Editor’s note: While long-established training programs like Youth Radio bring young people into public media stations, and venerated training programs at Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies, Transom and Salt offer intensive education, there are also opportunities to bring diverse, independent voices into public media through station- or community-based training.
The Washington, D.C. Library system offers short workshops, and WYSO’s Community Voices program has expanded at high speed since its first class in 2011. AIR New Voices scholar Jocelyn Robinson explains how she got into the classroom, what she found at WYSO, and why she stays involved.
By Jocelyn Robinson
If someone had told me two years ago that today I’d be a public radio producer, I would’ve responded with total disbelief. I’d long been a listener and supporter, even did a short stint as office manager for my local station over 20 years ago, but on-air talent? Not me. In late 2012, though, I applied to WYSO’s Community Voices training program.
I had no idea that a relatively short time later I’d be a bon fide media maker with a growing body of work.
Community Voices, affectionately known as Com Vox, evolved after StoryCorps first visited Dayton, Ohio in 2010. The hundreds of hours of heartfelt conversations needed editing, and a cadre of volunteers was needed to do it.
WYSO has a history of volunteer programmers, but that practice had all but ceased. It was time to bring local folks back into the station, and the audio production course was launched.
Almost at the same time, a bunch of old magnetic tapes was discovered in a musty storeroom at WYSO. Funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s American Archive Project and several other partnerships made it possible for over 200 hours of these broadcasts, mostly from the 1960s and 1970s, to be catalogued and digitized.
In the process of creating a digital archive from this material, a community project to collect oral histories to complement the collection was also begun. The new audio production course would help get all this local content and more onto the airwaves.
The first training session kicked off in 2011, and to date, over 50 people have taken the community-based course. The model now serves Antioch College students, too, and a new youth program is also up and running.
So, how do they attract participants (and keep them in the public media system)?
In my case, as an educator and critical mixed race studies scholar, I believe in the power of narrative practice–in storytelling–as a means to reclaim and proclaim identity.
Back in November of 2012 I attended a conference where I met filmmaker Jeff Chiba Stearns, whose documentary “One Big Hapa Family” examined the experiences of his multiracial Japanese-Canadian relatives. I was inspired and intrigued; my father had died that summer, and telling my own family’s story had become important to me. I thought I might want to make a film about us.
My dad was a black Airman from Springfield, Ohio, and my mom a Liverpool shop girl when they met and married in postwar England, when interracial marriage was illegal in over half the United States.
Sixty years, six kids, 20 grandkids and four great-grands later, the Robinsons are something of a Rainbow Coalition. So many of us have married white partners, though, that subsequent generations are less and less phenotypically black. The very shared understanding of race and the legacy that offered us collective strength was literally, within just a few generations, passing away. My interest in capturing this transition fueled my application to WYSO’s program.
Eleven of us comprised that third class in 2013. Our instructors were Neenah Ellis, WYSO’s general manager, and Com Vox coordinator Sarah Buckingham, an Antioch College and Salt Institute grad (and AIRster now based in southern Vermont) who brought a collaborative spirit and keen ear to the training.
The other Com Voxers were accomplished in their own rights: University professors in rhetoric, film, journalism and intercultural communications, newspaper writers and editors, an organic gardener, and college students at the undergrad and graduate levels.
There was a time commitment in exchange for the skills: We met on the last Saturday of each month from January through June, groggily gathering in the early morning, and looking up in shock eight hours later, with no idea where the time had gone.
We covered the basics of interviewing and audio production, learned to handle field recording kits and Hindenburg, and right away produced our first assignment, a two-minute vox pop. When I hit the mark with a music fade that captured the energy of a street demonstration against global domestic violence, I knew I was hooked.
In the following months we learned to pitch a story, write a script, voice narration, and weave music into our acts and tracks.
But mostly we learned to listen, for the sound that places a scene, for the poetry in everyday language, and for the cadence of voice and silence that leaves a listener waiting for what comes next. We learned to listen to each other, too, to recognize and honor the creative process. We learned to give and receive feedback and support, to persevere through the editing process until the stories in each of us emerged and got told. And at the end, we celebrated with a “screenless screening” of our six-minute features at a local film festival, and later had the pleasure—the jolt of pleasure—of hearing our voices on the air at 91.3 on the FM dial.
My feature explored the 50th anniversary of a pivotal civil rights demonstration in Yellow Springs through archival tape and present-day interviews. Just as the thrill of hearing it broadcast was starting to wane, Neenah asked me to serve as the station’s first Archive Fellow.
With support from the Ohio Humanities Council, I now produce “Rediscovered Radio,” a series of short docs that connect the past with the present.
By adding contemporary commentary and context to the historic voices from the WYSO Archives, I craft radio that reflects on our community’s and our nation’s social progress—or lack thereof—over the years. I’ve mined the archive for stories about black museums, United Farm Workers activities, Appalachian migration to the Midwest, and the Jackson State shootings, to mention a few (click here for the multimedia Rediscovered Radio website).
This trove will open to the public in 2015 for use by researchers and perhaps other media producers. There’s tons of material yet to rediscover.
I still haven’t quit my day job, and the film about my family hasn’t been made, but now I’m contemplating how to tell stories about the lived experience of race through audio alone.
My fellow Community Voices producers, too, are filling the local airwaves with stories about disappearing folk craft, veterans’ transitions to civilian life, religious shunning, polyamory, Freedom Summer’s lessons, the value of family reunions… and so many other stories that need to be told, and heard.
• Jocelyn Robinson learned to make radio in 2013 through the Community Voices training program at WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio. She serves as the station’s first archives fellow and was a member of the 2014 class of AIR’s New Voices scholars.