Raised on the Radio

Danielle’s Graduation from Radio Rookies on Vimeo.

can a new generation of talent
solve public media’s diversity problem?

Editor’s note: Ten years ago, the average age of an AIR producer was 42.7. Over the past five years, our network has been filled with a growing cohort of young producers who reflect changes in the United States: Thirty-six percent of AIRsters now are beginners in the craft between the ages of 21 and 34, and nearly one in five are people of color. This isn’t an accident. AIR has become more assertive in helping build the pipelines for new and diverse talent and, as such, become part of a loosely coordinated group of media programs devoted to cultivating youth.

In this month’s AIRblast, Andrew Lapin argues that youth radio training programs aren’t just good for the indie ecosystem. Lapin contends that a wider net of station-run training will bring a new corps of listeners and storytellers to public media.


By Andrew Lapin

Public radio has a diversity problem.

NPR’s audience skews heavily toward white, college-educated listeners, while CPB wants to support projects that “meet the information needs of, and connect with, a much more diverse America.”

How can the system reach a more diverse America? Through a program honed and successfully implemented on a small scale over the last two decades, but not used to its full extent: youth media education.

Take Danielle Motindabeka, a 20-year-old New York City resident whose experiences with WNYC’s Radio Rookies program led her to pursue radio journalism as a career.

Motindabeka, who is Congolese, immigrated to NYC when she was 13. As a teenager, she spent three years living in homeless shelters. She joined Radio Rookies in 2012, after seeing recruiters at a YMCA. Her finished piece, a personal narrative in which she struggles to tell her best friend about her living situation, won an award from the Child Welfare League of America.

Someone who knew nothing about the public radio system before was now hooked for life. 

“I’m putting a microphone in somebody’s face for them to answer my questions. That’s amazing,” Motindabeka told me. “I don’t want to do anything else but radio. I don’t know how I’m going to get there, but I’m going to get there.”

Two years after joining Radio Rookies, just before she graduated high school, Motindabeka produced another piece about her struggles with the state’s mandated Regents exams. Listeners wrote the station to cheer her on. When she passed her exams on her fourth attempt in June 2014, she was too late to attend her own graduation ceremony. So WNYC staff threw her one themselves.

Besides demonstrating how valuable a youth media program can become in the lives of its participants, that video is a better argument for public media’s value than a hundred Senate testimonies.

Youth media education programs, where station staff teaches classes of high school students how to report and produce news pieces, bring a wealth of benefits to public radio. They are not yet in every public radio station in America, but they should be. 

Organizations like Oakland, California’s Youth Radio are the introductory handshake from the public media system to folks it would otherwise have never reached: teenagers, ones who are often black, brown, and/or economically disadvantaged.

Local training programs go beyond systemwide outreach initiatives like CPB’s American Graduate because they are a steady, consistent presence in the station and surrounding community, something the kids can tell their friends about from year to year. 

When I covered public media for Current, the system leaders I interviewed loved to talk about “education” as a pillar of the system’s public service mandate. But what they usually meant was that the content they air educates their audience by virtue of delivering information.

With youth programs, public media principles are put toward the service of actual education: classes, workforce development, and building professional relationships for people like Motindabeka. This is the education public media should be promoting and expanding.

A focus on these programs would also help solve the problem — often repeated in hushed tones in public radio station offices — of how to maintain relevance as a station now that listeners can go online for NPR content.

So I offer this proposal: Every public radio station that is interested in diversity should have a youth media training program, with dedicated staff. And these programs should become integral parts of the station’s identity. 

What would happen if youth programs were promoted on the air as frequently as solicitations for financial donations? Communities should be able to associate their host stations with such classes just as readily as they associate them with pledge drives and “Morning Edition.” They should think of public radio not merely as that talky channel that comes on in the car, but as a safe and instructive place for kids to learn the crafts of audio, journalism, and community service.

Youth Radio is the most prominent example of a successful youth media education program. Besides being one of the oldest (it was founded in Berkeley, California, in 1990), it seems to inhabit every corner of the radio: The organization has bureaus in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta; its stories air on local and national news programs, and it has a separate music track for students who want to be artists and DJs.

Youth Radio kids are “attracted by all kinds of things: the ability to be a DJ, to create music, to tell their own story, to get technical training, to be part of a larger youth community,” Rebecca Martin, a senior producer at Youth Radio, told me. “They get in the door through those reasons, and then they’re introduced to public media through the work that we do and the outlets that we have.”

But Youth Radio can’t be everywhere, and that’s where local stations come in. There are plenty of successful youth media education programs at stations nationwide, including Radio Rookies, KUOW’s RadioActive in Seattle, and the Alaska Teen Media Institute. A more complete listing is available in the archives of the now-defunct Generation PRX.

The diverse teenagers who make up programs like these allow public radio to air unique viewpoints, such as Youth Radio correspondent Gilbert Young’s October 2014 piece for Atlanta’s WABE, discussing how it felt to be a black teenager in the immediate wake of Michael Brown’s August shooting death in Ferguson, Missouri.

Were it not for Youth Radio’s Atlanta bureau and the infrastructure already in place at the time of Brown’s death, would there have been a way for Young to tell his own story on-air, in such an intimate and extended fashion, in time with the news cycle? Even if Young elects not to go on to a career in public radio, his commentary still reached a huge body of listeners, some of whom may realize that public radio is the place for them.

Supporting youth outreach and training programs is a challenge, but there are avenues of outside funding for youth education that aren’t available to standard on-air activities.

One example comes from SPOT 127, run out of KJZZ in Phoenix. It began in 2007 as an education program, with KJZZ producers going into high schools to teach students about media consumption and journalism ethics. In 2012, KJZZ added after-school training, summer classes, and curriculums designed to give hands-on audio, video, photography, and multimedia experience to Phoenix-area teenagers. Of SPOT 127’s students, 76 percent are racial minorities and 73 percent are female.

In April 2014, SPOT 127 won a $100,000 multiyear grant from a “Fast Pitch” competition put on by the Social Ventures Partners of Arizona, beating other worthy organizations like homeless shelters and food banks on the strength of its education proposal. The exposure has put SPOT 127 in contact with even more funders, according to executive director Greg Pereira.

SPOT 127 won the competition by showing that it does more than simply teach kids about public media, avoiding defining itself in what Pereira deemed a “narrow box.”

“A lot of what we do is workforce development, and we need to understand that and tell that story, because that’s something a lot of funders want to get behind,” Pereira said, explaining that the digital media skills taught in SPOT 127 and other programs are applicable across a wide range of professions.

If stations lacking in resources can’t front professional-grade equipment and software for their students, they can turn to independent radio producers for a lesson in production on a shoestring — and perhaps consider hiring them to provide students with a grounding in freelance skills. Resourceful backpack journalists can log entire pieces using only their laptops, iPhones, and free editing software. There’s not much stopping us from teaching kids already weaned on the DIY world of YouTube and SoundCloud how to do the same thing with theirs.

What does a return on investment look like for stations committing to youth media education? The program staff I talked to are largely in agreement that it doesn’t have to mean keeping students inside the public media career track. 

“It’s not built into our mission to train journalists,” said Kaari Pitkin, Radio Rookies senior producer, noting that if WNYC were trying to build diversity in public media’s workforce, it would make more sense to partner with a college journalism class. Beyond that, there aren’t many reliable statistics available for the proportion of youth education participants who stay involved in public media through college and beyond.

It’s not just about the workforce, though. The mostly white, mostly college-educated, and mostly affluent generation that can’t imagine Saturdays without “A Prairie Home Companion” will one day die out, and public radio will need fresh blood. As such, there’s potential for a slingshot effect when stations invest in youth programs: No matter where students take their skills, it benefits public radio.

When young people learn about public broadcasting and tell their friends about it, they reach potential audiences that NPR’s own Generation Listen marketing effort can’t approach. Station-based training programs reach for young people beyond the Generation Listen demographic of affluent, tech-savvy, and well-educated young professionals. These are audiences that will stick around if public radio can cater to them, and eventually they may become members and/or donors. 

The Pew Foundation reports that “in 1960, the population of the United States was 85 percent white; by 2060, it will be only 43 percent white.” Some of that is a result of immigration, but the largest share is youth. Four in 10 millennials are nonwhite. This is public media’s potential new audience. And it is also public media’s potential new workforce.

Look at how often public media executives talk about the need for a more diverse staff pool. NPR CEO Jarl Mohn vowed to improve public radio diversity soon after assuming office, and the network’s outgoing ombudsman, Edward Schumacher-Matos, picked apart NPR staffing levels following the cancellation last year of the news program “Tell Me More.” 

When students go on the air, they help expose the programs — and the programmers themselves — to young, enthusiastic voices across cultural and economic backgrounds, changing the popular perception that public radio is for white people. 

A few years of seriously dedicated efforts on this front, and maybe that elephant in the room won’t be quite so white.

• Andrew Lapin (@AndrewLapin) is a Washington, D.C.-based critic and media reporter who has covered public radio for Current. His work has appeared on NPR, The Dissolve, and in the Washington City Paper.