Tuesday, June 16, 2009

"Localism" And Truthfulness

I'm in Southern California this week for a job assignment. I drove down on Sunday. Yes, that's right – I drove instead of flying. Having witnessed the death of several airlines during the last oil price super-spike, I figured that the surviving airlines may be going beyond such well-known cost-cutting measures as charging extra for all luggage and cutting back on in-flight snacks. They may also be cutting back on maintenance and mechanics' salaries. Accuse me of being overly suspicious if you like. I don't want to find out the hard way that my suspicions are right.

Anyway, I was driving through some town – I don't remember if it was Grant's Pass or Ashland – when I saw a very curious sight. It was a billboard advertising a TV station, a local NBC affiliate. Among other things, the billboard proudly portrayed this station as “locally-owned,” with a strong “community connection.” I thought it strange that the “locally-owned” label was being applied to a TV station that's part of a national media corporation's broadcasting network.

But that wasn't all. A bit farther on, in Redding or thereabouts, I was listening to a classic rock station as its DJ was giving the station identification announcement, which enthusiastically stated that this station was “locally programmed.” Again, I was struck by the oddness of this announcement, especially since this station sounded very much like other oldies stations I've heard on trips between Portland and So. Cal., and it was playing the very same “oldies greatest hits countdown” I had heard on another oldies station a minute or two beforehand. This was followed a while later by a commercial for a Chevy dealership which boasted that it was “locally owned and family operated.”

These instances show how deeply and swiftly the “localism” meme is penetrating the American consciousness. Many ideas that would have been considered unacceptably countercultural even a few years ago are now going mainstream, as more and more Americans are looking for alternatives to our breaking “official” systems. Unfortunately, the masters of those existing official systems often try to co-opt the alternatives. Frequently, this co-opting takes the form of re-branding and re-packaging the official systems to make them look like the alternative.

This, of course, is known in plain English as lying. I think I heard and saw a few lies on Sunday. It is now well known that building and supporting local economies is one of the keys to building resilient communities that are able to survive the exigencies of Peak Oil, climate change and economic collapse. One key to supporting local economies is for local residents to buy from local businesses. But I always thought a “local business” was defined thus:

  • 100 percent local ownership (no “owners” or “part-owners” who are far away)

  • 100 percent local control (as in management and oversight)

  • Characterized by a revenue stream which flows from local residents to the local business and back again, with the vast majority of that revenue stream staying in the local community.

Based on this definition, I don't see how the businesses whose ads I saw and heard could try to sell themselves as “locally owned.” Maybe the phrase “locally owned” is now under attack, just as big agribusiness is trying to hijack the term “locally grown” (see http://earthfirst.com/is-food-still-%E2%80%98local%E2%80%99-if-it%E2%80%99s-grown-by-a-nationwide-brand/, for instance), and as big agribusiness destroyed the term “organic” (with Federal government help) in its bid to eliminate an alternative that threatened the factory farm.

But I'm open to correction – I freely admit that I may be wrong in my assessment. Would someone therefore please tell me how a TV station affiliated with a national media company can be “locally owned?” Does the revenue generated by such a station stay entirely within the community in which the station is located? How is a radio station owned by some giant network like Clear Channel “locally programmed,” especially when you can hear its very same playlist replicated on other stations owned by the same network? Does “local programming” mean the times once or twice an hour when the DJ asks people to phone in their song requests and someone calls saying “Yo, dude, could you play some Billy Joel?” Is a dealer of autos made by one of the Big Three automakers (not so big now) really “locally owned” in the fullest sense of the word?

* * *

I'm planning to go out to lunch with some co-workers tomorrow. It will be a good opportunity to catch up on personal news. But I will also ask about the culture of So. Cal., and will try to see if there have been any healthy changes. I may write about my findings in another blog post.


Anonymous said...

I guess the distinction would be that the locally owned business would invest in and support the community in which it was based. Of course that's what any good business ought to do anyway.

Stormchild said...

Marketers. Pfui.

This "local" scam reminds me of the good old "centers of excellence" one.

Someone came up with a good idea [figure out what your greatest strengths are, focus on them, let different groups specialize in different strengths, turn them into go-tos].

But, of course, actually doing that would require both thought and effort. Not to mention time and ... shudder... resources.

Well shucks, that isn't any fun. That's work. And it requires an investment - of time, thought, money, caring in workers, rather than exploitation-as-usual. So instead, firms resorted to cheap rhetorical tricks. They actually tried to convince themselves they could just call something a Center of Excellence, and magically that would make it one.

Oddly, the main people who seem to believe this magical thinking malarkey are upper level executives. At least, they act as though they do...

So now they're trying to co-opt "Local"? That's even more delusional than centers of excellence that have neither excellence nor centrality.

TH in SoC said...

To all, thanks for your comments. Stormchild, I am now reading a book titled, "Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into The Value of Work." Those who have done any time in a cubicle farm will find that book devastatingly accurate and funny.

On the localism note: I'm back in Oregon now. On the return drive, I noticed that Valero Energy has now jumped on the "buy local" bandwagon. They are running radio ads exhorting Californians to buy gas at Valero stations, because "by buying from us, you help support California's economy!"

They justify this statement by saying that they only employ Californians at their California refineries and gas stations (what a relief! I thought they were employing Martians!), and that all the money spent by these employees goes right back into California's economy. Of course, they don't tell people that BP, Exxon/Mobil and Royal Dutch Shell could advertise themselves as "local" by saying the same thing, nor do they tell people the truth about Valero: that it is a multinational oil refining and extraction corporation operating in at least three nations, and that it's headquarters is in San Antonio, Texas. This is not some "mom and pop" outfit. The profits generated by Valero's California operations probably don't stay in California.