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The Case of Scholars

Another group with whom media activists may tenuously ally is academics. Throughout my fieldwork, a current of tension familiar to ethnographers over how to “give back” to one’s “subjects” in exchange for providing access led me to consider how the projects of academics and activists differ and overlap. Of course, the question of whether and how to pursue advocacy and involvement in the issues one studies has been a concern of social science for decades. Some scholars choose to elide their own presence in studying activism and approach their subject as nonparticipants, though perhaps sympathetic ones,30 or as former activist-participants whose role as scholars overlaps very little with activists or other actors they study.31 Others, such as anthropologist Kim Fortun, find themselves contributing actively to activist efforts by using their skills as writers to aid people they are also studying, supplying mobilization efforts with written accounts that are clearly not written for a scholarly purpose.32

In my scholarship on media activism, I have not maintained a “symmetrical” approach;33 I have systematically elevated the status of the radio activists by giving them the most voice and their claims the most analytical attention in my publications. I also do not claim to have affected a “neutral” stance with regard to the controversy over whether consolidated, for-profit media is harmful to democratic discourse or whether a robust independent media system is preferable. That said, the research I conduct does not directly aim to address this problem, nor offer prescriptive, “upstream” conclusions that would bear on it, which has perhaps had consequences in terms of my relationship with activists.34

Once I began my most intensive fieldwork period, which included volunteering in the Prometheus office, we discussed ways that I could make myself useful. Some of my first tasks were to read and organize news files and produce an issue of Prometheus’s newsletter. Later, though, the activists became interested in meshing my skills with their needs, and I wound up volunteering as an “academic liaison”—I surveyed communications literature for work on LPFM, gave Prometheus database and library access through my academic affiliation, corresponded with academics writing on LPFM, helped draft and distribute calls for academic research desired by Prometheus, and occasionally met with scholars on Prometheus’s behalf. This represented a compromise in which my resources and expertise could be put to some productive use but without tying my research project to the production of knowledge that would directly benefit Prometheus.

And even though I was essentially given free rein in my research as far as the activists were concerned, they occasionally displayed a playful, reactive stance to my presence, sometimes introducing me as “our anthropologist,” calling themselves my “lab rats,” and, on one occasion, indicating that they were undertaking a particular project (a workshop to clean and repair two 1970s-era radio transmitters) in order to provide me with something to study (even though I had not asked them to do this). This provided me with a reminder of the issue raised by Pam Scott and her coauthors in which the presence of the researcher has the potential to actively change what she is studying.35 I would not take at face value the activists’ claim that they held the workshop purely for my benefit, of course, but they were aware that I was interested in the pedagogical dynamics of this workshop and the interactions around technical artifacts. Additionally, it is worth considering that the presence of an outsider interested in studying their organization was perhaps another indication to the activists that their organization was maturing or undergoing change. I do not believe that my presence in any way enhanced or legitimated the activists’ standing in contexts such as policy advocacy, but having an academic accompany them in these situations could have had the effect of framing their interactions and experiences with other groups as observable, causing a turn toward awareness of being objectified, analyzed, or formalized, not only for the activists, but also for the people with whom they interacted.

The radio activists desired research that would help them advance their goals. Before I began my project, Prometheus had already solicited scholarly research; during my fieldwork, they became even keener to find people to conduct research that could help them make the case that LPFM provided the benefits that they hoped for and believed in. At the five-year anniversary of LPFM (in 2005), the activists had begun to feel pressured to “prove” its merits in order to secure and, hopefully, improve its standing; they were especially nervous that existing metrics for the impact of (commercial) radio stations were inadequate to demonstrate the benefits of LPFM. Prometheus distributed a document that read,

Scholars! Have You Had Enough Of Morose Meta-Mediated Musings? Do you envy the impact that conservative scholars have over the national media policy debate? Are you ready to kick some ass? Then Prometheus needs you! . . . We’re media activists, and we know how to make a difference. We’ve changed federal policy on community radio, and had a big impact in the media ownership debate. Problem is, none of us has more than a BA. We barely know Adorno from A Door Knob. So often we don’t know what we’re talking about. None of us even has a library card to a decent public or university library.36

Here the Prometheus activists mark a boundary between themselves and academics. Obviously, they do know Adorno from A Door Knob, but they are pointing to the need for academic production and credentialing of knowledge, which differs from the expertise they claim. The Adorno—A Door Knob quote also raises the issue of markers of identity between activists and other groups with whom they interact. The activists were occasionally very funny, and, I argue, sometimes used a tone of irreverence (as in the Democracy Now! incident) to reinforce an outsider identity vis-a-vis academic, policy and advocacy, or lobbying groups, for whom such outward displays of humor would be less appropriate or likely.

In addition to identity displays, another point of dissonance in terms of activist-academic collaboration is timing. As sociologist Gunter Getzinger states, “A crucial problem of transdisciplinary projects is the different ‘timing’ of decision-oriented systems (‘practice’ [policy, activism]) and knowledge-oriented systems (‘science’ [social science; the academy]).”37 Activist solicitation of scholarly assistance was often to aid in time-sensitive policy discussions, whereas the duration of an academic project is often much longer. When I searched for published research on microradio in 2004—2005, the articles I found took up the topic of 1990s microbroadcasting; the most current of them ended with the introduction of LPFM. For the activists, who sought up-to-date work on the impact of LPFM to use in making policy requests or in issuing comments on legislation, academic research ran the risk of being “stale” by the time it was published, often taking years to go through the academic publication cycle. The activists did attempt to scale their needs to the possibilities presented by academic schedules: “You have students that need projects and internships. Instead of having them write another comparative content analysis of Madonna vs. Britney Spears, why not focus your classes on real problems for community radio? Your research might make it into an official FCC rulemaking, and make a real difference!”38 Here Prometheus suggests to professors that a semester might be a unit of time that is mutually copacetic, trying to dovetail an academic calendar with an activist research need.

Seeta Pena Gangadharan has discussed what she calls the “knowledge production practices” of media activism. She approaches this topic rather literally, taking documents and reports produced by reform- and social justice-oriented organizations as her object of study.39 Printed documents, or what Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar theorize as “inscription devices,”40 are a very important output of academic and scientific labor (and, as Gangadharan notes, reform and activist labor as well).41 Documents provide, perhaps, a ready point of comparison between academic and activist or reform projects. From my perspective, it is important to recognize that media activists’ knowledge production practices extend to technological practice and political organizing, which may not easily lend themselves to direct comparison with knowledge products such as written reports.

Nonetheless, even when the products of academic labor in some ways resemble activists’ knowledge products, the academics’ work may still fail to translate to nonacademic projects in significant ways. At the 2008 annual academic professional society meeting of the International Communication Association (ICA) held in Montreal, Canada, ICA hosted a preconference meeting with the SSRC on the topic of “Bridging the Scholar-Activist Divide.” At the meeting, participants discussed experiences collaborating across these communities of practice. People who worked in nonacademic roles raised the difficulty of understanding academic writing, even going so far as to suggest that it was hard to trust whether engagement of academics with activist-advocacy topics was conducted in sympathy with them because it seemed impossible to determine from the academic products.42

Looking at the situation from the vantage point of scholars, Michael Delli Carpini, a senior scholar who has tried to promote academic work on media reform topics as dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, stated,

I would say that “allies” is too strong, because I don’t think we’ve figured out good ways to work together, but I think kind of kindred spirits, would [include] everything from local groups with a national impact like Prometheus, to some of the Washington-based groups . . . My own personal perspective is that . . . scholars and community activists don’t always use the same language and aren’t always clear with each other . . . And expectations usually get built that are really, really hard to fulfill, that include the idea that academia can provide data and research that would be useful, that the pace of life for activists and academics doesn’t allow to happen very easily.43

In spite of his acknowledgment that obstacles to collaboration are real, Delli Car- pini formed, with scholars at other universities, a loose federation called COMPASS—a rough acronym for Consortium on Media and Policy Studies—in

2004.44 The goals of COMPASS include placing graduate students in internships and other positions in Washington and potentially developing curricula that would include a public interest focus, likely at the graduate level. However, its goals remain largely inchoate. Delli Carpini reflected at some length on difficulties reconciling differing agendas:

I think that seeing each other’s goals as complementary and overlapping, that can be worked out. I think that mainly requires more interaction, more honest, open, civil interactions, where you’re in kind of a trusting space where you can talk freely about what you can bring to this . . . I fervently believe, from years of doing this, that the basic critique of media reformers is right. [And] I believe . . . that [getting] information out, with the imprimatur of good research . . . could play a very powerful role in bringing about reform. And I think that that’s the underlying premise of why I think that scholars should be involved in this. And that’s not scholars as citizens, you know I can get involved in all kinds of things in my personal life, and be an activist on the side, but I’m talking about what I bring as a scholar, what the field can bring as scholars.45

Like the radio activists, Delli Carpini invokes a boundary between scholarly projects and those of activists, and also like the radio activists, he focuses on ways that those projects could be brought in line with one another even while cognizant of difference.

 
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