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Now Hear This

Baltimore's Megaphone Project Provides a Media Outlet for Disenfranchised Inner-City Communities

By Benn Ray | Posted 6/18/2003

Turn on any commercial talk-radio station or cable news channel, and the chances are good you'll hear the accusations fly out of the mouths of self-fashioned pundits--often white, male, rich. What you don't hear very often are the voices of the disenfranchised and those who would speak for them, notes Paul Santomenna, a Baltimore-based film documentarian and executive director of Megaphone Project. And in light of the recent Federal Communications Commission decision made earlier this month to actually loosen the regulations of media ownership even further, making it likely that big corporations will take over even more of the media market, the work of the Megaphone Project becomes even more relevant.

Santomenna, executive director of the year-old independent TV and video service, says he is trying to "democratize the media" so that it better serves Baltimore's inner-city communities. The project, which is supported by the Open Society Institute's Community Fellows Program, provides free and low-cost video production services to Baltimore's social- and economic-justice advocates. So far, the organization has produced videos, public-access TV shows, and documentaries for and about community organizations that don't have the resources to get their messages out through more traditional TV, radio, or print outlets.

"By amplifying the voices of social- and economic-justice advocates, we want to have an active role in eradicating poverty in Baltimore," Santomenna says. "On a more philosophical level, we want to use film and TV to explore the notion that economic inequity is the root cause of the drug abuse, violence, and poor health that plagues so many people in this city."

The 36-year-old Santomenna got his first insider's view of how the media functions after he earned a master's degree from the California Institute of the Arts and landed a mid-'90s internship at The Tonight Show With Jay Leno. He describes his experience with the late-night talk-show format as one in which "I came face to face with the banality of Hollywood."

"It was fun and somewhat glamorous there," he admits. "[But] the most pressing question anyone asked was, 'Is this funny?'"

After spending about eight months at The Tonight Show, Santomenna ventured to the White Mountain Apache Reservation in Arizona, where he created a media program about substance abuse for kids. His work led him to an introduction to some people from the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health who were interested in the project.

"Three years later I ended up in Baltimore at the Hopkins Center for American Indian Health," he says. "There, I worked with a few different tribes across the country, setting up more youth video and radio programs as part of public-health initiatives."

The center was using media initiatives and "interventions" to address substance abuse, parenting skills, and mental health in Native American communities. The goal of the programs Santomenna worked on was to use the media to encourage Native American people to change their behaviorial patterns.

"We would set up the programs . . . based on interventions that Hopkins researchers were interested in and felt had a good chance of working," he says. "The depression intervention attempted to apply cognitive-behavioral therapy as an early intervention for pregnant teenagers who seemed to be at risk for depression. They would try to prove that these interventions worked--or didn't--but they hoped they would work."

It wasn't long before Santomenna became uncomfortable with what he calls the "ethical implications" of the program's goal: "using media to promote individual behavior change among American Indians." So in April 2002, three years after he started working for Hopkins, Santomenna left the Center for American Indian Health.

"I started to pursue systemic change instead," he recalls. "That wasn't really welcomed by my employers because the system that I wanted to change was essentially the Hopkins way of thinking about and interacting with fragile ethnic groups. I spent a lot of time in planes, flying from Baltimore out West. Plenty of time to think: What about the unintended consequences of intervening so directly in people's lives?"

He says he began to think about ways people could use the media to change socioeconomic systems, rather than systems using the media to change people.

Santomenna noted that the economic and social conditions in Baltimore were not that dissimilar to those on the Indian reservations he had worked on, and he realized that he could put his experience to work promoting change in the city--"whatever systemic changes that people who are most abused by the systems want."

"The poverty-stricken areas of Baltimore and the poverty-stricken reservations both suffer from lack of connections," he says. "Connections to jobs, obviously. But also connections to things as diverse as transportation, effective political representation, quality health care. So you see the same kind of social problems--violence, substance abuse, etc. I get a sense that to be poor in Baltimore and to be poor on a reservation is to experience isolation on a personal level, a cultural level, an economic level, and a geographic level."

Santomenna realized early on that he would have to work outside the confines of established media avenues. He says that the biggest problem with how media serve communities now is that they are limited by their dependence on advertising revenues. TV stations, radio stations, and newspapers "can't really do much that's meaningful, opinionated, or thought-provoking," he says. "Especially TV stations. That's too dangerous--they could lose viewers and, consequently, advertisers."

So he put his video camera to work, documenting the efforts of activist groups and producing TV programs and videotapes about the lives of regular people who live in the city. Megaphone Project has produced free and low-cost video and information services for Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), Baltimore Citizens Do Care, Homeless Persons Representation Project, and the Community Law Center, among others.

The project, which started out with just Santomenna, is now backed by seven board members, a handful of like-minded volunteers, interns, some basic video gear, and an office in Santomenna's basement. At the end of 2002, Megaphone Project incorporated in anticipation of applying for nonprofit status from the IRS; 501(c)(3) status is expected by the end of the summer. So far, it has operated mainly on Santomenna's fellowship from the Open Society Institute, which granted him $48,000 over an 18-month period of time (all of which has been applied to the creation of the organization). Additional funding comes from the non-profit organizations Megaphone Project works with, some of which obtain grants to have Santomenna document their activities. The rest of the project's support comes from the use of volunteers and interns.

Amy Johanson, president of the Megaphone Project board, says the organization also wants to provide a relevant, meaningful media service to the people of Baltimore.

"The avenues for communication are limited within the existing media," and Megaphone Project's work helps community groups stretch their messages further, she says. "Groups that need to communicate about issues have such limited resources to develop their material."

Megaphone Project has already completed Justice Now, Justice Always, a video that documents the most recent ACORN National Convention. It produces a cable-access show, The Rabble Rouser, that serves as an update on progressive ideas and action in Baltimore (the show airs on Comcast Public Access Channel 5 in Baltimore City), and Amplifier, a monthly e-mail news update. And Megaphone is working on a video for the Sharp-Leadenhall Planning Committee to combat the threat of gentrification this neighborhood of working-class African-Americans is facing, and a TV network for homeless people that will appear in the Healthcare for the Homeless waiting room and at other venues around the city where homeless people congregate. A complete list of Megaphone's projects can be found at www.megaphoneproject.org.

Besides raising money, the board also helps Santomenna decide what projects to take up mostly through meeting people and hearing about their organizations. "The Megaphone Project board approves projects, ensures that we stay focused on the mission," he says.

As is sometimes the case with community action, these projects occasionally conflict with local law enforcement. "Since several of our clients are big fans of civil disobedience, we come in contact with the police often," Santomenna explains. "The presence of a video camera seems to keep police interaction with protesters and our crews quite civil. That's comforting to protesters, I think. We provide them a little protection. The police don't seem to like us being there--sometimes they'll try to block the lens--but we're not doing anything illegal, so they usually ignore us."

Johanson notes, "In some cases, a group wouldn't need to resort to civil disobedience if their voices were heard clearly, early on. Civil disobedience is really a last-ditch measure to communicate."

And that is the whole point of Megaphone Project: to provide an outlet for voices that usually get ignored. "I see us producing a couple of good, solid public-access shows," Santomenna says, envisioning Megaphone Project's future. "Innovative projects like the homeless people's TV network, doing an occasional long-form documentary, that kind of thing. But most of all, I see us as an integral part of a large well-organized movement to eradicate poverty in the city and across the country."

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