When I spoke at the National Media Education Conference in Saint Louis earlier this summer, I was approached by Elisabeth (Lissa) Soep and Ayesha Walker. Soep is the Research Director and Senior Producer f and Walker is an Online Project Associate for an organization called Youth Radio, which defines its mission as: “to promote young people’s intellectual, creative and professional growth through training and access to media and to produce the highest quality original media for local and national outlets.” As it happens, Soep is a regular reader of this blog and as it happens, because I like to listen to NPR and PRI podcasts when I walk every day, I had heard several of the segments her team had produced.
We immediately fell into an intense conversation about authorship in an age of collective intelligence and participatory culture and about what these shifts in the notion of participation and collaboration mean in the context of a program which is trying to “authorize” young people (that is, empower them to become authors.) That conversation convinced me that Soep and her gang had something to teach all of us about youth media production, the nature of radio as a medium, and the shifting construction of authorship in a digital age. And so I immediately asked her if I could do an interview with her and with the people who she is working with for my blog.
This is, in that sense, an unusual interview. Most of my interviews are with specific individuals; this is one of the few times we have done a collaborative interview. The answers which follow come from both youth and adult participants in the Youth Radio program. Such a process is the most appropriate way to capture what Soep calls “collegial pedagogy” — which depends on shifting the power relations between children and adults. (She says more about this concept below so I don’t want to pre-empt her comments.)
I have written here before about my reservations about the “digital natives/digital immigrants” terminology which has gained such circulation in recent years. When I first heard the terms, I thought they were powerful and I have since seen that power many times. They immediately give people a tool to think about something they are experiencing — some kind of generational shift in the ways that young people and adults relate to these emerging technologies. But it is a power we should use selectively since these terms also distort many aspects of the phenomenon that they seek to describe. There are at least three major distortions involved:
1. The terms are ahistorical. They give rise to the myth that this is the FIRST generation where kids have known more about technology than their parents. I hear this claim again and again from people who should know better and it is simply not true. There have been a series of generation gaps surrounding technology across the past century or more and these gaps have had real impacts on the historical development of communications media. We can learn more about the present moment by looking to the past and using language which cuts us off from that larger history is profoundly unhelpful in understanding our present moment.
2. It collapses all young people into a so-called digital generation. David Buckingham, the British researcher, was the first to really help me understand the risks involved here. We could argue, as I did in Technology Review several years ago, after attending one of Buckingham’s conferences, that there are two competing myths — the Columbine Generation (which we hear much less often now, thankfully, which sees young people as at risk because of their “unique” access to technology) and the Digital Generation (which celebrates the positive transformations being brought about by young people’s access to technology). We give up the myth of a Digital Generation at our own risk since it is the most powerful way to counter the Columbine Generation myth. But we also need to recognize the ways that it erases class boundaries in young people’s access to and ability to participate in the new media landscape. The Digital Natives metaphor doesn’t acknowledge either the digital divide (in young people’s access to the technologies) or the participation gap (in young people’s access to the social skills and cultural competencies needed to fully and meaningfully participate in the emerging digital culture.)
3. It ignores the degree that what’s really powerful about most of the new forms of participatory culture of fans, bloggers, and gamers is that such affinity spaces allow young people and adults to interact with each other in new terms. These affinity spaces (to use James Paul Gee’s term) bring together youth and adults who don’t have fixed and hierarchical relationships (students/teachers, children/parents) on the basis of their shared interests. There are all kinds of anxieties about such relationships in the modern era (since any contact between youth and adults who are not members of their families bring with it a fear of child predators) but there is also something very constructive about many of these normal relations between children and adults. Even traditional forms of contact between adults and youth, such as Sunday school outings or Boy Scouts gatherings, have been tainted both by the fear and the reality of child molestation. And in any case, many of the older ways that youth and adults interacted outside of school and family — whether through churches or youth organizations — are facing declines in participation. Moreover, most of the traditional youth organizations were modeled on the same hierarchical relations that shape formal education. In an internet world, where people can meet first without such clear identity markers, young people and adults may at least sometimes interact without age being a major factor. In almost every case, the new participatory cultures are ones which have been built by youth and adults working together. We need to spend more time examining how and where such relationships occur and articulating their value. One of the things which interest me about Youth Radio is that they are pulling such interactions into a public service organization in very conscious ways and that’s at the heart of what they are calling “collegial pedagogy.” And like many related youth media projects, they involve youth speaking directly to adult and youth audiences about things that matter to them, encouraging us to take seriously young people’s perspectives on the world.
The interview which follows not only explains but embodies those relationships. I would also encourage you to check out some of the links to the group’s productions which are sprinkled throughout this interview: it will give you a powerful demonstration of what can be achieved when we take seriously young people’s perspectives on the world and help them get access to the means of cultural production and distribution.
How would you define the mission of Youth Radio? What are you trying to accomplish?
Response from Elisabeth (Lissa) Soep, Research Director and Senior Producer. You can learn more about Soep’s perspective by checking out Lissa’s blog.
Youth Radio is a youth development organization and independent media production company founded by Ellin O’Leary in 1992. Headquartered in Oakland, CA, we’ve got satellite bureaus and youth correspondents working across the U.S. and around the world producing and curating award-winning converged media content. Youth Radio stories and shows reach massive audiences through outlets including National Public Radio (with its 27 million weekly listeners), iTunes, Radio Bilingue, YouTube, and MySpace. Youth Radio promotes young people’s intellectual, creative, and professional growth and citizenship and transforms the public discourse through media production.
Students come to Youth Radio primarily from the nations strapped, heavily tracked, re-segregating public schools. Most are low-income, digitally marginalized youths and young people of color. Our approach links deadline driven, production-based media education with programs that support personal and community health, engage active citizenship, and pave pathways to college and living wage jobs in the media and beyond.
Over the past several years, Youth Radio’s teen reporters have examined the status of free speech in U.S. classrooms in an era of shrinking civil liberties. Our Reflections on Return series has documented the experiences of young troops coming home from the Iraq war. A Cape Town college student grappled with her father’s participation as a police officer in the former apartheid state. One young man documented his experience of deportation, having been released from prison to a country he hadn’t set foot in since he was two years old. A son reflected on his mother’s struggle, and his own, with her AIDS diagnosis. Teens described the horror of running into their moms on MySpace.
Young people produce culture everyday. Through stories such as these, they put cultural production to work for themselves, their communities, and their audiences across our connected, divided world.
What roles do youth play in your production process? What roles do adults play?
Response from Lissa Soep, Research Director and Senior Producer
The answer depends on where young people are in the program. Within the first week of starting an introductory class, students go on the air for a live public affairs radio
show, which goes out via broadcast and online. In this phase of their Youth Radio
experience, they learn mainly from peers how to produce commentaries, news,
roundtables, public service announcements, original beats, music segments, blogs, and
videos. Recent program graduates–most teenagers themselves and some younger than their
own students–serve as the lead instructors, editors, and co-producers. Peer teachers
make the transition from students to educators with scaffolding from adults through
weekly professional development workshops on topics ranging from how to operate a flash
recorder, to how to navigate the uncertain ethics of today’s digital culture.
After the 10-week introductory course work, young people move through another 10 weeks
of more advanced training in specialized areas (e.g., engineering, journalism, music
production, etc.) and eventually into paid internships in every department across the
organization. Here’s where they start to collaborate in a different way with adults.
Take, for example, our professional newsroom. Young people facilitate weekly editorial
meetings where they pitch stories to peers and adult producers. Youth reporters then
work closely with adult media professionals on every stage of developing the story:
finding an angle, identifying characters and scenes, developing interview questions,
gathering “tape” (a term we still use all the time inside our fully digital studios)
and then devising an outline, composing a script, mixing the story, and delivering to an
I call our newsroom methodology “collegial pedagogy” (Vivian Chavez and I have
written about this in a Harvard Ed Review article and we’ve got a chapter devoted to
it in our forthcoming book, Drop That Knowledge, with UC Press).
Collegial pedagogy is a deeply interdependent dynamic that’s markedly different from most classroom scenarios. In collegial pedagogy, young people and adults co-create original work
neither could pull off alone, and over which neither stands as final judge, because the
work goes out to an audience no one–young or old–can fully predict or control. The
adult producer could not create the story without young people to identify topics worth
exploring, to host and record peer-to-peer conversations, and to experiment with novel
modes of expression and ways of using words, scene, and sound. At the same time, young
people could not create the story without adults to provide access to resources,
equipment, high- profile outlets, and institutional recognition, and to share the skills
and habits developed through years of experience as media professionals. Young people
offer a key substantive contribution that the adults cannot provide — a certain kind
of access, understanding, experience, or analysis directly relevant to the project at
hand. They contribute insights and challenging perspectives to a mainstream media that
too often ignores the experience and intelligence of youth. And yet adults do not only
oversee or facilitate the learning experience surrounding a given media production
experiment; they actually join in the production process itself.
It can be tricky to work as an adult inside collegial pedagogy, tempting as it often is
to get so swept up in a project that you start to take over. It’s a problem youth
media producer Debra Koffler from the Conscious Youth Media Crew has cleverly termed “adulteration” – a risk that seems inherent in creative collaborations where young
people and adults feel mutual passion, investment, and vulnerability. That’s why
there’s one policy that is absolutely non-negotiable at Youth Radio: young people
always have final editorial say over everything they create. The ultimate goal of
collegial pedagogy, after all, is for young people to develop the technical, creative,
and intellectual capacities they need to step away from adults. In our newsroom, they
increasingly work independently to create high quality products, while maturing into
journalists prepared to partner, from the other side of the pedagogical dynamic, with
students following in their footsteps.
What do you see as the continued value of broadcast radio as a medium in an era of blogs
Response from Nishat Kurwa, Youth Radio graduate and News Director
The teenagers and young adults currently enrolled and working in our organization are bridging this gap between broadcast and digital outlets. They’re key consumers and producers of converged media products, finding new music through social networking sites and seeing their online radio programs downloaded as podcasts hundreds of times a week. But there are still technological barriers to online radio and podcasts becoming their own listening formats of choice.
Even though they are increasingly using their cell phones and iPods for music downloads, they often have limited access to computers on which to stream online radio. And even when they do have home computers, that access engenders a very individual – even lonely – listening experience. Broadcast radio, on the other hand, creates a listenership community. Even a high school student graduating in the class of 2008, coming of age alongside MySpace and Sirius, will have made most of the new music discoveries of his or her lifetime during drive time terrestrial radio broadcasts. I’d be surprised if the power of this nostalgia didn’t echo into the next generation of listeners.
Even though radio’s “golden era” (which can plausibly refer to any period before the FCC’s 1996 deregulation of the industry) offered far more musical diversity, it has something in common with the post-consolidation period. A favorite radio jock is crown prince or princess of the morning, determining the proverbial water cooler conversation: Are you going to the Art and Soul Festival Chuy mentioned? They’re going to have a blood donation booth. Did you hear that crank call to the bakery? That interview with Mary J. Blige – I didn’t know she was in town this weekend!
I also think that despite the surge of interest and influence in user-generated content and the move-away from top-down journalism, there’s still a strong desire for traditional media producers’ authority of experience and delivery. “I can’t live without my radio!”
I noticed that you are making your broadcast content available via iTunes. How did that
come about and how successful do you think this approach has been at broadening who
listens to youth radio?
Response from Nishat Kurwa, Youth Radio graduate and News Director
As digital media/online radio and podcasts began to draw increasing audiences a few years back, Youth Radio approached Apple’s iTunes as a potential outlet for our radio stories. We ended up with both a weekly podcast on iTunes and a 24-hour radio stream, found under iTunes “Public,” “Urban,” and “Eclectic” categories.
In addition to being another opportunity for our students to refine the improvisational live hosting and interviewing skills they learn in our classes, the radio stream has been an important free space for creative stories and uncensored music that might be difficult to place on our terrestrial broadcast outlets, given time constraints and FCC regulations.
Youth Radio has produced a variety of talk-format programs for weekly and monthly broadcast on San Francisco Bay Area commercial and public radio. However, most of that programming was dominated by public affairs content – roundtable discussions and interview segments responding to news events or exploring various aspects of youth culture. The iTunes stream presented an opportunity to run 24 hours of music-driven content. This programming is akin to the live radio format that draws many young people to Youth Radio in the first place. The fact that the stream is online and carried by a significant media company vastly expands the potential audience, with listeners in various national and international locations, represented as pushpins on the world map in our iTunes studio. And like our relationship with NPR, the recognition and marketing potential of the Apple brand provides valuable leverage as we seek new digital media outlets.
The iTunes stream also has great potential as a place for experimentation as audiences’ appetites shift. For example, as YouTube came to prominence, one of our students shot and posted cell phone footage of the Oakland A’s mascot hyphy dancing (an energetic hip hop genre originating in the Bay Area) and the clip has been viewed more than 400,000 times to date. We were inspired to start experimenting with this less highly produced aesthetic in our audio work, launching a content stream called “Youth Radio Raw.” iTunes was the natural, (and frankly, only) place to debut this material.
There’s been a general trend suggesting that contemporary youth are less likely than previous generations to seek out information from traditional news channels. What insights do you have about why young people might be turned off by news?
Readily available news. Everyone reports. How do you decide? The information age has reached the point where news is constantly flashing in our faces, from news tickers on
the sides of skyscrapers in major cities, to news flashes on your hand held communication tool that you use as a cell phone.
News is everywhere. So how credible is every source?
Many would say that laziness is the reason that my generation doesn’t re the news. But
I say searching for credibility is where my generation’s laziness comes into play. Instead of researching the origin of stories and the hard facts, we would rather take what is given as fact, or not take anything.
We have an urge to know about the news that directly relates to us. When I read the newspaper, I read about the sports team I like and the city side section to see if anyone I know died. I get on the internet and check my email and MySpace, and if something on Yahoo’s web page catches my attention, it’s because it directly relates to me…In turn, credibility has been substituted for relativity. That’s why we do not read YOUR news, we read our news.
The difference between Youth Radio and MySpace or a YouTube or any new site which allows
a person to produce themselves is … media literacy. Youth Radio does what MySpace
would hate us to do: Teach us why sites like MySpace work–the advertisements, the
conglomerates, and how all of this relates to them getting our money. Instead of
blindly posting our videos and pictures on a website owned by a round table of old
farts, Youth Radio teaches us the process of broadcasting, the mechanics of production,
and the influence of media –not from the mouth of an old fart, but from the mouths of
young people who have also gone through this program, young people who are literate in the power of media, and the power we have in producing the media.