What Is Community Media? [PMC Update]

by Latoya Peterson

I’m typing this post from a church basement, while about twelve children sing along to the songs in Super Why, a PBS program designed to help with reading skills.

The last time I talked about PMC, I was liveblogging and tweeting parts of the boot camp. Now, it’s been about a month, so I can explain a bit more about what I’m actually doing.

After the skills/strategy building boot camp, we started in on our site assignments. I’m placed at Howard University Television (WHUT) and so far we’ve learned about upcoming projects, some of their educational outreach and how programming works at the station. We’ve also learned a bit about the challenges in public media. We noticed that a lot of public spaces (like libraries, radio, television, and museums) do not work together as often as they could. And we are working to understand what a model for a new public media could look like.

In addition to that, we’re struggling with an ambitious project – community mapping and strategies for engagement. As we are starting to map the resources for each community (and will probably end up on the streets, canvassing to find out demographic information, access to technology, and digital literacy data) the struggle looms large. Can we make a valuable impact in just six short months?

Our partners have been in the community for years, so our entrance into the communities is facilitated by those in the know. But every time we start to gain some understanding, the problems seem to magnify. For example, let’s take educational outreach.

WHUT has been kind enough to allow us to tag along on some of their programs to conduct our research. And to be frank, I’m amazed at some of the programs on public television. The premiere program we started with is called R U There, which is a pilot program – other episodes are dependent on the studio receiving another grant.

The trailer is here:

R U There? Premiere at The Lincoln Theatre from WHUT-TV on Vimeo.

But you can get a better sense of the program from the music video (found here) and the companion site, which boasts a game setting and an interactive comic maker. It’s really impressive.

However, there are going to be lots of obstacles to overcome. While R U There is competitive with offerings by specialty networks like Disney and Cartoon Network, the awareness that public media is for kids older than eight or ten years old just isn’t there. There is a huge gap between the two core demographics – ages 0 – 8 and ages 55 and up. And even if people were watching, the funding crunch may dash the R U There project before it can get off the ground.

This week and next week, I’m observing the community outreach program. One of the programs is for children who are struggling with reading skills, and so they can participate in a special supplemental program for one week to help boost their skills. But even in this small class of twelve, already a multitude of issues bubbled to the surface. Some children actually perform up to task really well – but it becomes clear that without reinforcement at home, they will not be able to keep up without individualized attention. Other children, for various reasons, find it very hard to focus on certain tasks – so they can easily and quickly identify all letters, but don’t understand the sounds that letters make, or understand how letters combine to make a word. Other children are easily discouraged, so when their drawings or letters are not perfect, they want to quit.

And then there are the dynamics between the kids, other children, and their home lives. Far too many of these kids come to the program, and they are already having a bad day. The teachers observe parents sharing their coffee drinks with their kids on the walk to the program, then observe the child bouncing off the walls. In addition to that, there is the concern that some kids are not getting enough food. And, even if the children are on board, there are other issues around access. One child was happily clicking through a complicated online game. When I asked him if he played it before, he answered “yes, before my mother’s computer broke.”

The children also police each other, teasing the girls for wanting to pretend to be a girl character, or laughing at the kids who are happily dancing to the songs. There is a lot to engage with, and we haven’t been able to get a good feel on parental commitment since these programs are geared toward the children. Later in the year, we will get to engage with adults more.

All of these are just free-form observations – we are still in the process of developing and testing strategies that will help with some of these issues, particularly surrounding digital access. But now I am wondering about how community and media inform each other and how we facilitate these connections to benefit those most in need.