What is community media?

9 04 2007

Bruce Girard

There is no single definition of community media and there are almost as many models as there are stations. Each community radio station is a hybrid, a unique communication process shaped by a few over-arching characteristics and by the distinct culture, history, and reality of the community it serves. Nevertheless, there are some characteristics that all community radio stations have in common. Among these are that they are community-based, independent, not-for-profit, pro-community, and participatory.

Community-based: The station is based in its community and accountable to it. Usually the community is defined geographically, although its size can range from a small town, to a city, or a vast rural area covering thousands of square kilometres. Stations can also serve particular communities of interest such as women, youth or linguistic and cultural minorities.

Community media are owned and controlled by the community. In some cases the legal owner is the community itself, via an association established for the purpose. In others the legal owner is a not-for-profit group, a cooperative, an NGO, or a municipality, acting on behalf of the community. Regardless of the legal structure, the policies and objectives of media are articulated with a strong input from stakeholders within the community and community members have both a sense of ownership and a real ability to shape the station to suit their wishes and needs.

Independent: Regardless of ownership, community media are independent of government, donors, advertisers and other institutions. This does not mean that they do not have relations with these institutions or that they cannot receive funding from them, but the nature of their relations must be transparent and cannot compromise their independence. Where there is a potential for independence to be compromised, which often happens when money is involved, the relations must be governed by clear and transparent agreements that guarantee the non-partisan community-service nature of the medium, while operating within the boundaries defined by the law and by the constitution/guiding principles of the station.

Community media exist to serve communities and thus cannot be independent of the community itself. Transparent governance structures, such as an elected board of governors, ensure that the station is responsive to community needs and interests.

Not-for-profit: To say that a community radio station is not-for-profit doesn’t mean that it can’t carry advertising or that it has to be poor. It means that the money it makes is reinvested into the station and the community. The Italian Radio Popolare, for example, is financed with a combination of advertising and listener subscriptions. With annual revenue of 1 million euros it’s one of the wealthiest community radio stations in the world. The station’s shareholders are thousands of its listeners and supporters and rather than expect profits, they make donations to help the station fulfill its mandate.

Community radio stations finance themselves in many ways: advertising, listener donations, concerts, international donors, government grants and so on. In France, where community radio stations do not carry advertising, a tax on advertising is put into a fund to support community radio (in 2004 the fund distributed 21 million euros among some 600 radio stations – an average of 35,000 euros each) . As one Ecuadorian broadcaster put it, “We’re not for profit, but we’re not for bankruptcy either.”

Pro-community: To say that community media are not-for-profit leaves open the question: What do community media stand for? If they don’t exist to make a profit, why do they exist? The broad answer to that question is that community media exist to support and contribute to their communities’ social, economic and cultural development, but each station will have its own specific answer. Many stations describe what they stand for in a mission statement, a short text that describes why they do what they do.

Participatory: Just as all community radio stations have a common mission to support and contribute to the community, they also all have a common strategy that involves community participation at all levels – programming, running and even financing the station. This can be exercised in a wide variety of ways depending on the specific nature of the station, its objectives, and the characteristics of the community.

Participation in programming can be assured with participatory production formats, by encouraging and supporting programme production by organisations from within the community, by broadcasting public forums, and generally by enabling the free and open exchange of views.

The community must also be able to participate in the management and direction of the station, for example through a board of governors or directors with members representing various interests within the community.

Many communities support their stations with cash or in-kind contributions. Financial support can come from individuals, local businesses, community organisations, or municipal governments. In some cases the community supplies the building the station is housed in, even contributing its own “sweat capital” to build it.

Participatory radio allows long-neglected people to be heard and to participate in the democratic process. Having a say in decisions that shape their lives will ultimately improve their living standards. Many stations also recognise and value the change that volunteers often experience in their own lives as they become more confident, capable and active members of the community as a result of their association with the station.

Many definitions of community radio

In addition to the common characteristics listed above, a given community medium will emphasise the importance of other characteristics. A rural radio station in northern Senegal may emphasise the practical service it provides by enabling people in its listening area to get messages to one another without having to travel for hours or even days; a television station broadcasting to a linguistic minority in a big city may put emphasis in its cultural role; while yet a third station could define itself primarily by its role of ensuring that the poorest members of the community are able to express their concerns, or of promoting transparency and exposing corruption.


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