Youth Radio was featured this month in Sara Melillo’s article, Non-Profit Doesn’t Mean Non-Revenue, in the online journal, Youth Media Reporter. Melillo describes how youth media organizations are exploring ways to make money from their products and services to drive resources back to young producers, the sponsoring non-profit, and local communities. She closes with a useful list of references for youth media producers to consult as they consider ways to match what they’ve got with market needs.
I’d add to Melillo’s very practical list something a little more conceptual–a chapter called “Looking to Get Paid” from Robin Kelley’s 1997 book, Yo Mama’s DisFUNKtional: Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America. The book pre-dates many of the current developments in digital media culture/industry that have kicked off the latest wave of entrepreneurship by young producers. But Kelley’s observations historicize what’s happening today and provide a way to think both hopefully and critically about how young people “put culture to work” by imagining ways to turn their play and pleasure into “cold hard cash.”
So often, what I’ve noticed in scholarship about these themes, is you’ve got the business writers and economists who don’t really deal with culture, and then you’ve got the culture critics who pretty much reduce young people’s desire/effort to make money from their creativity as either 1. doomed to failure because inequality won’t budge, or 2. evidence that they’ve been co-opted. Kelley brings a much more nuanced story.
In terms of Youth Radio’s take on all this, I often think of the organization’s earliest work as growing from an entrepreneurial instinct back in 1992, when the original group started writing commentaries for local radio broadcast. It’s not that they were making any money, but they definitely noticed and helped create an appetite for youth perspectives on every major social issue. Now, national news outlets routinely contact Youth Radio and other youth media groups to solicit young people’s takes on topics ranging from the war in Iraq to public schooling to parenting and sexuality. Fifteen years later, as we have expanded our own entrepreneurial work, some of the “bottom lines” we’ve talked about as we consider different ventures include:
• We won’t “sell” youth knowledge without youth input, leadership, and final editorial say
• We can’t ever cross the firewall between journalism and marketing
• Revenue generation should feed rather than sap organizational sustainability
All of this work unfolds against a backdrop of intense public interest in making money from youth media (or, more commonly perhaps, making money from young people through media). The good news is, the nation cares about teenagers again—everyone’s talking about them. What’s more, the public is focusing for once on what young people know and can do. Adults are recognizing that young people’s digital media experiments hold important lessons for how we design everything from learning environments to marketing campaigns to investment strategies.
The bad news is, many policy makers, pundits, educators and scholars continue to position young people in one of three roles with respect to digital media culture.
Savvy Socializers: Young people’s masterful uses of social networking sites have transformed the way we think about identity, friendship, and the flow of information.
Authenticity Consultants: Young people hold coveted knowledge as arbiters of what’s next. Who better to tap (but rarely compensate) as advisors on public relations plans and venture capital portfolios?
Victims in Waiting: Young people face new risks online, including exposure to sexually graphic content, violence, hatred, and exploitation.
Missing from this line-up is a focus on young people as enterprising producers and distributors of socially meaningful content. We know very little about the strategies young people devise and deploy to produce media through entrepreneurial projects that promote equity and enfranchisement. Those are the strategies, in my view, that we need to support, document, and understand.