At Youth Radio, we had an all staff meeting yesterday where we talked a lot about entrepreneurship as a theme that runs through every aspect of what we do. It’s a growing trend across the youth media field. Profound changes in the media marketplace and persistent conditions faced by California’s low income youth and communities set the stage for this focus.
The rules of the media game have changed. Conversational media, mobile devices, wireless access, and cheap production tools have launched an explosion of youth-made media. There’s tons of content out there. What’s missing is a system to bring meaningful content from marginalized youth to the forefront. Good stuff gets buried, and sensationalism can trump subtlety, narrative originality, and challenging or unfamiliar perspectives. What’s needed are credible youth producers and curators trained to solicit and comb through their peers’ content to point audiences to the most compelling, customized material.
While young people can buy digital video cameras at the corner store for ten bucks and webcast clips from cell phones for free, that access does not translate into enduring roles as full participants in digital culture—any more than text-messaging a vote for an American Idol favorite exemplifies “actualized” youth citizenship (Bennett, 2007; see also Jenkins, 2006). Civic engagement in today’s world entails the material and imaginative resources that enable young people to tell their own stories and transform larger narratives, policies, and institutions, while finding pathways to further education and living wage jobs.
• In his 2007 book, Fighting for Air, sociologist Eric Klinenberg reports that rampant “re-regulation” by the FCC has green-lighted unprecedented media consolidation of local print, radio, and television outlets, de-centering public interest and independent fact-finding as guiding forces shaping media content and resource allocation. New media outlets provide a forum for independent voices and civic engagement.
Youth media entrepreneurship needs to integrate sound business models for generating revenue with a steadfast commitment to community-based economic development and strategies for creating, finding, and spotlighting the independent voices, talents, and creative products of marginalized young people. This function is urgently needed in today’s media landscape and in light of the barriers low income youth and youth of color face in their efforts to participate in civic life, sway public policy, and find living wage jobs even in the San Francisco Bay Area, where nine of every 100 high tech employees in the U.S. are based.
• According to an October 23, 2006 Wall Street Journal article, top tier elite research universities bring in more than $10 million a year in licensing income tied to venture-capital backed efforts to “turn university research projects into profit-making companies… These ventures can make money for students, faculty, and universities and create broader economic benefits in society.”
This development within elite universities raises a whole host of issues, not least the impact of money-making goals on basic science and challenging/critical social research. Those same issues apply, no doubt, when non-profit social justice organizations get in the entrepreneurial game. That said, places like Youth Radio provide a crucial alternative site for digital entrepreneurship and student-led research and development with the potential to funnel resources and opportunities into low income communities. The key, which our students remind us again and again, is for them to be shaping not only venture ideas but also ethics policies that keep firewalls in place and larger social missions to unsettle inequalities front and center.