During last week’s STS seminar, Christina Dunbar-Hester, who is currently based at the Virtual Knowledge Studio for the Humanities and Social Sciences in Amsterdam, presented her work on media activism. Drawing on ethnographic studies of a US-based radio activist organisation, she engaged with what can be construed as a “problem of scale.”
In her talk, Dunbar-Hester concentrated on a particular tension media activists have encountered in their activities in recent decades: that between their commitment to large-scale policy reform and small-scale grassroots initiatives. As she put it, media activism of the 1990s and 2000s was heavily invested in a major political project – a radical transformation of the media system, or more specifically ‘the fight against media consolidation’. At the same time, however, they were actively committed to media practices situated at the local level, such as community radio.
The talk took an empirical approach to exploring the tension between these commitments, focusing on a specific group of media activists, a small US-based radio activist organisation, examining the different ways in which the problematic emerged, and was or was not negotiated in their practices. This organisation, that she referred to using the invented code name ‘Pandora’, engages in community-based projects in the US, helping local groups set up their own radio stations. But it is also involved in policy advocacy on the national level, centering on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). As the FCC actively welcomes the participation of grassroots organisations in consultations on media policy reform, the question became acute as to how exactly the activist group Pandora was any different from more mainstream policy organisations. Interestingly, as Dunbar-Hester pointed out, this problem of political integrity encountered by activists is in some respects a fairly common ‘political’ problem (think of election campaigns). Perhaps it can be understood as a particular version of the classic problem of political representation – how to be loyal to the many while building political influence in the centres of government. However, she went on to emphasise that radio activists draw on a special repertoire to negotiate the problematic: she argued that practical technical work provided a crucial way of addressing it.
For much of the talk, Dunbar-Hester focused on the “hands-on” work performed by Pandora’s members, such as building a micro-broadcasting-station in a lunchbox, or erecting radio towers for community radio broadcasting – ‘somewhere in Tennessee’. Indeed, in this respect, her talk made clear that the problematic of partly contradictory commitments of media activism is certainly not only a problem of scale, but also a problem of the ‘media’ of political action: activists she interviewed described a distinct sense of discomfort about having to make their point in legal terms – in the official forums. By contrast, making these points through the medium of ‘socio-technical’ devices, i.e. through radio practice, seemed somehow “right.”
However, at the same time, she warned against taking the role of “technology” too literally. Drawing on the work of people like Julian Orr and Sherry Turkle, she suggested the use of radio technologies should be understood as a form of “identity work”: it is symbolically important. She suggested that precisely because hands-on work has these symbolic capacities, it may achieve a wider political significance or resonance, and may help to differentiate media activism from more ‘mainstream’ or ‘technocratic’ forms of policy advocacy.
Finally, she also noted certain problems with this deployment of “hands-on work” for symbolic purposes: devices like the radio station in a lunch box or a local community erecting a radio tower might evoke the idea or promise of a more democratic technology – i.e. a world in which everyone may be a broadcaster. But at the same time devices like these come with specific restrictions and a particular gender bias, as they favour a technical, hardware-centred approach to media practice. Indeed, in this respect, these devices could or should perhaps be approached as devices of problematisation themselves. That is, as Dunbar-Hester suggested as a final point, these objects can also be used to raise further questions about the kinds of commitments an “anti-technocratic” media activism should or could involve. Such a reflexive approach to media activism, I would like to suggest, may also have to take seriously the changing political significance of “community media”, in a context in which small-scale “community broadcasting” is fast being integrated into the big “media system”, in the form of wi-fi, mobile phones and location-based media.