Alternative and Activist Media

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Alternative and Activist Media
Review of: Mitzi Waltz, Alternative and Activist Media. Edinburgh University Press, 2005.
Reviewed in Freedom 25 February 2006

In an age when communication is dominated by giant international corporations exercising an "all-pervasive mass-media monopoly", Mitzi Waltz examines the ways in which alternative and activist media have opened "cracks in the mass-media monolith through which strange flowers grow."
Although published by an academic press, and intended for use on journalism, sociology and media studies courses, her book is written in a lively and accessible style (apart from the occasional sprinkling of terms like "counter-hegemonic") that makes it a useful tool for community-based activists.

The first chapter looks at the reasons for the existence of alternative and activist media, and the part they play. Chapter two provides a short history touching on earlier forms of media monopoly, and the role played by technological change in opening up opportunities for alternatives to develop. Chapter three examines the ways in which mass media are consumed, and there are five chapters that focus on the different formats favoured by alternative and activist media, including radio, video, film, print and digital media.

Many of the examples of activist media in action are inspiring, such as the precise summary of the way in which the Undercurrents video collective started and has continued to grow, in spite of having thousands of pounds worth of video equipment smashed by the police in Genoa. Particularly useful features of this chapter are the details of free online courses, and an emphasis on the importance of effective distribution.

Mitzi provides an interesting account of activist cyberculture, and its successes, such as the creation of the non-hierarchical computer networks that enabled activists to expose the dangers of the Chernobyl melt-down. There are also examples of the pitfalls encountered by successful ventures, such as the online alternative community De Digital Stadt, which by the year 2000 had 160,000 subscribers. Unfortunately, because of a flawed internal structure this project was eventually transformed into a consultancy business by a small group of members.

The weakest chapter is the section on radio, which suffers from over-emphasis on US examples of the use of radio, whereas a summary of the successes and failures of community and pirate radio in Britain would be more relevant. It would also have been useful to compare the US experience with that of Europe, where alternative radio stations, such as Radio Alice (Italy) and the French Anarchist Federation’s Radio Libertaire have successfully linked radio broadcasting to street activism.
There a perceptive account of the problems faced by successful alternative media projects, and what happens to them, as they are absorbed into the mainstream. Unfortunately there is no discussion of several important issues that have underpinned and extended the impact of media activism, such as the free software movement and the development of an information commons.

Predicting the future forms and direction of activist media is a chancy business, but Waltz tackles this partly by anchoring this last speculative chapter in a short but pithy account of the development of Indymedia, and the growing use of new tools like Wikipedia.
This is an important book because it provides a critical overview of alternative and anti-capitalist media in all its variety. The short practical exercises at the end of each chapter are well thought out, and the provision of web addresses, and further reading will help the reader develop the necessary skills to become consciously involved in creating the next wave of media activism.