USC Professor Dunbar-Hester Gives Keynote Lecture at UCSB

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Professor Christina Dunbar-Hester, a faculty member of the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California, came to UCSB to deliver a keynote lecture on Nov. 4.

Dunbar-Hester’s lecture was part of the University of California Radio Network’s conference for Fall 2017 and was hosted by KCSB.

As Dunbar-Hester previously wrote about this lecture, she surveyed the last century of broadcast policy and focused on the activities of advocates for low power FM radio.

In her words, “these activists conducted both policy work and hands-on training in technology with the goal of empowering everyday people, [containing] important lessons for our present media ecosystem.”

To start off the lecture, Professor Dunbar-Hester defined “radio activism” as a “site where people had made flexible choices to engage with communication technologies, because they make the best way to foster social relations.”

Radio activism overlaps with and exists alongside other forms of digital media activism.

In her book Low Power to the People, Dunbar-Hester describes her study’s subject as a private broadcasting collective started in the mid-1990s, an activist organization called Prometheus.

To set up Prometheus’s rise, she mentioned a specific period from 1978 through the late ’90s when there was no legal option for broadcast services at a local level. She introduced the dramatic effects the Telecommunications Act of 1996 had on the increase of FM radio stations.

Prometheus had turned to advocacy after the Federal Communications Commission raided and shut it down in 1982.

In 2003-2004, the activists were the plaintiff in a lawsuit against the FCC meant to halt proposed rules that would have allowed further consolidation of FM radio, something which also heavily affected their organizational profile.

From 2004 onward, Prometheus also campaigned to promote municipal broadcasting access at state and city levels and build some WI-FI networks in a hands-on way.

Moreover, after the Electronic Communication Acts of 2000, low-power FM (LPFM) started to flourish, and Prometheus was finally allowed to build their own legal LPFMs around the country after 2009.

After introducing her research methods and experiences with Prometheus, Professor Dunbar-Hester claimed media activists are an important group to study because of their mediating role.

“They look both upstream and downstream, in terms of imagining the proper uses and interpretations of technologies,” Dunbar-Hester said.

When analyzing Prometheus and the organization’s social values, Professor Dunbar-Hester looked through their identities and how they define themselves. The technological or “Geek” identity, for example, is not necessarily the same as having technical skill.

Regardless of the technical virtuosity, all the activists maintain the “speak” identity, for which they self-consciously emphasize universally participatory skills.

In addition to the “Geek” identity, Prometheus members also identify as “activists,” something with which they wanted to differentiate from mainstream advocacy groups — even groups who share many goals.

The emphasis members placed on the boundary between themselves and the mainstream media was another way to express their group identity.

“Geek” and “activist” together sometimes complement each other and sometimes come into conflict. As a result, the activist commitment can limit the technical involvement.

For example, the technical experts have to remind each other to go to congressional meetings that they as activists have to attend.

Another point of the “Geeks” and activists’ identities is to give activists resources that enable them to assign meaningful comparisons to the diverse task ranges, Dunbar-Hester said. 

The purpose goes beyond front-line stage movements like barn raisings and lobbying and includes fundamental, backseat activities like paperwork, staff meetings, database maintenance, mailing, and other routine operations.