Community media is described by Ellie Rennie (2006), in a broad sense, as “community communication.” Fundamentally, it is elusive to define the term in an absolute manner because it can take so many forms, be applied by so many different groups of people, and be directed at such a wide range of issues. The premise, however, that community media is a facilitative tool for discussion and engagement of the ordinary citizenry has some inherent implications. A major implication is that community media is for the most part independent of the market-driven commercial and mainstream media outlets. This, in turn, allows for different models of community media to offer either a wide open editorial policy or a more fine-tuned approach that is still loyal to the encouragement of community participation. The key characteristics of community media convey a more clear understanding of its definition as well as its depth and dimension in terms of how it takes shape in the civic landscape (Rennie, 2006: 208).
The South African definition is that community media are either a geographic community or a community of interest. Ideally then, community media are produced, managed and owned by, for and about the community they serve, which can either be a geographic community or one of interest. “Community media is a two-way process, in which the communities participate as planners, producers and performers and it is the means of expression of the community rather than for the community.”
It appears easier to posit an ideal definition of community media than to extrapolate a definition from the actual community-based media initiatives existing on the ground (McQuail, 1994). The media used are different and, as is the case with video, sometimes the medium used itself poses challenges to the notion of community participation. The ownership and management patterns are diverse, even though they can be broadly defined as non-governmental and non-corporate. The levels of community participation are equally diverse. And the aims are quite specifically different, although again, in general the aims are all for some aspect of community development.
The concept of community media implies that for communities to be heard at national level, they have to be heard at grassroots level first. The potential to communicate and receive communication is a social good, which should be fairly, universally and strictly equal. Curran and Gurevitch (1991) state that the full concept of citizenship presupposes an informed participant body of citizens, most generally, if we suppose there to be a right to communicate then it implies an equal individual claim to hear and to be heard. Similarly, Freire (1990) observes that the less people are consulted, the less democracy a nation has.
Community broadcasting seeks to foster debate about, reach consensus on and build solidarity in promoting and protecting human rights and achieving sustainable development, including peace and reconciliation (McQuail, 1994). Community broadcasting is about both access to and dissemination of information. It acts as media for the flow of information to and from communities, on the one hand, and the national and international levels, on the other hand (McQuail, 1994). It provides access to needed external information as well as advocacy on issues of concern, with relevant policy making levels informed by experiences at the community level and solutions generated therein. In a broader sense, community broadcasting enables greater participation by communities in national and international affairs. It has a dual role – that of a mirror (reflecting the community back at itself) and that of a window (allowing the outside world to look in at its experiences).
Fraser, Colin and Sonica Restrepo Estrada (2001) argue that community media provide a vital alternative to the profit oriented agenda of corporate media. They are driven by social objectives rather than the private, profit motive. Community media empower people rather than treat them as passive consumers and they nurture local knowledge rather than replace it with standard solutions. Ownership and control of community media is rooted in and responsible to the communities they serve, and they are suitable approaches to development, (Buckley, 2000). The nature and purpose of community media initiatives should be the most important determinants. Resource shortcomings of any kind can be addressed through alternative strategies. Steve Buckley (2000) observes that democracy and communication are inextricably linked, so much so that the existence or otherwise of certain forms of communications can be a measure of the limits to which democracy itself has developed or is held back.
Curran & Gurevitch (1991) state that the nature of community media is participatory and its purpose is development, “processes of public and private dialogue through which people define who they are, what they want and how they can get it. Community participation is thus seen as both a means to an end and an end in itself. The processes of media production, management and ownership are in themselves empowering, imbuing critical analytic skills and confidence about interpretations reached and solutions found. The medium chosen must, therefore, be one that enables, enhances and sustains community participation.
From the above considerations, it follows that the choice of media to be used in a local community is necessarily specific to that community. What works in one community may not work in another (Lesame, 2005). For example, gender and age are factors to be taken into account when discussing sexuality, but the manner in which they are taken into account differs across communities. Literacy levels, access to radio receivers in the community at large, familiarity with symbolism and other visual devices used in audio-visual media are other considerations. The choice of theatre, local language newspapers, radio or video – or any combination thereof – is and should be dependent on both internal and external factors (Bessette, 2004).
Internally, the choice should address the development aims of the community concerned and build on what forms of communication already exist, especially where the community concerned has a history or tradition of educational music and dance. And externally, the choice should ensure ease and effectiveness of impact on the national and international actors the community wishes to speak to. For example, video is a powerful medium to raise awareness about human rights concerns, but it is also a medium which does not necessarily or typically allow for the complexities of a situation to be expounded on and can thus lead to simplistic interventions for resolution. Participatory community-based planning to make the choice of a medium should take these internal and external considerations into account.