“High Noon” Independent Media Summit

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It may not have compared in terms of sheer drama and suspense, and certainly not in terms of violence, to the classic Gary Cooper film of the same name. But a recent “High Noon” summit on Main Street in Urbana, involving alternative media leaders from Urbana-Champaign and from Madison, Wisconsin, may well prove to have been an important milestone in the continuing evolution of the independent media movement.
For nearly five hours on the afternoon of Saturday, February 9 at the U-C Independent Media Center, approximately two dozen leading independent media producers from Wisconsin and Illinois put their heads together, discussing how to make alternative media work better in our communities. The atmosphere at the IMC was charged and passionate at times, particularly when the local participants debated the amount of public affairs programming on WEFT, and its decision to drop “Democracy Now” from the schedule several years ago. But overall the atmosphere was extremely collegial throughout the summit, and it may well mark the beginning of a long-term “sister city” relationship between the two alternative media communities.
The issues that led to this first summit were simple: How can we get more progressive voices in our media? How can we improve the quality of community radio broadcasting? How can we take advantage of under-utilized resources like public access TV channels? How can we get all of these institutions working together with each other and with independent media centers, in order to obtain maximum return on our resources and maximum impact for our labors?
These are fundamental questions that progressives are addressing all across the nation and indeed, around the globe. At the recent World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, developing a better public service media was a basic theme for the 50,000 people who gathered there. In fact, it is now commonly understood that unless we make progress in the area of media, it will be very difficult to advance issues of social justice, democratic reform, or progressive social change.

The issues are certainly crucial here in Urbana-Champaign. Although we have the basis for a solid independent media sector, we have a long way to go.University of Illinois Professor Al Kagan organized the summit because he wanted to address the limitations of the Champaign-Urbana alternative media scene. He was motivated specifically by his concern, following September 11 and the subsequent permanent war on “evil-doers”, that our local independent media were not able to accommodate the massive need for alternative news and information. He was impressed with how Madison Wisconsin’s community radio station, WORT, had been able to provide its listeners with reports from great journalists like Robert Fisk and John Pilger and critics like Noam Chomsky. “Why can’t we have that here?” Kagan wondered. So he invited a number of key independent media producers from Madison to visit Urbana and discuss how they have achieved their present level of success in dealing with similar issues there. The Madison contingent included Norman Stockwell, the nationally renowned operations coordinator of WORT Community Radio; Allen Ruff, who helps manage Rainbow Books, Madison’s independent progressive bookstore, and who has hosted a show called “Third World View” on WORT for 12 years; John Hamilton, who works with the Madison Independent Media Center and has been a producer of “In Our Backyard”, WORT’s local news program; and John Anderson, who is working on the new Workers Independent News Service, a radio newswire that goes out nationally to some 300 stations.
Several local folk attended as well, including representatives from WEFT, WILL, Urbana Public Access TV, and the Urbana-Champaign IMC.
Each of the four visitors made presentations on what has and has not worked in Madison. Two hours of discussion followed, and this discussion was not simply a one-way flow, with the sharpies from Madison lecturing the local yokels from the prairies. The Madisonians were especially impressed with the high caliber of the Independent Media Center facilities on Main Street. The Madison IMC, by comparison, operates out of the WORT offices.
Several important points emerged from the discussion.
First, in Madison the various alternative media institutions work very closely together, sharing resources and personnel. In addition to those mentioned above, there is the Madison Insurgent (a monthly newspaper very similar to the UC-IMC’s public i); a low-power pirate radio station; John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton’s PR Watch; and The Progressive, the 90-year-old national political magazine founded by Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette. In addition, some of Madison’s mainstream media, such as the weekly paper Isthmus and the afternoon daily newspaper The Capital Times, publish writers affiliated with the various alternative media. There is considerable synergy between all of these media organizations in Madison; some of the staff members at The Progressive, for example, came out of positions at WORT or Rainbow Books.
In short, Madison has achieved a situation where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, which is extremely valuable for progressive political work in the area. As Allen Ruff emphasized in his comments, the point of alternative media is ultimately political, and one important measure of media success is an increase in informed political participation. The synergy in Madison also means that the community attracts young people who want to do alternative media. It was this synergy that was the most striking feature of the summit’s briefings. This was the most important message of the day.
Everyone agreed that Urbana needs to develop this approach as well, and there was much discussion of the ways in which it is already happening, such as the IMC news programming on WEFT. Moreover, the participants agreed that it would be valuable for indymedia workers from Madison and Urbana-Champaign to collaborate on a regular basis. Expect to see stories produced here end up in Madison-based media, and vice versa.
Second, a good deal of the discussion addressed WEFT, and its perceived paucity of public affairs programming, particularly as compared to WORT. Stockwell described the great crisis at WORT in the mid 90s that led to a major shake-up. WORT now has five to six hours daily of public affairs programming between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m.. WEFT, by comparison, has two to three hours of similar programming during the same time period, and only one to two hours between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. WORT’s public affairs programming is very popular, and cements the station in the community. It even has a locally produced daily radio news program. Interestingly, there is little tension between the public affairs side of WORT and the music programmers, who get the 9 a.m. to noon and 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. slots every weekday, as well as all evenings, all day Saturday, and most of Sunday.
The WEFT representatives made it clear that it would be nearly impossible to duplicate the WORT record on public affairs locally. WEFT has effectively “locked in” the current strips of shows on its schedule between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m., and to change them would be extremely difficult. But Paul Riismandel and Kimberley Kranich, two of the WEFT people at the summit, argued that there is in fact plenty of room for new public affairs programming. The bigneed, they emphasized, is for people to propose and develop new shows.
The third point follows from the first two. A central theme of the summit was that there are underutilized media resources in Urbana-Champaign. Danielle Chynoweth pointed out that there is time available for doing programming on Urbana’s public access TV station. Kimberly Kranich discussed the availability of slots for public affairs programming on WILL. She also emphasized that WILL is a far more sympathetic public broadcaster than some atthe summit may have thought, especially those who haled from other regions. (The author, in fact, will host a weekly show, “Media Matters,” on WILL-AM Sundays from 1 to 2 p.m.beginning in April.) Finally, it was noted that Urbana-Champaign is missing out on an extremely valuable source of income by not having an alternative bookstore selling textbooks for the University of Illinois. Rainbow Books in Madison generates several hundred thousand dollars annually in textbook sales. The profits from textbook sales allow Rainbow to maintain a large facility near the university for public talks and meetings. Imagine if we had something like that in Urbana-Champaign!
The event concluded just before 5 p.m., when Team Madison headed back to the Snow Belt. The consensus was that it was a day very well spent. Virtually everyone who attended the summit stayed for the entire event. People from various sectors of Urbana-Champaign’s alternative media community got to meet each other and discuss issues of mutual concern. All of them had an opportunity to meet like-minded people from Madison and learn from their experiences. Some history and progress was made in the“Summit on Main Street.” Exactly how much will be determined in the months and years to come.

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