The Alternative Media Handbook, by Kate Coyer, Tony Dowmunt and Alan Fountain. 2007. Routledge: London and New York.
Globally, alternative forms of media have been increasing in response to the concentration of media ownership and control. The Alternative Media Handbook is the most recent in a series of media practice handbooks aimed at students and media professionals. Other titles in the series include The Newspapers Handbook, The Television Handbook, The Cyberspace Handbook, among others; but what sets this title apart is its underlying theoretical focus on advocacy, together with more interpretive and subjective styles of journalism, in support of media pluralism.
While alternative media practices and projects are flourishing around the world, most journalism schools still focus on a uniformity of practice, which includes neutrality, factuality, balance, objectivity, and so on. This book focuses on a style of media production, which represents a theoretical departure from objectivity, to a deliberate focus on subjectivity, in the interests of social change and community development, via alternative media projects.
Of course the term ‘alternative’ itself has come under scrutiny in recent years, and the authors provide a clear explanation of how the theorizing around the term has evolved. They include discussions on Chris Atton’s use of the term ‘alternative’, David Garcia’s coining of the term ‘tactical media’, Clemencia Rodriguez’s use of ‘citizen’s media, as well as the concurrent terms ‘activist’ and ‘autonomous’ media. The authors of this book settle on ‘alternative’ media as these types of media are typically significantly less powerful than the mainstream, though they also recognize “that they provide resistance, opposition and counterexamples to tired and reactionary mainstream uses of media, [and that] they are of primary social, cultural and political importance” (p.10). More importantly though, the authors acknowledge that one cannot reduce this to a simple binary opposition: alternative versus mainstream; and demonstrate that ownership and control of the media often reflects other economic, social and political inequalities that exist within and between nation states. They also note that theorizing on alternative media, and indeed, discussions about which term might be most apt, often occur in academic circles. They position their book as an attempt to start a conversation between practice and theory, not only to inform readers about alternative media theories and projects, but more importantly, to inspire them to get involved.
The book is divided into three sections: Part 1 explores the history and evolution of alternative media; Part II describes a range of diverse case studies from the field; and Part III provides practical advice for how to start your own alternative media project, from print, websites and radio, to blogging and podcasting.
In part I, Kate Coyer provides a fascinating account of pirate radio broadcasters in Britain and the United States, Alan Fountain reviews alternative film, video and television in the UK, Angela Phillips covers the alternative press and Chris Atton gives a brief history of the web and interactive media. These contributions show us how people engaged in the production of alternative publications and other forms of media are driven by a sense of solidarity, though they are often limited by the challenges of distribution and sufficient funding. This is an incomplete history though, as the authors in this section deal mainly with the rise of alternative media in the UK (with some brief mentions of the North and Latin America), without making the connections with other alternative media histories from other parts of the world.
Part II forms the major component of the book, with short discussions and descriptions of projects that fall into the categories of radical journalism, experimental forms of television, culture jamming, student media and media activism; as well as new technologies, distribution and audiences, and access to broadcasting. Much of these descriptions e.g. community radio in Australia or Adbusters, are easily found elsewhere; but what is useful about the book is that it brings together some of these projects (as well as new ones), so as to more easily compare and contrast them. In the sections on alternative media in development, and distribution and audiences, the authors also provide useful reflection on researching alternative media in participatory ways.
Given the dearth of research on student media, this is perhaps one of the most useful sections of this book. As the authors acknowledge, student media “have a strong history of radicalism and affiliation with social movements…[and] today still exist at the heart of revolutionary uprisings and at the centre of political violence” (p. 232). The chapter focuses on student radio and the student press, though again the focus is primarily on Europe and North America.
The final section of the book, “Doing it yourself”, deals with how to get started in radio production, starting a community radio station, video production, creating websites, blogging, as well as culture jamming and zines. Besides a useful list DIY media-making resources on the web, the section also provides a useful chapter on funding and finance, giving practical tips on how to approach funders, as well as on self-financing and DIY fundraising. This “Doing it yourself” section, targeted at activists, is perhaps the most useful and important section of the book, as it helps us to move beyond the theory, to actually practicing the ‘alternative’. The contributions of a range of activists from various media in short breakout sections to longer essays helps to paint a picture of the diversity and simultaneous similarity of alternative media projects. The focus here is on skills needed to produce this kind of media, but the authors note that “skills are never neutral, and are always in the service of one cultural or political goal or another” and that “it is also true that the status that having skills confers – particularly in the media – is often used as a spurious way of excluding and disempowering people without them” (p. 263).
The Alternative Media Handbook is ambitious in its attempt to provide histories, overviews of current projects, as well as practical information about how to get involved in the production of alternative media. As a result, sections I and II fall somewhat short, particularly in their limited geographical scope, but should nonetheless provide a useful introduction to students, particularly those accustomed to more mainstream journalistic practices centered around notions of objectivity and impartiality. Section III is probably most useful, particularly to activists, or those who wish to challenge and transform the mediascape. While it is implicit throughout, what the book lacks is a clear approach to the practice of civic or public journalism, which is ultimately what alternative media practices represent.