We don't have a megaphone big enough

The Oldest Soul, Viernes, Septiembre 24, 2004 - 18:17

Darren Shore

Michael Albert talks about strategies for media activists and reaching mainstream audiences...

We live in a world filled with conflicts and change. In order to understand what's happening, we need media that we can trust. Unfortunately, the mainstream corporate media we know so well has been highly criticized —especially by marginalized groups— for ignoring or misrepresenting many issues, as well as the people involved.

Alongside the mainstream, however, is a growing and diversifying movement of alternative or community-based media consisting of people attempting in different ways to balance this lack of reliable information.

Having spent some time volunteering in community radio and the alternative press in Montreal, I have often questioned the role of alternative media, and wondered whether it is able to promote positive social change and adequately communicate issues to society at large.

Is alternative media reaching people outside of the activist milieu? Are we getting through to the people who don't already agree with us, share our values, or understand the issues we face? Could some of our energy be better spent?

I went to the World Social Forum last January in Mumbai, India. There, a hundred thousand people with similar values gathered to discuss questions like mine. We came to work on strategies, ideas, solutions and change.

At the WSF, I got the chance to ask for some perspective from Michael Albert—a guru of sorts when it comes to activism and alternative media. Albert is the founder of Z Magazine and the Znet website (, one of the most comprehensive and best-organized sources of alternative information found on the Internet.

"I call it the megaphone problem," Albert says. "We don't have a megaphone that's big enough so that what we have to say will reach [...] ordinary people. Instead what we have is so relatively small that the only people who see it are the people who look for it—who almost search for it. As a result we're not reaching new mainstream people who are far from us—we're reaching people who are already looking for us."

According to Albert one of the ways to make alternative media effective is by using it to put pressure on the mainstream media. "Not negotiate with it. Not moralize with it," he stresses, "but pressure it [in] exactly the same [way] as pressuring a corporation for higher wages, or pressuring the [International Monetary Fund] for different policies."

Like the growing anti-corporate-globalization movement, Albert believes there is potential for an anti-mainstream-media movement. One that is "demonstrating outside the New York Times or the Globe and Mail and [...] is literally pressuring mainstream media to have content that is more valuable for its audience.

Another way alternative media can reach out to more people, proposes Albert, is by improving the work done so as to become the preferred option by the public. "Our media [could] be so good, and so visible that it embarrasses mainstream media. [This] makes it much more difficult to be deceptive and exclusive," he offers. "If people have a generalized knowledge, it becomes clear that mainstream media is lying. So the bigger we get, and the more information we can get out [...] puts more pressure on them."

Using the Net

Not surprisingly, according to Albert, producing an alternative mass-media system is not easy, mostly due to lack of resources. However, many have made use of the Internet as a way around this problem.

One example of web-based alternative media that is "moving in the right direction," according to Albert, is the Indymedia Center (, an international collection of independent news websites that has been in existence since 1999. Here, anyone with on-line access can post and read news stories, and personal accounts of events (like demonstrations), thus opening up media in new ways.

Using the Internet in this way has an advantage over creating a newspaper or TV station, which is costly, but attention and visibility are still concerns.

"The issue [with] the Internet isn't so much the production costs, as it is people coming across the site," says Albert. "The reality [...] is that six sites [on the entire Internet] get 50 per cent or 60 per cent of all traffic: Microsoft, AOL, CNN, Google and so on. So again you're in a situation where it's hard to get in front of people; it's hard to get visible. But that's what we have to do."

Albert believes something bigger than Indymedia could be in the works for media activists, like expanding on the model of the alternative U.S. radio program Democracy Now.

"[That program] reaches potentially, if people tune in to it, millions. But suppose we had 50 Democracy Nows—not all the same, but shows with excellent content, which could reach out [to many different people].

"What we need is enough media so that when a normal person encounters progressive, leftist and truly radical ideas, they don't seem so absolutely impossible, so outrageous, so different. There has to be enough of that so that people say, 'OK, that's something that's on the table; now I have to assess it.' The minute they assess it, we're OK," Albert says. "It's that [alternative media] is so foreign—it looks like it's like it's from Pluto—that means that [many people] won't even look at it."

Media activists can overcome these challenges by relying on existing social movements, says Albert. "Our ability to put pressure on mainstream media is dramatically enhanced by actual movements, [by] civil disobedience, by movements pressuring [the corporate media]," he states.

"It is [also] tremendously enhanced by the existence of wider alternative media, which then lets people know that there is another truth—I mean, there is a truth. Forget another truth. There is real truth. There is real information [...] People will be looking for the alternative. People will be willing to help with the alternative. So [both tactics] will assist each other."

Albert acknowledges that currently, the bulk of media we are exposed to serves to spew out whatever the élites who control it dictate, with purposes of selling audiences to advertisers and maintaining the wealth of powerful interests. This is why thinking critically about media in general is essential. "It's profoundly important [...] to address how we communicate with the population, [and] how the population communicates amongst itself.

"It's not easy, but it is the task that we have to do."

(This article was originally published in The LINK. Vol 25, issue 5. September 21, 2004.)

The LINK is an independent newspaper at Concordia University in Montreal.

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