Novara Media is an ambitious London based collective of upstarts seeking to break the mould and limitations of left wing media. Today they set out on a marathon fundraising mission to assemble a 10k war chest. Rashers Tierney caught up with Aaron Bastani to get the lowdown on UK alternative media and what makes Novara different.
There’s a healthy renaissance of alternative media in the UK. I can think of Strike Magazine, Resonance FM and stuff like NTS. Now you guys. What’s the need for Novara media and what’s going to set it apart from the usual churn of lefties preaching to the choir?
Well, in regard to the others mentioned there, it isn’t always preaching to the converted. Strike have done some great actions which have found their way into the mainstream media, particularly around policing and race in London. Resonance is on an FM frequency so it has a pretty big audience! I’m told there are two million listeners a month, how that is measured I have no idea.
In relation to Novara it’s a fair question, especially given we are asking for money to do more stuff and to a higher standard. Firstly I would say that Novara is unique in creating excellent political content across multiple media: we have done over 150 hours of live FM radio in London with a huge archive of podcasts which feature Melissa Gira Grant, Paul Mason, David Harvey and Jacqueline Rose; we have top quality TV content – interviews, reportage, analysis – which is informative and entertaining.
That’s a mix of learning resources and an attempt to shape opinion. In any case we are doing television better than the big names on the left: the New Statesman and, in my opinion, the Guardian. We’ve had interviews with Jeremy Corbyn and Natalie Bennett, but also striking workers in London’s Chinatown, cleaners fighting for sick pay and a former detainee of Yarl’s Wood.
There is a huge scope of stuff with top production values. We know that those beyond the left are unlikely to be interested if that doesn’t happen. We want more resources to take that further: more investigative stuff, more reportage, more interviews. But on top of all of those vitally important things, we also know that it has often to be entertaining and look good. Where costs of entry to creating stuff is zero, aesthetics are a big gate-keeper.
Plus there is Novara Wire, our blogging platform, which has had coming-up to half a million unique users after just 18 months. We want that to scale up, one senses the time is right, and for us to pay writers something again necessitates money.
Novara, with virtually no resources, has achieved a great deal in my opinion. The team is growing and with a bit of money we could really influence the political debate in Britain between now and 2020.
I want a live streamed hustings of party leaders in 2020 along with actual focus groups of low-pay workers, teachers, carers, parents…could we do all of this better than the mainstream media in the UK? Absolutely.
Why is it called Novara? I’m getting some Google returns on an ancient Roman city. What are you guys on about?
The name comes from the filming location of Elio Petri’s ‘The Working Class Goes to Heaven’. Its a great film and tells the story of an autonomous working class uprising in an Italian car plant in the early 1970s. It’s like an Italian Dagenham but in Piedmont. Under Fordism and the post-war compromise the working class, personified in the protagonist ‘Lulu’, are told this…Novara is paradise. Impossible to improve on. Naturally the workers, along with students, say ‘fuck this no it isn’t’.
So that was behind the choice of Novara, its like Dagenham or Detroit, a social factory but also a place where something better than this was thought possible just a few decades ago….we’ve yet to find out what happens next of course.
When we interviewed Wu Ming (the Bolognese writing collective who authored ‘Q’) they asked the same question ‘ma, scusa, come mai Novara?’ When we told them the answer they laughed. Novara – in the Petri film – is a shit tip, but it is also a space for another world that is imagined and almost brought into being.
You’se lot are just about to do a 10k fundraiser. What’s that investment going to be used for?
If you go to the site support.novaramedia.com a video specifies all of that as does a bit of text on the site. Essentially the £10,000 will allow us to pay writers in the short term, spend several grand on kit (an apogee mic for podcasts straight to Iphone, another 4k camera, another tripod, light etc), expenses for those otherwise unable to appear on any of our platforms and, finally, an offline event #NovaraIRL which we will be looking to make into a regular thing.
In addition to raising the £10,000 we’ll also be launching a ‘subscribe’ option where fans/supporters/friends can make an ongoing donation – that’ll mean we can pay expenses to produce more content abroad (think video content covering the refugee crisis and Calais) as well as take risks as events unfold (ideally we would have had a small team covering the Referendum on Scottish Independence).
What’s your working practices? Do you have a full time team in a bright open planned office with yoga balls for chairs or is it a combination of people keeping the good Novara ship afloat from their smart phones while hiding in the jacks from their boss at their run of the mill nine to fiver?
Its all remote. We use project management tools like Trello, along with Dropbox and Evernote, and it works a treat. We communicate through facetime, Facebook and Skype. Our creative director – who is basically our graphic designer and web developer – has a studio in Mexico City (he is British and got involved through the student movement in 2010/11) so we are pretty spread out yeah.
Some of us work, some of us are students. There are eight of us now, we’ve doubled in the last 6 months, and I’d say its a split between people working and studying For me the most important thing is consistency – you can’t build an audience without it – so I’m a stickler for doing 1-2 things a week…even if that means missing a little bit of sleep!
Where’s Novara’s editorial focus? Do you have a tight publishing schedule or is it a case of getting things out when and how you can?
Again is about consistency. We do a radio show every Friday. I try to do an ‘IMOBastani’ every week. Novara Wire puts out 2-3 articles a week. One aspect of more money would simply mean a greater ability to be consistent and produce more content: 5-10 articles on Wire a week, two podcasts, more TV content. And offline events. I would really love the opportunity to always be able to invite people – strangers, friends, activists, people in the street – to something.
In terms of circulation, what stories have caused the biggest spikes in readership or listeners?
In terms of text, our biggest stories have been the Irish Water Scandal and the recent Oxi vote in Greece – those have just been huge. Other articles like this on the Yue Yuen strikes in China really did well. In terms of text the most successful articles fit with a certain news cycle – obviously to do that on a regular basis means being incredibly responsive which means more people….and more resources.
In terms of video its a similar story with our interviews with Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Jones in the run up to the former winning the Labour leadership getting around 150,000 across both Youtube and Facebook. Another strand of video which do very well however, if not quite as much, are the pieces we do which are more abstract and thoughtful.
A video I did on ‘fully automated luxury communism’ last year is now appearing in Guardian articles and forthcoming books, while an amazing video by Ash Sarkar on “when were white people invented?’ is probably my favourite piece of NovaraTV content yet. The best performing podcasts tend to be those which are long-term resources for learning which is how I think most of us engage with that kind of medium anyway to be honest.
Again these are more abstract and theoretical and less shaped by the news cycle. I’ve certainly learned a hell of a lot from them. They age well.
What formats and vehicles inspired you guys along the way? Have you learnt from the mistakes of other radical media outlets and if so, what were they?
First of all we have learned a hell of a lot, both personally and as an organisation, through making our mistakes in public. There is no better way to learn then fucking up in front of lots of people.
In terms of what formats we like its clear that the format of Novara Wire – something which I joked at the outset wanted to be the ‘Buzzfeed of the left’ – borrows heavily from that form while trying to inject much more interesting content.
We have listicles and very short piece of analysis on it and we don’t apologise for that. A lot of our audience, an increasingly large part in fact, is coming from mobile devices and, simply put, they prefer short-form stuff when reading on their phone in the morning or afternoon.
In terms of the video we are only getting started but there is a whole world of this stuff over in the US which, while politically quite vanilla, is interesting. I’m thinking the ‘Colbert Report’, ‘the Young Turks’. Then we have a British thing going on, the paradigm for me is ‘Macintyre investigates’ meets a libertarian communist Glenn Beck.
The podcasts I listen to, which is less of a thing than before, are ‘world weekly’ with the FT’s Gideon Rachman and Al Jazeera’s ‘Listening Post’ with Richard Gizbert. The latter is so professional and so relentlessly flawless that its hard not to pay attention and take notes ahead of our own shows.
In terms of what we’ve learned from radical media? I think the lesson from the early 2000s stuff is that challenging, radical media need not be activist media, that is media exclusively for an audience which bring with them a bunch of ideological assumptions. Many of our listeners are communists, anarchists, social democrats and so on, but I think our strength is being able to communicate radical, relevant arguments in ways which are accessible and, dare I say it, fun.
Actually, what are we talking about. What’s Aaron Bastani’s version of radical media? Lenin mumbled something about Pravda being an organizer and an agitator. Are you guys just all about shouting at the Labour Party from the sidelines, moaning about the mistakes of Syriza or do you see radical media as well, having a radicalizing force of its own accord?
For me communication and collective action are indivisible, especially in the contemporary media environment. What does that mean? It means media gives meaning and significance to events in real-time, often acting as a push signal which compels people to get involved or go a certain way.
It’s reflexivity in action: think the 2010 UK student movement as it scaled, the 2011 riots, the Greek Oxi vote and the movement behind Corbyn. Where media ended and collective action begun is impossible to say with each of those.
In that context we are always looking to push things in a certain direction: towards a politics of personal liberation and collective solidarity; emphasizing a need to exert pressure on issues of capitalism, borders, gender, racialisation, work and policing.
For me, personally speaking, the challenges of the 21st Century are climate change, the end of capitalism as we know it and demographic transformation (both mass migration primarily driven by climate change) and the greying of ‘white’ Europe. These are the terrains, in the long term, which will define the politics of the global North for the next one hundred years.
Their radical possibilities remain pretty open, Novara wants to be a part of defining how that pans out We want to inform action and we want to be a conduit for action informing thought. The two are mutually constitutive, or at least they have to be if we are going to change anything for the better.
Have you had much success in making the project financially viable? There’s a whole heap of sweat that goes into alternative media projects, so if an ability to pay people for their work emerges, who’ll be seeing the first pay check? The people getting the bylines or the people in the background running code, editing video and administratively keeping it all afloat?
We are a long way away from that! There are several people who, in the long term, should be remunerated; with their unpaid work already running into the hundreds if not thousands of hours. In answer to can we be viable…I’ll give you an answer in a month when the campaign ends! As important as raising the ten thousand pounds is establishing a solid base of ongoing subscriptions, that would really give the project teeth.
I think that at the moment there is a good understanding of how important everyone in the team is, editors, content creators, designers, videographers and long may that continue! We are only doing anything worthwhile at all because we are cooperating and producing things together which, by ourselves, none of us could ever produce. Its fantastic.
If you like the sound of any of that, then head over to the Support Novara Media portal and throw some dosh their way.