Media Reform Activists Come Together in Memphis

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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 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 of 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 that 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 54-
year-old disabled Appalachian lesbian pagan.” Another
asked, “Where are the ‘old women?’” A third suggested
that, “It is the queer women who are diminishing crosscultural
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—sentiment of Dr. Martin Luther
King’s 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
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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