The Importance of Community Media Stories

Ofcom’s latest research into news consumption during the Covid-19 pandemic suggests that up to thirty percent of the adult population are turning away from news because of the relentless coverage of the lockdown. This means that large numbers of people aren’t being reached with trusted information because they have chosen, or are unable, to keep up with the daily torrent and flow of information. This is a mix of government advice, international events, and opinions and discussions that are aired in the press and on television and radio news channels, which can be, quite frankly, overwhelming at this best of times.

What this research suggests, perhaps, is that we need to start to think differently about how we manage and support members of our communities, our families and our friends in different ways.  Ways that are trusted, more relevant to the general circumstances, and which have the space to experiment and explore new ways to connect with people. To do this we also need media organisations that are able to provide trusted alternative content than the mainstream broadcasters and corporate media companies are able to provide. During a time of added stress and uncertainty, the last thing that many want is to feel that they are being told what is good for them, or are having products sold to them in the most testing of circumstances. As an advocate of community media, I thought it would be useful to highlight a couple of issues that I think can help.

Community media, when it works well, has the ability to focus on the positive experiences of people from across all walks of life in our towns, cities and villages. Community media can tell the stories of people living in their local neighbourhoods in ways that are relevant to those neighbourhoods. I’m not a fan of the term hyperlocal, isn’t everything just local? Community media also has an ability to tell stories about and for people who are from diverse communities, who have had different social traditions and experiences that have brought them to where they are now. Underpinning this is the ability of everyone to relate to their experiences on the basis that they define where they belong. We should all have a place that we can call home. If our media doesn’t reflect our sense of belonging, then we probable won’t feel that we can belong anywhere?

The Covid-19 lockdown is an exceptional social experience, as it requires the immobilisation of large numbers of people across the UK and the world. The public health and well-being requirements of this immobilisation are going to last for some time. The routines of ordinary daily life are being challenged for people right across the social spectrum. People across different ages, different faiths, with different abilities, and from different social backgrounds. The lockdown is shaking our sense of what is normal and what is secure. For many people, this feeling of dislocation is recent and ongoing, as with people who are recent arrivals to our communities. There is a lot to learn then, as people who have lived settled lives in our communities suddenly discover that they need to think about how to cope when the world is uncertain. This disruption cuts across all social differences, those who are in education, those who work, people who are unemployed, people who are retired, or people who have been facing hardship long before this crisis began. We really are all in this together, it’s just that some are affected by these disruptions more than others.

What community media can do, I believe, which is different to many mainstream and corporate forms of media, is to create a ‘safe space’ for people to share their inspiring stories. When it works well, community media has the potential to bring together volunteers and community activists from across the mutual aid and civic sector support networks, and link them with ordinary members of the public who might not otherwise have their voice heard. Community media has the potential to bring together people working for charities, civic organisations and public services – what’s known as the social sector. Community media can do this, when it is at its best, in an open, authentic and respectful way. Well planned and facilitated community media can help us to discuss, share and understand how life is changing for everyone. It can help us to develop new outlooks and skills that  might need to adapt to meet the steep challenges we are faced with, and look at these changes with confidence and a renewed sense of social solidarity.

Community radio, for example, though a combination of live and pre-recorded interviews, discussions and personal testimony, offers listeners a chance to hear exchanges and accounts of personal experience that is directly related to locally relevant themes and topics. Because there is no breaking news agenda associated with community radio, and the focus is on information giving, it’s possible to create and share stories in different ways. Community media opens the possibility of sharing stories that relate to our mutual social experience. For instance, stories of food, or travel and migration, the shared experience of neighbourliness and belonging, and so on. All of which impact on our physical and mental health and well-being, but which often get missed out of the mainstream conversation because they are considered to be mundane. These are the type of stories that often get reduced to vacuous vox-pops on the Ten O’clock news, much to the frustration of nearly everyone. However, the potential is there for these experiences to be discussed in more detail, particularly in relation to our local social experiences, as they are grounded in our understanding of faith, mindfulness, the shared experiences of sustainability, the need to be adaptable and think about civic resilience, and the collective experience of innovation and creativity.

If a radio programme is a mix of music and talk, with  music as the minor element, used only to fill gaps between the talking, then a greater emphasis can be placed on encouraging people to tell stories and to share their experience. Signposting can be provided by a presenter at regular intervals, to follow-up and highlight relevant calls to action, but the focus of the stories works best when they have a specific local reference. In a culturally diverse city like Leicester, much can be learnt from the links and connections that many residents have across the world. Themes such as keeping in contact with family or the kindness of strangers can help to foster a sense of mutual and shared experience, regardless of our cultural or social backgrounds and differences.

Community radio has a track record of identifying and filling gaps left by mainstream broadcasting provision, and when it works well, and is well supported, should be able to create locally focussed content that is culturally relevant, not to a nostalgic past, but to. Most community radio stations are proud to be local, and often have strong and well-established networks of listeners and supporters, fostered over many years using social media live-streaming and FM/AM broadcasting.

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