In coming issues of The Bloomington Alternative, DePauw University Assistant Professor of Media Studies Kevin Howley will examine local, independent media in and around the Bloomington. His book, Community Media: People, Places, and Communication Technologies, published by Cambridge University Press, is scheduled for North American release later this month. A media producer and activist, Howley's most recent documentary, Victory at Sea? Culture Jamming Dubya has been broadcast by Free Speech TV and was previewed in The Alternative last summer.
Longtime residents know better, but for visitors and newcomers alike, Bloomington conjures up images of Bobby Knight throwing fits and folding chairs up and down the basketball court. Likewise for the uninitiated, Bloomington is home of the "Little 500" bicycle race — the Indiana University tradition immortalized in Breaking Away. That's about all I knew about this remarkable town when I first came out to here for my doctoral studies in the mid-1990s.
Well, I got my degree and my sheepskin from the Department of Telecommunications and before you could say, "tenure-track" I was heading back east for my first university teaching position, but not before I learned a thing or two about Hoosier art, culture, and politics. Significantly, much of what I know about Bloomington's storied past and a great deal of what I have come to appreciate about this town's considerable charms comes from my what I have heard on the local airwaves, seen on cable television, and read in the pages of weekly newspapers and magazines.
In the bargain, I gained a deep and abiding respect for Bloomington's robust, but sometimes overlooked independent media sector.
Long story short, I'm back in Bloomington. Of course, this sort of thing is quite common in university towns. Still, it never ceases to amaze me how many fellow expatriate New Yorkers I meet here in the Hoosier state. We all have our reasons for making our home here and on my worse days, when I question the wisdom of moving back to Bloomington, I'm reminded of Michael Corleone's memorable lament from the otherwise forgettable Godfather III: "Every time I think I'm out, they pull me back in."
But then I turn my radio on and listen to my friends and neighbors spinning tunes on WFHB, community radio for Bloomington and south-central Indiana; or watch an independent documentary on CATS, Bloomington's Community Access Television Services; or pick up the Ryder, Bloomington's long-running magazine of arts and culture, and read an interview with Senegalese musician Baaba Maal discussing his upcoming show in town, and I come to realize the decisive role that community media plays in shaping my sense of this place.
In saying this, I want to make two related points. First, I mean to underscore the significance that communicative forms and practices (print, film, radio, television, computer-mediated communication, etc.) play in constructing our sense of self and other, place and community, city and country, nation and world. Second, I want to emphasize how vitally important independent media of this sort is to promoting local cultural production and fostering a robust, inclusive and participatory civic dialogue on issues that affect us all: the environment, the economy, crime and punishment, health care, housing and employment, to name but a few.
In sum, at a time when our media environment is dominated by a handful of multi-national corporations divorced from the geographic communities they proclaim to serve, indifferent, and often hostile to, the public interest, and principally motivated by capital accumulation, community-oriented media vividly demonstrate that media matters.
Briefly stated, community media put people before profits. Rather than cultivate cultural homogenization, community media celebrates and encourages innovative cultural expression. Likewise, community media provide local populations a unique opportunity to "make the news" so that journalism serves the public interest, not the vested interests of the political class and business elites. The Alternative is but one example of this impulse—to make local media outlets that are at once responsible and responsive to the communities they serve and represent.
Often doing more with less, community media remind us that a democratic society functions best when the channels of communication are open and accessible to a range of voices, opinions, and perspectives. Rather than surrender to the pessimism that inspires defeatist mottos like "Kill Your Television," our communities are better served by heeding Jello Biafra's sage and pitchy advice to "Become the Media."
From an academic perspective, then, independent, community-oriented media represent a distinctive, if somewhat overlooked dimension of contemporary media culture. From the perspective of a local resident, however, community, independent, and non-commercial media have a far more practical appeal. These outlets offer a welcome respite from the crass commercialization and shoddy journalism all too common to mainstream media outlets. As such, independent media demand our support, our attention, and our participation.
In the weeks ahead, I will profile a number of community-oriented, progressive and independent media projects here in Bloomington, Ind. And while this series' focus is on local media here in Bloomington, I hope to put these efforts in a broader socio-political, historical and cultural context. Doing so, I want to not only celebrate these efforts, but also to suggest the many and varied ways local communities can and do make media better. Make media relevant. Make media matter.
Kevin Howley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org