Sep 242017
 

This year’s Community Media Association conference went by in something of a blur! Held at The Station in Bristol, the conference had a theme of thinking about community media as an important movement for community development, civic participation and creative expression.

Helping to organise a conference means that you don’t really get to relax to enjoy the panel discussions and the breakout session, and because there was a lot packed-in to the conference, it meant that the CAM Council team had to stay on our toes in order to make sure everyone felt welcome, included and could get what they wanted from the sessions.

The Station is a great venue, and had the right feel of informality, technical capability and accessibility. Other venues might be slicker and more corporate, but The Station had the feel that it was a hub for community activities focused on supporting young people in Bristol.

My main job was to host a panel discussion at the start of the main session. I decided to approach it like I approach my podcasts, as an informal discussion in which we could open-up any issues that concerned the panel members. We started the session by playing a video of Ishmahil Blagrove who berated the media for their coverage of the Grenfell Tower tragedy (see video below).

I was worried that this would be quite controversial, but the passion and eloquence that Ishmahil shows in his critique of the exploitation of communities by corporate media got a round of applause from the room, and it propelled us into a stronger discussion of why community media is important.

The CMA Council has a very strong team at the moment, who are all committed to developing and leading on the changes that face community media, and are increasingly recognising that these changes can only come about it community media acts as a movement for change, and not just as a service sector for government or corporate media.

I’m exhausted this morning, after a couple of beers last night, so I’m going to snooze on the train and catch up with some reading and get back to Leicester and get myself ready for the coming week of new students at DMU.

 

Sep 222017
 

This is slightly ridiculous, but this is the first time that I’ve actually been to Bristol! I’m not very well traveled, so when it was decided to hold this year’s Community Media Association Conference at The Station in Bristol, it had the double benefit of being in a place that is on my list to mooch around.

Ujima Radio offered to host the conference this year, because the building that they are part of, The Station, has some excellent facilities and an inclusive approach to training, services and support, all under one roof, in the centre of the city.

So the job today is to set-up the conference room, to learn how use the sound desk and the projector, and to make sure that we have everything working so we can run the discussion sessions and the break-out sessions.

The theme of this year’s conference is Voices in a Changing World, because we want to broaden the debate about community media. In my view it is too easy to get bogged down in managerial talk of services sectors and economic development, and to miss the important issues that drive change, and the values that people feel and wish to express.

I’m looking forward to some vibrant debate, to learning from people who have experience pushing the boundaries of community media, capturing some interviews for a podcast, and taking lots of photos. As usual I’ll be Tweeting and posting on Instagram. I’m not sure what the hashtag is yet, so watch out and join in the discussion wherever you are.

Sep 072017
 

Yesterday I organised and ran a training session with colleagues in the Media, Design and Production subject group, in the Leicester Media School. The aim of the session was to introduce and familiarise colleagues with the social media platforms that we have available, and that I’ve been developing over the last few years.

At DMU we use a WordPress blogging system that is part of the DMU Commons, which is a suit of open source and open access media platforms that students and staff can use as part of their studies, their personal development and their social interaction with one another.

The blogs that learners and staff create and share can be aggregated on a site I’ve set-up called DIY-DMU. It’s a standard WordPress site, but it has been loaded up with RSS feeds taken from the individual blogs. So every time someone wants to share blog post, if they use the DIY-DMU category feed, then it will be updated on the DIY-DMU site as well.

The idea is that in order to find out about what people are working on, what they have been up to, and how they are getting on with their learning or professional development, you only have to go to one place to see these posts. It needs a bit of work to make it more attractive and to manage the feeds to make them more accessible, so it’s under development and should improve as more people get involved.

The next platform that we looked at is the DMU Commons Wiki, which I’ve been using for a couple of years as well. This is an open resource for learners and staff to post information about themselves, their activities, their interests and their projects.

I use the wiki extensively in my modules, as it’s a great way to enhance collaboration, to provide a single and central point of information that can be easily shared, and in the process, promotes a collaborative working culture based on communities of practice and interest.

The last platform that we looked at is new – Talk. Working with Owen Williams in the ITMS development team, we’ve installed a version of Discourse, which is a chat forum platform that supports the development of online communities and collaborative discussions. The system is new, so it will be interesting to see how we can use it effectively, both as a resource for learners, and as a resource for colleagues.

The objective of developing these platforms is to support learners, researchers and colleagues to more easily interact, which has become a relevant question on the National Student Survey, which asks if learners feel they are part of a learning community. How we promote this sense of community, and what people bring to it is going to be interesting to learn about.

Aug 282017
 

Walk around any town centre in the United Kingdom and you are likely to encounter the same chain shops, the same chain cafes, the same chain restaurants and pubs. British highstreets have become zombified, they are boxed-in with chains, charity shops, pound shops, bookies and nail bars. None of which is inevitable, and none of which hasn’t occurred without choice made by governments to support a narrow and limited franchise-version of the marketplace. This is the result of tax-breaks and preferences that go to large corporations that are centralised, branded, vertically integrated and stultifying in their operational form.

The British high-street lacks diversity, it lacks independence and it lacks charm. Each town I visit has the same products on sale, from the same companies, in the same format, and for the same prices. I thought that capitalism was supposed to promote a marketplace of competing services, products and ideas? Instead, the British high-street has the flavour of Soviet Russia, with uniform businesses selling products that are chosen centrally by a committee, and which are pushed-out to consumers with a dull regularity that leaves them with little expectation of creative difference or variation.

The usual line that is trotted out is that economies of scale are what deliver low prices to consumers, but if this was the case, then those who make this argument would be making a strong case for the complete centralisation of all consumer services and the supply of all goods, as variation is so obviously wasteful. What they don’t account for are the other factors that market diversity brings, like innovation, or local identity, or tradition, or craft, or civic engagement and pride.

It used to be the case that a town or city centre would be populated with local businesses that were run by families who had a stake in the civic life of the community. The owners of these businesses, the shopkeepers and the stall holders, the managers and the suppliers, all interacted and supported the good running of the town. If you work as a manger in a chain, however, what interest would you have in being part of the civic infrastructure of a community? None as far as I can tell. You would be more interested in your relative position within the company network.

The centralisation of things like cafes and restaurants has had a knock-on effect, as all the marketing and publicity work that could otherwise be done locally is locked-up in the headquarters of the holding company. This might be in London or New York, but it’s not driven by local ideas and using local design services and skills. The centralised market is therefore a poor experience for consumers, while simultaneously hollowing-out any allied or associated businesses that might develop around them.

Dull and repetitive marketing patterns emerge that are reliant on large-scale marketing, a rapacious speculative property system, and a de-localisation of services. When we walk along a British town centre high-street, the shops and the cafes with the most money spent on them are all the same. There is little variation. They are homogenised and identikit. To put it bluntly, they are boring and suck the joy out of life. They dominate the market and all that is left is for charity shops and fast-food shops to fill the void. This is hardly a successful and innovative market environment in which new suppliers can emerge and offer different types of products or services that meet more local needs. Its differentiation by global brand, not by innovation, and it’s boring.

So, what can we do about it? Well here’s a couple of ideas that rely on some simple changes to our corporate tax laws and which use the market mechanism to foster a different culture of enterprise. There is an economic model that isn’t discussed a great deal these days, but it is actually one of the founding principles of the European Union, though it doesn’t get a lot of attention these days. Distributionism says that those things that can be done at the lowest level of society, should be done at the lowest level of society.

For example, in 2008 when the financial crash hit, Thornton’s the chocolate retailer had one thousand stores across the UK. They nearly went broke and had to flood the market with cheap products in order to get cash into the company. Remember the stacks of boxes of mass produced chocolate that stood in supermarkets and petrol station shops? In one fell-swoop this bloated and centralised company, churning out its factory produced chocolate would have gone bust, with the jobs and associated services it would take with it.

However, if we had a distributionist model of retail businesses in the UK, and rather than running a national chain of chocolate shops, there would be a network of independent and family-run businesses, some of whom might have gone bust, but many who would have survived. They would be making and producing their chocolate products locally, they would have embedded local skills, they would be part of a civic network, they would be family oriented, and so on. If Thornton’s goes bust the loss of skills is negligible in each of the towns they are based. It is a simple retail operation that can easily be reproduced. In a sense, the only skill needed to run a Thornton’s shop is to stack shelves and cash-up the till.

Centralisation and economies of scale are not the answer. Diversity and innovation don’t come from companies that are vertically integrated and centralised. In Leicester, the independent coffee shops are cheaper than the chains. So the price mechanism argument doesn’t hold water either. If the market was about competing on price, why is so much price conformity in the UK so consistent, with the exception of London that seems to demand a premium, the prices in the coffee chains around the UK are consistent and don’t vary much. It’s contradictory that people argue on the one hand for market flexibility, while on the other hand they apply universalist prices?

There is a rule of thumb that we can use to enforce more local provision and local market mechanisms, and it fits with the distributionist principle quite well. Malcolm Gladwell described it in the Tipping Point, when he explained the one hundred and fifty rule. This is the general number of people who can form a social network or community without having to impose bureaucratic management systems. At no more than one hundred and fifty people in an organisation or a community, it can be managed through inter-personal relationships and connections. People who have different roles and do different types of work in these companies or communities get to know each other, they can relate to each other, and they can interact directly with each other.

So here is my list of suggestions for changes in the UK retail and services sector: Apply distributionist principles by applying the one hundred and fifty people rule. This means that any retail business that employs more than one hundred and fifty people faces progressively higher taxes. If a business grows to employ more than this number of people, then it has two options, to pay more tax on these roles, or to split and subdivide the companies into separate and autonomous units that are managed independently and sustainably from within the new company.

This means breaking-up the vertically integrated product and services model, and reinstating a network of independent businesses that can choose between suppliers in an open and transparent marketplace. The large manufacturers and producers would be able to sell their services and products to these companies, but they would not be able to tie them into contractual relationships that prevent alternative suppliers or service providers also entering the market. The choice and the responsibility for getting this right would be that of the people working in the local business. If they get it wrong, they lose their jobs.

Another couple of actions would be necessary to help this work. Firstly, any form of undeclared labour must be taxed, not on the profits of the company, but on its operational revenue. How is it that in the UK, customers are forced to do the work of the companies that are selling them their products, and making profits from them? Standing in queues at counters is a form of undeclared labour that these companies benefit from.

We need a queue or a tray tax, something that will dissuade businesses from ripping-off their customers by making them do the work. It is quite common across the rest of the world for customers to be seated and served at their table. In fact, it is more efficient and more pleasant. Standing at a counter or a bar is a way of a company getting its customers to do their work for them.

Customers in bars and cafes should always be seated and served at their table. This would limit the number of customers that can be serviced at any one time, and push-out customers into other businesses, and would be regulated by the price mechanism. The more popular a café or bar, the more they can charge. Those who wish to compete can do, but on the basis of either price or innovation, and not by abusing their market position and crowding-out competition as happens far too often now.

One additional factor has to happen to make this work. When a bar, café or fast food shop sets up, it must offer seating and toilet facilities, and it must use washable plates and cutlery as the cheaper option for eating. This means taxing disposable and transportable containers that just end up in the bin. It is a job for someone to wash these dishes and clear these tables. It is social contact for people who eat in cafes and sit with a proper meal. It is good business sense to spread and open the market so that it is sustainable and independent, rather than centralised and corporately managed.

Whatever happens with Brexit, the culture of the service industries have got to change in the UK. This can only be done, however, by turning the market mechanism around on itself, decentralising, breaking the vertical stranglehold, ending the franchise model, promoting local and family ownership, applying sustainable principles to waste, applying sociability principles to service delivery, and getting people to spend more time relaxing and enjoying these services. This is not an anti-business agenda, its more pro-business than the dumb system we cling to at the moment. It’s time to change it.

Aug 232017
 
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I’m not sure this really tells anything about being in Nantes, other than some of the music I’ve been listening to as I’ve wandered around. Tracks include: OMD, Lou Reed, Brian Eno, Prefab Sprout, Roxy Music, Melanie De Biasio, Max Richter, Arcade Fire, The Beatles, Blood Orange, Yo La Tengo, Robert Fripp & Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush, Beyond the Wizards Sleeve, Pet Shop Boys, David Bowie.

Aug 202017
 
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Yesterday I visited the Musee D’Arts De Nantes, which has recently reopened after a major refurbishment. I wanted to share my thoughts about this gallery, as it is well worth visiting and taking time to learn about. Music in this podcast includes: Fujiya & Miyagi, U2, Snow atrol, Talking Heads, Simon and Garfunkel, Roxy Music, New Order and more.

Aug 172017
 
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I’m having a break in Nantes, in France and I thought I would put together a couple of podcasts while I’m here. With a selection of music that I’ve had on my playlist as I mooch around, stuff I’m reading, and some thoughts on the places that I’m visiting.

 

Jun 282017
 

The horror of the Grenfell Tower fire has highlighted for us all the issue of social marginalisation and voice poverty. If you need evidence of how divided communities in this country are, the proof is staring at us in the form of the smouldering shell of a tower block that was once home to hundreds of families who had settled in London in the hope of building a better life.

But if people living in the richest borough in London are not being heard or understood, how many other people and communities up and down the United Kingdom are likewise not getting heard?

The shock of what has just taken place in London should be a worry for us all. Not just for what it says about fire regulation and social policy, but for what it says about communities that have important issues to talk about, and who want to contribute to the ongoing debates about what makes us stronger.

After years of vilification and whipped-up hatred by politicians and newspapers, often to suit narrow political or business interests, it has taken a disaster of this magnitude to see through the deception that being poor isn’t, and never has been, a free-ride.

The stark fact has come to the fore, that people and communities across the United Kingdom are seemingly powerless to act against entrenched local authority bureaucracy, especially when it is entwined with deregulated and unaccountable commercial business interests.

Having been excluded from national debates, vilified for their social differences, or worse, disregarded as legitimate citizens, the anger that is being expressed on the streets of Kensington and Chelsea is understandable. If you push down on people for long enough, eventually they will push back.

This means that the challenge of living together in harmony, in integrated communities, for the mutual benefit of all, is back on the agenda as the defining worry of our age. However, after almost a decade of austerity, the absence of practical support for shared social cooperation, which promotes understanding and mutual engagement, has meant that our communities are more divided and more disenchanted.

None of this is helped by the centralised, concentrated and narrow model of media regulation that we have in the UK, which is clearly not fit for the purpose of community self-representation. The market-based model of local media is letting us down.

Everywhere there has been a hollowing-out of local representation. Local newspapers are put together from press-releases in distant towns. Local radio stations regurgitate nostalgic chat and play-listed music that is a comfort blanket for some, but an irrelevance for many.

Social media is the disrupting influence in this process, as social media platforms are able to demonstrate a proliferation of voices, issues, creativity, obduracy, concern, and anger. Social media has given a platform for many different alternative voices to come forward, though this is a process that can work both ways.

The expression of consternation and indignation that is being voiced, however, is as likely to come from the right – with those who want to exclude marginalised communities and demonise them – as much as it comes from those on the left, who want to embrace and celebrate social differences.

The alternative to a trusted and responsive media, we are so often told, is to share our own news and ideas on social media. But this has also highlighted that many of our traditional media outlets, newspapers and broadcasters, have too much in common, and are chasing the same narrow expectations of shareholder value and profit.

The concentration of ownership of British media, in the hands of fewer and fewer multinational corporations, that are all chasing the same advertising revenues, means that audiences are only ever considered in ways that are constricted, homogenous and static, all to please their sponsors.

It’s frustrating then, that community media is seldom acknowledged as a practical and sustainable alternative to mainstream media. Especially as community media is well placed as a community movement that embraces diversity, self-expression and shared cultural understanding.

Had community media been able to provide a space for voices blocked by the mainstream media and political parties, then the simmering resentment that resulted in the Brexit vote might have found an outlet. Instead, the mainstream media where preoccupied by a wave of jingoistic nationalism that failed to pick-up on the experience of many people living in the left-behind communities who have not shared in the new prosperity offered to only a few by the free market.

Community media in the United Kingdom, however, is desperately underfunded and actively marginalised by speculative commercial interests. If young people and others are turning to extremism as they search for radical answers, because they can feel that they are part of something, then we need to invest in alternatives media spaces that cuts-off extremism and renews our sense of community as an active and enriching set of social practices.

In Germany, the Federal Agency for Civic Education gets federal funding in order to promote understanding of political issues, intensify awareness of democratic cultures, and promotes the political process as something that all citizens can participate in.

Clearly, work needs to be done so that communities are able to share information in responsible ways, be media literate, and learn to question what they are told. But it is only by investing in community-led solutions, that offer people a chance to learn about each other, founded on the ability to participate in the life of their neighbourhood, its civic life, that we are able to renew and strengthen our sense of community.

Community media is a movement of people who want to see change through locally empowered and self-determined voices that are accountable through local participation in media of all kinds. Community media is a movement of people who think globally, but act locally. Community media is a movement that calls for all parties aspiring to government to invest in social and civic spaces that they can cherish.

Community media is about recognising and supporting the right to speak out, about giving back control of media to local communities. Allowing communities to hold their representatives and administrators to account. Investing in support for high quality, grassroots journalism. Including young people in the democratic process. Valuing all voices, from all backgrounds and abilities. Demystify media and the structures built around it. Changing the broadcasting regulations to support wider debate is now essential.

Access to community media should be seen as a right, and not dismissed as a hobby or plaything. But community media can only contribute to the building of a better society if people have time to volunteer, and the resources to discuss, debate and question issues that are relevant to them.

By offering widespread community media opportunities everywhere, and for all people, it will be possible to reach people who are held at the margins, especially those who other media do not understand or cannot represent. Community media is about promoting access for everyone, regardless of age, gender, race, ability, income or any other factor.

This means maintaining the core principles of community radio, which means that there is an alternative media movement that is not run by the state, that is not for profit, which is locally owned and accountable, and which can lead the way in bringing about deeper social change. As media technologies change, such as community television, or small-scale digital radio, we have to ensure that communities have priority over narrow commercial interests.

Funding for community media has to be increased substantially. Ofcom presently gives £400,00 each year to support community radio in the UK, but the BBC spends ten times that on taxis each year. We need to establish flexible and dedicated funds for all types of community media projects, channels and groups, that support reasonable and fair payments for the services community media provide, through training programmes and the promotion of community development campaigns.

Investing in education and learning opportunities through and with community media means recognising community media’s contribution to our civic and social life. Celebrating and valuing the achievements of the community media movement in a way that cherishes the positive impact we can all have on the wellbeing of individuals and communities, is essential.

By working closely with government and community focussed partners it is possible to embed and secure new opportunities for community media participation. Being included in all important conversations about regulation, legislation and resource planning is essential.

Principally, this is about promoting the development and use of existing and emerging media platforms for sharing the creative work of communities. This is not just about mirroring the way that mainstream media works, but instead, it’s about how we understand and support the artistic and creative value of community media, in which we are able to provide physical and virtual spaces for communities to take creative risk and find their voice.

Those of us in the community media movement know there is a different way, and that ordinary people can collaborate, work together on independent platforms, that are owned and run by local communities. Community media has been quietly growing in the background across the United Kingdom, using alternative business models that are not driven solely by advertising, but that embrace the work and the vitality of social enterprises, that increase access, thereby earning money from training, running inclusive membership schemes, and much more.

Community media has been desperately underfunded. The community media movement has to fight for the meagre resources that it’s got. However, community media tells us something about the way forward. That the ownership of media needs to be with everyone and not just a few. People need to tell their own stories, recognising that our differences and our diversity are our strengths.

May 152017
 
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Hey, this week Dave and myself just chatted a bit about some music, played some music and then chatted about where’s good to mooch in Leicester on a bike.

May 082017
 
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After missing last weeks episode of the Round the Counter podcast because I was ill, this week we are back with a bang, or should that be a rant. This week Dave Weight, Ben Archer and Rob Watson spent most of our time talking about the dysfunction of British politics. We got so engrossed that we even forgot to play any music. We’ll rectify that next week.