Davis Media Access: How did we get here?

By From page A4 | January 30, 2014

Questions last week about the Washington, D.C., Circuit Court’s ruling on net neutrality led me down a rabbit hole as people asked me, “How did things get to this point?” I wrote a blog post about that ruling, which you can read at http://davismedia.org/content/media-musings-net-neutrality-broadband-adoption, but this month I’ll take a look back at some of its — and my — precursors.

In February 1996, I met with editor Debbie Davis about writing a regular column for The Davis Enterprise. I’m certain neither she nor I could have envisioned that 18 years later, I’d still be involved with our community media center, and still writing this column. I’d like to thank her for making room for my voice, and for all her work to highlight community organizations over the years. Given what I’m about to write, it’s no small miracle that we still have The Enterprise.

With the exception of time off during two maternity leaves, I’ve written monthly about everything from media consolidation, to the decades-long fight to pass the Local Radio Act of 2010, to court rulings and FCC rulemaking, highlighting DMA’s work in context. My column encapsulates much of what media activists have been fighting for the better part of the past two decades, and that is, in a nutshell, local control of content.

It was coincidence that I started writing about media in 1996, the same year Congress rewrote the Telecommunications Act to allow cross-ownership of media outlets (lifting an earlier proscription on one person being able to own both a newspaper and a television station, for example). That rewrite triggered a cascade of events that has provided all too much column fodder.

Since then, we’ve seen a cataclysmic decline in media outlets. Where there were many thousands prior to 1996, today 90 percent of all media outlets are owned by just six corporations: CBS, Comcast, Disney, News Corp., Time Warner and Viacom, with Clear Channel a close runner-up. I’m focusing here on TV and radio broadcasters, who get to use the airwaves for free and, in return, have some public service programming requirements.

By all accounts, that legislative rewrite was very good for these companies. As for consumers, consolidation led to closures of media outlets, homogenization of content and automation of delivery, divorcing us from what was actually meaningful and happening in our communities. It’s easy to see how lack of broadband access and loss of net neutrality slot all too neatly into this continuum. The corporations won, and consumers, communities, municipalities have lost in a big way.
Welcome to my rabbit hole.

So, what role does one, rather small, community media center play in the larger media landscape? Of what import are things such as an archive of 10,000 locally produced programs, a quarter-century of local election programming, and a non-commercial space on the radio dial? Why does any of this matter?

I’ll say it again: Local content matters. Access to creating, participating in, producing, watching and downloading this content matters. Democratic decision-making and control of the airwaves matters. This is what drives me, all these years later, a passion for this work, a hunger for justice, for good information, and for community.

I never knew I’d stay so long. I’m not done yet, either. There’s still so much to do, and each time I celebrate a media maker’s success at mastering a new skill, or completing a program, I’m re-ignited a little. As we enter the season of hearts and flowers, I’ll let these words be a valentine to my co-workers and volunteers, to my community, a pledge, if you will, to keep media of and by the people here in Davis.

— Autumn Labbé-Renault has served as executive director of Davis Media Access since 2007, where she writes and blogs about a wide variety of media issues. Find out more about DMA on Facebook (Davis Media Access), Twitter (@dmafeed), YouTube (Davis Media Access) and at davismedia.org

Autumn Labbe-Renault

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