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Progress or Dystopia for Community Media?

Nicholas Johnson

Community Media Review
(Journal of the Alliance for Community Media)

Spring 2004, pp. 33, 34-35

[Note: Nicholas Johnson was one of a number of contributors to this feature in the Community Media Review. The editors prefaced the contributions with the following introduction: "What progress has community media made during the past two decades of deregulated, consolidated, commercialized, homogeneous and banal media? What opportunities exist for us to limit the impact of anti-democratic media policy and to secure a place for local voices, diverse views and the chaotic abundance of free speech? We asked eight community media leaders from around the world to name the threats and opportunities and to point us toward strategies that will help us to secure media democracy for the next 20 years. Their answers remind us that our main line of work is community development and, if we want to preserve public access to cable television, we mujst work in coalition with community and independent media advocates across the globe."]

It was more than 25 years ago that George Stoney and Red Burns introduced me to the idea, and potential, of "community media," the notion that "mass media" could be media created by the masses, not just corporate media used to program the masses. They were sufficiently persuasive that I made the provision of "community access" cable channels a primary goal of my seven-year term as an FCC Commissioner.

Although the Supreme Court ultimately thought otherwise, in Midwest Video II, enough years had gone by, and enough new franchises had been written, that cable access had been established. When I finally made my way from Washington back to my hometown in Iowa City in 1980, I found a vibrant community media movement underway, with the local leadership of individuals like Karen Kalergis, Drew Shaffer, Mike Brau and Rene Paine, among a great many other talented and devoted people. I took Drew's video training course, and ultimately served on his Iowa City Broadband and Telecommunications Commission for two terms.

While similar efforts around the country continue to grow and inspire, they also continue to be threatened from a variety of directions, among them the corporate cable drive to profit maximize and the reductions in the funding of the public sector generally. (As an aide to President Bush once put it, "I don't want to do away with government all together. I just want to make it small enough that I can drown it in a bathtub.")

But, alas, as Pogo once observed, "We have found the enemy and he is us." Threats can come from within as well as from without.

But these are trivial "threats" -- or at least threats well within the possibility of our control. Community media has made much progress. It has much more potential still as new technologies (such as improved, smaller cameras, and distribution systems like the Internet) become available. And never in our nation's history has it been more essential to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" (to quote a line).