Community Media a Public Good or a Commercial Activity?

I’ve always assumed that community media is a social good in its own right, and that the benefits of collaboratively produced media can be clearly seen by public policy makers and service providers. If only they are confident enough to look and see what is achieved when ordinary people get together and produce media content and services for themselves and the communities in which they live. In thinking about the role that collaborative and community media plays out socially, then, I’ve been visiting different community media groups in Leicester, and started to find out to what extent community media is perceived to be on a sound and sustainable footing?

One of the defining principles on which community media is founded, is the central role of the volunteer. This comes through in conversation time and time again, and is written into the fundamental principles of community radio by Ofcom from the start. Community radio was set-up as a vehicle for volunteers to get together and provide broadcast media services for their local community on a not-for-profit basis. And because the principle of the volunteer is central to community media, there is often no way that a community media group can easily explain or justify their activities. There is seldom an obvious, fixed commercial or management imperative that community media volunteers can use to explain what they do. The question arises, then, to what extent can the activities of community media volunteers be understood when there is no straightforward or narrow commercial business case that can be made?

If community media is only to be measured against corporate commercial activity it can be easily dismissed and disregarded. A lot of the activities of community media are regarded as peripheral and marginal and are felt to be of little interest to the commercial sector. Indeed, the commercial sector is said to be able to provide the solutions that are sought in the marketplace if sufficient numbers of users are wiling to bid for them and pay for them. It has to be asked, however, to what extent are community media groups realised and supported by people who want to engage in, and work towards, alternative ideas of the public good? These are ideas that seek to undertake activities for the benefit of civic society and community, but which cannot be appropriated by the profit motive or the logic of operational efficiency and managed public services, at least without diminishing them and the value they are based on.

Is it possible, then, to look at the community media sector and draw comparisons about it’s place and role in contemporary civic life, and then draw parallels with other forms of social engagement? F.S. Michaels in his book Monoculture describes how traditionally the library was the “people’s university, the great equaliser in society – the place where you could access books and learn for free regardless of your income” (p.57). Michaels describes how the library “embodied intellectual freedom, the idea that you should be able to think and believe what you want. Because of that belief in intellectual freedom, diverse views – even those of that were ‘unorthodox, unpopular, or considered dangerous by the majority’ – were deemed to be in the public interest, and the library became a place where you could find alternative and competing points of view on a given issue” (p.57).

In more recent years, though, according to Michaels, libraries have been subject to widespread privatisation and redefinition, along the lines of transactional management value and efficiency in a marketised economy. Rather than thinking of libraries as a public good because they support the free exchange of ideas and civic discussion, libraries are now more likely to be viewed as an ‘information service’ providing access to recreational, information and management services for individual consumers. Continuing public investment in libraries is now only justified under the logic of the ‘service-level-agreements’, ‘efficiency targets’, ‘executive corporatisation’ and the primacy of the idea of the ‘customer’.

According to Michaels, the seemingly inexorable march of the markets means that the “public sector and the private sector are no longer distinct areas of activity that ought to be managed differently.” Instead, the “public sector and the private sector are in the same sector: private” (62). If this is the case, is it surprising that community media struggles to make a sustained case for public investment outside of the efficient management and transactional services ideology? Is it possible, then, to hold back the forces of market-driven consumerisation of public services and to define community media as an alternative social activity? An activity that is set apart from the profit motive and the management efficiency monoculture? I’m not holding my breath that I can easily answer questions like this, but it’s going to be interesting to find out how this debate makes sense to the people who volunteers in the community media sector.

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