The fresh air that sweeps across Falmouth from the Atlantic is bracing but refreshing. This might not be news to the people of Cornwall, but it was an excellent backdrop to my visit to the University of Exeter, and the Community Media Association workshop on Exploring Citizen Journalism, with fellow community media practitioners, supporters and researchers from across the South West of England.
Matthew Rogers, our host for today at the Penryn campus, opened the first session by sharing his experience as a Human Geographer, and why he feels that community media is an important practice to help us better understand the places that we live in, and the people that we interact with when we live there. While delivering courses at the university on Citizens Journalism, Matthew has also been developing and incubating an alternative social media platform that can be used to support independent and dispersed citizen journalism. This is a tool that Matthew hopes will help citizen journalists in rural areas who are not able to meet-up easily due to proximity and transport issues.
Matthew explained how he believes that citizens journalism, or community news, is a vital component in providing a sense of identity for people living in communities and places that are otherwise underserved and underrepresented in mainstream and commercial broadcast media. Matthew’s aim is to develop a network of social collaborators who can share elements and component parts of stories, using a an online platform that is designed to help share the workload when producing community news stories. The platform forms the base from which these stories are shared with other community media networks, using the social media networks of supporters who have indicated similar interests.
The workshops and talks that followed then focussed on thinking about the practical issues that are important in the development of alternative approaches to civic news. Our focus was on exploring the challenges that need to be overcome if we are to widen the range of voices, and the diversity of the people who contribute to telling stories about life in our neighbourhoods and communities.
The workshop session I ran asked what and how news is understood and constructed? What is news to me, I suggested, might not be news to other people? If we ignore the little things that are news to ourselves, as individuals, and we also ignore the news that is relevent to other people as individuals, then we might also miss the patterns that emerge from these experiences. Patterns that demonstrate that many of the challenges we face in daily life are connected and are affecting many other people.
What makes something news in mainstream media, I suggested, is too often focussed on the exceptional and the surprising, and there is little space for people to discuss and share their experience about the everyday things that affect them. Like busses being accessible, or bins being collected, or plastic packaging for products sold in supermarkets. These might reflect something that is individually vexing when they get in our way or go wrong, and they might not seem to be of much importance, but when they are pulled together and connected, then they form a bigger picture.
I suggested that Hanzi Freinacht‘s argument in his book The Listening Society is relevant to this argument. Freinacht argues that the politics of the future will be determined by Hippsters, Hippies and Hackers, and is worth looking at in more detail.
- To be a hipster means being able to mash-up and remix our cultural conventions in inventive and creative ways.
- To be a hippie means to be concerned about the sustainability of our world, and to recognise that we are interconnected with the life-cycles of other creatures and people that we share space with on our world.
- To be a hacker is to take the technologies that we use and adapt them and change them so that they can be used for the benefit of the many, and not just to supply gargantuan profits for a few powerful tech companies.
Jerry Padfield talked passionately about his PhD research, which is looking at how community radio is a potentially powerful tool for bringing people together who would otherwise be forgotten about. Jerry’s example was a project he’s worked on with SourceFM, to develop radio clubs in care homes. Jerry has used radio discussion techniques to bring people who are challenged by memory loss or social isolation together, to share their experiences, and to capture the thoughts and feelings of people living in communities that don’t often get included in public discussion because they are segregated and separated from the rest of society.
Community radio, according to Jerry, is a powerful tool for helping people to feel they are included, because it is based on an ethos of participation. The way that we can participate in producing radio has been made much easier in recent years, according to Jerry, because recording and audio production technology have become more widely available and simpler to use. Jerry gave some examples of free to use audio production software, such as Audacity and Mixx. It’s in utilising these open source applications that community radio becomes sustainable, Jerry suggested, because there is no reason to spend money on expensive commercial systems when viable open source applications already exist.
As audio content is intermixed with video, graphic and social media applications, it becomes possible to remix and mash-up the content that we make as part of our programmes in many different ways. Bill Best, who is the operations manager of the CMA, showed us how to use Headliner, which is an online app that uses Artificial Intelligence to add transcriptions to audio and video content. By taking small sections of content, news and programmes, they can be shared on social media platforms, such as Twitter and Instagram, in a very short time, adding an extra dimension to the content by merging images, graphics and text with the selected piece of audio. The creative use of these platforms is only just being explored. At the moment they are used to signpost towards longer programmes and content. But there’s no reason why they can’t take on a life of their own to tell engaging stories that encompass all forms of sensory stimulation, making them more accessible to many more people.
After lunch, Matthi Clarke gave a fascinating insight into the challenges of producing Cornish language news content. Matthi’s professional background is as a broadcast news journalist, but even in Cornwall, the level of support for Cornish Language programming is relatively low and difficult to win support for. Matthi talked about how he uses a network of Cornish speakers to help co-create programmes on Anradyo, a site that aims to produce video and audio programming in Cornish, giving Cornish speakers a resource that they can identify with and connect with.
Matthi told us about how he was using crowdfunding techniques to gain support for the programming, especially with the threat to European funding that will be associated with Brexit, and as central UK government funding has been cut, meaning councils are unable to support local idenitity-based projects in the way that they had in the past. Matthi explained that the only program produced specifically in Cornish each week, is a five-minute programme on BBC Radio Cornwall. Something that Matthi hopes to challenge, and that community radio will be an integral part of building-up support for Cornish speakers to have their voices heard.
Our last workshop was about the practical challenges of including more people in the community media experience. Gloria Khamkar, from Unity101FM in Southampton, and a CMA Council member, shared her experience of finding a home for her professional broadcasting skills and expertise when she moved to the UK from India. As Gloria explained, there are many gatekeepers and people guarding the conventions of what and how radio is organised and made, but sometimes these gatekeepers need to be challenged and shown that there are other ways to make programmes that are relevent to their audiences, the people who make them, and the people who fund them.
It takes determination and commitment to try new forms of broadcasting, and to think outside-of-the-box when it comes to exploring different ways to make connections within communities. There are a lot of people who are very good at imitating what other, well-funded stations already do, but then this doesn’t give audiences a clear alterative based on an authentic experience derived from the lived and shared experiences of people who are neighbours within their communities. Gloria explained that we should question all of our expectations, because when we adopt different ways of making radio we also make it more accessible and open for new people to get involved.
The final part of the day was when we recorded a podcast for Decentered Media. A small group of us, some with experience of broadcasting, and some without, sat and had an in-depth conversation about what our expectations had been for the day, what we got out of it, and what we would take away from the day. The podcast is well worth listening to for our discussion about the value and benefit of citizen journalism and community media. Sebastian, Mark, Anna, Carmen and Jerry each gave a passionate and thoughtful view of their experience of our media culture, and what they aimed to get from learning about community media and citizen journalism in the future. It was a great way to finish off a very insightful and productive day, and our thanks go to Matthew and Bill for organizing the venue and the lunch, and to all the speakers and participants who made it so engaging.