Thanks to Jeff Hoel for providing the transcript for episode 94 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast with John St. Julien on how to start a community network. Listen to this episode here.
John St. Julien: I think that a lot of communities could do this kind of thing. In our case, the real linchpin was just a few people, who were willing to devote significant time to it.
Lisa Gonzalez: Hello. You are listening again to the Community Broadband Bits Podcast, from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. And I'm Lisa Gonzalez.
We've spoken with John St. Julien before about grassroots change. St. Julien was one of the driving forces behind the movement to bring fiber to Lafayette, Louisiana, in 2005. Often, people contact us because they know their community needs better connectivity, but they don't know where to start. Getting a local coalition started to educate the community can be difficult. When deep-pocketed incumbents step into the picture, educating your community gets even harder. Nevertheless, it can be done. St. Julien shares some of the strategies Lafayette used to keep up its network momentum. Here are Chris and John.
Chris Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell, with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. And today, we're once again speaking with John St. Julien from Lafayette, Louisiana. Welcome to the show.
John St. Julien: Hi, Chris.
Chris: It's good to have you back again. You're one of our favorite people to talk about anytime we're thinking about grassroots solutions to broadband challenges. You were essential in crafting the grassroots movement that led to this incredible network that you now have in Lafayette, against some really incredible opposition, from Bell South -- now AT&T -- and Cox Cable.
And before you say that you were part of a larger group, we know that. And we know that you're very modest. So, thanks for coming on.
John: Well, you're welcome. I always enjoy our conversations.
Chris: I really wanted to talk to you today about the kind of steps that anyone can take, in a community, where they need to recognize they need to do something better, and they're not quite sure what to do. So, I'm going to be the person that's trying to figure out how to organize my neighborhood or my community. And I'll put questions to you, and we can discuss the kind of steps someone can take to get a movement rolling, to build a better broadband network.
John: Well, that sounds like a lot of fun. Let's play with that.
Chris: Excellent. So, here I am. I'm in Anytown, USA. And the first thing I know is that I'm just not happy with my broadband speeds, or my reliability, and I have a sense that a lot of other people are unhappy. But I don't even know where to start. Give me some guidance here.
John: That's the kind of -- just getting off the ground is -- at least in my judgment -- easily the worst and the hardest part. You feel like you're all alone. You feel like the first three things you try don't work very well. And you should expect that. As a consequence, you can't figure out whether there's real demand or whether there's not. And, in truth, the thing to do is to keep plugging away at it. Set up some sort of arrangement to talk to people around the community. Start holding little gatherings at coffee houses. Pull together community lists of folks that you know are interested in topics that surround broadband.
Chris: That's such a good idea, in terms of just creating lists, and not having it in your mind, but having it written down...
Chris: ... and going through that, and having a concrete list. Now, if you're trying to set up a meeting in a coffee house, how do you go about doing that, to make sure that there's going to be someone there other than you?
John: Doesn't always work out that there is anybody there but you. [Laughs]
Chris: Well, let's be honest about that then.
John: When you get successful at it, when it turns out to be successful, you've hit the right people. You've hit some people that you've got a connection with, and people you've got a connection with too. You've got something concrete to look at, or organize around. It's best if there's been something -- if you try and follow up something that's already happening in the community. An article in the newspaper about somebody's, you know, successes down the road. A big price hike by the local cable provider. Something to tie things to, so that you can get a conversation started.
Chris: Excellent. Now, let's assume that -- we'll jump ahead a few months, and you've established a list, and you're hitting a lot of like minds, let's assume. And you're not sure how to break out of that and engage other people. So, let's assume that you don't have anyone from the business community involved, or the local government. It's just a bunch of activists who tend to agree on a lot of the same things already. What do you do next?
John: Both of those two things are what you have to do next. We were lucky enough to, in our initial organizing’s run, to pull in a number of small businesses that would have connections to the tech world. And in our case, it was printers -- which has a long tradition of being crazy radicals in the United States.
Chris: Thank you, Tom Paine!
John: Yes. And [laughs] they were -- they saw the advantages of it. Some of the folks had print houses scattered around local communities. And they were able to see how much better their lives would be if they didn't have to truck hard drives around the parishes. And so they were early-on adopters, and very enthusiastic. A couple of them were very civic-minded -- were involved in other civic projects, and that's always a place to look. Look for the busy people. Those are, generally speaking, the people you can pull in.
Well, to be honest, out of the -- the question I think you had posed was about drawing government people in. And, again, in our case, we were lucky enough that there was at least tacit support early on. There had been earlier, abortive efforts to try and pull together a group of people who were interested in pushing forward for fiber-to-the-home. What happened early on, and helped to spark the grassroots movement, was -- there was some evidence of some support from Terry Huval and the new Mayor, Joey Durel.
Chris: So, local leaders, not just sort of people in high positions but also -- Terry Huval, a cultural icon as well.
John: Yes. Both of these people, in their own way, represented large segments of the community. Terry Huval, Utility Director and Cajun fiddler extraordinaire, and involved in a number of sort of cultural events along the line of French Louisiana, and, quite frankly, country music as well. And so, there are a lot of intersections culturally there. But on the other side, you have Joey Dural, who was the Mayor -- Mayor-President -- of the parish -- the county organization down here. And he was essentially converted by Terry Huval, and was interested. And, in the initial deal, neither one of them were very willing to stand forward rapidly. In other words, they weren't willing to lead the charge at first. But they rapidly, rapidly got on board. But even that tacit support was essential early on, to try and -- the idea that it wasn't just a bunch of crazy-eyed tech geeks.
Chris: You knew that the opposition was going to come from outside the community, rather than from within the local government.
John: Yes. I think that we thought that there was -- that that was a battle that could be won, whether -- that there would no opposition. But it was pretty apparent, the pattern -- the path that we could take to bring people aboard who were not inclined to natively.... [laughs]
John: ... who would take the -- who might natively take the position that -- some of them, down in our corner of the South -- that, you know, this is all socialism, obviously, government -- we were adequately served by Cox and AT&T. You know, you might not like 'em, they might not be very reliable, they might not be giving us what they're giving people down the road, but, you know, hey, it's capitalism.
Chris: John, ...
John: We're just not worth that much, right?
Chris: They've invested millions of dollars. And so it doesn't matter what YOU think. The fact is, they've invested millions of dollars, and therefore should face NO competition whatsoever.
John: Yes. At least not from anybody who might actually challenge them.
Chris: So let's get into some of that opposition. One of the things I really admire about Lafayette is the way you responded to the attacks. So, you're organizing. And you were a student of what happened in the Tri-Cities.
Chris: I guess, just briefly, we can also say that one of the steps along the way is to really study what other communities have gone through. And, you know, I learned from watching you. I recommend people can -- they can still go back and read those old posts on lafayette....
John: It's lafayetteprofiber.com
Chris: Right. So -- excellent site. And then my muninetworks.org has a lot of these resources.
Chris: And so people need to study that. But what is the lesson to take away, when you start being hit with direct mail and maybe advertisements that are saying the city's about to make a huge mistake?
John: Because we had studied the Tri-Cities -- and I would recommend anyone take a look at that. That was sort of an archetypal case -- of how they could shut down a really strong local community effort that didn't have the kind of governmental support or business community support that we had -- we'd managed to get together in Lafayette.
Chris: This is the Tri-Cities of Illinois. And this was a fight from back in the early 2000s.
Chris: So people can go back. There's still some web pages available.
John: Can go back and look.
Chris: That's right. So, what do you do?
John: You know, it was very easy to see what they had done there. it was very easy to see that what they had done, in truth, was simply OVERWHELM the news channels during the final weeks of the campaign. Direct mail. They bought time on all the channels. They blanketed the area -- which was expensive in that community. And it would be a lot less expensive in ours. We're not attached to a larger metro area. The thing that we, I think, came to an early conclusion -- that I pushed really hard during the early meetings of the working committee -- was that we had to get out AHEAD of this. Everything that they said had to be responded to IMMEDIATELY. And, generally speaking, we managed that. And both Huval and Durel were keys in putting the face of the community forward there.
But also, I think that what we needed to do -- and I think it was proved out in the end -- was get a strategy of pointing out that nearly everything that these guys said was a lie. Not just that this was WRONG -- this particular incident that we were responding to -- but saying, this is wrong like all the other things they said are wrong -- were wrong. You know. These guys lie; you can't trust a thing they say.
Chris: They're not mistaken. They're LYING to you.
John: They're LYING to you. There's no point in being polite about it, because they're not going to be. Right? [laughs] And so, the consequence was that we, very early on, tried to establish the meme, if you will, that you shouldn't listen to these guys. These guys don't have your interests in stake. They're telling you tales. They look down on you. We played it up really big. They would make, you know, sophomoric mistakes -- about using Texas cars and bad Cajun accents to try and run local ads at the local cable television thing. You would see that it was obviously in, you know, Nederland, Texas, or somewhere. And these guys were trying to act like Cajuns. And it was embarrassing.
And they would do stupid things, like run the push-poll that -- in Louisiana, you can tape your side of a conversation. And one of our guys did that. And we just replayed -- we sliced it up into small pieces and sent it around -- viral email, which was about the degree of "virality" you could get, back in those days. And we did a bunch of stuff like that, that was more aimed at painting our opponents directly than countering specific technical claims that they might make. We called it the "inoculation strategy." And the idea there was, lay down very clearly -- we took every opportunity, when they would make mistakes -- that any large corporation is going to make -- about relating to local communities, to highlight how out of touch they were with the local community. And so, you know, we would point this out, and everybody would get a great hoot out of it. We went ahead and countered every claim -- technical kind of claim they would make -- but we made it a special effort to depict the opposition as out-of-towners who -- you couldn't trust what they were saying to you. They were always lying.
Chris: So, do you think that the response that Lafayette had to these sorts of tactics was sort of unique to Cajun country, or is that something that we can apply to other communities as well?
John: I don't think it's particularly Cajun country. I do that we have a sort of easier time running the cultural side of it. Because it is such a unique place, and because there is such a long and deep "otherness," sort of, about being a Cajun. People are conscious about it, and willing to walk away from solutions that other might not, just because it -- we're different down here, is the thing. But every community that I've ever lived in has its own version of that. It can be a -- We all feel like this is OUR place, and that other people come at OUR sufferance. And that if they want to make money off of us, they should listen to us. And I don't think that's anything unique to Cajun country.
Chris: They certainly seem to have sort of a Keystone Kops approach to tryin' to stop y'all from building that network.
John: [laughs] Yes. And I think, quite frankly, we've benefitted from that, too. They, early on, decided they were going to try and -- part of the demonization thing ran the other way. They, early on, decide that our little group was a good group to target and try and make fun of. And it didn't work out for them. They quickly quit that. But they gave us some initial boost, simply by taking us seriously. And that was a, you know -- you can count on those mistakes. You can count on 'em. They will happen inevitably. So these guys are not nearly as clever as you might think.
Chris: Yeah. It's always quite amazing how the same old tactics seem to pop up time and time again. But one of the ways you dealt with this, I found, is that you came back and regularly wrote -- you wrote almost every day about this issue. And I'm wondering how important that was to the overall effort?
John: I think it was huge. People did check in. People did want to know what the news was, and they could most reliably get it there. I made a big point of repeating every single article that appeared anywhere in any media in Lafayette, and linking to it, with a brief commentary. In addition to, say, my own sort of analytical pieces, and those that Mike might do. And I think that was a big deal, not only because it gave people a way to stay engaged, but also because it sits out there on the web, and it insists. It's out there, you search for it, and it's still there. You can go back and check a fact.
If you're a reporter -- and a lot of what at least I did at that time was sort of designed to be picked up by reporters or -- to provide a narrative frame that a reporter could use -- that would be useful to them.
Chris: So what does that mean exactly? And when you're talking about a narrative frame, what did you do, specifically?
John: Part of my background is that my wife was deeply involved in a small weekly newspaper for much of the first decade or 15 years that we were together. And so I hung around with newspaper people a lot. And it became apparent to me pretty quick that they were struggling to meet their deadlines. They are handed a narrative by these PR guys. It comes in a little sheet, right, you know, and it's got everything laid out, and it's got an entry paragraph, an exit paragraph. And it's easy to use -- to write stories from these PR things. Every one I've ever talked to is deeply cynical about this. But they simply don't have the time to do deep research on every story they write. And so they end up dependent upon this. And they WANT some other alternative narrative to at least compare it to. And so, one of the things that we did was provide a coherent alternative narrative about what was going on in Lafayette -- what was going on with telecom nationally -- that would allow them to see different patterns when the news came out.
Chris: And how exactly did you get these materials in front of reporters and the media? What kind of strategies did you use?
John: Mostly through the blog. We sent out press releases. We did all the normal things. We did press releases, too. I tried to set up the blog as a place where that could be done very easily -- they could go check in there, they would read through the story -- our version of the story. And I would be very direct. When I thought that the local news media were being too easily taken in, I would lay into them. They read that. They pay attention to that -- especially when it's done in their language. I knew what newspaper people thought they cared about.
Chris: So, John, when you were fighting these campaigns and what not, that was a little while ago. That was back in 2004, 2005, and a little bit further on. Have things changed since then? Would you recommend different strategies?
John: Well, I think that some of the conditions have changed. I think that social media is huge, these days. And a lot of what we did on the blog can be done through social media. To alert people -- to keep people's attention on the right things. You know, at the time, all we had was, really, e-mail and blogs. So I would say, stay constant. Stay in the flow of things. And don't neglect basic political organizing -- meetings, walking, leafleting towns, having town hall meetings. But, also, stay with it. And don't neglect -- some people might neglect these days -- to have a solid website, with information on it. Because we didn't only blog. We had an informational side, that sat out there and made the argument real coherently -- and just sat there, was easy to find on Google, and any time anybody wanted to look the argument, they could. So I'd say, you know, keep all of your fronts moving.
Chris: So, you think there's hope that other communities can do this sort of thing?
John: Yes. I think that there's still a ton of potential out there. I think that a lot of communities could do this kind of thing. In our case, the real linchpin was just a few people -- less than a dozen -- who were willing to devote significant time to it. And then we gathered people around. And anybody who did a good piece of work got to help control the movement. And that was just the way it -- you know, we had weekly meetings when it got hot. It can be done. It really can be done. It can be done a lot more easily than you think. You just have to stick with it for longer than you think you're going to have to.
Chris: Well, thanks for coming on the show, John. We always appreciate it. And I think we're going to try and find an excuse to bring you back before too long.
John: Well, I would enjoy that. Bye-bye.
Lisa: Be sure to take a few minutes to check out the blog at lafayetteprofiber.com. Even though Lafayette has been racing along with its awesome fiber network for several years, St. Julien still offers relevant stories on the network and on telecommunications.
We want your ideas for the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. Let us know about topics that interest you, or guests you feel we should interview, and we'll do our best to get them on here. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow us on Twitter. Our handle is @communitynets. This show was released on April 15th, 2014. Thank you to the group Valley Lodge for their song, "Sweet Elizabeth," licensed using Creative Commons. And thanks for listening.