When Talk Gets Out of Hand

March 30, 2007

At Youth Radio, we’ve been spending the past couple weeks running intensive trainings with our peer educators, who are mostly high school students and recent graduates. We’ve recently revamped our converged media curriculum, so the young people responsible for teaching this stuff need some new skills and competencies. That said, there’s one challenge that peer educators have faced forever at Youth Radio: facilitating tough discussions among students, whether on the air or in the studio.

Because Youth Radio is a place where the whole point is to delve into deep and challenging topics, discussions can heat up pretty quickly–and that can be overwhelming to any educator, young or old. I’ve been teaching teenagers and adults for years, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve perseverated through the night over whether I handled an especially volatile discussion right, worrying that someone walked away feeling silenced or slammed or misunderstood.

So… in preparation for a workshop on pedagogy I was facilitating among our peer teaching team, I put together a “cheat sheet” for young people in charge of intervening when their peers’ discussions get out of hand.

1. Pause and deconstruct what’s being said
Sample language: I hear you saying this…I hear you saying that…

2. Drill down to sources
Sample language: What are you basing your perspective on? Does anyone have any other sources?

3. Identify what’s missing
Sample language: I feel like we’re focusing a lot on (BLANK). But what about (BLANK)?

4. Be honest
Sample language: I feel like I’m a little in over my head right now. There’s something that doesn’t feel totally right about how we’re approaching this issue. Does anyone else feel that way?

5. Validate perspectives, but insist on a safe space at Youth Radio:
Sample language: I get what you’re saying, but here’s the thing…my job is to make sure no one gets hurt at Youth Radio, that everyone here feels safe to be themselves…That’s what we all need to create in this space, and I need your help to do that.

6. Get help
Sample language: Hold on a minute, (BLANK) knows a lot more than I do about this issue.

7. Follow up
Sample language: I’ve been thinking a lot about what we were talking about yesterday. Now that I’ve had some time, I’m wondering…

What NOT to do:
Force agreement
Make it personal

Speaking Scripts

March 26, 2007

A couple months ago, Youth Radio learned that our newsroom’s series, Reflections on Return from the Iraq War, will be featured alongside 12 other youth media works on a new website, Projects of Change, highlighting the signature pedagogies and best practices behind exemplary youth media products. We’re excited to be included!

Film-maker and education consultant Mindy Faber is working on the project, and she called me up to learn more Youth Radio’s work, to inform our description on the site. We discussed one of the methodologies Youth Radio producers used extensively in the Reflections on Return series—something you might call “speaking scripts.”

Using this technique, reporters from our newsroom interviewed troops coming home from Iraq, and then cut those conversations into two-to-four minute single-voice, first-person essays. This process creates an especially challenging and collaborative approach to interviewing. We prefaced each conversation by letting the young vet know that throughout the interview, we’d be “in-flight editing,” and that we’d need their help. In other words, the reporter needed to be thinking the whole time about how the story would sound with all the questions eliminated, and what bits of tape would work as the story’s beginning, middle, end, and transitions in between. It was not at all uncommon, in this process, for the reporter to pause the conversation and say something like, “I love what you just said, but can you help me make a transition to that other point you made earlier?” Questions like these make the composition process more transparent, while young people hone an important skill—the capacity to edit in production.

Check out these stories for examples of Reflections on Return’s speaking scripts. All aired nationally, most on NPR, which serves 26 million listeners annually:

Living with PTSD (check out our Teach Youth Radio curriculum resource linked to this story as well)

Family Ties (the interviewer here was a fellow young vet, Kevin Walters)

Depression after Combat

Love and War

Wounded Soldier (this story was produced in collaboration with Blunt Youth Radio Project in Portland, Maine)

Circles of Production

March 15, 2007

Making media starts with pre-production (1), then moves to production (2), post-production (3), and distribution (4), right? Not so much anymore–if it ever did. Digital media culture has shifted the order, pacing, and gatekeeping mechanisms governing media production. Rather than picture production as a predictable sequence of steps, maybe it’s better to visualize the process as a cycle without a prefigured beginning or end, nor a fixed pathway through.

A contributor to a visitor-curated website might start with the fourth phase, distribution, by grabbing existing digital content and making a case for why that story belongs on a website’s front page—turning dissemination into an act of creation (see digg, for example). A video game player or fan fic writer might start at number three, “post-producing” someone else’s media by messing with an existing game’s code, or re-tooling another author’s narrative, thus transforming the media experience into something new. The widespread availability of “everyday media” (e.g., home videos and digital photos, archived voicemail recordings) can launch a creative project at number two, mid-production, with recordings in hand, around which the maker only later frames a narrative (check out Lost and Found Sound).

These and other examples show that media production doesn’t necessarily start at the beginning, if we imagine the beginning as a process of pulling an original idea out of the air. Rarely does the process march forward without lots of stopping short, reversing course, and circling back to start anew. But then again, when did it ever work like that?

Stages of Production

March 15, 2007

The media production process looks different depending on the product as well as other factors, like topic, audience, timeframe, technology access, and point of view. But you can’t make a story that reaches an audience without moving through the tasks marking each of these phases (not necessarily in this order, as elaborated in the next post!).

1. Pre-Production

During pre-production at Youth Radio, young people identify story topics, characters, sounds, and scenes. They prepare a 3-4 sentence “pitch” for their stories to present at an editorial meeting attended by peers and adult producers. To get clarity on their own investments in the topics they’ve selected, they often free-write on their story ideas. Research in this phase goes beyond web searches; having actual conversations usually leads to new angles and ideas. Young producers set up interviews, come up with questions, and prep and practice with their equipment until they’re ready to start gathering tape.

2. Production

During production, students interview characters and analysts. They record ambience (naturally occurring sound) as well as scenes where something meaningful happens, advancing rather than simply illustrating the story. Sometimes producers collect “found audio” (e.g., voicemail messages, clips from home videos) and create or download music that resonates with the themes they’re exploring in their stories, to add texture and mood.

3. Post-Production

In post-production, young people log all recordings—the interviews, scenes, beds of ambient sound, even the music. With guidance from peer educators and adult producers, they comb through logs to “pick their best clips,” and then arrange those elements in an order that makes sense logically and narratively. Next, they simply “write around the clips”—in other words, compose their own narration in such a way that introduces each character and scene, makes transitions, fills in missing information, and draws the story to conclusion. Once the script is written, critiqued, and approved, young people record their narration (a process called “tracking”) and then “dump” all the audio elements into a digital editing computer program. They use that system to “mix” their stories, arranging and layering the audio bits to match the script.

4. Distribution

Youth Radio stories air on various local and national outlets, as well as through online channels including our own website, MySpace, podcasting, and iTunes radio. Particularly with national outlets like NPR, with its audiences that number in the tens of millions, getting a Youth Radio story on the air can entail several rounds of editing with the outlet’s show producers. It’s not easy to get stories on national radio. And yet, significant audiences (27 million for public radio nationally) can motivate and intensify learning, and through public release young people can influence pressing social, cultural, and policy-level debates. That said, today’s media landscape offers a proliferating array of distribution options: for example, social networking and peer-to-peer websites, blogs, public access stations, the school newspaper, and community events. A key dimension of distribution entails preparing for and handling audience response, repurposing material for multiple outlets, and priming stories for “extended use” (e.g., when policy-makers, advocates, educators, health providers, and peers apply youth-produced content to their own agendas).

Youth Media Survey: FREE custom CD

March 15, 2007

There are lots of statistics out there about how young people use media–what and how they consume and produce, and how their habits have changed in the last couple years.

But there are some questions we haven’t been able to find answers to, so I hooked up with Youth Radio graduate Leah Chapple Stingley to design a survey of our own.

If you’re between the ages of 14-24, or you work with folks in that age group, take a few minutes to fill it out, won’t you? Return the survey by email to: dropthatknowledge@youthradio.org.

The completed survey automatically enters you in a raffle. The winner gets to design a customized Youth Radio CD. Pick as many stories from our archives as we can fit on a disk! We’ll notify the winner by email.

Meanwhile, if you’ve got any feedback on the survey (maybe you think we’re asking all the wrong questions?), let us know!

Youth Media Survey

Interview Tips from Youth Radio’s Newsroom

March 10, 2007

Getting started:
1. Always remember to ask for name and age (where appropriate), and get permission to use your interviewees’ voices and names in your story.

2. Start with “easy” questions—ones your subject should feel really comfortable answering, so you can build a rapport. It can be effective to start with general questions, then move to specifics. (This approach works as long as you have ample time. If there’s a chance you’ll be cut off after just a few moments, jump right to the most important questions.)

3. Let your interviewees know that you’d like to be able to use their answers without hearing your questions, so ask them to answer in full sentences. For example, if you ask, “At what age did you first meet your biological mother?” if they answer, “12,” ask them if they’ll repeat their answer in such a way that includes the question—i.e., “I met my bio mom for the first time when I was 12 years old.”

4. Before you start the interview, make a checklist of the information you absolutely must get from your subject and bring that list with you.

5. Brainstorm the kinds of things that make you feel inspired to disclose aspects of your own life, and try to create those conditions in your interview.

6. Make sure you can answer these questions: What’s your story about? (Keep the answer brief.) Where will it air? (Don’t make promises unless you’re 100% sure.) Will you edit what I say? (The answer is usually yes.) Can I approve my clips? (The answer is almost always no.) Who else are you talking to? (Careful about protecting others’ confidentiality—you’re not obligated to disclose other participants.)

Getting into it:

1. Think about what you want to reveal about yourself—how you can make the interview a real conversation, and not a grilling (but be careful about speaking “over” your subject—that can make it harder to use the tape).

2. This one’s obvious, but easy to forget: avoid “yes/no” questions! Frame your probes in ways that elicit stories and vivid details. Don’t hesitate, at any point, to say, “Can you give me a specific example or memory of what you’re talking about?” or “That’s really interesting…Can you say a little bit more?” or even, “I’m not sure I understand—can you kind of bring me back to that moment…”

3. Try not to “lead the witness.” Don’t ask questions that reveal your own biases, or make your interviewee feel pressured to answer in a certain way (unless you are intentionally being provocative, but then be careful that you frame the responses fairly in your story—perhaps by including your question on the air as well).

4. Even if you have a detailed list of questions, make sure you really listen to your interviewees as they speak, make eye contact, and respond to what you hear, and not only what you came prepared to ask.

5. Always a great follow-up question: “And then what happened?” Remember that the best tape comes from characters telling specific stories that bring you into the details of their lives, not articulating generalized positions or simplified points of view. 

Finishing up:

1. Review your checklist of crucial information and make sure you covered everything before you say good-bye.

2. At the end of the interview, ask subjects if they have anything to add (that question often yields the most interesting material!), and make sure to get their contact information and ask permission to get in touch again if anything further comes up.

So what else is new…about digital media learning?

March 10, 2007

The other day, a mentor from my first job out of college observed that digital media research is hard, because so much of what people are saying isn’t all that new.

The comment got me thinking about what really is new in this work, and I came up with three contenders:

The permanent, searchable digital archive: While folks have been writing about this for some time, I’m not sure we understand the “projected ethics” young people engage, as they imagine a future for their present work and forecast its potential to cause harm and/or do good. Through today’s public feedback loops (e.g., blogs comments, listener responses, sites like digg.com, the effects of search engine optimization), young people get some immediate data about what their work does in the world. But that’s only the beginning…
$: Sure, media commercialization has been around forever, and there’s nothing new about young people seeking to profit directly from their creativity. But the media landscape, as well as young producers’ attitudes and efforts related to making money, seem to be changing. While many young people condemn the effects of corporate interests on journalism and the music industry, they want to earn money, even a living, off their media projects. And that seems perhaps more possible today, given public appetites for consumer-generated and especially youth-produced and distributed content. But it’s also less possible in light of industry consolidation and persistent inequalities in terms of access to equipment, networks, and means to participate as producers. These developments definitely affect media literacy in a major way. It’s no longer enough–if it ever was–to understand how commercial interests shape what we see and hear and read; now, do we need to prepare young people to understand how $ circulates through the media business (down to CPMs and ad avails) so they can themselves launch enterprises? Where does all this leave “social justice” as a core youth media goal? Depends on whom you ask. One youth newspaper publisher who’s been at this for more than 30 years sees a “fatal conflict” between the entrepreneurial approach and the social justice approach. I’m interested in looking more deeply into that conflict.
Youth media, politics, and government: If media literacy is, as Henry Jenkins says, a form of citizenship, there are some distinct features of today’s political environment that invite and suppress full-blown youth engagement in civic affairs. Government and journalistic scandals as well as politicians’ uses of digital messaging have transformed the politics of media production and the media’s role in politics. Youth Radio’s response in the run-up to the US presidential election is to use digital technology to report on politics while also covering the impact of these technologies on political campaigns locally, nationally, and around the world.

For one recent example, check out Youth Radio’s coverage of Ron Dellum’s inauguration as Oakland’s mayor. Youth Radio filed the only national radio story about this historic event.

Lowdowns and Uploads

March 6, 2007

Last week, I traveled to the east coast with two Youth Radio colleagues, Nishat Kurwa and Pendarvis (Dru) Harshaw, to speak on a panel at the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Askwith Education Forum. The event, offered in conjunction with the HGSE Alumni of Color Conference, was called, “Educators at the Crossroads of Youth and Media.” That’s right where we live.

Conference organizers posed the question, “How has digital media culture transformed opportunities and created new challenges for youth and communities of color?” We focused not so much on the shift from consumption to production, but more specifically on what it takes for young people to move back and forth between, and sometimes combine, old and new media production.

Three themes organized the talk:

1. The stakes young media producers face are intensifying,
2. Their outlets are proliferating, and as a result…
3. They are redefining what “media literacy” means and entails.

After giving some background on Youth Radio, I talked about the impact of today’s permanent searchable digital archive on the ethics and editorial standards governing youth media. As educators, we face new responsibilities to facilitate a process whereby young people forecast 5, 10, 15 years down the line to determine intended and unintended outcomes of making their stories public. As researchers, this process opens a window into a kind of “projected ethics.” Young people need to hinge their present-day decisions on an imagined future for their work, its potential to create harm and/or do good. Given Youth Radio’s methodology of collegial pedagogy, it’s never our approach to dictate for young people what they should and shouldn’t say, nor to make decisions on their behalf. But our collective jobs have gotten a whole lot more challenging–as well as interesting–now that a radio story no longer “evaporates into the ether,” as our boss Ellin O’Leary puts it, as soon as it airs.

Nishat spoke next about the fact that new media outlets aren’t only repositories for our students’ work, they’re also new distribution platforms with vast if unwieldy audiences. She elaborated here on Youth Radio Associate Producer King Anyi Howell’s series on racial profiling, which he wrote about in the Winter 2007 issue of AIRspace. Anyi’s collection of stories and community events, which went out in various versions on MySpace, iTunes, KPFA, and NPR, shows the range of new outlets young people can leverage to reach audiences of peers and adults. That said, Nishat talked about the new compromises and questions that come along with digital media’s options and “freedoms.”

Dru built on this discussion by presenting the back-story behind his commentary, N Word, which aired on Morning Edition as one of the day’s top ten emailed stories on NPR. When Youth Radio pitched Dru’s story to NPR, they said they wanted it, but it sat on the shelf for awhile, because there wasn’t a news peg or headline that made it seem like the right time to put it on the air. Then… Michael Richards went off on a racist tirade captured on someone’s camera phone at a comedy club and uploaded to YouTube. NPR played Dru’s commentary within days.

Converged Literacy
Which brought us to our final point. Dru’s ability to seize a moment like the one kicked off by Michael Richards’ YouTube rant and turn it into an opening for the story Dru himself wanted to tell represents a new mandate for how we think about media literacy. In the old days, media literacy used to focus on teaching critical consumption; when young people did get to make media, it was often in the spirit of celebrating “youth voice,” without necessarily examining underlying politics or expecting those products to achieve particularly high quality, distribution, or social impact. Now, we think about converged literacy as having three dimensions:

1. Converged literacy is an ability to make and understand boundary-crossing and convention-breaking texts.
2. Converged literacy means knowing how to draw and leverage public interest in the stories you want to tell.
3. Converged literacy entails the material and imaginative resources to claim and exercise your right to use media to promote justice, variously defined—a right still denied young people marginalized from full citizenship as producers of media culture.

For more thoughts on “youth voice,” by the way, check out my essay in the 2006 McGill Journal of Education–Beyond Literacy and Voice in Youth Media Production.