Ths is a blog that I’ve written for ArtWorks Alliance, who are a network of arts organisations in the UK that seek to encourage participation and engagement in creative arts projects.
It might seem like a basic question, but what do participative arts and media seek to deliver? What is it that we are trying to achieve by getting people involved in the creative process for arts and media – as co-producers – rather than just being a passive member of an audience?
Over the summer, I’ve spent time reading about public policy developments and the social economy, particularly the idea of social value. I’m happy to report that this is the kind of question that is increasingly being asked by social reformers from disciplines outside the participative arts and media movements. Indeed, there is plenty of evidence that questions like this are being considered by public policymakers, administrators and planners. This might not be at a national level, but it is certainly creeping in at local levels, especially where there is devolved and autonomous decision making. My background is community media, but I believe the lessons I’ve learnt can be applied to creative and participatory arts practice just as readily.
Faced with a growing crisis in social wellbeing, in which record numbers of people are reporting they feel socially isolated, lonely and depressed, community radio is a good example of where ideas and practices of participation are demonstrating they can be a powerful tool. One that can play a significant role in social reform aimed at the alleviation of entrenched social problems.
There are many things community radio activists and volunteers do that can have a direct and lasting impact on people’s lives. One area of increasing success in community radio is partnerships between community radio stations and public healthcare and wellbeing services. These partnerships between stations and public bodies are at an early stage of tentative development, with room for a more strategic approach to the social value role of community media clearly waiting to be explored: especially if it is informed by clear and urgent social wellbeing objectives, and founded on the principles of social value that have become rooted in the public sector procurement process since the enactment of the Social Value Act in 2012.
For example, Winchester Radio has grown from being a dedicated hospital radio station, to become an Ofcom licenced community radio station serving the city of Winchester. Nigel Dallard, a trustee of the charity that supports Winchester Radio, told me how changing needs associated with health care have transformed the station’s focus. There has been a realignment of volunteers’ work due to a need to address changes in people’s expectations, both about radio and media services in general, and also about how people access hospital and medical services in particular. Patients are no longer staying in hospital for long periods. Instead, they are encouraged to manage their treatment by making fewer and more flexible visits to hospitals. This means the role of the traditional hospital radio service has become increasingly difficult to sustain. The solution, according to Nigel, was to apply for a community radio licence, which expanded the station’s coverage and widened its social remit. Going from providing a primarily companionship service to patients in wards, the station now covers more general issues of concern in the city, while building on its legacy by advocating and developing participative media services as part of the wellbeing agenda.
Cathie Burges, who helps run Life Care Radio in Totnes, has had a similar experience. When the wired transmission systems the station used became obsolete, rather than dismantling the service, Cathie and her husband Mark with a core group of volunteers set about persuading the hospital managers they could redevelop the radio service, and in the process widen its scope. Life Care Radio now streams online, both on the internet and directly into care homes in the Totnes area, where they provide dedicated programming to residents and their care community. Life Care Radio is a response to this change in approach, and doesn’t simply talk at the residents from afar, but aims to talk with and foster a greater sense of community through the programming the volunteers produce.
The shift in patterns of healthcare services delivery has come at a time when the health promotion, or wellness, agenda, has moved to the forefront of healthcare planning. Dr Terri Eynon, a retired GP who volunteers at Hermitage FM in Coalville, has also helped champion the development of Carillon Wellbeing Radio in North West Leicestershire. Terri told me the idea is that health is not just about illness. Working with Jon Sketchley, who provides the core infrastructure and station management support for both Hermitage FM and Carillon Wellbeing Radio, Terri has endeavoured to pilot a new kind of community radio station. One that can work in close collaboration with local health and wellbeing services, local authorities and councils, as well as offering a radio service that reflects the interests and tastes of its audience. The aim of the project is to promote informed and educated decision-making about people’s care and health needs.
Similarly, in Rochdale, Zahida Warriach runs a healthcare programme on Crescent Community Radio, a station aimed at people with a South Asian background living in the city and surrounding areas. Zahida’s programme was initially developed in association with a local branch of the mental health charity Mind, but more recently has been supported by Greater Manchester Police and the local Commissioning and Care Group (the health care providers in the area), along with the local authority. Zahida believes that community radio, if properly supported, can play a crucial role in helping people in the community to understand health issues, while also helping those healthcare professionals and service providers to develop a deeper understanding of the people they are serving.
In Cardiff, Yvonne Murphey has been developing the Talking Shop as a research and development project in association with the National Theatre of Wales. Yvonne told me she wanted to run a project based around political and cultural engagement, but rather than working in a closed room with a select group of writers, she wanted to work with the public so she could find out what they think about political and cultural engagement.
She wanted to discover: what is important to them, what makes them angry, what makes them sad? The idea was to put writers in the space with the public and create, as she describes, ‘collisions and collusions’. What she found, however, was that many of the people visiting the shop where desperate for meaningful contact and opportunities to share their experiences with other people. To break their social isolation. Yvonne suggests that we need to take a different approach to our wellbeing. Rather than simply prescribing medication, we should, instead, support and champion participative arts and media, especially if this leads to creative opportunities for people to engage with one another. While the Talking Shop wasn’t a radio project, it suggests that by working closely with a wide range of creative practitioners and advocates of community development, such as people in the participatory arts movement, it will be possible to be innovative and find solutions to the wellbeing crisis that aren’t top down or centrally run.
The experience of managing these relationships, however, is not straightforward. Sabrina Malik is part of the communities’ team at Leicestershire County Council. She has worked with Jon and Terri at Carillon Wellbeing Radio, and has helped them to connect with other public service providers. She recognises the respect that needs to be shown to community groups for their knowledge and experience is instrumental to the success of these projects.
This is a shift in thinking for many local authorities. Lorna Dellow, who is a media and communications officer at Leicestershire County Council, notes that most authorities must focus on getting their messages out to the broadest audience using an ever-expanding set of techniques and platforms.
The challenge of working with community media projects and community radio stations, however, is significantly different, because it uses a different set of processes and values. It’s not just about pushing out formal messages. Community radio has a strong emphasis on relationships, on local identity, and on local opportunities to participate and volunteer. As Jon Sketchley of Hermitage FM told me, ‘The transmissions are what promote the community activities, and the community activities that the station supports, including those in the coffee shops, in turn supports the community activities. There is a level of direct accessibility as people can walk in the door and engage with people directly.’
Attempting to take some of these ideas forward into the policy arena, Juan Pardo is a strategic policy adviser at Leicestershire County Council, who believes that while many of the changes that have taken place in local authorities over the last decade have been challenging, they are beginning to indicate that a new consensus is building around the importance of the principle of social value, and the usefulness of the 2012 Social Value Act.
The Act amended the principles on which public procurement is undertaken in England, making it much easier for councils and public bodies to explore wider social investment issues over and above the financial bottom line. As Juan told me:
‘In practice this is about the way policies are explained and communicated. Changing the language from a dictation and centralised point of view that implements solutions on the community’s behalf, to one that listens, and which enables communities to deliver those solutions themselves in a more collaborative fashion. Within communities is there a sense of competition rather than collaboration? This means that the local authority has to change from being the expert to be the enabler.’
The Social Value Act should be recognised, then, as an enabler of a process or change, and not as a legal framework or rule book that dictates or specifies actions and adherence to technical requirements. As Claire Mansfield points out, ‘The provisions of the Act can further the wider strategic objectives of local authorities, and the communities they represent, by mobilising a council’s purchasing power to support the social, environmental and economic wellbeing of a place.’
This means the partnerships established are able to go beyond traditional models of funding, such as grants and bloc-funding, and explore the possibility of social funding, such as community shares, crowdfunding, subscriptions, or consumer business models. This is what Mansfield points to as the wider consideration of social value that helps to ‘focus priorities outside procurement such as through asset transfer or access to finance’. The benefit, as Nick Temple notes, is that the Act has the potential to be a tangible ‘catalyst for action within organisations: improving procedures, providing focus, creating buy-in and helping drive new activity’.