Alternative Media in Canada: An Interview With David Skinner
Alternative Media in Canada, a new collection edited by Kirsten Kozolanka, Patricia Mazepa, and David Skinner, fills a substantial gap in Canadian media research: it is the first collection to provide an overview of Canadian alternative media practices. The assembled chapters discuss a wide range of media forms — including public service broadcasting, community radio, feminist periodical, and anarchist zines — while also considering the necessary conditions for the survival of alternative and independent voices in the Canadian mediascape. Researching Journalism editor Lisa Lynch interviewed David Skinner about the book’s central themes and about the relationship between mainstream and independent journalism in Canada.
LL: David, can you give me a brief history of how the book came to be written?
DS: Well, it was a project that was just begging to be picked up in some ways, given the scarcity or scarcity of material in the field. What we wanted to do was to begin to document some of the alternative media practices in the area, get a better understanding of the form and direction that alternative or independent media has been taking in Canada and to begin to document the hard work of many people in this field.
LL: Why is there so little scholarship? And how hard was it to find scholars to write for the collection, given this scarcity?
DS: Well, certainly, to some extent it’s a question of resources. In Canada particularly, there are not as many media scholars, so in that regard all things aren’t covered particularly. My background is in communications studies; so thinking about the broader field of what comprises journalism has been more one of my projects. But really, the study of traditional media is still not a well-established academic area, and alternative or independent media much less so.
In other countries, social movement media as well as a range of other protest media has historically been the subject of academic scrutiny. And in the US in particular, my understanding is there’s been a new wave of alternative media tied to the media reform movement over the last 10 years. That has gotten some attention there. But in Canada, this is one of the first moments when it’s really been possible to focus on such things.
So yes, issue that emerged when [my co-editors and I] began figuring out who would be good to recruit to write articles was that most of the people that knew about the field were PhD students, as opposed to professors. So our publishers were somewhat concerned that these people had not established track records. But we were quickly able to assuage those fears and, of course, I think that the people our contributors did a fantastic job and once the manuscript was complete there was no concern in this regard.
I should add that what I am saying really applies to Anglophone Canada: there’s no pretension that this book has much to do with Francophone Canada. There’s been much more interest in alternative media in Quebec: to a large part it has to do with, I hesitate to say the nationalist project per say, but the difference or distinctions that are often drawn between Anglophone and Francophone and the move to differentiate the culture and community. There has been, as I’m sure you’re aware, money put forward historically by the provincial government into radio and television particularly, and certainly on the print side there’s a whole different set of publications and projects -- and on the internet as well, now. So, you can see there’s been a different political economic context there for the development of these kinds of media.
LL: So, if I understand correctly, there’s more interest in alternative media in the United States because of a renaissance in the form, and in Canada we don’t see that yet?
DS: Well I think we have had it historically, but not at present. It comes down to differences in funding and differences in the larger political environment as well. In Canada, we can see that alternative community radio and community television were taken up in the policy process, particularly in the 1970s and then again of course in the 1991 Broadcasting Act. So in Canada, alternative media or different kinds of media have a much seemingly more legitimate place in the field than they do in the United States, as they are officially recognized. But the problem is, has been finding funding: while these media have been recognized in official policy circles, no modes of financing have been afforded to them, especially in the wake of austerity measures starting in the mid 1970s.
LL: You’re discussing community broadcasting now, but there is a wide range of forms that you cover in the book, including community radio, community television, feminist media, ethnic media, indigenous media in particular, anarchist zines, and online news media. How are you defining alternative media?
DS: There are many possible definitions circulating out there. I think one that we try to hit upon is one that comes from work from Couldry and Curran where they define alternative or independent media as media that challenge dominant or mainstream media. So again you’re looking at media that do provide a different perspective on events and circumstances, that do provide voices for groups, individuals or social groups and communities, that don’t normally find voice in mainstream or dominant media.
Certainly there are those who say that we should just do away with the term because it defines all these media as marginal, when one might argue that in the emerging fragmented public that they’re not marginal at all. In some communities they’re actually central. So really what you’re doing, calling these media alternative is to actually to some extent marginalizing the communities of which they’re a part. I think that’s a good argument, so we often use the term independent media, meaning independent from corporate sources.
LL: I see a frequent tension in these articles between “alternative” as challenging the form or the institution of the mainstream media, and “alternative” as the idea of an alternative content which you’d want to disseminate as broadly as possible for political reasons. It seems there’s clearly not consensus even among your authors about where things fall on that line. To me, this makes the collection really exciting, because you see these chapters arguing back and forth. It reflects an argument that has been going on since the demise of the underground press in the United States in the 1970s when and the transition —and it’s interesting that the word operates differently in this context — from underground to alternative media. The alternative press emerges from the underground press and that was viewed by many as a corporatization or a selling out of the, of privileging of the alternative content over the political agenda of challenging the institution of media.
DS: Oh I think in many ways it was. There’s certainly, actually in other places I’ve written about that a little bit, to say we still have those vestiges of that, of those underground media operating in many places in Canada, like in Vancouver, The Georgia Straight, which in its heyday was a hugely radical paper, that actually contributed to riots and had people going to jail, but not much more anymore. In Toronto, we have Toronto NOW – that paper was certainly much more radical in its day, but now they’re financed through entertainment advertising and that is often their mainstay. But still they do come up with stories or idea perspectives that often tend to challenge the status quo, so they’re certainly not as radical as they might have once been but still play that role I think on some level often.
LL: What you’re talking about is this kind of evolutionary narrative. And the one thing I was really surprised with when I was reading was this focus in the chapters on survival or decline. There was never a discussion of media as purely tactical, as arising at a moment and then dissolving for reasons that were not negative. Either media fell apart or media persisted. So I found that fascinating, this presumption that it was important for media to survive and almost institutionalize when in a way there’s something anti-institutional about alternative media.
DS: I think that’s true in some chapters, but there are exceptions. In the chapter that I write I actually talk about three different takes or three different perspectives on alternative media in the literature. And one of them would be media related to specific movements, and those movements then have some kind of life span, so as they decline so too do the media associated with them. There are two other chapters in the book that talk about the similar phenomena. Barbara Freeman’s chapter on feminist periodicals talks about the shift in feminist politics and the decline of these magazines, and Sandra Jeppesen’s about “DIY zines and direct-action activism” talks about how zines are ephemeral.
The fact is that these media do come and go. From an academic point of view, it’s interesting to study them and consider what happened for historical and analytic reasons. But by the same token once they’re gone often, they’re gone, and traces of them are very difficult to find.
Indymedia was a good example in that regard. I wrote an article with Indymedia with some activists: I guess we started probably in about 2002-2003, it took like 5 or 6 years for it to get published, but by the time it was published, Indymedia was gone. Still, many people that were involved in Indymedia have gone on to be involved in other other kinds of media, so you can see it as stage of evolution. By the same token, it would be interesting, to follow up on some of the people who were involved in some of early feminist press, to see where they went, what they’re doing.
LL: In terms of considering how alternative media ought to change over time, the chapter on community television was one of the most forward thinking: the authors note that once the internet shows up, the need for community access television by the fact that once communication moves online, the issue of limited access to broadcast space goes away, to some degree. So the suggestion emerges that some of the energy that was put into community television could be channeled into developing community media centres. It wasn’t a narrative of decline so much as a transformation: this one form may not have an infinite lifespan, so how do we take the energy around what we were trying to do and create a new communication form?
DS: The story is a bit more complicated than that. Initially as a condition of license, cable channels of a certain size were supposed to provide an access station: they would basically have equipment and a studio and one or two people on staff who would help members of local communities come in and make a different kind of television. But the regulation on that was changed so that it no longer became mandatory to provide the funding for that, so instead what happened was that a number or most of these cable companies moved to actually try to commercialize those channels. So a lot of the people who had been involved at the community level began trying to find other ways to develop community television and find some independent forms of financing. The new rules also said that one could go out in the community and start an independent television station, an independent community television station, but the financial difficulties there as well as finding space, spectrum space, was very difficult to actually accomplish that.
So in the face of those problems a plan was floated to develop these community media centers, hopefully based upon getting back some of the money from those cable companies that would provide the initial sort of seed funding for those centers. But while this plan was floated at the CRTC at in the community channel hearings a couple of years ago. Unfortunately it didn’t go anywhere.
LL: That’s too bad. Another chapter that was forward-looking was the one on Paul Jay’s Real News Network. It considered, more than other chapters, the problem with alternative online media in Canada — because the connection with the Real News Network and Canada is amorphous at the moment. Jay, who came from Canada, started in Canada, is now mostly in Washington but has one foot in and one foot out of the Canadian online space. Was that an issue with the chapter for the book — when the operations moved out of Canada?
DS: Yes, around the time the chapter was being written, Jay did move his operation to the States, but we thought his story was still important. A lot of his initial funding was actually sourced in the States, including some foundation funding. So trying to stay in Canada or be particularly Canadian was almost impossible from the get-go. I think he was actually more concerned about what was seen at the time a particular swing to the right in American mainstream media, American corporate media, so he was trying to answer that with RNN. It was the early days of the Iraq war: I think that was actually a lightning rod moment for a lot of alternative or independent media in the United States particularly.
So from the very beginning I think the plan for the Real News was to have, to cast a certain, a large degree of their efforts into the United States. And so then, like I said, as I understand it, as the financial situation developed or devolved, depending on how you look at it, then they moved off and were able to establish a relationship with McClatchy. Again, this underscores the problem with financing these sorts of media. And to some extent it goes back to, as you were saying, the shifting nature of alternative media. I mean here’s an organization that really developed out of a particular historical moment, had a particular agenda, was able to gather funding based upon those historical circumstances but as those circumstances shifted; then it became more difficult for them to maintain their position.
LL: So economic challenges are big for alternative media: labor issues seem to be big as well. There’s an entire chapter on labor problems in alternative media, and the topic comes up repeatedly in the other chapters. It seems there is this collision in alternative media between trying to do progressive work and being in a work environment that is not necessarily itself progressive or enlightened. The chapter on feminist media suggests, one of the reasons that a lot of alternative publications can’t make it, because they’re so reliant on a few key people who just burn out.
DS: Sure. Indymedia, for example, was a volunteer organization basically from the get-go and and they had a sanction against actually developing forms of income from the site, so it became very difficult for them to maintain. And you still see that in a number of organizations. By the same token too, many of these organizations have a particular kinds of politics that they’re trying to practice or develop and finding people who can conform or are able to work in those kinds of political environments becomes difficult. So you often get a political clash in there as well. As well, forms of governance such as consensus — which many of these media groups embrace — can be difficult to maintain when you grow to 10 or 12 individuals.
LL: The whole notion of what kind of a politics a so-called alternative publication might have comes up in a few different ways. I’m thinking of Karim Karim’s chapter on ethnic media and his point that ethnic media often work to fill a gap in mainstream media representation, but the politics within any given ethnic publication may not necessarily be what we think of as progressive politics. So you wind up with a situation where on one hand ethnic media fits a definition of what an alternative media form might be, but on the other hand the politics represented are hegemonic or in some cases even reactionary.
DS: Yes, that certainly is an issue. Patricia Mazepa’s article touches upon that as well. It’s good to remember that you challenge dominant perspectives in ways that may not be particularly progressive.
LL: One final point that quite interested me was the role played by technology in this collection. There’s a whole chapter on new internet regulations and a continual reference to the fact that there’s this huge problem with the CRTC, namely, that the CRTC has had this hands-off attitude towards a lot of the very kind of issues that may have a radical effect on the ability of alternative media to exist in the online space. There was also a lot of questioning of the idea that Canada is committed to universal access to the Internet. And there was a discussion in at least one of the chapters of the problems that happen sometimes when publications move online, that there can be a loss of the sense of community. So, the discussion of technology was actually slanted a little bit towards the negative. I wouldn’t say that the book was at all nostalgic for the old days but there was a lot of anxiety about technology: it certainly wasn’t put forward as the savior, and it also wasn’t seen as especially enabling.
DS: Well, no. I think often new technology is seen in this idealistic light but certainly as it moves out into the marketplace and is taken up through corporate activity, it often serves to reinforce existing relations of power, reinforce existing viewpoints, to reinforce dominant ideological dimensions or the underpinnings of dominant ideology. So that’s why I think a healthy dose of skepticism, in particular towards the notion ‘no more need for regulation, no more need to worry anything, the internet will make it all, will level the playing field. I think one has to obviously be cautious about the development of new technologies. So often historically new media technologies are seen as being freeing and emancipatory, but we know that it didn’t really always turn out that way.
Alternative Media in Canada, edited by Kirsten Kozolanka, Patricia Mazepa, and David Skinner, was published in 2012 by UBC Press.