Radio: The future of grassroots media in Canada

Saima Desai, Dave Gray-Donald, and Sharmeen Khan have all been active in grassroots media for a long time – mostly in projects towards the more activist and movement-grounded end of the sector. Scott Neigh interviews them about their work, about the current state of grassroots media in so-called Canada, and about their vision for what we need to be doing to strengthen both media and movements oriented towards justice and collective liberation.

Desai currently lives in the Dish With One Spoon Territory, in Toronto. She was radicalized through her involvement in media as a student at McGill University in Montreal, where she wrote for The McGill Daily. She has spent most of the last five years living in Regina, on Treaty Four Territory, as the editor of the movement magazine Briarpatch, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. She is currently on a one-year leave from that position. Her ongoing commitment to grassroots media is, she said, “Because of what it brought to me and the way that it changed how I understand the world, and that really deep seated understanding that it can do that for other people as well.”

Gray-Donald got his start in grassroots media when, as a climate justice activist in Montreal, he noticed that English-language media in particular was doing a lousy job of covering climate struggles, so he picked up a pen and started writing. Along with ongoing journalistic work, he has also been quite involved in “the more manage-y side [or] business side” of media-making. He is a former publisher of Briarpatch, a board member and volunteer editor at The Media Co-op, and most recently is centrally involved in The Grind, a new free magazine in Toronto.

Khan’s radicalization also occurred in part through her involvement in grassroots media, which started when she was a teenager in Regina in the 1990s. She wrote for a publication called Prairie Dog, served on the board of Briarpatch, and for many years was extensively involved in the community radio sector. When she first got active, she said, “I think what was important was the more anti-racist and feminist entry point into media, which was around representation and voice, and being able to articulate not only lived experience of, you know, racism and sexism and other forms of oppression in the prairies, but just getting the confidence and getting really important skills that I use to this day. Even activist media, grassroots media was quite white and male. It was very, very hard for a young woman of colour to get access to any forms of media, including alternative, grassroots media. And I just fell in love with it.”

These days, Khan lives in Toronto. Her involvement in radical organizing and in media work have taken lots of different forms, but her central media involvement since its founding in 2005 has been as an editorial collective member for Upping the Anti: A Journal of Theory and Action, which is a non-academic but intellectually rigorous movement-based print publication that offers a pluralist, nonsectarian space to think through theoretical and strategic questions of relevance to organizing. Khan sees an important role for “grassroots theory” – that is, developing our capacities for “being able to talk about the world we want” and “being able to figure out how power operates in our lives” in non-academic, accessible ways – in struggles for social transformation.

The grassroots media landscape in so-called Canada has changed profoundly over the last few decades. Khan said that “grassroots media is not as powerful as it used to be” and identified the 1990s as a sort of “peak” for its scope, reach, and relationships with movements. Desai agreed that when she first started working at Briarpatch things seemed to be in a serious “lull” across the country, and there were a number of other older publications that were in rough shape. However, since then, she said, “There has been this small flourishing of new projects like The Hoser and The Grind and Passage, The Maple, Midnight Sun. And so it feels like there’s more of us once more.”

Along with perennial problems that all media organizations and social movements in Canada face – the challenge of raising funds and securing other kinds of resources, the difficult logistics of the country’s geography and population distribution, and so on – the three also identify a number of interrelated changes in dominant media, in information technology, in movements, and in grassroots media organizations themselves that are important for understanding the current state of things.

Khan said that one crucial factor is that “the trajectory of activist media is [only] as strong as our social movements across the country. And right now, I feel like [left movements] are in a bit of a low point.” With movements at a low ebb, it is hardly surprising that grassroots media is as well.

Desai identified aspects of powerful mainstream institutions as having downstream impacts on grassroots media. In recent research on the topic, for instance, she discovered that there are currently 11 public relations, marketing, or advertising people for every journalist in the Canadian context, “so as journalists, we’re just vastly, vastly outnumbered by people who are intent on getting governments’ and corporations’ and institutions’ perspectives out there.” As well, she said that corporate media is facing stark challenges related to declining revenues. As a result, they are doing things to try and bring in more money – everything from experiments with increasingly restrictive paywalls, to buying up local papers and pumping them full of national news and ads rather than more expensive local content. All of these things are “pissing their audiences off” and as a result “trust in media is really, really declining.” While this may offer some opportunities for grassroots media, it is also “bad for grassroots media, because when trust in media declines, it hurts all kinds of media.”

The three also say that there has been a shift among some people who participate in or support social movements in their orientation towards grassroots media. On one level, such people seem more likely to consume and circulate corporate media than in the past, and less likely to seek out and amplify grassroots sources. Khan said, “I am finding that there isn’t [as] much support from our base as before.”

Beyond that, people in and around social movements are, today, less likely to make media themselves. In the 1990s, Khan said, from both movements and from grassroots media projects, “There was an emphasis on building an army of activist journalists, really sharing those skills, so that many people could participate. But I’m finding right now that a lot of activists … would rather just consume – read news however they get their news and not really participate in that process.” She added, “It’s a constant struggle for my project to get to get activists and organizers and revolutionaries to write. The interest in actually producing media has waned.”

And when activists do make things to put out into the world, “they are also producing more corporate media or on corporate social media channels,” Gray-Donald said. Even as recently as five or ten years ago, it was pretty common for activist media outlets to publish reports on protests and other actions that had been written by activists themselves, but that rarely happens these days. More often, activists either post to corporate social media platforms or write media releases to send to corporate outlets. Some of this shift can be explained by the overwhelming role now played by corporate social media in our information ecosystems. After all, at least sometimes they can provide opportunities even for relatively radical material to spread far and fast – so, Gray-Donald said, “of course you’re going to do that.” But as a result, “that sort of activist production of media went away” and “these corporate platforms, and also corporate media itself” have become more “dominant,” even in left and progressive contexts. He said, “I’m trying to understand exactly why. And part of it, I think, is we didn’t keep our tools and our organizations really strong.”

Changes in how grassroots media projects operate are also part of this. Among the newer outlets, Desai said, “Some … are written by a very small number of people who sometimes have some professional journalism training or see themselves as journalists, and are not made in the way that some of the older activist media was made by just going out there and trying to convince activists to consider themselves as writers or to write down stuff that they knew and had seen.”

Gray-Donald agrees that there is a “new level of professionalization of indie media.” That certainly has positive aspects – for instance, projects he is involved in and others are “trying to pay writers well, have good labour standards, all of that kind of thing. But it does lead to … a difference, where activists don’t see themselves as writers. There’s like a professional sort of sector that does that. And that’s different. That’s new. That’s something else.”

At least some grassroots outlets have responded to the dominance of corporate social media and other pressures by prioritizing different forms of content and understanding their role with respect to struggle in new ways. For instance, according to Desai, while they also publish some investigative pieces, some of the newer outlets “are very focused on publishing opinion pieces and these sort of timely interventions into conversations that mainstream media is having. While there is some utility to that, we are also losing this ability to do … movement journalism and reporting.”

This connects, Gray-Donald said, to a tendency in some left and progressive contexts to relate to struggles for change as a “comms battle – that everything just happens in the media and it’s about winning the media battle and the media narrative. And that’s not actually how things change. It’s a part of it, and media is certainly important.” But a change in media narrative alone, or even a major shift in something like media ownership, “doesn’t fundamentally shift labour relations under capitalism, doesn’t fundamentally shift colonialism. And there is a bit of a lull in organizing in Canda, and I think sometimes we substitute sending out a tweet that goes viral, or doing a publication, for organizing.”

Khan is not a huge fan of the extensive emphasis on publishing opinion pieces either, but recognized that part of why so many are published is that they are “very popular” and often circulate farther and faster than journalistic pieces or longer-form analysis. And she sees value in opinion writing too. It “helps movements grow” because “being able to articulate your politics and the world you’re fighting for is central to revolutionary changes – [and] being able to explain power and oppression, like systems that capitalist and colonial powers try to hide every day through mainstream media.”

The three see no simple answers to any of this. The current circumstances are a “challenge,” Khan said, but it is just a matter of figuring out how to respond. This is the latest version of the ever-present need for grassroots media to “reflect” and “change” with respect to their “basis of unity” and their “goals”, and to think about “technology” and about “how relevant they are in relation to different social movements.”

Desai said that she is “torn between producing the kind of media that people consume in the greatest volume and that’s easiest to consume – the stuff that’s really shareable on social media, that’s broken down into bite sized pieces, and that’s likely to reach people who have not already been reached by our publications and perhaps changed their minds – versus producing the kind of media that I personally love to produce and read, but understand is sometimes difficult and time consuming to read. I think it’s awesome to try and reach people where they’re at, but I also think that we are perhaps sacrificing something really important when we lean all the way into that way of making media.” She continued, “I’ve learned the most from articles that are really long and in-depth. I really enjoy reading them. They’re the ones where they’re most likely sometimes to change my mind because they go in depth and get specific enough that I feel like they’re properly substantiated.”

According to Khan, Upping the Anti, which is an outlet focused on pieces that are longer and often more challenging to write and to read, has also been making some adaptations in this direction. This includes experimenting with new and more accessible forms, like political comics, and developing practices for making better use of social media in relation to the kinds of things they publish.

The key might be to find ways to adapt to the current context without de-centering organizing, movement journalism, longer forms, or challenging ideas. Gray-Donald said that publications like Briarpatch and Upping the Anti “are really important because they do talk about organizing in a way that some of the more clickbaity media doesn’t.” This includes an emphasis on publishing content that actually talks about movements and how they work, and content that reports on the actual material realities of how struggles are playing out on the ground. Both the work of investigating for and writing such pieces, and also the experience of reading them, can be important in building public understanding of issues, in letting people know how they can become active, in communicating how movements actually work in practice, and in building relevant skills. Gray-Donald said that there is “a critical need for showing how movements happen, what is happening, how to get involved, all those kinds of things.”

At heart, Khan said, it is crucial that grassroots media projects “not act like we’re separate from social movements. So let activists know that we’re resources for them – not only to, like, read about different social movements, but also explore and gain skills and be able to write, think, research. … I feel like the skills they get from being able to write articles go back into their organizations.”

Part of this might involve a return by grassroots media outlets to a greater emphasis on building media skills among movement participants who have no desire to become media professionals but who have important experiences and ideas to share, as well as other efforts at building relationships with movement organizations.

Desai also identified a number of possible approaches that grassroots media-makers in Canada are only beginning to explore, including using print as a way to push back against the fragmentation of attention by the online information economy, nascent efforts among existing grassroots projects to support each other, and a renewed focus on local rather than national outlets.

She said, “Where media is really atrophying and people are really being left behind with very little information is in smaller localities. And it’s just providing people with less and less information about what’s going on in their communities. And I think that that kind of media, which returns our focus to what’s going on in our communities, is a good way to use media to help people learn to organize. Because that’s where you start organizing.”

A lot, of course, comes back to the age-old question of resources. Gray-Donald said, “If you’ve been on the fence about whether to support … indie media [through a donation], definitely go ahead. This media’s only going to exist with the support of readers, of listeners.”

And despite the challenges, Desai definitely sees some opportunities. While the overall loss of trust in media can be a problem for grassroots outlets, “I think it also provides a bit of an opening for us to say, yeah, you are right to be pissed off and distrustful of the media that is full of ads for real estate companies, and reports only from the perspective of your boss and only from the perspective of the cops. So I think there’s something there that grassroots media can tap into amid growing distrust of corporate media.”

This episode concludes Talking Radical Radio’s ten-year weekly run – read more here!

Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out our website here. You can also follow us on Facebook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists. In the spirit of full disclosure relevant to this episode, he is also a board member and volunteer editor with The Media Co-op and an advisory board member for Upping the Anti.

Image: Photo by Scott Neigh.

Theme music: “It Is the Hour (Get Up)” by Snowflake, via CCMixter

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