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Jack Byrne, media literacy and Community radio in Dublin

Monday 5 October 2015, by SIGNIS

Malibu/Brussels, October 5th, 2015 (Connect!on/SIGNIS) “When it comes to media literacy, I am a missionary, like St. Patrick bringing Christianity to Ireland,” said Jack Byrne, who has earned his own description. Byrne is modest: he has actually carried media literacy beyond Ireland, since he is not only the founder and first Chair of NEAR Media Cooperative in Dublin North East, but also the founder and Secretary of Craol, the Irish Community Radio Network, and the founder and former President of Amarc Europe.

There are now 25 community radio stations and two community television stations in Ireland, according to Byrne two years ago.

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Jack Byrne

As a retired sales and marketing manager, Byrne brings relevant skills to his work. He has contributed to the development of diverse landscapes such as credit unions, the Gaelic games, and residents’ organizations.
He is the author of several books on media activism and cultural development, but most importantly, he has applied his knowledge towards introducing, scaling and institutionalizing media literacy in community media centers throughout Ireland, and beyond.

“I’m pleased and gratified at the progress we’ve made in Ireland during the past 20 years,” Byrne said. “We have the basics in place to grow, and to proceed with further development. It’s a long process. First, you have to believe in the importance of media literacy, since enthusiasm for the subject is the main resource to work with. Then, you need to persuade people and to articulate and document what media literacy is, how it fits and how it benefits. Then, people need to be trained, and they need to be prepared to carry the message. Also, you need to have the structure in place to support the work and carry it on. It’s easy to be committed to furthering media literacy education. I’m still amazed at how continuously the light bulb goes off with people in our trainings, and when they start understanding media literacy, they say ‘Where has this been all my life?’ That keeps people coming back and contributing to the community."

“We see media literacy as an essential component of community radio and media. Without media literacy, our cooperative at NEAR fm would be populated by ‘busy technicians.’ We want our community to know why they are using the technology; we want our community to be empowered and to be able to articulate why they are involved, not just rely on instinct. To do this, they need the vocabulary for media literacy; they need to be able to define it and to describe it and to be able to develop their communication skills, and understand how media works so that their efforts are beneficial for them and others. Often, our members are itching to get to the equipment, but we incorporate media literacy into our training since we see it as an important step for their own development."

Media literacy is not an add-on; it is a serious component of the training and an important step towards ‘up-skilling.’ “There are many disadvantaged people in Dublin North East, and the word ‘literacy’ can be off-putting. We show people how to ‘read the media’ through images and videos; even with limited education, people embrace the ideas and this enhances their ability to produce videos reflecting their own lives and the community here.”

NEAR fm, which was licensed in 1995 after an intense lobbying effort beginning in the 1980s, has incorporated media literacy into its trainings since its beginnings. “I discovered media literacy in 1995,” Byrne said, “and we looked to the U.S. since the U.S. was ahead of us in articulating what media literacy is.” NEAR fm’s mission statement supports media literacy, saying that NEAR fm will “Recognize the power of sound, image and the spoken word to engage the mind and nurture the human spirit,” and Support community building and values, interculturalism and linguistic diversity.” “Our training addresses the basics,” Byrne said, “like how to use a microphone, but we feel that media literacy is not just a parallel topic for training that goes along with the tech training, but it is at the heart of what we do – it provides a different rationale for what we do and for why community media exists."

“Beginning in 2000, we began to scale our efforts throughout Ireland. We had a cohort at NEAR fm who understood what media literacy offers, and we formed a network of community radio and tv stations, Craol, with 30 radio stations and three tv channels. Craol organized a TV Festival annually, mostly addressing technical issues, but when we brought media literacy to the Festival, it blew them away, and is now featured every year. We then started working internationally through Amarc, and brought media literacy to their workshops and trainings. We found receptive ears and we are called on regularly to do speeches and trainings. People realize that we live in a media-saturated world, and that since media are our culture, it’s vitally important for our citizens to understand how media work. We’ve continued to deepen our training resources, and we just introduced a Level 5 training, which builds on our basic courses. At NEAR fm, ten of our 12 Committee of Management members are committed to doing this Level 5 media literacy training.”

In the meanwhile, lobbying efforts by Byrne in Ireland led to a call for media literacy in the 2009 Broadcasting Act. In the Act, media literacy is defined as meaning to bring about a better public understanding of:

  • 1. The nature and characteristics of material published by means of broadcast and related electronic media,
  • 2. The processes by which such materials is selected, or made available, for publication by broadcast and related electronic media,
  • 3. The processes by which individuals and communities can create and publish audio or audio-visual material by means of broadcast and related electronic media, and
  • 4. The available systems by which access to material published by means of broadcast and related electronic media is or can be regulated.

“At first,” Byrne said, “the wording of the proposed Act did not include media creation, but now, the final wording is a definition of media literacy which includes the involvement of communities/individuals in the production of media as well as an awareness of how media work and influences society. We had to fight for it, but thankfully, the minister was receptive and we were successful in including media creation.”

With legislation in place, and trainings being continuously designed and delivered, Byrne is looking ahead to other possibilities for media literacy education: “We can’t be complacent in community media about media literacy education, because it’s a continuous process of helping people understand why it’s important. Media literacy should be spread through the other two media sectors – the public service and the commercial. We are also offering media literacy training in public schools, and working with youth is a priority. Kids can be creative and have freedom with community media; it is important to kick-start their involvement in their community from an early age.”

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