Community media can bind us together. So why don’t we support it more?

October 19, 2021 3:33 am

Access Television of Salina’s studio/recording truck sits in front of Salina’s Memorial Hall, next to the City/County building, former offices of Salina Media Connection. The new SMC logo was never added to the truck, with the city defunding its contract. (David Norlin)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. David Norlin is a retired Cloud County Community College teacher, where he was department chairman of Communications/English, specializing in media. 

On Sunday, June 27, a former Salina city commissioner and state senator threw down the gauntlet on Facebook. The Salina Journal Sunday edition had “NO articles about Salina in the Sunday edition’s first section.” No surprise.

The following day, Monday, June 28, the City Commission voted to defund a 30-year Salina institution devoted to Salina news, information, entertainment, and engagement: the Salina Media Connection, formerly Access TV.

Thus, in two back-to-back days, a glaring truth was laid bare. People crave local entertainment, news and analysis, but they won’t commit to dedicating work, time, and dollars to ensure it.

Reputable studies show that the newspaper vacancy has been filled in part by local TV newscasts. But for Kansas towns like Salina and smaller, good luck finding any local stories on “nearby” Wichita’s newscast.

One place where smaller communities have found local sportscasts, event coverage, public official interviews and even commentary are on community cable television outlets. Often, they are an ill-funded hodgepodge, and they likely depend on a devoted community member who has made a project of the outlet.

Through a fortuitous set of circumstances, SMC/Community Access TV was birthed about 30 years ago. It has been a small but constant presence since then. Funded by a portion of Salina’s franchise fee for Cox Cable operations, it has been singular among Kansas cities and towns in showing not only public meetings on the “Government” cable channel, but also local-producer programming, and some national and regional programs on the “Public” channel.

It was one of the premier community media operations in the Midwest. So, why did the city vote to unsubscribe?

The commissioners defunding the operation appeared driven by perceived failures — not in SMC programming, but in the telecasts of the city commission’s own meetings. SMC’s other community services (a Spanish-only program, local football broadcasts, a local florist’s show, statements by candidates for office, national information programs, and so on) seemed beneath commission notice.

A cynic might say that Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and other social media sites have become our primary entertainers and informers. The problem with these siloed sources is that they are echo chambers.

– David Norlin

A cynic might say that Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and other social media sites have become our primary entertainers and informers. The problem with these siloed sources is that they are echo chambers. One’s predilections and prejudices are magnified by sending the viewer extreme versions of his or her perceived truths. That keeps us clicking and gains eyeballs for advertisers. Raw commerce thus supplants the public good.

Active citizens become passive consumers. Rewarded to the point of pacification, we resent not being coddled.

Amanda Mull, of the Atlantic, points out that consumers now are uglier and harder to please. Airline passengers are demanding or dangerous. A Southwest flight attendant lost two teeth when a passenger punched her. A Delta flight was diverted after a passenger threatened to take the plane down.

“For Americans in a socially isolating culture, living under an all-but-broken political system,” writes Mull, “the consumer realm is the place where many people can most consistently feel as though they are asserting their agency.”

We have moved from a manufacturing society to a service society, where many jobs are what anthropologist David Graeber calls b***s*** jobs: “empty spreadsheet-and-conference-call labor … lack(ing) real purpose and meaning.” One result: our dissatisfaction has led some to demand that others make them “always right” as a consumer.

Many people, rightly or wrongly, feel abandoned by their government. Taxes are too high, trash service infrequent or expensive. But in the neighborhood restaurant, your “personal freedom” is unquestioned. Tip or no tip, the poor wait staff is at your beck and call.

City and county commissioners and school board members, on the other hand, are obligated to the public good, and not so much to yours individually. Still, fearful, angry citizens show up at meetings to oppose losing their “freedoms,” or their privileges. “No change” becomes motto and mantra.

Such fears could be abated with a local platform where people can sound out ideas, create programming to creatively communicate, and become active citizens, not just consumer complainers.

In other words, exactly the platform cut by the city when it defunded SMC.

So, again, why? The mayor’s vote was revealing. She said, with an air of surprise and wonder, “These are good people who serve the community — and yet our demands have not been met.” Never mind that the demands were onerous and lacked understanding.

Thus does a consumer mentality undercut citizen involvement. Even by the very people who face frustrated consumer-citizens at nearly every public meeting.

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David Norlin
David Norlin

David Norlin of Salina is a retired teacher at Cloud County Community College, where he was department chair of Communications/English, specializing in media. He has twice run for the Kansas Legislature and has served on and chaired Salina’s Human Relations Commission, Planning Commission, and Access TV. He is an occasional columnist for the Salina Journal.