Media Reform Coalition Blog – Community Media and Covid-19

Many thanks to the Media Reform Coalition, who allowed me to share a blog today about the need to support community media during the Covid-19 lockdown. I’ve added it here as a way of keeping a record.

According to David Jamieson, the police and crime commissioner for the West Midlands, as reported in the Guardian, many people in our communities across the country, are “struggling to access important information due to language barriers.” Other groups, including teenagers, older people with a reliance on traditional forms of media, and people who do not speak English as their first language, are not being reached because of the way information is being distributed.

The question of how community media can play a positive role in the Covid-19 lockdown, was the topic that was discussed at the first meeting of the Leicester Community Media Network on Saturday 28thMarch. Taking place over the internet, using Zoom, a core group of community media supporters and practitioners was able to discuss the lockdown situation in Leicester, and share their thoughts and ideas about how community media across the city can be supported over the coming weeks and months. Taking part was were volunteers and staff from Kohinoor RadioTakeover RadioLeicester Community RadioAcquire Digital, the Documentary Media Centre and from Leicestershire Cares.

We discussed the need to develop a support network for community media groups in Leicester, that can assist with, and support, the work that each of the individual community media groups and stations is providing. The emphasis was on how the content and stories that each of the groups and stations produces, connects with the work of the other community, civic and public bodies operating in Leicester. The discussion identified the need to prioritise immediate support challenges, medium-term challenges and longer-term challenges. After years of being largely invisible in wider social planning and civic development thinking, community media has a chance to show what it is capable of, and how we can respond to the local needs and circumstances we face here in Leicester.

Immediate challenges discussed included the need to maintain services that meet the Key Commitments and Broadcast Licence obligations of community radio stations as defined by Ofcom. It’s often misunderstood that community radio in the UK have a legal obligation to provide services that is equal to that of the BBC and the commercial radio companies. The problem is that funding and access to support for community radio is patchy and limited. The role of community radio has been marginalised in policy development and civic planning to the extent that there is only limited awareness in public bodies of the sometimes innovative and imaginative work that is done, and the approach that is taken at a local level.

We considered the need to prioritise the immediate needs of community radio stations to manage their day-to-day needs, such as having enough bandwidth and data storage capacity for volunteer run stations that are now operating remotely away from their main studios. The technical inventiveness of many community radio stations around the country has been secured with limited access to expertise and funding, with individual stations putting in place creative solutions to link their presenters and volunteers to their studios, so that they can stay on air with original content.

There is also been a need for additional equipment purchase that haven’t been planned for, such as purchasing extra microphone covers, headphones and sanitisers, so that studios are available while maintaining strict Covid-19 hygiene requirements. With many stations enabling volunteers to remotely access their playout systems, there has also been the increased cost of purchasing audio equipment for presenters to link up to their main studios, such as headphones and microphones. There are many relative low-cost options available online, but the cost soon mounts up when a station has a lot of volunteers, each requiring a separate set-up. Like all voluntary based projects people stop being available at key times and need to rest. So the need to purchase more equipment for new volunteers, and to get them trained in its use, adds to the pressure.

Community radio shouldn’t, nor can’t be expected to replicate what the BBC or commercial organisations are asked to do at a time of national emergency. Community radio stations just don’t have the resources. They can, however, provide a different space for discussion, deliberation and creative expression that is a valuable alternative to the mainstream way of presenting information and engaging with audiences. The messages that need to be coordinate between the public authorities, civic sector support organisations and local community mutual aid groups, however, won’t happen on by itself or in isolation. Community media has a vital and distinctive role to play in maintaining people’s wellbeing, but it can’t play this role if stations have to chase around for help, guidance and support.

In Leicester assistance is starting to come together, as established community and social sector organisations are opening-up their networks. The general push to support volunteers in a collaborative and purposeful way across all of our neighbourhoods and communities, needs to include community media as a vital part of the networks and relationships that sustain public trust. But there needs to be some coordination of this, so that duplication is avoided, and we can target those communities that are less well supported by mainstream media. So, there is a need to produce shared content that can be played out on different stations that relates to the community activity and support that is being offered more generally by groups like Leicester Covid-19 Mutual AidValLeicestershire CaresReaching People and many others. 

The challenge is to do this in different languages and in ways that are represented by different communities. Leicester is a patchwork of people from all over the world, and not everyone is likely to listen to the BBC, which has to produce content that is defined by national public service obligations. Support also needs to be offered to the community media groups and radio stations themselves, in order to keep them running. Community media has to be seen as being a contributing part of the social sector. They are run and managed largely by volunteers, and so there is a need to enhance communication and support between each station and community media groups. Finding ways to share expertise, including technical, administrative, training and content systems that can enhance the effectiveness of each platform, so that they remain relevant to the needs of the communities that they serve.

Community media is a patchwork of non-standard ways of working. That’s both its strength and weakness. There is no one-size-fits-all ethos with community media. Each station and project tap into a different tradition and has different needs. They therefore need to be approached in a way that is sensitive to the alternative ways that they work, and the diverse array of objectives that they are trying to fulfil.

In our discussion we agreed that the strengths of community radio and community media projects can be found in their ability to establish relationships between different people in our communities, particularly those who do not generally access mainstream media. We just need to quickly get this message out to people who can make a difference, and who can follow-up on making things happen. For example, many older people do not feel comfortable, or wish to use digital and social media, and so rely on radio and television for both for information and for companionship. Children do not usually have the option or accessing content that is developed and provided by other children like themselves. Language, faith and culturally distinctive communities, who connect in many diverse and different ways, each with their different needs, find it challenging if they are expected to fit with a proscriptive, professionalised or commercial model of communications. The challenge is to find ways to share media content that that members of these communities can identify with and relate to.

We therefore recognised that it is a priority to communicate what we believe the strengths of community media are. This includes

  • The ability to be flexible and creative in the format of programmes. There’s no need to endlessly imitate, we can make programmes and content that suits different needs.
  • The ability to call on volunteers and community advocates who have local knowledge and experience. There is a wealth of knowledge in our communities, and using an asset-based approach should prioritise finding that knowledge, wisdom and expertise and ensuring that it is valued.
  • The ability to provide access to a wider range of people with different voices who can participate in programming that is relevant to specific communities and neighbourhoods. Why should our media sound so generic and monocultural? There’s no need for the narrow forms of engagement with people, community media can open space for people to contribute in so many more ways.
  • The ability to supplement the core message channels provided by the NHS, national and local government, and the BBC, by providing content in a form that addresses language, culture, faith and local needs. It’s not just about what the message is, sometimes it is about how the message is explained and who by. A more inclusive and diverse set of voices will ensure that there is deeper reach and engagement in communities that otherwise aren’t even considered by generalist programme makers.
  • The ability to create programming that explains in accessible and every-day language what the lockdown means in practice. We have to provide a wider variety of reference-points for people to apply to the situations that they are facing. If the situation seems alien, then we won’t buy-in to those people who are telling us to do things differently. We need to see a wider representation of different people in our media, at all levels.
  • The ability to allow people to share their experiences and anxieties by encouraging people to talk with, and listen to, other people who are not part of the professional communication networks. Allowing people to tell their own stories, for good or bad, takes the lid off the pressure cooker. While mainstream broadcasters will set up debates between experts and polarised views from the public, community media can be used to share and tell positive stories that combine deep listening with deep deliberation.
  • Finally, but certainly not least, is the importance of recognising and exploring the potential of community media for creative expression. Social media is often the only outlet that people can have for their anxiety and worries, but social media companies do not have the wellbeing of our neighbourhoods in mind when they design their systems. We need to develop creative, accountable and open forms of communication that are rooted in the bonds and relationships that we maintain locally.

We agreed that we are going to look for ways to better support the community media groups in Leicester, and to use our networks, knowledge and experience to support ordinary volunteers to create and share content that are positive and solutions-focussed. This does not mean trying to do what the BBC or the commercial media companies do, but finding ways to open up the airwaves in Leicester to a wider-range of voices, who can share their experience with everyone that is listening.

Community radio is regulated by Ofcom, so volunteers still have to follow the rules of broadcasting. We agreed that training more volunteers would be a priority, so that there is a better understanding of issues like fairness, balance and reducing harm in the content that we share and create. We agree to look at ways to develop online training for community radio volunteers so that they can broadcast safely and give their listeners a positive and trusted place to share ideas and thoughts. This doesn’t have to be just information, however, we also agreed that there is a lot we can do to encourage creative ways to communicate, and to share the skills that are out in our communities for songs, poetry, literature, drama, art, craft and the many other things that will help people through what will be an intense period of isolation.

The advantage of community radio, we agreed, is that we aren’t bound by a fixed format, or the need to package stories in small chunks. Community radio can follow things up in much more depth, and by including people who would not normally get a chance to take part. It’s early days for the network, but everyone agreed that after years of underfunding and a lack of civic support for community media, this is an opportunity for us to work locally to show what can be done if we collaborate and work together to make a long-lasting and sustainable difference.

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