“The People”

Crossposted from my Portland Community Media blog. Read comments on the original post.

I’m nearing the end of my second week at Portland Community Media, and in the quest to better define the term “New Media,” I was pointed to Denver Open Media.

DOM is the phoenix that rose from the ashes of Denver Community Television. In 2005, the City of Denver lit the pyre when it decided to cut funding for public access television. With no financial resources, DCT shut down and its current incarnation, an offshoot of the nonprofit Deproduction, has something like three full-time staff members running a full-capacity media center. To keep costs down while still providing access to media technology, DOM has used Drupal, a content management system, to develop a database with modules that do everything from renting equipment to signing up for classes. For those of you who have Macs (sorry, Windows users—I don’t know what your equivalent is), you know that hitting F11 or F12 summons the widgets dashboard. Imagine the dashboard to be Drupal and the widgets to be modules that you can mix and match to your preference, display whatever information collage pleases you. That is basically what DOM has done.

The term “New Media” has been around for a while and has been a chameleon word, used as a filter from fine arts to Internet technology. New Media is this: It is tools, perceived to be mostly available through the web, that increase collaboration and sharing among users. So in terms of use of New Media tools to increase participation and collaboration with and between producers, DOM is a leader in public access.

DOM put a video on the homepage that explains the history of public access and its importance, DOM’s evolution and how it hopes to utilize the growth of digital media. It closes with a frame that says, “Put the power of the media in the hands of the people.”

People. A much more grassroots way of saying “Public.” More in your face, more organic, less institutionalized. Somehow both glamorous and gritty. Much is done in the name of “the people.” The “people’s” right to know. Power to the people. People Magazine (which “people” do they refer to?). In some languages, the word “people” does not originate as the plural of person, but from the word village. For others, the words “soul” and “life” are embedded in the spelling of “people.” In short, it’s a rallying cry.

And that is precisely what other public access centers take issue with. From what I’ve gathered, in the world of public access, DOM is the black sheep. All public access centers purport to serve the public, but the point of contention seems to be a Drupal module that DOM uses so that producers and visitors can vote on various videos on the site. The higher the ranking, the greater likelihood that the video will be aired.

Remember that access stations are in the business of providing technology equipment and skills to communities who have traditionally lacked those resources,” the video says.

Public access in general is just really exciting because it’s basically the last place in this country that is going for your first amendment rights,” opines Station Director Ann Theis.

Every access center would also agree with that. What they don’t agree with is easily summed up in this example. Imagine that you are an access center. Imagine that most of your producers are either old or young, white or minorities. If scheduling is determined by your producers and the majority of your producers are old, then there’s an inherent bias against young people’s productions. Or perhaps your constituency is tech-savvy. That creates a bias against, let’s say a minority who has filmed for his/her community but whose community isn’t tech-savvy enough to go online and vote.

Freedom of speech is not the same as equal access. I am an outside observer, but it seems like DOM’s system runs the risk of equivocating “People” with “Majority.”

But let’s say that we accept DOM’s system of voting and ranking. Let’s say that all public access centers followed the example of the Internet and went the way of Digg and Newsvine and Technorati. In a world where ranking and voting is the only way to get on the air, what does it mean for community producers?

I attended the CTC Vista Pre-Service Orientation in Boston about three weeks ago, where I met other CTC Vistas who have varied histories with community media and were assigned to community technology centers (CTC) across the country. One CTC Vista in particular had been involved with film and video production since high school and had been a community producer and volunteer with Lowell Telecommunications Corporation (yes, it’s public access) for the last three years. I asked him about his responsibility to film for an audience. I’m not filming for them, I’m filming for me was basically his response to me at the time. They’re not the ones who got off their ass to produce a show, I did.

DOM has pulled out the safety net that public access centers generally provide for their producers—the guarantee that your work will be aired. If producers want to be aired, especially those who have traditionally produced or wanted to produce for a small subset of the population, they must find a way to appeal enough to a larger audience in order to be aired.

Flikr photo by unloveableNow I’ve often struggled with the news chasm between alternative and mainstream media. During my senior year of college, one of my mentors encouraged me to apply for the Fulbright. The Fulbright allows for one academic year of all-expenses paid living in a foreign country. I looked at Media Studies at Universiteit van Amsterdam, and my statement of intent was about being able to wordsmith articles in a way that conjures pop culture because if we can say there is anything that all Americans have in common, it is the pervasiveness of pop culture. I thought that by studying how media images and words resonate in society, I could better deliver messages of cultural understanding and awareness that crossed political ideologies. I was turned down, and a couple years later, I can see why.

Through DOM’s system, community producers must be more aware than ever of their audience, but who is the audience? The advantage of being able to produce for yourself is that you also have the option of producing for a very particular community that will have access to your show when it airs. If you must compete against hundreds of other producers, then your show has to appeal to a broader audience—a general audience—so that it will be ranked high enough. That’s what broadcasting is. At the very least DOM’s system asserts an audience.

The Fulbright committee might have decided for any number of reasons that I wasn’t going to move onto the next round. But maybe this panel of professionals and academics understood something I did not at the time: For the sake of a bit of face-time, your message might be diluted. 

Flickr photos shared under Creative Commons by unloveable


Filed under: Internet, Portland, Storytelling, , , , , , , , , , ,

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