Blunt Youth Radio

[caption id="attachment_507" align="aligncenter" width="400"] Blunt Youth Radio photo by Stewart Smith Photography[/caption]

Intro from Jay Allison: At Transom, we often feature work by and about young people. We are in a kind of golden age of youth radio these days, with groups working all over the country, many of them offering a chance to be heard to people who don't usually have it. That's good for them and for the rest of us. These programs are often more than just simple training; they capitalize on radio's therapuetic qualities of talking and listening, and determining what's true. Since 1994, Blunt Youth Radio has been working with kids in Maine. As founder Claire Holman says, Blunt is about, "youth empowerment through direct media access. The key is for our members to take responsibility for creating the show—from the first idea, to the features, to the live broadcast. It's their show."

Three Pieces

“The key is for our members to take responsibility for creating the show — from the first idea, to the features, to the live broadcast. It’s their show.” – Claire Holman, Founder & Director, Blunt Youth Radio

Let’s Talk About Sex by Johanna Greenberg

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Listen to “Let’s Talk About Sex”
Johanna Greenberg
Johanna Greenberg

In this piece, I interviewed my friends and peers about the sex talks they might have had with their parents. Then I turned the mic on my own parents, essentially forcing them to give me the sex talk (something they had neglected to do). At first, my mom refused to talk about sex on the radio with her daughter (me). Eventually, of course, she obliged, although not so willingly.

 

We Are Lane One by Emily LaFond

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Listen to “We Are Lane One”
Emily LaFond
Emily LaFond

This piece is about my first, and only, year on the swim team. Because of my all-consuming fear of failure, joining the team was the only new thing I could remember doing in a long time. Being the best had always meant everything to me. I had hoped I would be a natural talent, saving the school’s team from second place, but it was all I could do to survive practices. In the end, I didn’t learn the butterfly, but I did learn how to fail with pride.

 

Joey’s Phone Call Home by Joey Thompson

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Listen to “Joey’s Phone Call Home”
Long Creek Youth Development Center, South Portland, Maine
Long Creek Youth Development Center, South Portland, Maine

This piece is exactly what its title suggests, a phone call between Joey Thompson, a teenager, and his mother and his little sister. At the time the call was recorded, Joey was incarcerated at Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland, Maine, a juvenile detention facility. In many ways, it’s the simplest of features. There are no major twists, no elaborate moments of reflection, it’s just a pure window into a world that most of us have no access to. Joey’s relationship with his family is right on the surface, and their reality just unfolds before you, in real time. It’s an example of what Blunt does best — give young people the chance to be themselves on the radio.


About Blunt

Blunt Youth Radio photo by Stewart Smith Photography
Blunt Youth Radio photo by Stewart Smith Photography

Blunt came to be in 1994, almost by accident. I had helped start a talk show on WMPG in Portland, Maine and kept thinking, “I would have loved this in high school.” Growing up in a place like Maine, there can be a tendency to feel trapped in a backwater, convinced that people in other, cooler places are setting the trends and having the real fun. That kind of thinking can make it very easy to just sit around on hold, and that’s hardly ever good to do.

Starting Blunt wasn’t hard. I stumbled upon an ad for the Puffin Foundation and wrote a small grant application, my first ever, made possible in part, because Puffin is one of the few foundations that fund individuals. With that money, I bought a Marantz PMD 222, made up some flyers and distributed them in schools. Held a meeting, and kids came. They named the show Blunt. From the start it’s been an hour-long, call-in, public affairs talk show with features interspersed. I thought the young people in the first group would learn how to do everything and would then take over. But, it turns out, high school kids mostly age out before they have a chance to pass the baton. Someone has to recruit and train the next generation.

The Way We Work

What started as a group of 20 or so teenagers has morphed into as many as 60 divided into three branches. The biggest is the original one, which meets after school at WMPG, Greater Portland (Maine) Community Radio, a wonderful place that has always welcomed young people as valuable volunteers. The open door policy of WMPG has been a big part of our success in creating genuinely youth-produced radio.

Adam and Justin prepare to host an episode of Incarcerated Youth Speak Out
Adam and Justin prepare to host an episode of Incarcerated Youth Speak Out

The second branch is our outreach program with incarcerated youth at the local juvenile detention facility, Long Creek Youth Development Center.
Twice a week since 2000, we’ve gone there to teach radio production. We’ve managed to buy eMacs and Mboxes and MD recorders. It seems important to be there, in part because the youth there have so few chances to tell their often intense stories and also because, in a nation with so many under lock and key, it seems important to have an eye into the world of “corrections.” Over time, we’ve managed to gain quite a bit of freedom. At first, we were required to submit features for review prior to airing. Now we bring the kids to WMPG for features, live shows, call-ins and all.

Blunt’s newest branch is our effort to reach out to Portland’s growing immigrant and refugee community. We have teamed up with a local youth-serving organization with a locale at Kennedy Park, a housing development where many mostly Sudanese and Somali immigrant families live.

Blunt’s Sound

Idil Mohammad
Idil Mohammad

Helping young people produce an hour a week of radio and letting it really be their show poses endless production challenges. Our members are volunteers, and teenagers. They are still learning how to be organized. When facing something new and scary like being on the radio, many approach it by closing their eyes and readying for the plunge, instead of planning and practicing. Fortunately, at Blunt we are able to let young people learn from their mistakes, which can mean making those mistakes on air. Of course, we try to have excellent shows each week, and to that end, we offer various kinds of support — regular planning meetings, production times, and the vital reminder calls to encourage members to show up. But meetings still get missed, and features often get produced at the last minute, or even at home with Audacity. Often, features go on the air that none of the Blunt staff have heard prior to show time. This kind of flexibility comes from our mission: youth empowerment through direct media access. The key is for our members to take responsibility for creating the show — from the first idea, to the features, to the live broadcast. It’s their show. They can mess up.

But the first airing is not the last chance. Promising work can be honed and then posted to PRX, for example. Maine Public Radio also airs Blunt features from time to time. And we have a great partnership with Youth Radio through their Curating Youth Voices initiative that provides editorial and pitching support to help the best pieces make it to national air.

Johanna Greenberg’s piece, “Let’s Talk About Sex” is just that kind of piece, and is very typical of the way we work at Blunt. Johanna originally created the piece for a show about sex education. Johanna is a creative and bold thinker and she really wanted to do more with the piece than simply gather sound at school. She interviewed her own parents, wrote narration, and worked in a movie sound clip. It was complex and Johanna worked hard to produce it, finishing right before air time. It was pretty good. We pitched it to our partners at Youth Radio; they liked it and worked extensively with Johanna to hone the script, cut some audio, get some more, and the result eventually aired on Morning Edition.

Emily LaFond is a senior at Catherine MacAuley High School, a Catholic school for girls. She joined us as a freshman, and has done just about everything one can at Blunt. She’s hosted shows, engineered broadcasts, presented at conferences, written reviews for Generation PRX, and served as a peer trainer in our Kennedy Park program. But she is not fond of taking a mic into the community and interviewing people. She does, however, love to write. Her commentary “We Are Lane One” shows that although we at Blunt strongly encourage our members to take a mic out into the world, sometimes the world just happens to come in written down and ready to be recorded. The piece aired first on Blunt for a show called “Firsts.” Next month, Emily will begin volunteering with our incarcerated members at Long Creek Youth Development Center.

Joey Thompson was with us over a longish period of time at Long Creek Youth Development Center. “Joey’s Phone Call Home” is not a highly produced piece, but Joey has incredible instincts and each piece he did stood out in some way — for its raw honesty, humor, or plain-spoken directness. Joey won a Special Merit award from the NFCB for “Joey Interviews a Cutter”, and “What’s in the Food” aired on This American Life. In fact, that money was all he had when he got out of county jail — having transferred there from the juvenile facility. But Joey also shows the limitations of what a program like Blunt can do. The last time I had news of Joey, he was in a state prison. Making radio features didn’t help Joey stay out of the way of the law, but I still love hearing his work.


Additional support for this work provided by

Open Studio Project

with funding from the

Corporation for Public Broadcasting

Claire Holman

About
Claire Holman

I founded Blunt in 1994. Prior to that, I got my start in radio after taking the writing program at the Salt Center for Documentary Studies (no radio program back then). I worked extensively as a freelancer for several years, mostly for Maine Public Radio, with a brief foray reporting from Guatemala. Starting Blunt was easy, and making this show happen every week is a blast. Working with young people in this way is compelling and has gotten more fascinating over time. The hard part is the funding, so, though Blunt is easily a full time job, I still have my day job, teaching English as a Second Language at the University of Southern Maine. Luckily, that's fun, too. I really wish I could find a way out of the funding trap, but there's no end in sight.

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  • MoAd

    10.21.07

    Reply
    This is Blunt!

    I gasped to see Blunt on Transom’s front page. Thank you so much! I’m a Blunt alumna, now an almost college-grad, and I’m waiting for the day that I make my millions (or heck even thousands) and can send them to Blunt to thank the hardest working woman in community radio, Claire Holman.

    I love Blunt because it’s dirty. Journalism in public schools means having the principal read the final draft and deciding which stories to axe because they criticize authorities or are to risque. Blunt, and youth radio everywhere, provides an outlet for free speech that minors don’t usually have access too. Besides Claire and alternatingly Rob Rosenthal, Christina Mason and Kerry Seed, it’s only us kids working on the show. If no one makes features, you have a whole lot of talking to do. Sometimes you have to cut your feature the afternoon of the show, incomplete and kind of crappy, but it still airs. The engineers press the wrong buttons, hosts have giggle fits for fifteen minutes, but we are always live and completely responsible for what happens.

    And it’s a model that works wonderfully because unique and polished radio, like these features, is born out of it. And because here I am, senior year, watching my GPA flounder as I start spending more time at in the news room the community station in Colorado Springs than in the library, skipping class to go to Third Coast and talking on Transom instead of writing this damn research paper. Thank you, Transom for featuring this amazing program and thank you, Claire for working so hard for all of us. I’ll be happy to repaint your porch anytime.

  • Lisa T.

    10.27.07

    Reply
    the sex talk

    Nice job, Johanna. Let’s hope parents take your advice. When I was seventeen my mother asked my aunt, who is a nurse, to tell me about the birds and the bees – I got a detailed description of the ins, outs, and possible consequences in all their graphic glory.

    I’d like to hear a part two of your piece where kids talk about what they already know, or think they know, and what they’d like to know. Or possibly a kids’ eye view of Sex Ed. classes – are they covering the subjects kids want/need to know about? You said your parents where reluctant to talk about sex on the radio but what about your friends? Was it hard to get them to talk seriously about sex?

    Sex seemed like a good place to start so I started with your piece but am looking forward to listing to the others. I hope you and the other Blunt producers plan to jump in here and talk more about what you do and how you do it.

  • Elizabeth Chur

    10.28.07

    Reply
    Great work!

    Hats off to all the producers, and to Claire Holman and the other Blunt staff! I really enjoyed listening to the pieces– hearing the variety, the humor, and the honesty was refreshing and inspiring.

    Johanna, great story about the parental sex talk (or lack thereof.) Are you working on a followup commentary about contraceptive access in Portland middle schools? (That even made headlines out here in San Francisco.) My favorite line from the piece was your mom saying, "Maybe that was someone else." I also really liked the tape of your father talking about the joys and possible consequences of sex. It was an iconic moment that fully captured the awkwardness of talking about sex with one’s parents.

    I wondered if not a single person you interviewed had had The Talk with their parents? I’m curious about how many people you interviewed. Also, I’d be interested to know how your vox pop matched up with national studies about how many parents get around to the birds-and-bees discussion with their kids. (It also makes me think about how some people may lie in those surveys, giving the answers that they think they should be giving rather than the truth.)

    I also would have loved to have heard one or two more worst case scenarios from other kids– the most embarrassing or awkward memories of talking with parents about sex.

    Congrats on getting the piece on Morning Edition!

    Emily, I really enjoyed your piece as well. The narrative arc was elegant, and your choice of telling details was engaging. You also picked a topic—wanting to succeed at everything you do—that I think a lot of people can relate to.

    There were a few places where I wanted to know more, or got sidetracked by my own questions and then caught back up with your narrative a few sentences later. Since this is radio, I was a little unclear about the size 32 thread—it seemed like you could be taller, or heavier-boned, than your teammates—but since I don’t know what you look like, it left me wondering a bit. (This is one of the beauties of radio—that we aren’t immediately typecast by someone else’s perceptions of us—but when it’s essential to the plot, I feel like I need some clues.)

    Similarly, I think the mention of bleeding in the pool confused me a bit—I could connect the dots, but at first I wondered if something even more disastrous had happened to you. Also, I would have liked a little more specific description of the coach beyond “flamboyant” (wasn’t sure if that was code for “gay”)—something that told me more about him and his coaching style.

    I would have loved a little more description of you in the pool—perhaps the hardest thing about swimming, or you struggling against the water or other obstacles? Also, I was curious about your motivation—since it was so hard, and because you normally don’t take on things where you can’t succeed, why didn’t you just drop out? You allude to this, about laughing with friends and eventually embracing your cheerleading role, but I would have loved to have heard more about the transition from the depths of embarrassment to learning to love lane one.

    I really liked how you set up the piece, especially the line about how the moment when you gave up your need to succeed came about—that really made me want to listen more and hear what happened.

    Joey, your piece was so powerful. I think the most telling part for me was the awkward silences, especially in your conversation with your sister. The piece was amazing in many ways—it felt like a short-short one act play, that condensed a whole family’s dynamics into 5 minutes. It was also interesting how the act of recording the piece also was acknowledged in the piece itself—it’s almost as if the tape recorder was an offstage character that each of you responded to in different ways. Your mom’s nod to it towards the end of the phone call also was intriguing—even the decisions to allude to things rather than talk about them directly was evocative.

    I wondered how you got the idea to do this story, and if you edited it at all. Also, I wondered if your mom or sister had any second thoughts about agreeing to have the conversation recorded when they found out that it would be broadcast. Also, did you have any hesitations yourself about airing something so personal?

    I also think part of what made this piece compelling was that it felt like there were several conversations going on at once—the actual words that were spoken, and then the meta-conversations—your relationship with your family, what was not said, the history of what got you all to this moment.

    Thank you, Johanna, Emily, and Joey, for sharing such great stories with us! I look forward to hearing many more stories from you in the future.

  • Sue Mell

    10.28.07

    Reply

    I am often awed and well, downright envious, when I hear youth radio, and Blunt is no exception. I certainly wish I’d had this kind of opportunity when I was, er…younger. The freedom and encouragement that Claire Holman provides with Blunt seems to have set the stage for these 3 producers to make unique and affecting pieces—Johanna’s humorous and revealing look at “the talk”, Emily’s reflective and articulate coming to terms with competition and Joey’s gently heartbreaking call home.

    I’d be curious to hear what, if any, changes any of the three of you might make looking back at these pieces now—anything you’d cut or add or do/approach differently in retrospect.

  • Claire Holman

    10.30.07

    Reply
    Many thanks…

    … to Molly for those words of support. It means a great, great deal to me to hear such positive things from our alumni — and better still if they are doing radio, too. I really liked what Molly wrote about how Blunt is "dirty." It’s true! And one reason is that our host, WMPG, the community radio station of the University of Southern Maine, has an open door, hands off approach that really makes young people feel welcome and leaves room for mistakes.

    Molly, thanks for your dedication and fantastic spirit. It’s great to have you out there representing Blunt!

  • Jesse Dukes

    11.05.07

    Reply
    Question for Claire

    I have a question for Claire, but first, Johanna and Emily, wonderful stories.

    Also, If I understand the situation, Joey’s not able to hear our feedback.

    But my question: Claire, you talk about the constant challenge of finding adequate funding, and how there are good years and bad years. What would happen if somebody guaranteed Blunt a quarter of a million a year in funding? How would you spend the money and what could the program do that it’s not doing now? How would that change the students’ experience? Is it possible that a program like Blunt, with more resources, could have helped Joey stay out of prison, or is that really beyond the scope of youth radio?

  • Melissa Allison

    11.13.07

    Reply

    Hey Claire (and anyone else who cares to respond),
    Thanks for sharing these really great pieces.

    Along with Jesse’s question about funding…I’m wondering if you can speak a bit about how the (amazing?) relationship between Blunt and WMPG developed. Did you approach the station? How did you sell them the idea? What kind of oversight do they maintain?

    Thanks!!
    Melissa

  • Veralyn Williams

    11.14.07

    Reply
    Great Stories…

    You guys are so honest and brave…I love it…a perfect example of why youth voices are so important!!!

  • Claire Holman

    11.15.07

    Reply
    About funding struggles

    Jesse Dukes (former long-term volunteer with our program with incarcerated youth — Thank you, Jesse! Sadly, work took him to another state.) asks what would happen if "somebody guaranteed Blunt a quarter million a year…?" That amount is so huge-sounding. We have never run on more than $75,000 a year, and I sorely wish we were still running on that amount. Right now our funding is at historic lows, not including when we first started and it was all volunteer. Anyway, yes, it would make a difference in everything we do. Right now, for example, our outreach program with immigrant and refugee youth is really understaffed. I basically do it as an addition to what I already do. That breaks one of the rules of well-run programs: don’t keep adding on without additional resources. We had a wonderful, long-term volunteer, Katie Freddoso, a Salt graduate, but she has moved on to other projects that have her traveling around, so she’s simply not available. Anyway, if there were a realistic amount of funding, I would use it to pay myself full-time so I could quit my day job, I’d hire someone to help with various parts of the program, like the work with immigrant youth. I’d try to get my fabulous former assistant director, Kerry Seed, to come back after he finishes UC Berkeley J-School (but what are the chances of that?)

    Right now, it is one of Blunt’s great strengths that we really do let kids have lead roles in just about everything. But we also sometimes skimp on providing as much support and training as we could. We’re really understaffed right now, and that takes a toll.

    If I had real money, I would hire someone to do development work for us. That would be so wonderful. I would also use some for some stipends for Blunt members who are engaged in special projects. I try to do that now, but often I just can’t.

    But, could we have saved Joey? Joey Thompson has amazing talent, but he has had a very hard life, living with parental alchol abuse and the attendant patchy parenting, parents who are involved in the criminal justice system, poor experiences at school, a lack of positive adult and peer role models — so, so much. As much as I think our work with young people does make a difference in their lives, I am not convinced that Joey could really have made a major turn around based on Blunt alone.But, who knows? It would have been great to have been able to try.

    Thanks for the comments, Jesse and everyone else, too.

    Claire H.

  • Beverly Mire

    5.02.13

    Reply

    I love Blunt Youth Radio

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