Election 2008: Who hits publish

November 10, 2008

Youth Radio’s newsroom is still decompressing from the election last week–and still delivering stories to our outlets. Six election-related pieces have already aired on NPR:

1. Post-election reactions to Obama’s historic win (All Things Considered).

2. A conversation between father and son about the civil rights implications of Obama’s candidacy (Day to Day).

3. A commentary from a young man making sense of Obama’s victory on the same day that California voters passed a ban on same-sex marriage (Weekend Edition Sunday).

4. Reflections on Obama’s message of hope (Morning Edition).

5. A glimpse into partisan battles breaking out at a school in Colorado (Weekend Edition Sunday).

6. Three voices on how the economic crisis–a cornerstone election issue and the new administration’s top priority–is affecting young people’s lives (Day to Day).

In addition to these stories (and more are in the works), Youth Radio produced live coverage of the election with more than 30 correspondents (ages 15 to 27) filing 50-plus online stories from every region across the US. We heard from young people at the polls in Pennsylvania, about the antiquated voting system in Georgia, a Michigan-based Republican’s predictions for the ripple effects of an Obama Presidency, a student view of swing-state North Carolina, analysis of Republican voting trends from a young political junkie in Tennessee, a comedic take on campaigning and President Obama from California, and snapshots from DC and New York.

Our Oakland-based producers curated music and videos with election themes, and we resurrected our 2008 election show, Face the Race, which ran all day on iTunes and streamed audio and video through ustream on our website.

The coverage was part of Youth Radio’s strategy as a youth-driven media outlet that combines the user-generation of youtube, the community participation of wikipedia, and the credibility of the New York Times.

With that magic combo in mind, one of the trickiest questions we faced in planning for election day and beyond was: who in this dispersed production team would be authorized to hit “publish,” and with that co-create our site’s front page? Our new site is designed for contributors to be able to upload text, video, audio, photos, and other media, and decide where their story belongs in the existing line-up.

In the end, for election day, we erred on the side of opening it up. Young people who had log ins and passwords–and, crucially, the time, know-how (including legal and ethical considerations), tech access, and connectivity–could execute every step in their own coverage, from creation to publication. For those who preferred just emailing us a couple paragraphs, or even dictating over the phone, that was fine, too.

Now that election day is behind us, our next step is to translate this methodology we applied to an intense, one-day, high stakes, national story, and adapt it into a modus operandi for our youth media newsroom.

Youth Media Flames

October 27, 2008

Youth Radio’s been inviting comments on our stories for some time, both through our own site and those of our outlets. Check out this especially heated comment stream ensuing from our July feature, Sex Without a Condom is the New Engagement Ring, which aired on NPR and then spread from there.

And even before the advent of the social media comment phenomenon, Youth Radio was used to handling the listener responses that have always come in the old fashioned, terrestrial radio way—through call-ins and emails, sometimes read on the air. But our redesigned site (launched a couple weeks ago) gives comments new visibility. So we need a policy for dealing with ones that are over-the-top hateful.

It’s an especially challenging question, I think, for youth media.

On the one hand, we tout the merits of media engagement as a crucial dimension of citizenship in today’s world. Comments are a way for young people who would otherwise be relegated to the position of consumers to help shape the conversation surrounding the media they care about. That’s the social justice argument. There’s also the more business-minded consideration. For any youth media initiative to gain traction, it’s got to enable audiences to participate in both making and judging the content. Youth media producers simply can’t get by anymore just pushing out completed work. Whether through online comments or other means, they need to ignite cultures of participation around the content they create.

On the other hand, the “positive youth development” orientation of our field makes it difficult–if not dangerous–to live with comments that are personally or socially hateful. The stakes are especially high for us, given that those comments will be permanently available both to the young producer who comes under attack and anyone else who happens upon the story. Especially tough to call are the comments that sit just on the edge–the ones that land in the “does this one cross the line?” category.

Our editorial team has considered various options. Boingboing came up with an intriguing strategy, which they describe in response to the hypothetical question:

Q. All the vowels have disappeared from a paragraph I wrote! What’s going on?

A. We did it. Someone (a moderator, one of the Boingers) was expressing displeasure at your remarks. The technique is called disemvowelling. It deprecates but does not delete the remark. With work, the disemvowelled text should still be readable.

Inspired by this concept of deprecation without deletion, we thought maybe we’d play off this idea and remove all or most of the comment’s consonants, thus rendering the flame “inconsonant.” Trouble is, inconsonant comments end up indecipherable, which defeats the purpose.

Our online editor, Kara Andrade, then came up with the idea to cut all references to “you.” Having spent several years of grad school studying linguistics and critical discourse analysis, I love this idea. There’s something incredibly disorienting and disarming about removing the pronoun of direct address, when the whole point of the comment is to express a hateful personal attack. Maybe a system of “you-removal” can diffuse and disperse the hate without shutting down the possibility that the digital community will engage with it in a meaningful and ultimately useful way.

“Link journalism” and the future of youth media

October 20, 2008

Two articles appearing in the last few weeks in the New York Times got me thinking about youth media and its particular place in digital culture. The first was announcing the launch of Tina Brown’s new site, The Daily Beast, which the Times describes as:

an aggregation of the trivial and the momentous, the original and the borrowed… [w]ith a slogan splashed across its home page promising rigorous editing of the culture for complicated times…

When Brown was asked what makes her site different and worth reading, she answered, “Sensibility, darling,” managing in those two words to hint at the very thing she was describing–a certain vibe, attitude, voice, and rapport with her reader.

The second article in the Times I’m thinking about announced the arrival of “link journalism” in newsrooms that have until now not wanted to give away traffic (which converts to advertising dollars) by embedding links to other sites, even competitors. Seems like those days of digital protectionism are over:

“[T]he use of blogs by news organizations has helped newsroom managers accept that filtering the Web for visitors is a valuable editorial function.”

So what does any of this have to do with youth media? The idea of selective aggregation as an editorial function is nothing new for youth media sites (here meaning both physical places and web destinations). The young people we work with everyday routinely turn to friends and other trusted sources to provide referral services to original content and directions (in the form of a link) to anywhere else where they might find something interesting. But what these two articles got me thinking about in a new way is what all this emphasis on curatorial “sensibility” will mean for youth producers and audiences–especially those not well served or represented by mainstream news and culture outlets.

To the extent that sensibility is really another way of talking about taste, we know from sociologists like Pierre Bourdieu that taste creates distinctions among us and operates as a kind of cultural capital. In this sense, taste is produced and reproduced in the everyday, often unexamined dispositions and judgments we bring to every situation–what we just like and dislike, without always being able to explain why. As media in general and journalism in particular become increasingly driven by sensibility or taste, it becomes even more important for those of us who work with emerging professionals in these fields to keep checking in–with ourselves, our colleagues, our students–about just what set of “tastes” we’re producing and promoting in our media products, who by virtue of these elusive qualities is included and engaged, and who is left out.

Youth Radio launches redesigned site!

October 13, 2008

Good news! This week, Youth Radio rolled out its new website. Same address and content, totally different look and experience! Please click around and let us know what you think. The whole point of the redesign is to make Youth Radio a place where you can engage with the content–get excited about it, argue with it, respond to it, share it, add your own. It’s part of a transformation that started years back, when our fabulous former web editor, Hong, introduced the concept of “converged media,” and from that point on we were always pushing ourselves to move beyond audio and the old broadcast models for shaping and disseminating content. We’ve gotten more serious about creating a culture of participation through our What’s the New What? series, 2008 election coverage, and the launch of our youth-driven production company, Youth Media International.

As you’ll see, we’re still in the process of migrating our archive over from the old site. You can find everything through a link on the new site–including Teach Youth Radio, where our latest post highlighted two stories from Youth Radio’s convention coverage, and the one before that featured a powerful commentary from a young Bay Area teacher writing about the Monday after a student in her school had been shot. The next TYR post will offer lesson ideas related to the current economic crisis, with links to a series of stories from our archives dealing with youth, money, jobs, and class in America.

More soon!

More Thoughts on Interviewing

April 9, 2008

Last week, I posted some insights from a print and radio reporter who provided a great workshop to Youth Radio’s emerging journalists. I wanted to continue drawing from his insights, with a focus here on interviewing. I first learned to interview as an academic research assistant, my first year out of college. My boss at the time played the role of a caricatured nightmare interview subject and made each of us on the research team run through a ridiculous but instructive mock phone interview before she would let us start doing the real thing (we were interviewing non-profit arts leaders).

After that, I did a whole bunch of interviews as part of my own dissertation research, this time talking to teenagers about language and learning in the arts. Listening back to those recorded conversations was pure torture. I sounded like such an ass–all formal and stiff, like I might be wearing a white lab coat, but then at turns cringily phony and fawning (which is not only embarrassing but also methodologically problematic). I learned to lose the fakitude and just look this person in the eye and let myself get curious about their story, like I would a friend, but still interviews were never my shining research moments. 


Then I really had to rethink the whole undertaking when I started working in media production–when the goal of an interview wasn’t so much to collect empirical data for a scholarly thesis, but to draw out characters and unexpected moments of candor and compelling stories (while, of course, also getting the facts and gathering clean sound). I was still learning how to interview like a journalist (rather than a scholar), and I also had to teach these skills to the young reporters I was collaborating with on their stories. At Youth Radio, we’ve gone back and forth endlessly about how much our students should script their interviews in advance, developing detailed lists of questions. The benefit of the question list: we as editors can help young folks craft questions that are thoughtful, unbiased, relevant, and cover the scope of the story. The downside: listening back to the tape, I’ve heard warm, spontaneous, curious and creative young people transform into robots, reading mechanically from lists, sounding as if they’re not listening at all, not engaging or responding or building on the stories their interviewees share. 


A couple posts ago, I shared our Interview Tips from Youth Radio’s newsroom. Here, some added thoughts from a talented and seasoned (but still young himself!) journalist on the art of interviewing: 

A) Interviewing isn’t about questions and answers, it’s a relationship.  It’s like being on a date.  You’re not building rapport with someone so that you can get a better interview, that rapport IS the interview. 

B) You can and should train someone to be a better interview subject.  The first 20 minutes or so of an interview, I ask questions that seem on topic, but are actually irrelevant to my piece.  I don’t care about the answers.  The whole point is to help the interview subject understand the kind of answers I need once the questions do matter.  For instance, I’ll ask someone to describe a particular day for me.  When they say, “I got up,” I’ll interrupt and ask them how many times they hit snooze, whether the alarm beeps or plays music, if the floor is cold, what they have on their walls, whether their room is messy and if so what’s on the floor.  I’ll laugh extra hard if they say anything funny, because most interview subjects subconsciously want to please their interviewer, so laughing extra hard will encourage them to relax and be funny.  Once they’re giving me the kind of thoughtful, detailed, revealing answers I want — once they’re in a storytelling frame of mind — then I gradually start asking questions that matter.  And then I tend not to interrupt much, unless I have to.  It means my interviews run long, but I learn things I wouldn’t have known to ask about.

C) Everyone is an expert, everyone has more things to teach you then you could ever have time to learn.  And spending time with people is a privilege.  It’s important to remember nobody owes you their time, or their answers.  Make a person understand that, and they’ll feel powerful when you stick a mic on their face, not intimidated.  People who feel powerful give better interviews. 

D) Trust your curiosity.  If someone says something interesting that you didn’t expect, forget about the questions you meant to ask, and see where the conversation takes you. You can always circle back.




Making “Verite”

November 8, 2007

Last week, I went to Chicago with some Youth Radio colleagues for the Third Coast International Audio Festival. It’s a gathering of audio folks–mostly radio producers and podcasters, but also artists and film people and university-affiliated types (not that those categories are mutually exclusive, of course!). I’ve attended the conference before and always hugely appreciate a chance to hear great stories (including some by incredible young producers) and to get inside the craft and ethics of engaging listeners with sound.

I took some notes on two sessions in particular that got me thinking about making radio and writing ethnography–two projects that emanate from very different fields, politics, intentions, and institutional contexts, but still hold much in common to the extent that both are about capturing and conveying meaning. Making a point or moving a public through narrative. Observing and participating and immersing yourself in a complex social world and keeping record of that process–and then repackaging the source material into a story.

So… about those two sessions…

The first was from Claire Schoen, a documentarian who works in radio and film. She was talking about “verite”–using real-life scenes to “show” rather than “tell” your story. Some points that struck me from her talk:

* Big Rig: Schoen says her audio gear is pretty massive–shotgun mic, big old headphones, chunky recorder, etc., and that’s partly because she wants the best quality sound, but it’s also because she wants people to know that she’s recording. That struck me as important, given the temption to hope that the folks in your story–whether for media or academic research–will kind of halfway forget what you’re there for, even if you technically asked their permission, so they’ll “act natural,” which might to some extent compromise the ethic of informed consent.

* Remix: Schoen was really open about how radio producers manipulate sound in order to create in impression that listeners just heard something “deeply real.” We layer “clean” takes of voice tracks, ambience, sound effects, scenes, etc., and then remix and “sweeten” those elements in post-production to make it all “sing.” But where do you draw the line with this kind of amplification of the real? Is it okay to ask your characters to do something they would normally do (like go shopping), but maybe not on that day, or in that specific store, because you need that scene for your story? Can you use one sound (shooting a squirt gun into a bucket) to represent another (milking a goat)? These were among the questions Schoen asked. I found myself trying to think about not only how I would answer those questions for radio, but what are the analogous questions in ethnographic research?

Seems like lots of the really tricky stuff comes up when you grapple with the way you as a reporter/researcher participate–or try not to–in the scenes you capture and re-present. One strategy Schoen talked about was “nodding to the mic,” meaning those moments–and we’ve all heard them–when someone in a documentary makes it obvious that they know they’re on tape, by referring directly to the recording process. I’ve used that device in my academic writing, too–to break from the conceit of “realism” by calling out the fact that the story is made, as in, created–and in this sense is always partial, positioned, and incomplete.

A second session made this issue of putting yourself into your story its central focus. Sean Coles, who files stories for Marketplace, Weekend America, and This American Life, did a workshop called “The Wonders of Narcissism,” where he touted the virtues of jumping right into your own narrative, abandoning the old “fly on the wall” stance. Sean’s advice:

* Refer to yourself in your story.

* Talk to your friends for your story–just make sure you’re honest about who they are (e.g., don’t do a story about the latest greatest garage band and fail to mention that the lead singer is your college roommate).

* Make yourself the guinea pig, he says–so if you’re doing a story about Twitter or hula hooping–two examples he played–then actually try those things out, and use that tape in your piece.

* Admit the fact that you exist (instead of using the old convention of referring to yourself in the third person as “this reporter,” which is almost always cringy).

* “If you see something, say something,” Sean recommended. What I took from that last comment was, when something happens while you’re recording that you have a real life genuine human response to–a response that maybe says something about the kind of person you are, even when you’re not “on the job”– put it out there. I really like that idea–especially when I think back on all these painfully awkward interviews I carried out for my dissertation, where I sounded like I was doing my best to approximate the cadences of a “real” social scientist–and I came off sounding stiff and fake, at least to me when I listened back. Wish I had followed Sean’s advice back then and known, in his words, “not to hide the madness.”

Closed Eyed Stories

September 18, 2007

Okay, so maybe I’m just looking for excuses to explain my week-long lapse in posting, but here’s the thing. I really wanted to write something about this powerful montage my Youth Radio colleague Brandon McFarland cut together using excerpts from a series of stories we produced featuring the voices of young troops returning from Iraq, under which Brandon laid a track of his stirring original beats. It’s good stuff, and it raised some provocative editorial and creative questions for us, and highlighted how much has changed in both youth media and U.S. political culture since the “shock and awe” phase of the Iraq war. But I can’t for the life of me figure out how to upload audio onto this blog.

When I try to upload a file here using WordPress–one of the leading blog platforms–the only options I see are jpg, jpeg, png, gif, pdf, doc, and ppt. Now I am for sure not the most tech savvy individual, and there may be a very simple way to create an audio link (please let me know if I’m just being an idiot!). But still… it got me thinking… what is the value of sound-only storytelling in a video-crazed era, in an image-saturated culture, in a digital world where audio is, as I’ve been told more than once by my digerati friends, so yesterday?

I don’t want to get all ahistorical here, or to start invoking Walter Benjamin–although I am kinda tempted. But I do really want to figure out what it means that more and more audio producers are now experimenting with adding video to sound stories after the fact, so we can play the converged media game. I wonder what might get lost if the seduction, ease and power of capturing and distributing video makes audio seem tired, when sound is so often what makes me feel, for a few fleeting moments at least, wide awake with my eyes closed.

When Radio Isn’t Enough

June 28, 2007

Last week, Youth Radio participated in the National Media Education Conference, sponsored by the Alliance for a Media Literate America, in St. Louis. Ayesha Walker and I presented a listening session called, When Radio Isn’t Enough, where we considered two ways that young people reach beyond audio airwaves to spread their most urgent stories:

1. by connecting their radio features to concrete social justice efforts, aiming not only to describe but also to dislodge inequalities.

2. by leveraging digital and social media’s proliferating platforms, integrating sound, image, live performance, and conversation to share information and inspire feeling and action.

Ayesha played her commentary, From Blacksburg to Bay Area, where she reflects on violence in her own city…Richmond, California. She says while the mass shooting shocked the nation, no one is shocked when young people die from gun violence in her neighborhood.

“The heartbreaking incident at Virginia Tech makes me think of the ongoing devastation in my own city…. A lot of people were horrified by the number killed at Virginia Tech—33–in the span of a few hours. Here we see that number killed in slow motion—shot to death on inner city streets each month…”

After producing the story, Ayesha worked with Dawn Williams to develop an online curriculum resource for Teach Youth Radio, where we offer lesson ideas and additional research and resources designed to encourage educators to use youth media content and methods in their classrooms. It was a chance to expand on her commentary’s themes and for Ayesha to draw other young people into her process and the questions it raised–e.g., the decision to go ahead with the broadcast just days after the Virginia Tech shooting even though some outside editors thought it was too soon to focus on anyone but the victims of that specific tragedy.

In addition to Ayesha’s work, we played other stories from Youth Radio’s archive that students had produced for local and national radio (commercial and public), iTunes, MySpace, our own website, and live community events–sometimes repurposing/remixing/reframing a single narrative to suit those various outlets and reach mass and niche audiences.

The work we presented at NMEC really drove home the positioning of the youth media movement at the very epicenter (battleground???) of what Henry Jenkins calls, “Convergence Culture”–where “old and new media collide.”

To be continued…