Youth Radio’s “What’s the New What”

October 23, 2007

Youth Radio’s production company has been busy with a new project: prepping to launch a youth-generated broadcast/web stream and curriculum called “What’s the New What.” The stream glimpses the future of youth culture and its ripple effects across politics, identity, industry, and education.

Failure is the New Success. Blog is the New Bathroom Wall. Profit is the New Non-Profit. Tech Toys are the New Textbooks. Young people will use provocations like these to generate media content (audio, video, graphic, text) that connects high and low, hopeful and troubling, transforming the way the public engages young citizens.

Youth Radio will develop What’s the New What by integrating electronic mechanisms (e.g., solicitations, uploads, ratings, comments) with human editorial oversight by youth curators.

We’re also planning to develop free, online curriculum resources linked to What’s the New What segments. The really exciting part of that project is, the curriculum will be co-created by young producers and veteran designers with participation from Youth Radio’s international teachers’ network and their thousands of students.

That’s the model we’re increasingly using in our Teach Youth Radio project, bringing the curriculum design process into alignment with our media production model, meaning young people themselves drive the vision and execution, in collaboration with adult professionals. Check out the latest Teach Youth Radio News Break, about Jena Six, produced by Youth Radio/UC Berkeley’s Dawn Williams, Ayesha Walker from Youth Radio’s web team, and Kai Crowder, Shantel Alicea, Cory Butler-Wilson and Akira Chin–all students from the hip-hop journalism class at B-Tech, Berkeley Unified School District’s continuation high school.

So What?

The nation cares about teenagers again. What’s more, we’re focusing for once on what young people know and can do—and on implications of their digital experiments for everything from learning environments to investment strategies.

And yet, young people are still constrained to narrow roles: savvy socializers, expert players, embodiments of authenticity. Missing from this line-up are enterprising young producers and curators of meaningful content as well as creators of transformative learning experiences. While young people can buy ten-dollar digital video cameras at the corner store, that access hardly translates into enduring roles as full participants in digital culture.

Through What’s the New What, young people otherwise marginalized from “digital privilege” emerge as media connoisseurs, prepared to find, co-create, and disseminate top-quality youth-made content. In so doing, they:

1. Cultivate the public’s appetite for substantive storytelling with an edge,
2. Shape learning experiences for other young people by co-designing online curricula, and
3. Develop entrepreneurship models that inform practice and ethics across the digital media field.

Any young people, or adults who work with them, interested in contributing to the series–the content stream or the curriculum–let me know. What’s your new what?

Digital Entrepreneurship Revisited

August 3, 2007

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.

Media Marketplace

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.

Youth Communities

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.

Two Developments

• 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.

Youth Media Entrepreneurship

May 28, 2007

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.