A Neighborhood Improvement Journal - Summer 2017

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Neighborhood Communication Systems - Part 2

by Fred Gillette

Electronic Group

Computer based groups are one of the easiest ways to start and maintain community communication. They consist of a group of people who send posts to a particular web address. All members of the group can see everyone’s posts. It is usually required that one join the group and sometimes you can only be part of the group if you meet certain predetermined requirements or are accepted by another member. There is usually a group moderator, often its creator, who makes sure that the group is adhering to the rules of interaction. Anyone who becomes troublesome or counter productive can be denied access to the group by the moderator.

Google and Yahoo are probably the largest group hosts, but you can find others. You can easily find information on starting a group at their main web sites. There is no charge for starting or maintaining an electronic group.

 

TV and radio

Although not living up to grandiose projections of permeation made a couple of decades ago, television and radio broadcasting do play major roles in some communities. Public access television has steadily gained ground over the years due to access requirements built into cable tv franchise agreements. Most cable systems have allocated public access time during normal viewing hours, including prime time. Since cable penetration is massive, public access audiences can potentially include much of the community. As it has turned out, production of neighborhood related content has proven to be very costly in terms of organization and labor required to produce regular programming. Thus the cable access channels are largely populated by city council and board meetings and the talking head musings of some individuals of limited popular acclaim or interest. Yet the potential remains and some impressive examples and success stories can be found. Many cable television systems make time available for locally produced programming, often even providing some free production services and air time. The existence of cable encourages programming for ever more specialized audiences. Programming has been produced for geographic areas of focus as small as the neighborhood.

This kind of production requires the establishment of a production team similar to that developed for the newsletter. If facilities and equipment are not provided by the cable company, some organization members may be able to provide some equipment and other resources themselves. Programming could be produced with just one video camera. Realistically, there should also be capabilities of editing material down to a manageable package, both in terms of securing air time and holding audience interest and involvement.

Personnel needs include someone to plan the production, shoot the video, possibly add narration or graphics, edit, and get the video played at a scheduled time over the public access channel. Communities have varying degrees of "penetration" by cable. Some are almost totally wired, some much less so.

Since it would be unlikely for a neighborhood group to muster the resources for something like a weekly program, it may be best to use cable for special presentations, such as outlining the new zoning proposals or even showcasing some local talent. You may even be able to do a live show with viewer call-ins. These "specials" however, do require a commitment to publicity, making sure a good number of neighbors know when the program is airing. You can't rely on too many people tuning in to channel 127 on Saturday evening just by accident.

Although cable providers have resisted the reservation of the often underused access channels, web technologies and applications have allowed those wishing to present video content on a minimal budget and without significant hindrances or censorship, new avenues of exposure. There are now video blogs (vlogs) whose content is primarily visual.

Radio has historically been more easily attuned to smaller more narrowly defined communities, due to bandwidth availabilities that originally made it a less scarce resource than video bandwidth. Even as cable broke open the bandwidth, audio has continued to find ways of serving highly specialized and localized markets. The FCC has authorized the existence of low powered stations, designed to serve a single neighborhood. Once again, as with television, production costs have been a limiting factor. Although not as costly as television, it’s costly enough to deter many would-be producers.

 

Meetings

This is the most basic communication tool for the community organization. Meetings cost little, offer opportunities for clear, direct communication and they are a familiar and comfortable medium for most people. Among the forms this medium can take are the general membership meeting, the committee meeting, the all-invited community open forum and the ad hoc assembling of certain subsets or special interest groups.

For it to be done well, a meeting should have a specified format with rules of conduct, a designated leader and an agenda. What's more, the leader should have good group process skills. Advice to the leader who may lack these skills: acquire them. There are numerous classes, workshops and online instructional material which deal with the topic. The group without a skilled leader is much like the family without good parenting. Things may turn out all right anyway, but why not improve the odds? (See Neighborhood Life, Fall 2009: Effective Meetings….)

A meeting should be opened with the leader's clear acknowledgment of the start. Meetings rarely spontaneously come to order. Even if the agenda has been previously distributed, it should be read aloud. Basic parameters of operation should be announced, including the expected time limit. Others might include some special rules that apply to the conduct of this meeting or the schedule constraints of a special guest.

The leader must exercise conscious leadership throughout the meeting time. This is evidenced by adherence to the groups’ rules of conduct or informal precedents and practices that the membership normally abides by. With an awareness of time, the agenda must be moved along to assure covering all items. If an issue seems to be taking longer than expected, the leader should try to get group consensus as to the importance of staying on the issue at the possible expense of dealing with other issues. Also basic to good group leadership, wide participation must be assured. Only the leader can effectively thwart dominance of the group's attention by some person or special interest.

Before moving on to another agenda item, there should be some clear sense of resolution of the item. This may be an informal consensus expressed, a vote taken or a decision to defer discussion to some other time. If resolution of an issue seems to be reached, it may take the form of a formal proclamation of decision statement. As often as not, the issue just runs out of steam without such clear resolution. It is then the leader's job to make some sort of summary statement as to where the group is leaving this issue and what, if anything, remains to be done.

If a group meeting is conducted well, it represents the most effective way of getting things done, communicating news and idea and meeting the organization's objectives. It is an expression of community and cohesion in and of itself. Attending members may appreciate the feeling of mutual care and the excitement of creative group activity while there and come away with a feeling of energy which propels ever more productive and responsible neighborhood involvement.


Flyers

The process of flyer production and distribution has many similarities to that of the newsletter, except for the expectation of repeatability. The flyer is designed to handle a single message which will not likely be repeated. Many of the same skills are needed as with newsletter production, however, including the areas of special skill and responsibility.

A major difference occurs in distribution practices. Although a flyer can be mailed or a facsimile emailed, it is most often distributed by hand. This is both cheaper and faster.

It may be delivered directly to homes, either of selected persons, or by general distribution throughout neighborhoods. It can be passed out by a stationary distribution person at some busy pedestrian area. It can be left, with merchant agreement, at certain shops for display in windows or on a counter for distribution. The chief danger with flyers is their being seen by some neighbors as visual trash. Some attention should be given to a tidy distribution and display process. Although bulletin boards are OK, many people are offended by the posting of print information at non-designated display areas, for example on bus benches, utility poles, or left in piles where they are likely to be randomly distributed by the next gust of wind. You could do more damage to your organization than good by offensive distribution methods.

 

 


Bulletin Board/Kiosk

Here is a place to put your flyer. Beyond that, bulletin boards and information kiosks can be places to post other ongoing neighborhood news items, perhaps even posting a print of the organization's newsletter. There are usually bulletin boards open for your messages in libraries, schools and supermarkets. Often you can also find bulletin boards in large public or private organizations and in restaurants Something your organization might consider is sponsorship of its own bulletin board or kiosk. You can create another forum for community information exchange as well as generating some good will for your organization. What's more, here is one posting place you won't have to ask permission to use, although you will have to periodically "weed" it.

There is potential here for rather sophisticated information exchange systems. It just requires a bit or organization and probably some extra control measures. A completely accessible bulletin board or kiosk seems to welcome common abuses. Someone's notice gets pulled down or covered up in order to accommodate another. Lack of organization results in a scrambled mess of messages that only someone with a lot of time on their hands can sort through. In some public places, bulletin boards with locked glass covers allow more careful management and a resulting information exchange system more usable and fair for all users. Someone then has to take responsibility for categorizing information into various sections. Then a user looking for a room to rent doesn't have to look at masses of irrelevant material. This opens up practical possibilities for more narrow and specialized classifications of information. The community bulletin board may then cover areas of interest such as "services offered", various types of items for sale and even "personals". Space in these classifications could even be sold by the column inch. All this can become a major investment and commitment for an organization. It also is subject to certain hazards such as vandalism. Bulletin boards with glass covers should probably be safely harbored in the local market or library.

 

Street display

There are various reasons for an organization occasionally presenting some kind of public display. Often it will be in conjunction with some other event, for example an organization information table being set up at an annual street fair or at a farmers’ market. It is not unusual, however, to set up an information table entirely on your own. It will often benefit from the lack of competition for attention.

This table or even an unpersoned display, can be used to convey a variety of information. You may just wish to display some standard organizational literature. This could be to keep the general neighborhood informed of your activities. You could also be surveying passersby about some neighborhood issue or getting their opinion on some issue in the form of a petition. This is also a great contact point for potential new members. It is much easier on the operators than other forms of membership recruitment. In sum, the public display can be a useful communication medium for both sending and receiving information.

 

Phone Tree and Auto Dialers

Although largely supplanted by email, this remains a viable medium of one-way information exchange. It is effective within a certain narrow range of function. Also, it requires a remarkably small number of special skills.

The basic concept is that the telephone should be used to pass on information that needs to be moved quickly. Since most groups do not have the technology to electronically send a message to many preprogrammed numbers, human labor is often employed to accomplish the task of routing.

There is typically a message or query that emanates from leadership or some subgroup. There is a pre designated list of callers who agree to pass the message on to other callers who in turn pass it on to others. With each recipient passing on the message to four or five others, the entire organization is covered quickly. This medium is effective for sending a message out, but it bogs down in many complexities when you attempt to receive information in the other direction. Its ideal use is the sending of a simple but urgent message to many.

 

Piggyback on existing media

Why not gain altitude and exposure by standing on the shoulders of giants? OK, they might not be giants, but the already existing local, general interest press may be quite receptive to giving you a little space to park your message. It could be good business for them and give you some very credible exposure. In a small town, cable TV, and even broadcast TV and radio may be available to you, at least for announcement of organization events.

 

 

 

 

 

Information bank or neighborhood archives

Timeliness is not a great concern for some areas of neighborhood information exchange. These include an organization’s archives including past editions of a newsletter, photos, collections of video and audio files, reports of activities, statistical data and various anecdotal information such as oral history material.

Most information banks are somewhat informal. Perhaps the unofficial neighborhood historian has an extensive collection of old photos or a past newsletter editor has six years of mint condition printed papers. There are, however, opportunities to put it on a more formal basis. If there is a public library in the neighborhood, it could be displaying and archiving neighborhood materials and artifacts. Specific people could take on information banking duties within the neighborhood. Someone may be willing to assemble a "library", accessible to club members, of materials relating to neighborhood development and zoning and relations with city regulating agencies. Someone else could maintain the repository of materials relating to local history. Beyond this, a skills and job bank could be developed. Neighborhood directories and "Yellow Pages" have been published. Any category of information could potentially be stored and accessed in a systematic way with formalized responsibilities. The resources for accomplishing this most likely exist right now within the neighborhood.

This is not intended to be the definitive list of media open to the uses of community communication. There are other outlets such as public radio, speakers' platforms, social networks, and twitter. What excludes these, and a few others, from coverage here is that they have not attained a significant level of use for community communication.

It is the challenge of the organization to discover whatever media mix best suits local needs and resources. We hope that you are encouraged to experiment and to share the results of those experiments.

 

Neighborhood Life is committed to expanding the scope and depth of its coverage of this topic. If you have anecdotes to share or comments you would like to make please send them in.

 

 

 

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