A local media thought experiment: “The Bearwood Question”

So local TV is back on the agenda, offering more questions than answers. In the Guardian Media Talk podcast Matt Wells questioned Jeremy Hunt about the ability to deliver “local” in any meaningful way through broadcast television. TV, in its traditional broadcast sense, is territory based: signals have a “footprint” to which they are broadcast and which they can be received, and that footprint means that there is a hard map of territories and locales which can be served. And those locales do not always make sense to the people who receive the messages. 

One of the problems with local TV over digital terrestrial, as Wells points out, is that the footprints mean that some large areas that have two distinct identities cannot be served independently. So Manchester and Liverpool cannot receive “local” TV at the same time. Internet technology is seen as affording something much more flexible: both cities could receive local services simultaneously via an IPTV transmission.

That’s great but it shows that the problem is always framed by TV-think even by those who can see problems in the system. The question that is answered by IPTV isn’t “what should local news look like?” but “how do we overcome the limitations of radio waves to produce more broadcast footprints?”.

This is where the idea of “The Bearwood Question” comes in. Bearwood is a lovely area of the West Midlands that I’ve lived in a number of times. It sits across a local authority border and manages to not quite be Sandwell and not quite Birmingham. When I lived there I looked to Sandwell for local government, and to Birmingham for my cultural and social life. So what does “local media” mean in Bearwood?

  It’s incredibly subjective. I’m sure some of my neighbours were Black Country diaspora, drifting towards Brum the same way I was drifting out, and their sense of “local” would be very different to my own. Regional media is actually quite good at providing “local media” in this context as it sits across the footprint that encompasses Brum and Sandwell. That means it will deliver everyone in Bearwood a bit of what they need to answer local questions (albeit with a large dollop of things that are of little importance to their locale). Hyperlocal is effective at telling you what is happening on the doorstep, but the space between hyperlocal and regional is complicated, nuanced and personal. And that’s what putting local media online can answer – not “how do we make a broadcast footprint smaller?” but “how do we help people fill their own footprint with media that matter to them?”.

(if any of this sounds familiar it’s because I’m a bit obsessed with Bearwood’s boundaries)

By Jon Hickman

Hi, I'm Jon. I teach and research digital culture, social media and new media practice at Birmingham City University. Find out more about me with this lovely CV: http://uk.linkedin.com/in/jonhickman Find out about my work at the Birmingham Centre for Media & Cultural Research: http://interactivecultures.org