ON THE COVER North Coast Journal Weekly
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SHIFTING THE MAINSTREAM production studio

Mainstream Media Project Executive Director Mark Sommer and Production Engineer Chuck Rogers.

EVERYWHERE BUT HERE

THE BACKERS

story and photos by  BOB DORAN


FOR MARK SOMMER THE ELECTION OF 1994 WAS A WAKE-UP CALL.

The so-called "Gingrich Revolution" dislodged the Democratic majority in the House and moved America a giant step to the right.

As a progressive, Sommer was particularly distressed by the role played by conservative and ultra-conservative talk radio hosts and associated pundits who relentlessly slammed President Clinton, the Democrats and any faintly liberal legislation that came along.

"We started the Mainstream Media Project in 1995 as a direct response to Rush Limbaugh and the others who had been credited with winning the Gingrich Revolution," Sommer recalled recently. "I said to myself, `I don't think this all has to be dominated by one side.'"

Despite the fact that he was living without electricity in the hills of Southern Humboldt, Sommer was already a pundit of sorts. He had been asked to speak about social issues on a number of radio programs, not an easy thing to do when you must use a solar-powered radio telephone.

Educated at Cornell University, Sommer was quickly drawn into activism and the peace movement. In the 1960s he worked at the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think-tank in Washington, D.C., and later helped start Liberation News Service, an organization supplying news and commentary to the alternative press.

By the mid-1990s he had written three books: Beyond the Bomb, The Conquest of War and Living in Freedom: The New Prague, and had established himself as a columnist for the Christian Science Monitor and for Inter Press Service, a global news service based in Rome.

Since he was both outspoken and articulate, talk shows sought him out to offer alternative perspectives. Even if his role was as a foil for a host who disagreed with him, his opinions were heard.

"They didn't drive me out. I was able to talk and have real conversations with people. That was the basis for putting this project together," he added. "It wasn't to focus on me. The idea was to give many more voices a chance to be heard."


Mainstream Media group picture

1. Janna Frincke - Campaign Director
2. Marci Barker - Operations Associate
3. Halimah Collingwood - Media Coordinator
4. Arjuna Twombly - Media Coordinator
5 Chuck Rogers - Producer/Engineer
6. Jimmy Durchslag - Media Coordinator
7. Jill Paydon - Media Coordinator
8. Denice Helwig - Development Director
9. Shirley Santino - Media Coordinator
10. Barbara Browning - Operations Director
11. Bonnie MacGregor - Guests on Call Director
12. Jane Rogers - Station Relations Director
13. Jennifer Hanan - Media Coordinator
14. Mark Sommer - Executive Director

illustration showing placement of people in photo

 

 

 

 

 


Starting small

Initially Sommer assembled a small stable of like-minded speakers and hired a publicist out of New York to help place them on talk shows across the country. Eventually he would outgrow his backwoods hideaway, move his family north to Westhaven and set up shop in Arcata.

"When I described the project to our first funders, the Plowshares Fund, they loved the idea," said Sommer, speaking in his Arcata office, a room decorated with photos of his wife and daughter and, like the rest of the office suite, with swathes of colorful Guatemalan cloth.

"They said, `What will you call it?' I said, `How about the Mainstream Media Project?' They said, `How boring.' I explained, `We're aiming at the mainstream. We're working in the mainstream media -- trying to bring new and better-informed voices into the mainstream.'

"There is essentially no civil discourse to speak of right now in the middle of the mainstream, at least in this country. Granted there is a lot of stuff happening at the edges, but because it doesn't filter into the mainstream, it doesn't reach 95 percent of Americans."

That's where talk radio comes in. "If you look at the Arbitron figures [surveys on radio listenership] you see that the audience for talk radio is very much mainstream America," said Sommer.

Sommer oversees an annual budget of $750,000 and employs a staff of 17. Headquarters is a suite of offices tucked away upstairs in the Feurwerker Building just off the Arcata Plaza.

The Mainstream Media Project's list of progressive pundits has grown considerably. "We've put 1,200 people on the air from just about that many organizations," said Sommer. The speakers include "policy analysts, big-picture thinkers and people who are doing practical work on the ground, not waiting for governments and large institutions to change."

To date the project has booked and completed more than 10,000 interviews in 50 campaigns. Guests associated with the media project have appeared on 619 radio stations and on broadcasts aired by 38 national networks, 26 regional networks and 12 international networks.

"What we do is catalyze social change," Sommer says. "We're not really a media organization, we're a social change organization that uses the media."

Janine Jackson of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, a left-leaning New York City-based media watchdog group, praised the media project for putting new people on the air rather than relying on established pundits. "[I] wish there were more projects like them," Jackson said. "They inject a new voice into the mainstream."

Roger Aronoff, an analyst with Accuracy in Media, a conservative Washington D.C.-based outfit, said when first contacted by the Journal that he was unaware of the media project. But after researching the project's website, he said the project appeared to be "a pretty good idea."

It "wouldn't be a bad idea for a conservative organization" to do something like this, he said.

EVERYWHERE BUT HERE

 "A WORLD OF POSSIBILITIES" is broadcast on dozens of noncommercial stations across the United States. It's available on short-wave radio in 120 countries through Radio for Peace International out of Costa Rica and on Sirius, the satellite radio network used in new cars. However, at this point you would be hard-pressed to find it on the radio in Humboldt County.

KMUD and KIDE air the program occasionally, but not on a regular schedule. Until recently KHSU broadcast the show on Tuesday afternoons following the Home Page show, but the Arcata-based public radio station has dropped the show. In part the reason stems from Mainstream Media's decision to change the program's Compact discsname.

When it began airing on KHSU last October the show was called "Heart of the Matter." Earlier this year when the time seemed right to roll it out for national distribution, Sommer figured he'd better make sure the name was not already trademarked. An Internet search turned up an obscure radio program with the same name and with links to a national firearms organization.

"We figured they might take the law into their own hands so we changed the name. Now we're in the process of getting the trademark on `A World of Possibilities' for everything but salad dressing."

Sommer hired a Bay Area law firm to do an official search. It found hundreds of permutations of "A World of " this or that. Unfortunately, they overlooked a little radio program right here in Arcata.

Humboldt State University's Office of Extended Education produces a weekly five-minute segment for KHSU's Homepage called "A World of Possibilities." KHSU's station manager Terry Green decided on principle that the original program has a right to keep its title.

"We tried to see if there was a practical alternative to withdrawing the [Mainstream Media] series. Unfortunately we couldn't," said Green. "`A World of Possibilities' isn't just Extended Ed.'s radio show, it's across all of their marketing."

Humboldt County listeners are left with a few options. You could get a short-wave radio or a new car equipped with a Sirius receiver. Or you can listen online. All of the shows are archived on the Mainstream Media Program's website at www.aworldofpossibilities.com.

Setting the agenda

Central to the project's work are "campaigns" that focus on a particular issue. A single-page "alert" is drawn up, laying out the parameters in a few paragraphs. It is faxed to radio stations along with a roster of perhaps a dozen speakers who can address different aspects of the topic.

Sommer says an effort is made to maintain a degree of neutrality. "We don't want to get involved in what the left so often does, making a strong ideological statement of condemnation. Instead we pose a provocative question: `Is this helping or hurting?' That sort of thing."

The alert usually offers a bulleted list of facts, "almost like a course syllabus for a free university of the airwaves, but done in a popularized way, like headline writing."

For example. The campaign for this month and next is on civil liberties and the media. The alert for "Civil Liberties in a Time of National Concern: Secrecy vs. Privacy" highlights the recently passed USA Patriot Act, which allows a home to be searched or bugged without the homeowner's knowledge; the new Department of Homeland Security, which may be exempt from portions of the Freedom of Information Act; the FBI's interest in monitoring Internet activity; and a lawsuit asking Vice President Dick Cheney to release information on his energy task force.

Sommer sees the alerts not only as a tool to attract stations to a topic, but also as a source of information for talk show hosts. A three-person team coordinates the campaign, calling stations to drum up interest in the topic and to offer further information about the speakers who can address it.

"We look for speakers who are not ideological, that is to say those who do not have an axe to grind. Above all we're looking for people who really know what they're talking about, people who are well-grounded," said Sommer.

"They may be policy analysts, those who know the policies currently being pursued and those that could be pursued. We want people who are solution-oriented, who aren't just critics. We insist that they also take responsibility for providing alternatives and talk about them on the air.

A campaign in the spring regarding the War on Terror posed the question, "Does U.S. foreign policy reduce or provoke acts of terror?"

Speakers included Carl Conetta from the Project on Defense Alternatives. "He has been in the peace movement for a long time," said Sommer. "So has Craig Eisendrath [from the Center for International Policy], another speaker. Then we had Larry Korb from the Council on Foreign Relations, which is about as establishment as you can get. He was assistant secretary of Defense in the Reagan administration, but he's a great critic of current American policy.

"What we're finding more and more in the current political climate is that left and right are starting to agree on civil liberties issues, sometimes on security issues and especially on the question of privacy and secrecy. Things just are not as neatly divided between liberal and conservative as they used to be."

Sommer mentions Larry Klayman, who runs an organization called Judicial Watch. A fierce critic of Clinton, Klayman now has his sights on the Bush administration, recently suing Vice-President Cheney over his involvement with the Halliburton oil company. "We're putting [Klayman] on all over the place. And he's coming to us asking for guests to put on his show [The Judicial Watch Report]."

In addition to policy analysts, the project is looking for "big picture thinkers who are completely reconceptualizing beyond current policies, people who are thinking about how you change the core paradigm.

"For example," Sommer goes on, "if we do a campaign on globalization, we would have some people who could analyze GATT (the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) and the WTO (World Trade Organization) in detail, but we would also want someone like David Korten who wrote, When Corporations Ruled the World -- someone who can project out and say, `This is what an alternative economy might look like.'"

Sommer also keeps an eye out for innovators. "If we were dealing with renewable energy or the Bush energy plan, you don't just want people who can criticize the current plan, but people who are working on alternatives -- someone like Peter Lehman at Humboldt State who is working on a hydrogen fuel-cell car. That's wonderful stuff. It may be small scale right now, but if you let them tell their story it becomes an inspiration to others."

On-call speakers

As Mainstream Media has grown and garnered funding from a number of foundations, it has branched out in new directions. In addition to the campaigns where topics change every two months, the organization has developed "Guests on Call," a roster of speakers who address more immediate current events.

Assembling the roster has primarily been the task of Bonnie MacGregor [photo at right], a veteran social activist who has worked for the Redwood Community Action Agency, the Area Agency on Aging and Humboldt Women for ShBonnie MacGregorelter.

Heading up a team of researchers, MacGregor spent over a year "mapping the intellectual territory" on issues like the environment, the economy and foreign policy, Sommer said.

"Her team talked to experts asking who were the best people in every field, people who had the freshest ideas. Then we recruited those people one-by-one, talked to them, collected bios and articles written by them or about them. We created a huge custom data base; it's very complex and with an elaborate interface."

The Guests on Call digital Rolodex identifies 1,700 "spokespeople" around the world ready to address a wide variety of topics. The day she spoke with the North Coast Journal, MacGregor was finishing up a week on the effects of toxic chemicals in the environment and planning for the next issue du jour: socially responsible investment in the age of corporate scandal.

The approach is similar to that used with the longer-term "campaigns."

"We frame an issue and put out some talking points," said MacGregor. "We raise questions, that's the main thing. We try not to put forward just one point of view, but we definitely come from our values base."

She finds that dwelling on the world's problems can be a daunting task. "I spend a good part of my time looking at the worst issues facing us, and it can get depressing. But then I go looking for the people who are doing something about these problems and I get encouraged. There are wonderful people out there doing incredible things and what we do helps them find each other."

The potential for making such connections is about to take a big step forward. Sommer said that in the next few months the organization will make the database MacGregor's team has created available to the press and to colleges and universities.

"Because of the work we're doing, we're in touch with hundreds, even thousands of organizations that are doing incredible work. I really feel that if others know about that work, they will be inspired to do some of their own.

'A World of Possibilities'

The third focus of Mainstream Media is a syndicated half-hour radio program with Sommer or another host engaging a wide variety of speakers. Originally called "Heart of the Matter," the name was recently changed to "A World of Possibilities." The program is pre-recorded and runs weekly.

Guests have included Richard Dicker of Human Rights Watch discussing the ramifications of the Bush administration "unsigning" the treaty that created the International Criminal Court; Jenny Ladd, heir to the Standard Oil fortune, and Chuck Collins, great-grandson of Oscar Mayer, talking of socially responsible philanthropy; and BBC foreign correspondent Jennifer Glasse offering a report from Jerusalem on violence and life on the West Bank.

A series on hunger included former Channel 3 anchor Jane Rogers speaking about malnutrition in both poor and wealthy nations with Gary Gardner of the Worldwatch Institute and Anne Sophie Fournier from Action Against Hunger. Additionally, Ian Vasquez of the Cato Institute and Debra James of Global Exchange talked with Sommer about free trade and its effect on food distribution.

Jane Rogers"From the beginning I thought that the program really needs to have a national and a global focus," said Sommer, who for the past 10 years has written for Inter Press in Rome, a world-wide syndicated column service that goes out to 100 countries in a number of Chuck Rogerslanguages.


Chuck Rogers (right) is producer of 'A World of Possibilities,' a weekly talk show put out by the Mainstream Media Project. His wife, Jane Rogers (on the left), was the anchor for KIEM's nightly news program in the late 1990s. She joined the Mainstream team last December.


"What it's done is to change the way I think, because I'm writing for an audience that is not just American. I really believe that the kinds of problems we're now facing as a country and as a species are going to require global action and a global conversation in order for them to be truly addressed.

"Right now what we have is two non-intersecting conversations going on, one that is within the American elite, not even the whole American public, just a very small group of pundits and politicians. Then there is the conversation that the rest of the world is having, one that does not include the United States -- and the United States is not paying attention to it. That's how we get these terrible disconnects where our policies are just so destructive of any kind of global consensus.

"The direction we're going with this program is an attempt to create that global conversation for civil society, for citizens rather than governments and private business -- the rest of us essentially."

In Sommer's mind the possibilities are endless. His vision includes an international talk show with a satellite uplink so that people around the world can share ideas. "The miracle is you can do that now from a place like Arcata, from a little studio like this."

The mainstream within us

As the interview wound down, Sommer returned to his decision to use the word "mainstream" to describe an organization offering alternative perspectives on the issues of the day.

"I had a breakthrough recently," he said, "a realization that there's an inner mainstream in every human being, a sense that at a fundamental level we all want the same thing: We want acceptance. We want a sense that what we're doing in the world has some meaning. We want to feel that we are part of something larger, something with a sense of purpose.

"I feel that in this country and in many other countries, the small elites that try to govern the rest of us for their own benefit are betraying their own inner mainstream --are so disconnected from themselves and from the consequences of their actions that they believe they can somehow exempt themselves from the carnage they are creating when they destroy the environment or destroy the cultural environment. They don't even realize that they are destroying the future, their children's future.

"I feel that we are bringing forth the true mainstream and that these people are on the extreme edge," Sommer went on. "They only pretend to be the mainstream. The so-called silent majority of this era is a real majority that wants to do something about poverty, about climate change, about war. They may not want everything that progressives want, but they at least want to make sure that we have a stable, sustainable society for the future.

"I believe in the end that progressives can't make the future alone, conservatives can't make it alone, we are going to have to make it together. That means we're going to have to redefine the mainstream and understand that that current, that river of humanity, runs through everyone and connects us all. In that way I believe that it's not a subterfuge to call this the Mainstream Media Project -- the mainstream is within each one of us."

Staff writer Geoff S. Fein contributed to this report.

THE BACKERS

The Ploughshares Fund, committed to reducing the threat of war in part through increasing public understanding and participation, was the first to back the Mainstream Media Project. Other funders include some true heavyweight organizations, such as the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation; the Rockefeller Foundation; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation; the Florence and John Schumann Foundation (chaired by newsman Bill Moyers); the W. Alton Jones Foundation; and Working Assets Long Distance.

A new supporter is the Ford Foundation.

"Ford has a new six-year $20 million program called `Leadership for a Changing World' that will highlight the work of citizen leaders from civil society who are tackling problems not being addressed by the public or private sector," explained media project director Mark Sommer.

"Each year they choose 20 people who are doing extraordinary work somewhere around the country. These individuals get $100,000 plus $30,000 to support the work they're doing. Our role is to put those people on the airwaves."

 


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