The Barefoot Channel: Community Televison as a Tool for Social Change

Kim Goldberg

"Silence on a subject that logically warrants attention is often a clue identifying something that threatens the status quo" (p. 5), states Goldberg at the beginning of her thorough and critical study of community access television in Canada. Goldberg opens a window to provide a clear-sighted view of the most prevalent form of alternative media production in Canada, a medium which produces over 7,000 hours of programming at over 300 local cable channels each and every week, all of which is 100% Canadian in content, "produced not by monolithic corporations delivering a mass audience of consumers to other corporations, but by ordinary people. By us" (p. 3). The power of the book lies in its solid commitment to participatory democracy and in its thesis that unencumbered access to the tools of media production is essential for democratic processes.

The Barefoot Channel (in reference to China's barefoot doctors and Pierre Juneau's early use of this metaphor to characterize the democratic, decentralized potential of community access television), written outside the normal academic channels of media and communication studies, highlights a glaring omission in the literature. Community access television has been virtually ignored by media analysts despite its radical potential as a vehicle for social change and despite the sheer quantity of indigenous production activity it engenders. The mainstream media institutions have always tried to marginalize and label alternative media as deviant and unworthy of serious attention, and perhaps we, as media analysts, have unwittingly colluded in the process of marginalization. Goldberg's book may help us to remember that alternatives can and do exist, and that the existence of a struggle to maintain and develop those alternatives is what cultural resistance to capitalist hegemony is all about.

The Barefoot Channel sets out to present a history of access channels together with a critical analysis of their present organization and activities. In the central chapters, Goldberg discusses the role of access channels as catalysts of indigenous cultural production, as subverters of monopolistic media control over culture and as providers of true Canadian content. The latter chapters in the book provide guidelines and suggestions for citizens and activists interested in making use of community access channels, together with a critical set of policy recommendations for the future. Goldberg manages to provide a book which will be useful for policy analysts and media researchers, but which is also accessible to the public and, most importantly, to citizens and activists interested in utilizing and improving one of the most potentially radical and democratic media available.

The book's policy recommendations stem largely from a thorough review of the 1986 Caplan-Sauvageau Report on Broadcasting Policy and Goldberg's own powerful argument for viewing access channels as a tool for community action and social change. Goldberg clearly demonstrates that the progressive, democratically oriented recommendations for access channels contained in the Caplan-Sauvageau Report were ignored by both former Communications Minister Flora MacDonald and her successor Marcel Masse. She demonstrates that the democratic potential for access channels has been seriously eroded by government submission to the powerful trans-national cable companies. Existing, democratically committed, community access initiatives such as the Regroupment des organismes communautaires de communication du Quebec (ROCCQ), and the half-dozen member-owned cable co-operatives such as the Campbell River TV Association in British Columbia provide Goldberg with a framework for her recommendations.

The Barefoot Channel challenges media analysts to open the way for future discussion and analysis of the potential for community access channels and the means to realize that potential. There are many areas that require further research beyond the scope of Goldberg's book. For example, there is a need for theoretical structures which take account of the role of "narrowcasting" and micro-media (as opposed to macro-media) in local and national culture. There is also a need for closer analysis of mainstream television aesthetics in relationship to alternative television aesthetics such as video art, independent video productions and community access productions. The latter analysis should include a thorough demystification of the function that "production quality" and professional aesthetic norms have in marginalizing alternative television productions.

In conclusion, I highly recommend this book to everyone interested in the possibility of democratically structured media. Established media theorists and analysts would benefit from a look at this often marginalized, yet productive medium. Perhaps it may stimulate some to become involved in community productions, or to lobby the CRTC for appropriate policy changes. More importantly, individuals and groups interested in utilizing community access channels will find that it arms them with some challenging, stimulating and well-researched information for approaching community access channel programming and programmers.