Creating Community Broadband ISPs: Future of Indy Media

Linda: Panelists have been involved ten years or longer. We’ve seen successes, and miserable failures, We’re going to look at building a more coherent movement around independent media.

Independent Press Association–500 members–closed last month. Diversity and sustainability programs survived.

Jeff Chester, founder, ex-director, Center for digital Democracy, 20 years, author, Digital Destiny

I’ve tried to look at what the industry intended to do. It’s always the same vision: digital dreck. That’s why, in the early 80s, we understood consolidation of ownership, the last place to do independent journalism was public broadcasting. So a handful of us created the Independent Television Service, because we knew indy producers would need financial support and distribution. Today, with your help, we’ve been holding the giant back. We forced the Clinton administration to support computers in schools and libraries, and got safeguards on big media mergers.

Why we need to intervene in the commercial market, put at least half our energy into changing the media. If you’re not going to have media that supports equity and equality unless we do it ourselves. We need a strategic intervention to the emerging US broadband landscape, based on the pressing needs of a progressive agenda. A commercial intervention.

If you want to know the future of broadband, you have to follow the interactive advertising industry. With hundreds of billions involved, there are three major platforms emerging, and progressives need to infiltrate all of them: Broadband/PC, mobile,
Regardless of network neutrality, they are going to create the most powerful network, always on, all to get us to consume. They will have the money to dominate. Murdoch made his money back on advertising, immediately. Google bought Youtube for the advertising.

Their vision is not about social justice, it’s about making a buck. We need a strategic, organized, coherent effort in every community, to create the kind of new media services that establish our voices, owned by people, and that can generate revenues.
If you see what they’re thinking of in China, with interactive advertising—we cannot have a culture with the dominant theme of commercialism, narcissism. They’re working on brain research. We’re not going to get public policies to take back the TV and radio stations. But there is the necessity to organize so that women and poor people get to own and control a piece of it. Young people—we have to be where they are. If we’re going to influence them to support our agenda, we’d better be out there now. They already seamlessly think of online and offline worlds as one.

$72 billion in advertising purchased online last year. Go look at Publishing 2.0, ClickZ, they are defining our reality, we have to respond.

The next big economic investment will be at the community level for social networking, local search. There’s an opportunity for us to come in with hybrid business models, to do responsible marketing and advertising. We have to create businesses that are sustainable, that can pay for multimedia production, and we have to have the money to do organizing.

Wally Bowen: Mountain Area Information Network, Asheville, founded 1996: give citizens the option of spending their internet dollars to support local/progressive news/info

Our home page gets 12-13,000 visits/day, second only to Gannett in our area.

The progressive paradox: We’re passionate about media reform, we support and create indy media, but every month we write checks to these big companies. How do we capture that money to support indy media in our communities? We believe our model (broadband ISP and much more) can migrate to other communities. Sometimes it’s hard to be taken seriously . New America Foundation. We need more spectrum for our radio station, perhaps for a TV station, and also for our high-speed Internet access. Broadband is the key to capturing those dollars. The problem is that the spectrum we need is sitting there unused, and is held by the current broadcasters. In our community, it’s Sinclair. It’s the lower frequency that penetrates buildings, can go around mountains. Our spectrum right now is junk band, it won’t penetrate buildings or go around mountains.

I’m concerned that the FCC comment period for this spectrum is going on right now, and the deadline is Jan 31. FCC Docket 04-186, White Space. They never paid a dime for this, and they want to hang on to it. There’s a push to reclaim some of it for community wireless. Because of the smart radios, we can exist in that same band and have much more efficient wireless.

We’ve located our antennas on state Forest Service fire towers for one dollar a year.

Find the Linux gurus in your community; they have the technological ability. Every public access TV station in this country could be its own ISP and capture those dollars.

We’re going to set up point-to-point wireless and we’re going to feed and deliver our radio content live to the public access facility, so we’re aggregating and audience. And people are hungry for this. If you can’t find an audience, you’re marginalized. That’s why we’ve been able to attract so many visitors. We have weather, w ith web cams, ozone and pollen information, two newspapers (indy weeklies). We’ve given them some of our homepage real estate so we can share that audience with them. We propose a revenue-sharing collaboration. We are now a national ISP under a brand called Currently, it’s webhosting for progressive nonprofits worldwide and we’re negotiating to provide national DSL. What we don’t have is the marketing apparatus. So every hosting or ISP client you bring to us, we share the revenue.

Cathy Spiller, editor, Ms, ex-VP, Feminist Majority foundation

I want to talk about how to build models for social change media. How to use indy media to deliver messages to a very large audience.

MS is 35 years old this year, it’s a household name recognizable across the world. It’s had tremendous impact on the public debate.

Five years ago, Gloria Steinem approached the foundation about taking on the ownership and publication. After a series of commercial publishers, Ms. was almost destroyed several times. The owners were trying to bleed or subscribers off to Working Mother, etc. She felt it belonged in the movement. We say that Ms. is a movement. Its purpose is to set trends and shape public opinion, and across the spectrum of social justice, environment, globalization, peace. Women are in the forefront of these movements and you find much more in Ms. than you’d think.

We view Ms. as functioning to identify, inform, and advocate around issues and strategies and impact on policies in US and globally. We view the magazine as having a key role in strengthening the feminist movement.

Women have very little ownership of our own media, so Ms. became a very crucial piece of real estate. Eleanor Smeal thinks if we had to start the feminist movement today, we couldn’t get our message out without owning our own media.

In the early days, we had the Fairness Doctrine, and we could demand covereage. Often the coverage was an attempt to ridicule, but by covering the movement, they helped it grow.

Today, over 56% of women identify as feminists, and the younger the woman, the more likely. Among college age, it jumps up to about 67 percent.

When we took over the magazine, we saw it as a critical step in the media food chain. We’re taking these ideas generated by the feminist and progressive movements, taking it up through the blogs and newsletters and into magazines with the idea that we want to impact the larger indy media that exist. And millions of people get their information from alternative sources. If we can create this echo chamber in our own media, you can create a real groundswell around a new idea, strategy, or analysis.

And then we attempt to impact the corporate media. You can use Ms. to impact the public discourse generally and then to policy makers.

We published Sex, Greed, and Abortion in Paradise (garment industry sweatshops on the US-owned Mariana Islands). The immigration policies were the same that DeLay was attempting to implement here, with an entirely separate, deportable, compliant workforce. After we published it, we got on every radio talk show that we could, and on NPR and Fresh Air, we held press conferences and demonstrations, and eventually impacted the policy. This past week, Rep. George Miller put into the minimum wage bill an increase in minimum wage for Marianas Islands workers. And they’re going to be witnesses in hearings.

Owning our own media is absolutely critical. We’re reorganizing our own website to deliver audio or video news.

The Sunday talkshows are now just the press interviewing the press, there are no policy makers anymore. So with a press, you have a broader platform.

Support independent media, and contribute to us. And the mainstream media thought what we were doing was interesting and a novelty.

Robrerto LaLato, New American Media, country’s largest network of ethnic print and electronic media.

I have to separate my personal opinions for the organization; I’m speaking as Roberto LoLato.

There is not a single one of us in this room that is not shaped by race, culture, and ethnicity. New Independent Media was started in 1996 by a group of Chinese, Latin, and Armenian journalists. We were also affected by conglomerated economics, but we had 50% of the eyeballs. We’re a trade association, mission to build joint advertising platforms (offices in LA, SF, NY, DC, and soon Atlanta); we view the south as a fundamental part of any change strategy in the US. You can’t change the US from the cafes of LA, NY, SF. You’ve got to go into the heartland and into the suburbs.

Black, Latino, Asian populations have made four major Deep South cities majority-minority. We also share content at , and we’ll translate across languages, geographies, and races/ethnicities. If we envision a future of indy media, it has to look something like that. We don’t want to reproduce the apartheid culture. It would be easy to adopt the position that I am a minority, but looked at from a hemispheric or global perspective, I am the majority. I speak to you as a fellow traveler, comrade in arms, who used to live and work in the de facto totalitarian state of El Salvador. Through that lens, I’ve never seen the US resemble El Salvador as it does today. And many of the policy makers for Iraq cut their teeth in El Salvador. I see a very dangerous situation in the domestic approach to manipulating and shaping public opinion, especially in the immigration debate. I see whites, African-Americans, and even some Latinos adopting policies of hatred, Minuteman-like.

I love the word and I’m out of the closet about it.

I want to talk about two words: Media and form

Media: a subtext is mentioned as peripheral, but it’s global. The legal framework of the Internet is a global interconnected system, and giving uniformity to the message around the world. People in Latin America have racist attitudes toward Africans in part because of US-exported media racism.

I view reform as anathema; that word needs to leave really fast. It leaves you within the frame of the nation-state, and you can’t deal with such powerful and insipid media through the nation-state.

Fascism is an Industrial Age expression; we need a word for the Digital Age. The language of media reform is not adequate to the Salvadorization of US media and society to the totalitarian-lite we’re experiencing.

In Oaxaca, they took over the radio stations. Why don’t they show Oaxaca on US media? Would you imagine Murdoch etc. wanting Americans to see radio and TV stations being taken over? We need a new militancy.

Linda: George Washington Williams Fellowship for intellectuals to get their viewpoint out to progressive media, former part of IPA.

IPA was about how to get our magazines out to the newsstands, progressive version of Magazine Publishers of America. We provided business and publishing services to smaller magazines. We had a $1.5 million revolving loan fund, technical publishing assistance workshops and a conference, manuals for startups, leadership initiatives: paper project that researched environmental costs of paper, put out a white paper that showed it was possible and economically feasible to come up with quality paper that was eco-friendly. It became a threat to the commercial magazine industry; we fought it, but we lost. But we made the case that it is possible to publish on eco-friendly paper.

We also helped to make writers sustainable who were working in indy media. Or leadership programs were aimed at helping our magazines walk the talk. I was one of four original staff, eventually 26-28 with offices in SF, NY, and one starting in Chicago.

We introduced to the foundation world

The fellowship got several new writers out. We sent Chaterjee to Iraq to report on Halliburton, and now he gets on Fox and argues with them. We sent the first reporter to the border to monitor the vigilante movement, and that story was picked up worldwide. I also had a campus journalism program to train the next generation.

We acquired a newsstand distribution business, because so many of our publishers were not being paid by the big distributors. We did recover some money, and that was the beginning of our involvement with distribution. Big Top was for sale, it was the only distributor for indies, and it would have died. But we were severely undercapitalized. There’s a huge lag time in payments from newsstands, and we did not have the capital to resolve it. Resolving what we owed publishers was eating into capital for other needs, and the organization collapsed.

Other issues: tensions between social advocates and those from the mainstream publishing world.

Unfortunately the distribution business overshadowed a lot of other issues, that also had the potential to destroy the org. But it was a really interesting experiment to be the David to the magazine Goliath.

There’s a continuing need for something like IPA, and we’re looking at how to revive it without the distribution arm.

Qusetions: what about a tax on broadcast revenues to fund progressive voices? Jeff: not likely.

Audience: One of the first things the U.S. did when it took Hawaii was arrest all the newspaper editors.
Jeff: Web 2.0, social network model, is the basic tool we can harness to build a multimedia distribution engine, and there’s money that we need to take advantage of.

Gathering new audience: Cathy: How do you build audience, how to you let people know you exist. Average readers per blog: 1. There are some extraordinarily successful blogs, so some others must not even be read by the people writing them. This is one of the biggest challenges we face, how to gather audiences and traffic. At Ms, we’ve gone some unorthodox routes. We do a lot of speaking and events, plugging into the community of feminists. We’re going to Women’s Studies programs, we’re developing a whole marketplace. It increases subscriptions and readership among that generation. We are distributed on newsstands, college bookstores (our biggest sell-through), getting mentioned on radio, on other websites It’s something we all have to struggle with.
Wally. We’ve spent so much time organizing an audience in our region (about the size of Vermont). We’re streaming the radio, and that brings new readers to our home page, we get news from Common Dreams. We need to collaborate to share and build that audience, and it points back to winning our infrastructure.

In Western NC and NC in general, our biggest allies are the Chamber and the economic development professionals, because they want our community to own its infrastructure too. When we got public access TV launched, it took over a decade, and it was Chamber backing that got the attention of elected officials. In 1996, our T-1 [broadband pipeline] cost $26-2800 a month. That was a tremendous infringement on business development. We proposed a publicly owned fiber network and we got the support of our right-wing congressman.

Roberto: I started my writer’s trajectory around the issue of surveillance. The current digital-era surveillance systems were developed against the Central American movement. I realized that this Big Brother metaphor is inadequate and quite silly. We’re not dealing with an Industrial-Age state, but one that is decentralized. They’re nanosisters, microcousins. And it’s privatized. Private surveillance is the biggest threat right now, and you need to deal with that when discussing private equity and foundation support—which will not support radical shifts. You have to be creative about financing structures for radical change. It’s too radical a moment to be negotiating [with reformers]

Jeff: we have to be realistic. With the media creating the consciousness of the public, think about how to have a media system that offers something different. We have to be practical but in a way that sticks to our values.

Roberto: I can’t disagree more. With apocalyptic Christianity, it’s irresponsible to even talk about reform. We just have to get the ball rolling. Teach the young people doing what they’re doing in Oaxaca. If you start scaring the crap out of the corporations, it will spread. Someone has to have the intrepidity, the vision to break out of the mode of reform.

Wally: Amy Goodman’s distribution network is the great foundation stone to coordinate with ComonDreams, TomPaine, etc. One of the good things from the 1996 Telecom Act were these new Competitive Local Exchange Carriers (baby phone companies.) they have a a strong incentive to an open Internet and privacy safeguards. We use CLEX to get to our backbone. Framing the question: how do we capture the dollars we send every month.