Rise of Group Media: an Historical View


This article originally appeared in Issue# 27

An interview with Ibarra Gonzalez, SJ

For a number of years, Ibarra ("Nim") Gonzales directed the audio-visual service at the East Asian Pastoral Institute in Manila where he created Photolanguage: Philippines. Currently in the United States to pursue doctoral studies at the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Southern California, Gonzalez has been an editorial advisor to Media&Values for this issue. We asked him to summarize our many conversations about group media in the following questions.

Nim, what really caused Group Media to develop in the Third World?

I think the emergence of Group Media can be traced to four historical conditions: 1) the increasing cost of technology, 2) political factors, 3) the mass media system itself, and 4) the failure of the last two development decades (the 60s and the 70s).

Precipitated by these four conditions the group media phenomenon sprang up like the process of spontaneous combustion among the poor countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

Can you explain each of these? Let's take the first one, the economic side of technology.

Among poor countries, the overriding concern is national development and how communication can hasten this process. Prior models, like radio schools and educational TV of the early sixties suffered three major setbacks: 1) They required a very high financial overhead which was usually dependent on foreign capital to maintain 2) Management, orientation and control were easily co-opted by the current political power doing lip service to development 3) They were communications systems that needed highly trained skills to operate and that reached either a limited number or the wrong set of audiences.

Group media offers alternative models which can overcome these shortcomings. Because group media are relatively "small" operations, their activities can be easily monitored, directed (or re-directed) and managed by development agencies and voluntary groups. Likewise, only minimal skills (if any) are required to run group media technologies.

What about the political side of communications?

Host developing countries have quasi-dictatorial or dictatorial forms of government. The communication systems in these countries are heavily controlled and censored. Political participation is often very limited, restricted or constrained.

It is in situations like these that Group Media prosper. Both medium and content are made relevant to the concerns and conditions of the audience. Interestingly, these conditions are similar to those that produced the "morality plays" of the middle ages.

How did the Third World experience with mass media influence the rise of Group Media?

The combined economic and political conditions of a country generally determine its broadcasting system. Broadcasting in developing countries has been attacked as a tool of western cultural imperialism. Movies and TV shows are cheaper to buy from foreign countries than to locally produce.

In addition broadcasting has been associated more with entertainment and advertising than with education and development. Reorienting the broadcasting system in order to serve development objectives has been tried with only limited success.

An alternative system is found in the group media approach. For example radio lessons broadcast to small isolated study groups has been found to be successful. Reorienting mass media toward development needs is also happening in print and newspapers. Thus the growth of the "rural mimeo press" and "community newspapers."

What do you mean by the "failure" of the last two development decades?

Probably the most important condition that promoted the growth of group media was the failure of "development" in the sixties and the seventies. When the question "How to develop?" failed to produce results, the question was changed to "Why is there underdevelopment?"

The finger of failure pointed to the educational methodologies that went unquestioned together with the technologies and techniques of "How to develop."

The problem, of course, was that the educational methodologies, together with the accompanying cultural superstructure, were imposed, maintained and controlled by the West. This further produced the debilitating "colonial mentality" by which we, ourselves, judged ourselves by Western standards instead of our own values.

To break this mind set, a new consciousness had to be created, a new educational process had to be formulated.

Group media has developed using the methodologies for consciousness raising. It tries to bring to consciousness NOT the reality of the West, but the PRESENT LIVED REALITIES of the group, of the community, the nation. Finally, the reality of the local group is seen as interwoven within the global system.

For you, what values underpin Group Media as a communications theory?

Foremost is the sense of history: an awareness of the historical processes (e.g., births, growths and deaths), conditions, and causal relations surrounding all human realities and events. Secondly, there is self-reliance, and the realization that creative and responsible acts of individuals in community, can MAKE BETTER REALITIES. Finally, group media values dialogue as a process for change.

You see, the concerns of group media are NOT communication technologies but the methods and processes to arrive at BETTER INDIVIDUALS in the community. Any technology - new or old, modern or traditional, electronic or not — can be used as long as it is consistent with the message and goals underlying the concept. Consistency and efficacy, more than efficiency and magnitude of scale, are the important concerns. At its best, group media are synergistic systems.

Do you think group media can be used in the West?

The tendency of the West is to resolve problems via a technological solution. But their poor economic condition which cannot afford a technological solution forces developing countries to depend on human resources instead. The starting point of group media theory is not technology but human resources, i.e., the local community.

In the United States, the closest experience to group media is the early experience of cable TV, especially community access television (CATV). Incorporating the early ideals of CATV and the methodologies of group media may be the best combination for the developed west. With the development of other micro media technologies, like VCRs (video cassette recorders) and LAWs (local area networks), it may be quite successful.

Because the west is already heavily into mass media, you should realize group media is not an alternative but a complementary system to mass media. Group media may converge into small communities the anomies created by mass media. Likewise, group media may activate passive mass media viewers and make them change agents in their local communities.

What can the West lean from this new group media phenomenon?

What the West can learn from group media is the synergistic system of the methodology. Conditions differ among developed and developing countries and so, too, the problems and needs. Likewise, the perception and articulation of these problems and needs differ. More so, the solutions.

Yet, a consistency among the elements (i.e., the socioeconomic, political conditions; the communication message, the technology, and the method) with the actors of the communication system is the power and strength of group media.

In varying magnitudes of scale, this consistency and this synergism is the gift of group media to the West.