Media Reform Activists Come Together in Memphis

Media Reform Activists Come Together in Memphis By Marcia Zumbahlen and Brian Dolinar The 2007 Media Reform conference organized by Free Press met in Memphis, Tennessee this year. After holding conferences in Madison and St. Louis, this year’s organizers are to be congratulated for taking the event to the South, where many stories go untold. Public i journalists Marcia Zumbahlen and Brian Dolinar attended the conference, along with several other independent media activists from Urbana-Champaign. The Media Reform conference was a great coming together of media policy analysts and media makers. Amy Goodman spoke of how appropriate it was that the conference was held in Memphis the weekend of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday. When King came to Memphis, he was supporting a strike organized by 1300 black sanitation workers who were demanding a union. King’s legacy is a reminder that the struggle must continue. Outside the Lorraine Motel, where King was assassinated, a billboard reads “Become an activist today. Help wage peace.” The atmosphere of racial hostility in Memphis is still palpable. When we drove to the conference, we passed the courthouse where there was a long line of people outside entering for their court cases. As we left the conference that day, we went by the jail where another line of people was at the jail waiting to see their loved ones during visiting hours. Both lines were overwhelmingly African American. Inside the conference, the community was diverse in age, in media focus, and in background. Panelists included professional journalists who had made careers in the mainstream media, became disillusioned, and forged their own paths. They were working to develop cable TV programs like Air America and Real TV to compete with the major cable TV news programs. Josh Silver, founder of Free Press, explained the forces that influenced him to fight for independent media. He cited Michael Powell’s attempts to allow great media consolidation and the response three million people in 2003 who sent a message to the FCC that they did not want such corporate control. He also cited the figures that 60 percent of the U.S. public gets their news from mainstream TV sources. This had disastrous consequences after 911 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Young activists spoke about their fights for public access cable stations. These stations in major cities like New York and Chicago have been a lifeline for the LGBT community, for people of color, and for the youth. While much local news coverage is being downsized, local TV gives communities the chance to decide their own issues and give voice to those shut out of the corporate media. Activists from Prometheus Radio, who came to Urbana-Champaign to help start WRFU, were well represented. Prometheus held a table that was well attended and encouraged many others to form radio stations in their own towns. Pete Tridish gave a talk about the mammoth efforts of Prometheus radio. He told the story of founding a pirate radio station in Philadelphia and being shut down by the FCC. The radio pirates stood in front of Ben Franklin’s printing press and vowed to fight the FCC’s dictatorship over the public airwaves. Three years ago, the FCC passed legislation to disallow low power radio in urban markets. The challenge for Prometheus is to roll back that legislation and open up low power radio in major cities across the United States. Panelists who addressed the topic of hip hop activism leveled an important criticism of independent media and the conference organizers. Rosa Clemente, a Puerto Rican activist, noted in the talk by Bill Moyers, a keynote speaker for the conference, there was no analysis of race. Rosa pointed out how questions of race were relegated to a few select panels. She also said that an entire panel on the media coverage of hurricane Katrina was cancelled. On the flip side, audience members in the “Women in Media” presentation questioned how to define diversity in media. “I’m tired of diversity being race and gender,” one woman said, “ I look like plain vanilla but I am a disabled Appalachian lesbian pagan.” Another asked, “Where are the ‘old women?’” A third suggested that, “It is the queer women who are diminishing cross-cultural divides.” Perhaps the moderator’s response synthesized these two sides: “Everybody should be able to speak power to the backgrounds they represent”. “If the media showed Black Folk how they really are, in an honest, raw depiction, this civil rights movement would take care of itself.”—Dr. Martin Luther King. (autobiography). Independent media is a way to speak that power. The Texas Media Empowerment Project encouraged conference attendees to let the people (in their case, women) tell the truth of how they live rather than turning their stories into a sound bite. Change rarely comes from sweeping the hard parts of reality under the rug. Vigilance is the only thing that is going to stop anything you want to stop. The “Diversity in Media Content & Representation” panel reminded us that even the littlest things have an impact (e.g., referring to a Mexican immigrant as a “legal” or an “illegal” shifts attention away from the person’s complex humanness). Creating an avenue by which immigrants can tell their own stories will help others hear what’s missing and strategize ways to bring it forward. But strategizing requires unity, a prized commodity in a world of techies heading in different directions, on their own timelines. Alas, a conference session called “Bubbling Up” offered strategies for transforming said techies into activists with a cause. If you give people a topic they want, they will self-organize a social network from the bottom up, a network that can later feed into a larger activist network. How can you be sure that the topics you give are the topics people want? Let them self-publish. Anybody with a good cell phone with video is ready to catch live unfiltered footage wherever they go (e.g., youth talking about police intervention in their schools, community folk talking about why their neighborhood school needs more money, etc.). In just a few clicks, your video can be uploaded to a video blog (e.g.,,, MySpace, YouTube, DailyKos, Facebook, etc.) or a podcast on Itunes and PodPress Professional (where you can even get paid to be a blogger) or converted into a video game for social change (see Games for Change). These spaces allow your viewers to ask questions and post responses (even with their own videos). If only a few respond, don’t worry. According to one of the panelists, “For every 9 that comment there are 90,000 that read” your site. Follow up on these responses to engage people in dialogue and post responses to similar sites (asking for feedback on your site is an easy way to link back to your own blog), then PRESTO, you have a social network. How do you convert passive users into active users? Consider helping this virtual social group work a virtual phone bank or draw in new people who usually aren’t able to participate (e.g., people who are disabled, isolated, housebound). You can also convert people from watchers to creators by telling them how to send a cell phone video and labeling them as “citizen journalists.” Next thing you know they have called all their families and friends to “see them online” and you have a new branch of observers. You may even find some funding for your site. Having trouble getting people to show up at real-time events? Ask a few people to post why they are going to show up for your event. Cross promote throughout the internet (e.g.,, Yahoo lists, Google blog, AOL) using tag words that help people find your site. When it looks like people are going then others won’t want to miss out. People are hungry for meaningful social networking around shared core beliefs, and they’ll soon realize how inseparable these beliefs are from the political work that’s happening. They will want to meet in a real place and plan a meeting or a convention that provides a positive outlet for social action. There is no demarcation between social actions and desired outcomes. Spending personal time together forms bonds between members and communities. With that, we ended our conference by dining with other IMC folk around the country. We all agreed that the Media Reform conference was just a glimpse at how powerful independent media can be if we work together. It is our hope that UC-IMC can host a regional retreat this summer to strengthen this unity. After all, that’s what Independent Media is all about: giving the People the power to make their own media and letting the people, not a network boss, decide what to watch, regardless of what’s on TV at 8 p.m. on Thursday. So hop onto today and upload your story.

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