The St. Louis Experience

I cannot claim to have participated much directly in the National Conference for Media Reform, given that I was paid to observe: busy recording, editing, and uploading stuff as the radio-centric house organ of sponsor Free Press. All of the conference audio and video is now up on their server and should be publicly available within the next few days. I expect Be the Media! blog traffic will continue to trickle in for a while as well.
Personally speaking, the best parts of the conference were not even related to the event itself. Thursday night’s benefit party for KDHX at the City Museum blew minds. Think of a funhouse for adults, with live bands and beer: it puts the vaunted Arch to shame. Then there were all of the friends both old and new who’d come into town for the weekend. The ratio of extracurricular fun to sleep that was taking place should have killed me (14 hours of crash time upon return home helped). Finally, I had the chance to tag-team (with Free Speech TV and Sounds of Dissent) an interview with FCC Commissioner Michael Copps (audio forthcoming), who artfully mostly-deflected questions on microradio, IBOC, and other sundry subjects. Watching politician-sweat break out up close can be fun!
All of which definitely helped take the edge off the disappointment with what I saw and heard at NCMR ’05 generally (reform vs. revolution dispute notwithstanding):
1. The venue sucked. Apparently one of the complaints about the 2003 NCMR was that it was spread out among multiple buildings on the UW-Madison campus. At least in 2003 every space was big enough to accommodate everyone. In the Millennium Hotel everything might have been centralized, but for several sessions attendance flowed out the doors, keeping some out completely. This happened repeatedly even though there were nine concurrent sessions taking place at any given time throughout the majority of each day.
In general terms a convergence of this sort is better held at a venue other than some hotel/conference center combo. This was a convergence of sociopolitical engaged people, not regional sales managers.
2. Net access sucked. Sometimes wireless was working, sometimes not, and the hotel itself was only half-wired with accessible Ethernet. This is partly the fault of the venue and partly the fault of Free Press, who, in the words of somebody working to stream video of the conference, supplemented the situation by “plugging some wireless routers into the wall and then just walking away.”
This resulted in the live stream of the Saturday night headline/keynote session dying about halfway through the event, never to return. In 2003 the setup at Madison’s Orpheum Theatre was completely hacked together by volunteers and provided better coverage. If you’re going to get utopian about community access to broadband, how about walking the talk, especially at your own gathering?
3. Media-making was nearly off the radar. I was actually kind of taken aback by the amount of lip service paid but lack of actual information imparted on the subject. I was not alone on this front: following an Indymedia caucus on Saturday, members of the IMC community (in conjunction with IMC-St. Louis) set up impromptu public terminals with donated laptops directly outside the Grand Ballroom as the headline/keynote event took place. As people left they were given handbills about Indymedia and encouraged to post thoughts to the local IMC newswire. There’s a lot of good critique up there now, and more is collecting at the BTM! blog.
In fact, there was actually more on the agenda about media manipulation than there was about creation, which was kind of spooky for a conference devoted to media reform. There were multiple sessions held on subjects like “framing and messaging” and “communications strategy,” while “constituencies” like LPFM and Indymedia had to organize their own meetups.
The problem here is that it was never in the conference plans to address media creation. Early on conference organizers expressed a policy of accommodation but not inclusion. They eliminated plans for a public media room, in part, because they were afraid someone might start a pirate radio station out of there(!). The base excuse was logistically-related, but the bottom line is media reformers still don’t fully understand nor respect what it takes to create media, and how creation-related tactics both complement and extend reformist efforts.
4. Don’t tell me how to change the world – help me to do so. Events were top-down, with “experts” lecturing to the masses, who were encouraged to ask questions afterward. Organizations doing good work got tables in a “media democracy showcase,” which was basically a large, cold room separated from the rest of the conference space by a short hallway. Progressive celebrities abounded, which left the many hardcore Democrats attending the event star-struck. It might have been inspiring for said people, but for the consensus-inclined and empowerment-oriented it was rather depressing.
If I could boil down the “action plan” of the conference into a phrase it would be: write your lawmakers, write letters to the editor, and talk with your friends. All of which have value, but I was under the mistaken impression that we’d covered that ground in Madison a year and a half ago. Holding several regional events, combined with extending the national conference over more than a weekend, should get serious consideration in the future.