy of reportage often aligns with that of pragmatist philosopher John Dewey when he wrote, "the media's job is to interest the public in their own interest." Yet somewhere down the road, some of these media idealists become the scribes of business interests, writers of advertorials and producers of infotainment. Or as Abrams says, "The people are not represented in the media anymore. They (media) are a lap dog rather than a watchdog."
If you think radio should sound like something more than "the top 40," "five in a row," or "the countdown," and aim for something more than "the number one music station," you've got to give the tuner on that radio dial a good workout these days. You won't find many radio voices of talking about a city council meeting or happenings at the local animal shelter. That's the radio of yesteryear, community producers say. Journalists have to pay their rent, and national media happens to sign their paycheck. But can a local medium that gets its marching orders from an out-of-state mega media corporation easily to stir folks to political action or lift masses from the depths of apathy? No, says Abram. Just take a look at your local daily. How many locally produced news stories can you find? Start counting; you might find there to be fewer of them than Abrahm's online listeners.
Abrams can see why journalists would be ready to run from corporate media big wigs. "Corporations are designed to return shareholder value," he notes. "(Corporate media) tends to be so governed by the bottom line that there's so much superficial coverage."
Some reporters do run. Abrams just hopes the escapees find independent, community-orientated mediums to voice or print their reporting. Boise Community Radio Project could be that refuge and space for reporting what's happening in your backyard, Abrams says. "The best journalism is being done by independent journalists and independent producers, who are in short supply."
While J-school-trained independent reporters are in short supply, community members are not. In fact, a few have already helped put community news on the BCRP Webcast. And since community media doesn't always subscribe to the old school tenants of journalistic objectivity, news is news whether it comes filtered from a reporter or straight from the source's mouth as what happened just weeks into the Boise Community Radio Project's Webcast launch.
There Abrams was, strolling down the streets of downtown when he happened to run into the executive director of another local nonprofit who happened to have some news to spread. Did Abrams summons an editorial meeting, assign a reporter to the story or demand a press release? No. Abrams got the info straight from the source and aired the news, unadulterated, within minutes. Abrams uses the story not only to demonstrate the speed of Webcast and radio delivery but as an example of community participation at Boise Community Radio. If you're a newsmaker and shaker, or an average observer, and you're used to waiting for reporters to respond to your press release, wait no more. Swing by the BCRP Main Street studio, make your announcement and consider yourself a community herald. And if your knees shake at the thought of being misquoted, fear not. It's pretty hard to misquote yourself when you're the broadcaster.
For folks behind the community radio movement, public access isn't just about bypassing the typical filters of news reporting or responding to issues other media outlets won't cover. It's about building community.
Hannah Sassaman, organizer with The Prometheus Radio Project, a nonprofit organization created by radio activists to facilitate the growth of the Free Radio Movement, recalls how one radio station changed the lives of an entire community. The Prometheus Radio Project gained fame in the radio community for its "barn-raisings" or the almost overnight building of low-power radio stations in communities across the nation. Sassaman recalls one Florida barn-raising that pulled a disenfranchised group of farmworkers together over the airwaves. Community radio allowed the workers to engage in lengthy discussions that could never fit in your typical news broadcast and steer the dialogue around their issues rather that wait for commercial media to do if for them. The tiny radio station worked to mobilize these and other nearby farmworkers and solidify community ties between neighbors. It didn't take many barn-raisings for Sassaman to come to the conclusion that low-power radio stations are a necessary community resource as vital as any local hospital or public swimming pool.
"When you have a local institution, something that only covers 10 to 15 miles, you can really have that institution focus in on town politics, on town activities and town culture. Most full-power radio stations cover anywhere from 15 to 250 and even more miles," Sassaman says. "And in those situations, you don't have the kind of localism, the truly local coverage, the truly local engagement."