The 2007 National Conference for Media Reform: A Chicagoan Reports Back
by Mitchell Szczepanczyk

More than 3,500 people gathered in Memphis, Tennessee during the weekend of January 12-14, 2007 for the third National Conference for Media Reform. I was an attendee and presenter, speaking on the panel “How to Challenge a Broadcast License.”

The event, convened by the national media policy advocacy group Free Press, brought an assortment of organizers, activists, citizens, politicians, and high-profile celebrities. The range of media-themed topics was staggering. Topics included the assembly of radio stations (high and low power), creating "viral" media for online distribution, fighting to save the internet and public access television, expanding the range of opinion on dominant corporate media (including public television and radio), increasing diversity in media representation and ownership, and critiquing and challenging the major media and the policies that help shape them.

Regional and state-wide caucuses were convened during the conference to allow participants to widen and deepen local connections among fellow organizers. Local caucuses included representation of Illinois and Chicago.

Based on the discussion during these caucuses and elsewhere in the conference, here’s a guide of the media activism efforts to come in Chicago and in Illinois.

Illinois Video Franchise Law Up For Grabs

The biggest struggle in the local media policy scene in 2007 might be the forthcoming fight over state video franchises and their impacts on existing community media infrastructure in Illinois.

Background: Telephone companies like Verizon and AT&T are trying to deploy their own version of cable television, but they don’t want to pay costs for public service obligations like community media centers, public access channels, or building technical infrastructure to poor communities. Phone companies have been working to change state and federal laws to reduce or eliminate such obligations.

Activists blocked the phone companies in Congress in 2006, but phone companies have responded by moving to state legislatures to win “reforms” at the state level. One key “reform” has taken the form of state video franchises, which would remove control and funding for local video franchises from local governments to state authorities.

Phone companies have had recent success in pushing for state franchises, winning such laws in at least fourteen states, including California, Texas, Indiana, and Michigan. Illinois is next in the phone companies’ crosshairs, with the Illinois General Assembly slated to convene this year, and the Illinois Telecommunications Act (the main state law concerning media and the internet) scheduled for a rewrite in 2007.

If a state video franchise were to win approval, it would impact current public service obligations for cable television, since cable companies could follow the example set by their telephone counterparts and set about dismantling existing obligations under laws currently in force.

But popular coalition forces are realigning for a local fight against such changes. The coalition could include local governments, key members of the legislature, citizen and consumer groups, and current community media providers. This fight could echo a similar struggle in 2005, when a similar coalition fought and defeated the very same phone companies. There, the effort concerned laws pushed by phone companies to forbid or hobble community internet initiatives.

Wild card: AT&T sued six Chicago-area suburbs in the past year for requesting the company to seek a local franchise, claiming that local franchises are for cable, not telephone companies. The suits are still pending, but the negative publicity towards AT&T as a result of the lawsuits could prove pivotal in a close fight.

New satellite news network wants YOU!

2007 will also bring the debut of a new worldwide cable/satellite television news network, with news from grassroots journalists from across the globe. The channel will be funded entirely without advertising, corporate funds, or government money.

The effort is called IWT – Independent World Television, with its flagship show called “The Real News”. IWT, headquartered in Toronto, is looking for media reform-minded Chicagoans to contribute in various ways, and is planning to arrive in Chicago sometime in 2007 (probably in the spring) to make connections with Chicagoans.

Bill Moyers returns to PBS; will WTTW give it a decent time slot?

Noted longtime PBS journalist and commentator Bill Moyers announced that he's ending his retirement, and (as he put it) getting “out of the rocking chair and back into the anchor chair.” He will return to PBS in April 2007 with a new series called "Bill Moyers' Journal."

Will WTTW, the main PBS affiliate in Chicago, put this new show on at a time when Chicagoans can readily watch? In the case of previous PBS shows hosted by Bill Moyers, WTTW put the show on little-watched Sunday morning rather than on prime time like much of the rest of the country. Interested viewers may wish to contact WTTW and the station’s community advisory board to help ensure that Bill Moyers gets a good time slot.

Overall comments

The conference has made serious gains in recent years. The variety of media-themed topics covered at the conference has widened, so much that I frequently found myself torn having to choose among panels and presentations – including many unofficial caucuses and presentations. The conference made improved efforts to reach out to nearby residents, more so than in past conferences. Memphis residents and tourists knew that something big was going on.

What’s more, the size of the conference has grown from some 1,800 participants in the first conference to more than 3,500 this time. The diversity of participants has also improved; there seemed to be more women participants and more participants from communities of color. There should be greater representation among advocates of poor and lower-income Americans and organized labor; and I hope the conference can make gains in this direction.


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