Photo: Blunt Youth Radio Project
Above the sound of running water and dishes being cleaned, Elizabeth Pliego explains the plight of her Tia Ophelia. “I can’t imagine the pain of a mother who has left her kids to work in another country,” she says, describing Ophelia’s difficult border crossing. Elizabeth’s voice is soft but clear, and the piece, “To My Aunt, Who Crossed the Border,” is part letter, part wish, part documentary. This is a different kind of radio. Instead of reporting or debating immigration, Elizabeth speaks from her personal experience. The work is honest, touching and deeply compelling. This piece is unique in another way: it wasn’t commissioned by a station, but produced in a high school English class on Chicago’s Southwest side.
Without the Public Radio Exchange (PRX), you might never hear Elizabeth’s voice on your local station. With the help of Generation PRX, however, hundreds of youth producers are reaching new listeners around the country. Through the network Generation PRX provides, the impact of youth radio stories is multiplied: young producers are showing how local issues resonate nationally while connecting with other producers. Radio teachers are sharing resources and developing training together, and stations are airing more youth work.
The story of how GPRX grew from a concept to a network of over 50 youth radio groups is a study in collaboration and connection with roots in radio, youth media and new technologies.
Why youth-made radio?
As a medium, radio presents unique tools. Radio is cheap, accessible, mobile and entertaining. Because it relies on how listeners imagine what they hear, sound is visual without being image-based; a nice break from the extreme image saturation and dependency across mainstream consumer-based media. Good radio is deeply compelling. For all these reasons, radio has emerged as a powerful tool for both social justice and digital literacy.
Pioneers like Blunt Youth Radio in Portland, ME and Youth Radio in Oakland, CA first cropped up some ten years ago. Today you can find youth-produced radio all over the country; at places like The Appalachian Media Institute in Kentucky, Radio Rookies in New York and KBOO Youth Collective in Oregon, youth have been discovering the power of their voices to entertain, inform, and mobilize.
Youth producers are brave with their questions and keen with observations. They also better represent this country than conventional “adult” public radio producers. As the field has grown, youth radio has emerged as a truly diverse collection of voices: geographically, economically, ethnically and racially. As their stories reach the airwaves, youth producers are changing the face of conventional media.
For the youth radio movement, the question of how to harness the power of youth-produced radio to reach a larger audience while maintaining the integrity of each individual group was central. Generation PRX was created to fill this need by amplifying youth voices and, ultimately, support youth to enter into public radio—radically changing the way public broadcasting looks and sounds.
Generation PRX (GPRX) is a website for youth radio producers to share their work, write reviews and get licensed by non commercial stations across the country. Through GPRX, visitors can listen to work produced by youth from Anchorage, AK to Baltimore, MD. They can hear stories about dating, racism, families, and the current status of the war. The website provides a space for visitors to hear what youth are talking about, find out how to get involved in radio, support others, or start their own youth radio group.
GPRX leverages the technology of PRX to distribute youth-made radio. But because PRX’s model for distribution is new, explaining the project usually elicits some puzzled expressions:
“So you’re a station?”
“No, but we work with several hundred stations.”
“So you’re a producer?”
“Well, we connect producers with those stations.”
“Okay, so you’re helping listeners.”
“Yes! But we’re helping listeners by supporting stations and producers…”
Short of pointing to the PRX video, the basic model works like this: individual producers upload their work to PRX, where it sits in an ever-ready catalogue of digital audio. Listeners can hear the pieces through the PRX website and write reviews of the work and stations can download this work to broadcast on their own airwaves. Take the example above: Elizabeth’s piece about her Tia Ophelia was produced in a classroom and uploaded to PRX. In the month since it was posted, it has been played by stations in Pennsylvania and California, reviewed by a youth producer in New Mexico, an adult producer in Ohio, and a station program director in Seattle.
The role of mediator
Although Generation PRX differs from most youth media organizations in its role as a mediator rather than a direct service trainer, its evolution can provide some helpful best practices for others looking to collaborate meaningfully with a network of producers and groups.
When the project launched in the fall of 2004, it was challenged to both explain its services—a new way to distribute digital radio—and gain the trust of youth radio groups. From the start, GPRX—a project that would be led by youth—needed to confront issues of style, ownership, vulnerability and power.
To launch GPRX, we invited fifteen youth radio leaders, professional journalists and youth producers from around the country to an initial convening meeting at PRX headquarters in Cambridge, MA. We chose participants carefully to represent the breadth and experience of the youth radio field and include youth that would lead the project, including practitioners from Blunt Radio, Radio Rookies, Youth Radio, Appalachian Media Institute, Radio Arte, Atlantic Public Media, and funders (OSI and Surdna). Several topics arose during the meeting that helped guide how GPRX could best serve the youth radio field such as:
• What would be the consequences of sharing youth audio on a public, professional site?
• How would the project ensure that youth were well represented and supported?
• How could GPRX address and encourage the diversity of youth radio?
• How could GPRX ensure that youth themselves were engaged as leaders of the project? How could we foster youth participation and investment?
While these topics came up during the convening, others emerged soon afterward. As with all youth media, the familiar tension between a product-versus process-based approach to production came up in the stylistic differences between groups. In addition, the dubious “youth” designation provided special attention that could cut both ways—sometimes sought out as representative of a young perspective, other times denigrated as amateur or cutesy. How would listeners know that a piece of work was youth-produced? And should they?
With the help of an engaged advisory board of youth radio leaders and producers, we found helpful solutions.
The Youth Editorial Board: To address the dual concerns that youth work shared on PRX would be either harshly reviewed or ignored, we established a Youth Editorial Board (Youth EB) tasked with reviewing radio produced by peers. For the most part, individual youth radio groups identified members that were interested in taking part in the Youth EB, and these members then contacted Generation PRX for follow up. Each Youth EB member sits on the board for three months, receives training on reviewing, writing and providing feedback, and is paid a small stipend in gratitude for her work. In addition, Youth EB members choose pieces that they would like highlighted on the Generation PRX homepage and podcast, acting as curators of site content. Because it creates new connections between youth producers and meaningful conversations around work, the Youth EB has been one of the most singularly satisfying aspects of Generation PRX. It’s also been a terrific tool for recruiting new youth radio groups to join PRX, with youth themselves at the helm of PRX immersion and participation.
New Channels for Sharing Work: YouthCast, the Generation PRX podcast through alt.NPR, helped launch a whole new way for listeners to find youth content. With the introduction of a fantastic host—Kiera Feldman, herself a youth producer at Brown Student Radio—YouthCast presents a new youth-produced piece every other week, and a blog full of interviews, audio news and interesting radio bits. YouthCast has helped focus the public face of Generation PRX where it belongs—on youth producers and their work. In addition, placing YouthCast on MySpace has created a sounding post within a popular website, and helped specialize Generation.prx.org as a destination for those in the youth radio field.
Resources to connect and support youth radio: Signal, our email-newsletter, comes out every other month with updates from the field (subscribe and see past issues of Signal and a host of teaching/listening resources are available on the site). Generation PRX also runs an email list exclusively for youth radio leaders. All of these elements help foster a sense of community within the field by making spaces to share ideas, ask questions, find resources and get recognized.
Leveraging the power of PRX: In order to put youth work on the radar of stations and producers, the Generation PRX project and individual youth pieces are prominent on the PRX site, in the PRX podcast and in emails to stations. To address the issue of recognizing, but not tokenizing, youth work, youth producers can elect to designate their pieces as “youth-produced,” but they will appear on the site like all other work.
Youth radio features: Generation PRX joined forces with KUOW in Seattle to create two youth-produced radio specials, “Getting Raised”, on parenting and “The Migration Project,” on immigration. Both shows were hosted by a teen and included stories from Generation PRX members around the country. To date, The Migration Project has been licensed over 12 times, and the listener response has been vocal and enthusiastic. When you consider that each license reaches thousands of listeners, the timeliness of the topic, and the need for youth perspectives—like Elizabeth’s—on these topics, these pieces are making a significant impact not only on radio, but on public debate as a whole.
These specials are an entirely new model for hearing youth producers on the radio. Rather than limiting youth voices to token 4-6 minute slots, the specials demonstrate the breadth and depth of youth experience and knowledge. The specials include not only youth voices from a vast array of perspectives and places, but an experienced youth host. In this way, youth are publicly engaged as directors of the debate, rather than actors being spoken for. The fact that stations are licensing these specials in such high numbers (The Migration Project is breaking all previous records for licenses of a youth-produced piece) shows the promise of this model moving forward.
Several key elements emerged out of the Generation PRX model that may help others hoping to establish youth media networks.
• From the outset, we addressed issues head on and asked participants to help problem solve. We take feedback as our directives—always returning to members for their ideas—and follow through on concerns and ideas.
• Youth serve as active leaders in the ongoing evolution of the project. Their contributions shape the content, and their ideas lead development.
• We work with industry professionals and stations to serve as third party curators and provide exposure to youth radio work—allowing Generation PRX to focus entirely on providing support to the field without favoring any single group.
• We do not over extend ourselves. Our mandate is to support, connect and distribute youth-made radio, and we remember that youth radio groups themselves are the primary providers of direct training.
• We are in a constant state of evolution. Each year, convening meetings and regular conference calls with youth and adult advisors address the issue of “what next?” We look outwards to hear from members and look for new channels—podcasts, MySpace, LiveJournal, email lists—to amplify youth voices.
Since the project began, youth work has been licensed through PRX over 700 times, and the online catalogue has grown to include nearly 550 youth pieces. Several dozen youth have come through the Youth Editorial Board, and many more have gone on to impact local stations and local communities. We’ve come a long way in the last 3 years, and see great possibility ahead.
In regards to next steps, Generation PRX will expand the resources and support it provides to youth radio groups, and create new channels to reach more listeners. We hope to find ways to build a site that is increasingly multi-lingual, with expanded online training resources, and more opportunities for young people to get involved. Although multi-linguality is a ways down the road technologically speaking, it is a crucial step in creating a democratic space that truly supports a diversity of voices. At the moment, a few groups are uploading Spanish-language pieces, and we are in contact with a handful of international youth radio groups to provide support and resources. GPRX aims to support youth radio and transform the look and sound of “adult” radio. With such powerful and accessible technology, the site has the capacity to transform public media into a much more expansive and inclusive forum.
As more youth producers age out of the “youth” category, we need to find ways to keep them connected to public radio and supported in their work. What kinds of training, opportunities and peer networks would provide the most powerful support? Partnerships with college radio groups, meetings with youth advisors and interviews with youth producers who became radio leaders are helping GPRX develop strategies. Public radio needs the experience, honesty and diversity of youth-produced radio. We have much work to do, but our vital network engaged in finding solutions is adding to the success, sustainability, and widespread distribution of youth-made radio.
Johanna (Jones) Franzel is the director of Generation PRX. Before joining PRX, she worked as the Bilingual Coordinator for the Community Programs Department at the Center for Documentary Studies where she co-founded Youth Noise Network. She holds a Masters in Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and has been teaching for 10 years.