Community Broadcasting & Media Literacy

18 July 2005

Community Broadcasting & Media Literacy
Dave Rushton

Under the heading - Media Literacy - we can expect to find interpretations of the media: perhaps with a teaching emphasis. We might expect to find encouragement for a critical interpretation of media messages and possibly some stress not to take the press, TV or radio entirely at face value and to search for hidden effects or influences upon ourselves and others as readers, listeners and viewers. There are norms presumed and morals accepted in advancing media literacy - underlying the requirement that we ought to try to understand and perhaps follow the hidden rules as well as surface meanings. It seems self-evident that we should want to know or even that we ought to want to know.

With media literacy there is this idea that as readers, listeners and viewers we do not automatically share in the deeper meanings of media and that our outside approach to media literacy is almost a clandestine or furtive act unraveling meanings that lie buried and which, if unexplained would somehow entrap and hoodwink us. This may be something of a caricature of an orthodox, perhaps narrow view of the task of media literacy - as an unfolding of true media purposes by separating what the mass media may be trying to do to any of us. But in three papers for teachers written by Nancy Richard and titled 'Media Literacy: How do we develop it?' 1 the interpretation of media is given an almost desperate, urgent emphasis to encourage a more critical reading, listening and viewing.

Television's greatest threat to us as a society comes not from its ubiquitousness but from our passive reception of its messages. For the most part, we watch television, but we do not interpret it.

But of course, we do watch television and not in order to interpret it. Like many viewers I suspect, I would cease to enjoy television if I were busy all the time trying to interpret it. The schedules and agendas of commercial and public broadcasting can happily dictate terms for much of my viewing, and there is something satisfying in the experience of being overcome by television. I find I do not want to condemn being manipulated so pleasantly out of hand.

Perhaps the programme, or programmes, is the wrong starting point for media literacy. If we like much of television as it is (for much of the time), an undue emphasis upon a more critical interpretation by the viewer will fall on deaf if not hostile or unwilling ears. The starting point seems wrong, because whether the viewer is active instead of passive this viewer is still a consumer of television as it is offered.

I believe we do not address the heart of the issue by focusing media literacy on understanding programming. Broadcast media is a form of display not an exchange of views or ideas. Television is displayed for us to observe and witness rather than as a communication that we are required to understand, whether shallowly or deeply. Nancy Richard continues. We sit in front of the screen, mesmerized by its images. We do not analyze the themes of shows. Coming out of our trance to think critically about the advertisements requires hard work, so we ignore the blatant commercialism, sublimate the jingles and the themes, and wait patiently for the story to continue. It controls us through our passive attention. We believe it because it is always with us. We accept its messages because they are constantly bombarding us. Television has become the ultimate brainwashing tool.

Yes. But surely this is why it is so attractive a fix in its present form - it is a break from (an often grim) reality - and we as viewers are complicit, willing agents of this distraction and we enjoy this form of recreation. Richard seems to want to take away the toys.

Perhaps we need to create new forms of television use, new ways of unlocking some of television's forms to more socially interactive purposes - but not all of it - and establish new ways of seeing by setting up alongside the mainstream our own constructions for learning by comparison. But will this new television be imitative or different? If we start by deconstructing programmes I suggest we are very likely to learn replication.

What concerns me in the urgency of Richard's requirement to migrate from the passive to active understanding of existing media is that there lies within an echo of moral condemnation of a passivity in recreation, a passivity that is often well earned. I hope I'm not exaggerating but I detect almost distaste at being pleasured by television and a worry that others - its always others - might be taken in or taken for a ride by an advertisement.

There has to be a place in our search for a more useful local television media (in particular) and in the involvement of viewers as broadcasters for allowing pleasure as well, so we should be able to turn of our critical faculties with local media too and enjoy what we see, for encouraging (not permitting) enjoyment in preference to literate understanding, and for approaching understanding of how television is viewed more constructively, less paternally. It does not follow that our own fun in making television will be translated directly into the language of the viewer's pleasure. We must make good television on its own terms but within more generally accepted television rules, and then work with the viewer by breaking those rules to bring about change. Literacy is a shared understanding of the language rules and grammar of the game that both broadcaster and viewer are engaged in playing.

In my own studies I have approached media literacy from a perspective of language philosophy and social rights with an analysis of regulation - and not from a social or cultural studies perspective: the distinction between the study of language and the study of literature is important in understanding the differences of approach. The study of language is more focused on grammatical meaning than language as culture. The grammarians can still share with the social scientists and textual analysts a commitment to Habermas's identification (and negotiated boundaries) of media spaces not determined being either commercial or government requirements. But this is because we are all democrats but perhaps most of the emphasis of study should be on the character of the boundaries and perimeters of public media space if that democracy is to be lived and not adopted.

I do not believe that the study of broadcast media, and of television in particular as my specialist area, is being best served from a democratic perspective by cultural studies. For the most part the viewer in such study enters the picture, whether as an active or a passive agent, as a consumer and interpreter and not as a contributor - real or potential. The viewer remains in such studies as a figure that is isolated from influencing not only their own choices but also any debate on the merits of choice in the media agenda as a whole. This wider passivism is, in my view, antithetical to the viewer as citizen, taking the isolation of the viewer as a given element rather than as the contrived and constructed feature of the broadcasting processes.

An alternative approach to the study of media literacy would abandon trying to rescue the viewer from being a victim of a passive understanding of programming and encourage literacy about the regulatory structure of broadcasting and reassert the viewers claim as a citizen of broadcasting to a wider intervening knowledge. Programmes examined in the abstract for meanings are otherwise tugged from the mutual flow of broadcasting and watching.

The objective of television broadcasting is simple: it is to initiate and then to sustain a relationship between viewers and broadcaster, irrespective of whether the viewers' understanding is (as suggested) passive or super-critical (as wanted. In fact it does not much matter either to ourselves as viewers often as not or to the broadcasters whether or not we understand critically, so long as we share a desire to continue to watch anyway. Broadcasters are not concerned by Media Literacy, which is exactly why its current practice is mostly irrelevant.

There is a great need for less emphasis upon meaning in programmes and more upon the meaning of channels. It could be argued that I have tried to escape my subject - Media Literacy - whereas I suggest that I am trying to redefine the area in which viewer literacy is required, while allowing us all not to feel so guilty about enjoying much of what is already on offer while demanding more over which we have greater influence.

But there is a further problem within the academic tradition, which is its seeming unwillingness to overturn the contradictions arising from the fiction of the television or radio audience. We all concede there is no real audience for radio and television only separated listeners and viewers but this is accepted reluctantly in most studies and the notion that audience is a necessary fiction for the purpose of study serves to preserve the value for broadcasters that they are really engaged in a form of communication.

The virtue of the virtual audience of broadcasting is that collectivity and anonymity are simultaneously bestowed on viewers and listeners by their transformation into an audience. This transformation is extremely beneficial for broadcasters, and not only for advertising. The false collectivism enables the broadcasters to disown any responsibility for individual actions which copy or follow what is broadcast. In broadcast terms messages are displayed for viewers to witness and to observe, and they are not communicated to any viewer directly; so viewers are positioned in moral as well as grammatical terms by broadcasting as voyeurs, witnesses an observers and not as correspondents.

Here media literacy serves (at best) to understand one's isolation while being unable to unite to do anything about it: such is the frustration of the invidious partial literacy that fails to contribute to a social language at all. The literacy required is much more than reading and understanding, it is a literacy in which the isolated voice is able to reply and lead the discussion. In fairness to Nancy Richard this is embraced by her vision of Media Literacy.

Public Access Television is an inexpensive way of making television equipment available to people. Access centres train people to operate equipment, give them access to a channel, and provide a facility to construct their programmes. When people become comfortable communicating through television, they watch it actively rather than passively. By learning the underlying techniques of television production, they are able to look at stories and information more objectively.

But why access centres not broadcasting centres? Why be content with replies and responses and reactions in marginal left over spaces only? The interventions in broadcasting need to be full blown, whole, rich and multi-layered. Understanding how we are being hoodwinked or misinformed is not enough because this knowledge will not change the power relations represented in the broadcasting processes, only tell us how inadequate and under-resourced we are.

I fear this media literacy may be of more value as a safety valve for broadcasting, to allow broadcasting to stay the same rather than, as we might prefer to think, as a safety valve for a society in reconstruction with potential long-term benefit for democratic involvement. History would suggest that people bring about change because they do not understand, not because they do. So where does this leave us?

Nick Jankowski of Nijmegan University has many times separated out the types of access that are associated with community forms of broadcasting. These are access to equipment; access to a channel for distribution to an audience; access to editorial policy at a station and lastly; access to broadcasting policy at political level (local or national). At a meeting of local television organisations held in Strasbourg in 1991, Jankowski presented the German Open Channels as the purest type of access channel. 2

In one sense, I think Jankowski is right, because with the German Offener Kanals there is access to equipment, to an audience, there is minimal editorial interference over the producer's wishes and, although no direct access to policy, the operation would suggest an apparently enlightened broadcasting policy so far as free expression might be extended by electronic means to carry dissenting or diverse views beyond the reach of anyone's immediate eyes and ears.

But the open channel and the access channel are not, I believe, a media literate channel, either by purpose or by design: it is a free expression channel. In open channels literate statements may be made or they may not be, and those that are will be mostly sited alongside those that are happily just satisfying grunts and other sundry noises.

Coherent and incoherent utterances framed according to the grammar of television will leave controversial messages in open channels jostling alongside a more jumbled vocabulary, making the task of reading the channel by the viewer virtually impossible. Now I know that this lack of structure is largely the sustaining point of Offener Kanals, in one sense, open channels do not organize but list on a first-come basis dissent. But without a structure perceived by the viewer the resultant channel does not offer dissent at all but redistribute ineffectual chaos.

Do we need an Offener Kanal Mark II for those participants who have mastered television's rules and who wish to exert influence and bring about a dialogue with general viewers, and through that exchange break the rules? If so, the Mark II channel must be less indulgent of the producer and far more understanding of the viewer's requirements. Let me ask some questions here for our workshop session later?

Is the halted development of open channels an expression any longer of Germany's liberal democracy or an unwillingness to integrate dissent and develop an alternative more penetrating televisual thesis?

Is an open channel the safety valve for a State that seems unwilling to fully embrace in civil society all its inhabitants by enabling a persistent if permanently illiterate form of expression, and to force dissent to remain in the playground at Kindergarten?

Is the open channel a noisy channel after all - and not the purest example of freedom of expression but the cruel imprisonment of a child in its pre-linguistic state, where the (literate) parents will only repeat back the child's own noises to maintain its innocence?

Is there a deeper unwillingness to teach and to demonstrate how sounds (or programmes) when fully orchestrated (or scheduled in sequence) can have influence and change the minds of those listening? So that, importantly those who listen or view can come from outside the ghetto of existing commitment or cultural ties? Should we as citizens be denied learning the rules of media in general so that we can bring about change? The willingness of Germany's conservative politicians to accept Offener Kanals is perhaps not a recommendation for the democratic maturity of the open channels, but a quiet acknowledgement of their success in encouraging expression in place of literacy.

In order to break the rules you must first know the rules. I have a heretical suggestion that Open Channels without rules will remain in a contrived and chaotic space, offering a safety valve for the State and not a learning space for its citizens and would-be citizens.

Finally a quote from Marc Raboy of the University of Montreal writing in a recent Videazimut newsletter: 3 The central issue remains that who will get to use the full range of local, national and global media to receive and disseminate messages, and on what basis? Resolution of this issue will depend on us all having a different kind of access: to the processes and points of decision making that will determine the framework in which media are going to develop, that is to say, access to the policy framework of the new global media system.

To exert the necessary influence the use of frequency channels, of cable channels, of microwave channels must be decided as locally as practically possible. That is, broadcasting should be regulated within a democratic framework in which the viewer and the broadcaster can coexist with greater equality of influence.


  1. Nancy Richard, 'Media Literacy: How do we develop it?', Focus , C3TV, volume and date not known.
  2. Nick Jankowski, 'A European Opening: The Netherlands' in Daniel Schlosser (Ed) Local Television in Europe: Proceedings of the Colloquium in Strasbourg, Editions ACTA, Selestat, 1991, pp 83-88.
  3. Marc Raboy, Clips, Volume 10 April 1996, Videazimut, Montreal, 1996, p 10.

Dave Rushton, Institute of Local Television, United Kingdom