Tony Dowmunt (with Kate Coyer)
In the past decade or so there has been a massive explosion of ‘alternative media’ activity. Facilitated by the spread of the Internet and other digital technologies, and accelerated by global protest movements, more people’s lives than ever before have been touched by various forms of media resistance – as readers, audiences and producers. If you have blogged, vlogged, or moblogged; read a fanzine of a new band – online or in print; admired a piece of colourful graffiti on a grim urban wall or subway train; taken a picture on your mobile at a demonstration or street event and sent it to friends; been interviewed on a student radio station; or contributed to a student newspaper, then you have had an encounter of some kind with ‘alternative media’ as we are defining it in this book: media forms that are on a smaller scale, more accessible and participatory, and less constrained by bureaucracy or commercial interests than the mainstream media and often in some way in explicit opposition to them.
At the same time as alternative media have grown, mainstream media have become more and more globally pervasive and visible, driven primarily by the needs and pressures exerted by an ever-expanding, globally triumphant capitalist economy. These media are not primarily (or, in many cases, at all) concerned with social values, the sharing of information or communication as a public good. The primary goal of commercial media is to deliver audiences to the advertisers who fund them and make them profitable, and most non-commercial or publicly funded mainstream media are competing in the same market place, and as a consequence their social functions tend to be distorted by the same pressures: they still may provide an occasional home for ‘alternative’ programming, but increasingly rarely. These commercial pressures are continuing, and spreading right across the globe, but while they are certainly dominant, they are not monolithic, and they do not go unopposed. In particular, the increasing reach of the Internet and availability of digital media have fostered the growth of the alternative media counter-culture which this book explores.
Raymond Williams, over 30 years ago and right at the start of the recent history of ‘alternative media’, wrote with cautious optimism about the new media technologies he saw developing around him then:
Alternative media activity, which exploits new technical developments for its own ‘different purposes’, is now prevalent at local, national and global levels, ‘opening up cracks in the mass media monolith through which strange flowers grow’ (Waltz 2005: vii). However, this exciting and messy explosion of new forms, new content and different modes of distribution poses a basic question.
The historic US video magazine Radical Software was started by Beryl Korot and Phyllis (Gershuny) Segura, and published by the Raindance Foundation (co-founder Ira Schneider) in the spring of 1970 – soon after low-cost portable video equipment became available to artists and other potential videomakers.
This is an extract from the first issue, a statement by Gene Youngblood:
What exactly are ‘alternative media’?
There are almost as many answers to this as there are people thinking and writing about it, coming up with competing labels and definitions. ‘Alternative media’ is probably the most common label, but some prefer ‘radical’ or ‘independent’ media, and others ‘citizens’’, ‘tactical’, ‘activist’ or ‘autonomous’ media. Then there are the allied concepts and practices of ‘community’ and ‘participatory’ media. None of these are empty phrases: they all express differing beliefs about the cultural and political function of this area of work, some of which we will try to untangle and explain in the following pages.
Partly as a result of the rise in alternative media activity over the last decade, the first few years of the twenty-first century have also seen a related growth in the amount of writing and theorising about the activity, and attempts to define it. We are going to review some of this work here, and, along the way, outline the provisional position of our own that we have been using in compiling this handbook.
Alternative … or radical?
Chris Atton uses the term ‘alternative media’ to mean ‘a range of media projects, interventions and networks that work against, or seek to develop different forms of, the dominant, expected (and broadly accepted) ways of “doing” media’ (2004: ix). This is a useful definition as it includes projects outside a narrow definition of ‘media’, and allows space for consideration of, for instance, broader activities such as the open-source and anti-copyright movements that are aligned with many alternative media projects. Atton believes that alternative media must encompass all cultural forms of independent production and should display the following characteristics (Atton 2002b: 27):
• radical content, be it political or cultural
• strong aesthetic form
• employ ‘reproductive innovations/adaptations’ (ibid) taking full advantage of the available and cutting-edge technology
• alternative means of distribution and anti-copyright ethos
• transformation of social roles and relations into collective organisations and de-professionalisation and
• transformation of communications processes – ‘horizontal linkages’ (ibid.).
It is rare that any one instance of alternative media activity will display all, or even most, of these characteristics, but the list does usefully address the double nature of the role of alternative media – to provide content (cultural or political) that differs from that in the dominant media, and to offer examples of alternate modes of production that are more democratic and participatory, organised horizontally rather than hierarchically. These functions are both ‘counter-hegemonic’, as Atton explains:
The political nature of alternative media is often present irrespective of content, located in the mere act of producing. John Downing, in his case for the concept of ‘radical media’, which emphasises the emergence of media from political and social movements, states that ‘alternative media is almost oxymoronic. Everything is, at some point, alternative to something else’ (2001: ix). Radical media, for Downing, includes forms such as dance and graffiti, and is defined by its subversive relationship with mainstream power and authority.
Similarly Nick Couldry and James Curran define alternative media as ‘media production that challenges, at least implicitly, actual concentrations of media power, whatever form those concentrations may take in different locations’ (2003: 7). However, they state that, for their purposes,
Couldry has argued powerfully elsewhere that alternative media are in structural opposition to ‘the place of media power’ (Couldry 2000) which mainstream media occupy. The latter have carved out a ‘ritual space’ in modern societies and, by implication, the task of alternative media is that of contesting this space, of ‘unravelling the myth of the centre’ (Couldry 2003a: 37). In his view the myth that ‘the media’ have managed to sell us (very effectively) is that they occupy a central space in society that is somehow magically separated from us. So only a very few of us are ‘in the media’, most of us are outside it and the ‘place of media power’ excludes us, seemingly naturally, as of right.
A potential danger of this kind of polarised vision of the mainstream/alternative relationship is that it encourages us to see the two as wholly separate. To counter this Atton posits his ‘hegemonic approach’ which ‘suggests a complexity of relations between radical and mainstream that previous binary models have been unable to identify’ (Atton 2004: 10). This approach allows us to see the field as having distinctly movable internal boundaries, boundaries which are the products of specific societies at specific times. So, for instance, a media form which in one time or context could be seen as ‘mainstream’, in another could be defined as ‘alternative’. Corinna Sturmer describes how the arrival of MTV in the Sweden of the 1980s – which up to that point had been dominated by sober public-service television – acted as a channel of youthful resistance to mainstream culture, and this ‘explains the popularity of MTV: voluntary exile for bored Swedish youth’ (Sturmer 1993: 58). The Arabic news station Al Jazeera is now one of a handful of global suppliers of TV news footage, and employs the internationally known presenter David Frost, so can hardly very easily be seen as ‘alternative’. Yet, in the sense that its coverage provides a counter to the consistently Western bias in the portrayal of the Muslim world in the rest of the world’s media, it does indeed provide an ‘alternative’ – and enough of one that apparently the US sought to silence it by bombing its Baghdad headquarters in the last Iraq war. The issue is one of power and hegemony: who, in what context, has the power to define a media agenda, and who (for instance Swedish youth or the entire Muslim world) are excluded in that context. Alternative media for us, in this book, are the media produced by the socially, culturally and politically excluded.
The ‘complexity of relations between radical and mainstream’ (Atton 2004: 10) has been significantly increased by the proliferation of digital media and the convergences offered by the Internet. We now live in a ‘mediascape’ in which, at least according to Google, we spend more time in the UK on the Net than we do watching TV. A recent, controversial survey conducted by Google found that the average Briton spends around 164 minutes online every day, compared with 148 minutes watching television (Johnson 2006). These changes have a qualitative, as well as quantitative, effect on media audiences. The more personalised distribution systems embodied in the Internet are, according to Chris Anderson, undermining the ‘mass’ media by turning us all into niche culture enthusiasts (Anderson 2006). We could also speculate that these changes are happening because the Web offers more participation – more power and involvement – to the user than TV does to its audiences, and that this demonstrates an increasing thirst for more alternative-style media, or at least a desire to ‘write’ as well as ‘read’, to make as well as receive, our own media. Another recent poll, for instance, showed that a third of 14–21-year-olds in the UK are producing their own content online, in blogs or on personal websites (Gibson 2005), or on sites like MySpace and YouTube. Of course this does not necessarily mean that this activity is radical or alternative in any way (MySpace is, after all, now owned by Rupert Murdoch and YouTube has been bought by Google), but it certainly reinforces the point that the Web complicates the simple alternative/mainstream binary and problematises the issue of what is or is n...