Answering the Call: Youth Media and the Cell Phone

With its sprawl extending over 50 miles and 28 counties, Atlanta harbors pockets of communities that are disjointed and frayed, limiting opportunities for public discourse. The problem is amplified by a weak and marginalized public media infrastructure. Though Atlanta Public Broadcasting has two NPR affiliate stations and two Public Broadcasting television stations, local content is sparse. There are only six local non-music related programs broadcasted between the three.
Moreover, the Atlanta community radio station WRFG is weak in broadcasting power, audio quality, and programming; many of its daytime non-music programming is piped in from cities as far away as California and New York. Its mandate is progressive programming, which further constricts subject matter to the ghettos of public policy and radical civic engagement. Currently there simply is not space provided for open and in-depth discourse about local arts, politics, and activities.
In light of the lack of distribution opportunities, how can youth media organizations help young people find their voice? How can young people have their voices heard?
The cell phone could be an answer to what are thought to be insurmountable odds for youth media. Cell phones and their capability to interface various forms of media are ubiquitous in Atlanta and in many other cities around the world where other means of communication are unreliable. Audio, video and text messages can be broadcast, conferenced and narrow casted.
Cell phones are a readily available medium for connectivity. Combining new and old media concepts to a distribution channel the public already has access to, depends on and is comfortable with, is a concept that should not be ignored.
The Challenges of Media Access in a Fractured City
The Internet provides useful tools of engagement via social media and crowd sourcing. In theory, anyone can create a sustainable network providing media access, media literacy and multi-platform journalism—however, how many disenfranchised youth have access to broadband media at home (1)?
Due to foreclosures and urban blight, Atlanta is the third emptiest metro area in the United States (2). The lack of tenants in area housing is a disincentive for broadband companies to develop and maintain infrastructure in these communities. Therefore, in many minority communities in Atlanta’s outer suburbs and in the inner city, Internet service distribution is inconsistent, or unavailable. Case in point, Comcast lines in the Atlanta section of West End come in and out of service regularly, and here in the Historic Westside, where I reside, the situation can be described as seen on my block: 14 homes, 2 with Internet access (3).
When I talk to youth in my neighborhood about the access to free facilities like WonderRoot, a community arts organization in East Atlanta that offers youth media programs, they become disheartened because they understand that travel is an issue. Most of Atlanta’s metro area is not fitted with sidewalks. Residents are forced to drive in order to get from residential areas to business and commerce districts. Public transit is a monster as well. With seven bussing authorities all having limited routes in the suburbs and inner city coupled with light rail extending into only 2 of the metro area’s 28 counties, access to physical structures is limited to clientele with cars or within walking distance.
For some, their ability to use resources like WonderRoot and other youth media organizations comes only through summer youth programs able to bus them. This cripples audience participation and retention and constrains the impact of organizations like WonderRoot.
Cell Phones as a Potential Bridge
WonderRoot and other youth media organizations could overcome some of the obstacles around media-making and dissemination by using cell phones. With a tool as ubiquitous and familiar as the cell phone, young people could create both long- and short-form media pieces that can be accessed by anyone who subscribes, texts, or dials into a database for information wherever they are, whenever they want it.
According to Media Bistro, firms like City Search have recently gone live with mobile solutions for their own hyper-local content (see the recent iPhone application and City Search’s recent news). A USAID paper declares mobile technology “The 7 Mass Media;” a sophisticated, interactive tool for citizen media and a way of engaging and unifying communities.
Likewise, youth media organizations could help youth create content such as newsletters, photo documentary, radio documentary, audio slides, and video for dissemination to the desired public through the cell phone. Options for the end user to follow up is quick and easily accessible. Availability of material can be either low-cost or free depending on the mode of distribution and individual cell phone provider plans. By using SMS messaging systems, young people could send 160 word reports and headlines. Users with Smart Phones could access audio slide presentations, video, and audio clips via a mobile-accessible website.
Hundreds of millions of phones are equipped with a built-in camera. And several of these phones have short video capability. Around the globe, organizations are using cell phones to interview and document local communities, where citizens report on issues or perspectives important to them. See Media Focus on Africa.
Brough Turner, Chief Technology Officer NMS Technology suggests in his article “Mobile Web: Limited but Getting Better,” that technology and competition are increasing access to the internet. He informs that within a few years, 3-Generation cell phones—linked 24/7 to the World Wide Web—will be the same cost of 2-Generation cell phones, which currently make up 80% of all mobile phones around the world (4). Once the world switches to the 3-G network, the world will have access to the internet. Thus, for youth media organizations, cell phones will be a critical tool for the field and young producers to connect with, share, and distribute material.
Next Steps
Writing leads, creating audio, photo and video content are all critical aspects of journalism; however, youth media professionals must find innovative methods to involve young people—within and outside youth media programs—to the process of generating their own media, connecting with communities, and sharing/distributing their messages widely and daily on their cell phones.
Imagine an opportunity for content creators across fractured metro areas to create a clearinghouse for material where Internet access and transit is no longer an issue. Imagine the capability to use both the lure of specialization and the ability to practice multi-platform skill sets necessary in a world of media convergence. The possibility is here, in Atlanta and other metro areas, for youth media professionals to provide extended coverage and creatively and proactively use a tool that many young people already have at their fingertips.
Dominick R. Brady is a freelance journalist volunteering for WonderRoot. He resides in Atlanta, GA.
(1) For more information, contact Computers for Youth, an organization that has technology access data for 915 families and 6 schools in Atlanta, GA and 5,000 families nationally in 2008.
(2) See Kevin Duffy’s, “Atlanta Trails only Detroit, Las Vegas as Emptiest City,” in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. February 17, 2009.
(3) Landmatters. March 2008.
(4) Stakeholders in the field interested in using cell phones as such a tool might tap the shoulder of experts such as James Katz of the Center for Mobile Communications Studies at Rutgers University who is currently looking at how personal communication technologies (such as the Internet and mobile phones) can be used by teens from urban environments to engage in informal science and health learning. See:
Brough Turner, “Mobile Web: Limited but Getting Better,” in Katrin Verclas (with Patricia Mechael)’s, A Mobile Voice: The Use of Mobile Phones in Citizen Media, November 2008.
Verclas, Katrin with Patricia Mechael. “A Mobile Voice: The Use of Mobile Phones in Citizen Media” November 2008.