Occupy the Airwaves!

By Duane Elgin

Posted: 10/18/11 12:10 PM ET Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/duane-elgin/occupy-the-airwaves_b_1014433.html

“Occupy Wall St.” is a spontaneous uprising of citizens. It is both a protest against corruption, poverty, homelessness, and greed as well as a call for citizens to come together to build a better world. For many, this is a ‘100 percent movement’ that recognizes we are all in this time of change together and no one can be excluded from a respectful contribution to the conversation of democracy.

Emphasizing that the ‘Occupy’ gatherings are an attempt to reclaim citizen participation in our democracy, the Los Angeles City council passed a resolution that, “…the ‘Occupy’ demonstrations are a rapidly growing movement with the shared goal of urging U.S. citizens to peaceably assemble and occupy public space in order to create a shared dialogue by which to address the problems and generate solutions…” Former president Bill Clinton commented: “The Occupy Wall Street crowd basically is saying, ‘…There’s something wrong with this country. This is not working for me. So I think it can be a good positive debate.”

How can citizens express their frustrations, disappointments, and anger, as well as a sense of promise and untapped potential? Virtually all of the issues facing our democracy issues are fundamentally communication issues. Not surprisingly, at the foundation of much unrest and frustration is the inability of citizens to communicate, both with one another and with our elected leaders.

Power in a democracy is the power to communicate and mass communication in the United States and most of the world is dominated by one medium — television. To put the power of television in perspective, the average person in the United States watches roughly 4 hours per day. Importantly, the amount of TV viewing time is not declining with the growth in Internet use. Surveys show that most people still get most of their news about the world from a single source — television.

To emphasize the current role of television is not to diminish the critical role of the Internet. These are synergistic, not competing technologies. Television has a broad reach but tends to be shallow whereas the Internet has penetrating depth but its reach tends to be narrow. Importantly, the ‘new media’ of the Internet is serving a vital role in organizing people so they can occupy the ‘old media’ of television and the airwaves. Combined, they offer a powerhouse of communication that is transforming the conversation for our future.

Given it’s immense power, what is the responsibility of the broadcast media that use our public airwaves for communication that serves the public interest? The answer is: unequivocal. If there is ever a conflict between the private interest of broadcasting companies and the public interest of communities they serve, it is always the public interest that prevails if the public will stand up for itself.

There is no shortage of issues and concerns but there is a shortage in the “public space” being given to those concerns by the broadcast media. When it comes to the media upon which we citizens most rely for our news about the world — broadcast television — we are entertainment rich and knowledge poor. This is no longer a matter of “taste.” The future of our civilization depends upon employing the mainstream media — our primary public space — to cultivate an informed and engaged public. It is now our responsibility as citizens in the communications era to stand up for the conversation of democracy, including those we disagree with.

Here is where the rubber hits the road. It is vital for citizens to have the confidence of understanding that we literally and legally own the airwaves at the ‘local level.’ The ‘local level’ means, roughly, the media footprint of major, local broadcasters — the ‘reach’ of the broadcast TV signal for stations like ABC, CBS, NBC, that uses the public’s airwaves. Even if the programming of broadcasters is distributed on cable — because they also use the airwaves — they still have a strict legal responsibility to serve the “public interest, convenience, and necessity” before their own corporate interests. However, because local organizations have not existed before to effectively represent the communication needs of the overall metropolitan community, by default, broadcasters have been able to say that they understand the needs of the community best.

Nonetheless, I cannot say too strongly: TV stations are not the enemy — public apathy is! The laws are entirely in favor of the public interest. What is required is that the public claim it’s ownership of the airwaves and organize itself in a way that transcends special interests.

If respected and diverse organizations come together with a trans-partisan spirit representing different sectors of the larger community, we can ‘take back’ the airwaves that are legally already ours. We can build upon more than two centuries of experience with democracy and bring the modern version of the New England Town Hall meeting into our contemporary world. Instead of engaging a few hundred people, with modern technologies, we can engage millions of persons. The potential to radically awaken and uplevel the conversation of democracy is stunning. If one community can engage in authentic dialogue, find its voice and become a clear example of what is possible for other communities in finding their unique voice, then we could have a swift blossoming of “Electronic Town Meetings” in communities across the country.

Key to success is a simple social invention: Each major community could create an independent, “Community Voice Organization” that is strictly non-partisan and non-profit, and has only two jobs: first, to listen to the community and understand the most pressing issues of concern and, second, to place those before the community in “Electronic Town Meetings” and other forums that foster mature civic dialogue, consensus-building, and opportunities for community feedback to persons in positions of power.

Creating large-scale Electronic Town Meetings on broadcast television sounds like an impossibility to many people. Often I hear people say, ‘well, this is a fine idea but…,’ and a series of objections ensue to explain why this is completely idealistic and could never happen. Then I describe how it has already been done. In the 1980s, I co-founded a trans-partisan “community voice” organization in the San Francisco Bay Area called “Bay Voice.” In 1987 we put an interactive Electronic Town Meeting on the air in prime-time, working with the local ABC television station, that was seen by over 300,000 persons. Six votes were taken from a pre-selected, random sample of Bay Area citizens. By the end of the hour, the sentiments of the Bay Area public were quite clear and the Electronic Town Meeting demonstrated the ability of a metropolitan community to have a meaningful dialogue. Roughly a quarter of a century ago, our non-partisan organization demonstrated that we could achieve an entirely new level of citizen dialogue and engagement, and this was before the advent of personal computers. Now, with the Internet to provide sophisticated feedback, the technology to support powerful ETMs is abundantly present.

With shared conviction regarding the need for a new era of public dialogue, we can come together as communities and walk into the broadcast TV stations as proud citizen-owners of the airwaves who have come to work out a new path for communication that truly serves the public interest at this time of profound transition. The airwaves are already ours. To “occupy the airwaves” is simply to occupy a home that we already own. Let’s step inside and get busy — building conversations for a future of sustainable prosperity.