In its 2008 report entitled “Fighting Poverty: Utilizing Community Media in a Digital Age,” the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters features a piece by Bruce Girard, a community based media expert. His essay, “Community Radio, New Technologies and Policy,” lays out a brief history of community radio in relation to its growth over time thanks to both technological and policy based advancements. He laments the fact, however, that at the time of publishing, community radio stations across the globe were not doing enough to take advantage of significant innovation and interest within the ICT (information communication technology) world. The essay concludes with a number of recommended policies that will help community radio grow and help surrounding communities flourish via technology.
When reading this essay in the context of Robert Downing’s “Radical Media: Rebellious Communications and Social Movements,” it’s important to first understand whether or not Downing would consider Girard’s examples of community radio as “radical.” Downing notes in chapter four that while community may have a broad range of definitions (he even cites local radio stations’ use of “community”), when it comes to radical media, the term “community” works to exclude the mainstream media.
As such, it’s a bit fuzzy on where Downing would place Girard’s radio stations on the spectrum of radical to mainstream. On the one hand, Girard never calls his stations out as working to exclude main stream media. On the other, one of his first examples of a policy which favors community radio is that of saving the lowest 20% of the FM radio dial for non-commercial stations. He notes that if that were not the case, “the left side of the dial would have sounded pretty much like the right.”
But what of community radio as a contributor to the implementation of a democratic society amongst its listening locales? In his review of radical activist media in relation to democracy, Downing calls in C. B. Macpherson’s concept of “developmental power.” He cites Macpherson’s assertion that the public has the opportunity to improve social life via cooperation, and specifically calls out radical media’s ability to expand the range of information, reflection, and exchange from the hegemonic limits of mainstream media discourse.
Fitting, then, that Girard starts his essay by telling of Malian broadcasters using the Internet to research answers to listeners’ questions. Later, he calls out a Sri Lankan station building an Internet café to share its connection with the community. And finally, he proposes that community radio stations are in a position to use their Internet connectivity to act as an information “multiplier,” effectively sharing their access to knowledge with the community. In this role, thus, community radio stations are certainly living up to Downing and Macphersons’ visions of democratic and radical media.
Personally, I found Girard’s tales of stations sharing their Internet connectivity with the community strikingly brilliant. I admit, I always scoffed at the praise that Internet radio stations garnered, particularly in poor and rural communities. After all, what good is Internet radio if your audience is not connected to the Internet. This narrow criticism, however, was rather ignorant. This isn’t just about Internet radio opening channels to constituents—it’s about opening channels for them. Who better to start a two way dialogue or discourse about a community than those who can both broadcast and connect?
After his review of Macpherson, Downing calls in Benjamin Barber’s definition of a “strong democracy.” He notes that “‘Strong democratic talk’ requires listening as well as uttering,” and points out that Barber sees media as a channel (rather than an institution) closely tied to a locality. Girard’s vision of community radio is exactly that: not simply an institution preaching or educating, but of a channel bringing knowledge to and from a locality.