Training by stealth

20th May 2005 at 01:00
Ordinary people are mastering modern media skills - and finding they can express themselves more confidently. Martin Whittaker reports

John McGuirk is a good talker. In the past two years his gift of the gab has made him a natural in front of a television camera. The 74-year-old Liverpudlian's recent credits have included interviews with the former film producer David Puttnam and the comedian and writer Alexei Sayle.

"The only thing I regret is that I didn't do this when I was 30," he says.

The programme he is working on is a round-table discussion on the history and significance of May Day to the Labour movement. The programme is the brainchild of fellow pensioner Ronnie Ross, a former member of the Communist party in Liverpool. On camera, Mr Ross and his former comrades air their views on decades of industrial strife, from city assistants being asked to work for nothing during Harold Wilson's I'm Backing Britain campaign in the 1960s, to exploitation of today's call-centre staff.

None of those taking part are professionals. They are all pensioners, as is Vera Cook, the camerawoman. And this is no ordinary television studio - they're in York House, a 1960s tower block in a Liverpool suburb.

Tenantspin is a webcast station that allows residents of Liverpool's high rise blocks to make their own programmes and broadcast them on the internet. It was launched five years ago by a partnership of the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology (Fact) and Liverpool Housing Action Trust, a quango set up in 1993 to redevelop 67 crumbling tower blocks across the city.

"The majority of residents are now pensioners who had moved in as young couples in the Sixties," says Alan Dunn of Fact. "There was a sense that we needed to increase tenant participation and consultation."

Fact was founded in 1988. It conducted groundbreaking work in the 1990s to foster art work using new media. Tenantspin was made possible by the availability of the Superchannel system, a facility developed by Danish artists to give community groups a forum on the Internet. Programmes are broadcast as live webcasts, but they are also archived to be accessed at any time on the project's website.

It all began in Coronation Court, a tower block near Bootle, since demolished, then moved into the Cunard Building at the Pierhead, then into Fact's gleaming new pound;10 million arts centre in Liverpool's city centre.

The project began as a means of giving the elderly tenants a stake in the upheaval of regeneration and led on to teaching them a range of media skills.The project runs a weekly training programme, teaching camera, sound, lighting, audio and vision mixing, audience management and interviewing. Tenants have also learnt research skills and how to act as a studio hosts.

So far, they have made more than 300 programmes. During the general election, they interviewed all the local candidates on air. They have also worked with artists and writers, created "soundscapes" around the city, and made a programme about Liverpool's skateboarding scene.

One feature of Tenantspin is that it allows those taking part to choose whatever role they wish. If you're too shy to present, you can get behind the camera.

Kath Healy, a retired civil servant, has been with the project since its launch. She was prompted by her interest in video cameras and because she wanted to learn how to edit. "Once or twice I have been on the interviewing side," she says, "but I must admit, I prefer to be behind the camera rather than in front of it."

She says the project has demystified much of what she sees in the media.

"We went to watch the Kilroy Show to learn a little bit from that, but it was really just a glorified attempt at what we were doing ourselves. Robert Kilroy-Silk looked just as nervous as we did before he started."

Alan Dunn admits that few people access the station's live webcasts, but says he has been working with local libraries and BBC Online centres to change this. The archived shows are well-used. The project demonstrates the potential of media literacy in giving excluded groups of people a voice, he says. "We find that particularly the female residents we work with have never been asked to speak their minds. They've never felt that their opinion counted.

"Also the media was something they accepted. So it's about breaking down those barriers - the media is not an ivory tower any more."

The Forest of Dean has a character all of its own. Cut off from the rest of Gloucestershire by the River Severn, the area has lagged behind its more prosperous neighbours such as Cheltenham or the Cotswolds.

But now Foresters have something to shout about - and they can do it over the airwaves. In March, Forest of Dean Radio became the first community radio station in the UK to be awarded a five-year broadcasting licence.

The station grew out of projects in the mid-1990s. It started with a three-day broadcast on a restricted service licence to coincide with a local carnival. Today it has five studios and broadcasts programmes made by local people. It relies on a core of 50 volunteers. A large part of its work is training young people and adults how to be broadcasters. Some of it is informal, for example making a programme with a group in an old folks'

home. The station's output and training organiser Jason Griffiths calls it "training by stealth".

"We ease people into it," he says, "and give them a sense that what they are saying is of value, for example, letting someone speak, rather than cutting them off after two minutes. That gives people a voice, and it gives them confidence and changes their perception of radio.

"Our approach is to get people working hands-on, producing things themselves and getting as much control as possible. Perhaps things aren't as polished as they might be, but we do aim to sound good."

Roger Drury, who liaises with schools and the community, says it has been hard to work in a structured way given the outcomes demanded by education funding.

"That's always been a challenge for us - often it's community development rather than just education. In the longer term, we have people still involved with the project ten years on."

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