Between 2010 and 2017 we interviewed over 20 artists as part of the research for Culture, Democracy and the Right to Make Art. Over the next few months the blog will provide an opportunity to hear from some of them and Karen Merkel is our first guest blogger.
The world has turned since the 1970s, when I first became involved in Community Arts –community meant neighbourhood and then slowly began to mean ‘of interest’ too; a world where culture used only to mean ‘high arts’, and then began to embrace ‘popular’ and then further moved towards also meaning ideas, behaviour and identity. These shifts weren’t merely semantic, they opened previously closed worlds for the majority in the UK where arts and culture became more accessible (in every sense) and gradually equalities became an accepted norm (not by all), with legislation in place to underpin them. Most significant has been globalisation itself and with it, the digital revolution. Community now has multiple meanings, in many ways symbolising how so much has become connected and so much become atomised along this journey.
The mid 1980s saw members of the Association of Community Artists (ACA, the national community arts network) making active connections with ‘Cultural Organisers’ in the USA who were running the Alliance for Cultural Democracy. This was an important catalyst for our own thinking and we started to pull together A Manifesto for Cultural Democracy: Another Standard. Published by Comedia, we presented it at the national ACA conference in Sheffield in 1986, to mixed reviews! There was much that we had right – its main focus being to argue for access to production and distribution as the principle tenets necessary to achieve the aim of cultural democracy. However, we had all been too long in a state of opposition to years of government that was not interested in the idea of the ‘many voices’ that we were arguing for. This left the Manifesto somewhat short of propositions, and our timing was such that, almost as soon as the book was out, people began to have access to production and distribution anyway – we had become a digital world!
On the work front at Cultural Partnerships in London, we had become exasperated with trying to persuade BBC commissioners that audiences really would be interested to hear about ‘youth culture’ and so on and, when we were successful, of course we weren’t in control. We still wanted to see if we could make Cultural Democracy come to life ….
In the mid 1990s, together with one of my comrades from Cultural Partnerships, we sat down with our partners and friends from two large, and often troubled, housing estates in Hackney, north east London, to discuss what could we do together to raise people’s self esteem, particularly younger residents. More than anything, the tenants wanted for them to have the opportunity to share their views and voices, for others to hear and exchange ideas, and for them to learn some real skills. This was the greatest partnership I ever was involved in and led to us starting a local Radio Station, SoundRadio, one of the first community radio stations to receive a full license from Ofcom to broadcast 24/7.
The most abiding memory I have of our first trial broadcast was how many people came to watch and stayed – and this was radio! They joined the contributors who were going in and out of the makeshift studios in the back of 2 unused Garages on one of the Estates and no-one would go away. Dozens and dozens of local organisations and individuals all wanted to be on air. Even then, there were far fewer playschemes, adventure playgrounds, summer festivals and all the free community activities and public events that had the wonderful effect of celebrating communities, and raising issues – life had become much more private. We realised quite quickly that people simply missed meeting each other in public spaces. We learned that we weren’t running a radio station; we were running a non-stop community gathering that just happened to have live radio in its midst.
We achieved a great deal in four years. Most importantly, we designed and ran an accredited broadcast standard training course, run as ‘training for real’ for people living in and around the two estates to run all aspects of the broadcasting. We had ex-BBC studio managers and producers delivering the training, whilst we worked to build the programming – which needed to be varied, inclusive, entertaining, and make a big impact. We had a large team of volunteers – mostly producers from the BBC to Kiss FM, looking to make their own work. The local ‘pirates’ came and ran the night-time programming and we had a very big loyal audience, 25,000 regular listeners and a cross section of our target audiences. We called decision makers in and had people queuing up to grill them, City University’s broadcasting postgraduate course was in situ and provided community, local and national news on the hour, every hour. We had voices never usually heard, up and coming stand ups came and did slots (Phil Jupitus, the late and much-loved Linda Smith), musicians (Goldie) worked with young people to produce new sounds – it went on and on. It was paid for from European Objective 2 funding along with commissions from local and health authorities, and other sponsors. After I had moved on, the station started to produce programming in community languages and went completely digital.
I see this now as a halcyon period. We had strident voices on air, original work – poetry, fiction, music of all kinds, cultural cookery, and taboos aired a-plenty. Mostly, people were simply proud to have their own sounds on air accompanied by loud laughter – proper Hackney style. Most importantly, it was a living proposition – it didn’t try to ‘prevent’ trouble, there was no need – SoundRadio was the action, it was a real example of cultural democracy, community arts for the end of one century and beginning of the next.