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."
“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
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
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
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.
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.
Transom's down with that.
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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.
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.
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.
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