That public radio documentary you just listened to was made by high school students

Isandro Malik and Omeed Miraftab-Salo during an interview at WILL. (Photo by Janet Morford)
Isandro Malik and Omeed Miraftab-Salo during an interview at WILL. (Photo via Uni/WILL)

Every year, the eighth graders entering Janet Morford’s social studies class at the University of Illinois Laboratory High School (Uni) learn how to conduct oral history interviews.

This is a common project at many high schools. I remember learning how to do something similar. Many of my friends recall doing the same. A lot of us interviewed our grandparents or people in our neighborhoods. Some of us recorded them. And then we moved onto other subjects. The project ended. My parents might have the cassette tapes in the attic.

That’s not the way it works at Uni. After learning how to write and prepare oral histories, the 8th graders work with older students at the high school to prep, conduct and record interviews around a particular topic. Those interviews are then transcribed and pieced together to create short radio spots and an hour-long documentary, all of which air on local public radio station WILL.

Over the past 23 years, the students have produced documentaries for WILL on topics ranging from gender equality in Central Illinois to the experience of African-American women in Champaign County. They’ve learned to write, edit and produce radio. And some — including Jeremy Hobson, now the host of Here and Now, have found careers in media and public media.

I love this project. It introduces students to public media early in life, and strengthens the connection their parents have to the station. As Janet Morford, the faculty sponsor for WILL’s Interns, put it: “This does often make parents and other listeners more appreciative of the doors opened and connections forged by their local public media outlet.”

I asked Janet if she would answer a few questions about the Uni High-WILL partnership, because there’s so much room for other stations (and non-public radio outfits) to do something similar. (Think about the number of teenagers broadcasting to dozens from their bedroom on YouTube or a podcast. How could they benefit from a relationship with a local news entity — and vice-versa?)

Annemarie Michael, Callie Bruce, Zina Dolan and Rima Rebei conduct 'pre-interviews' with goats at Prairie Fruits Farm, near Urbana, Illinois. (Photo by Janet Morford)
Annemarie Michael, Callie Bruce, Zina Dolan and Rima Rebei conduct 'pre-interviews' with goats at Prairie Fruits Farm, near Urbana, Illinois. (Photo via Uni/WILL))

Since 1993, WILL has worked with students at the local high school to produce radio documentaries. Could you talk a little bit about the genesis of the program?

Sure. The partnership between our local public radio station, WILL, and the Department of Social Studies at Uni dates back to 1993. Barb Wysocki, then head of the department, was looking for a way to teach students to think about the past as a complex set of conditions that impacted real people’s lives. She proposed to Dan Simeone, then station manager at WILL, a partnership in which students would learn to do oral history interviews, conduct them with members of the local community as part of the social studies curriculum, and then work with staff from the radio station to craft and produce radio-ready pieces featuring segments of these recorded and transcribed interviews.

One of the first Uni students to become involved in the production phase was none other than Jeremy Hobson, today the co-host of “Here and Now” at WBUR. Since its early years, the Uni-WILL partnership has grown and changed, through the input of new personnel, new students, and of course, new technologies. But the basic idea has remained the same: doing oral history interviews as a way to make the past come alive and sharing those stories with a wider audience by having students prepare and produce short- and long-form radio documentaries and other “created content” that is disseminated through a public media outlet.

How did you get involved with the project?

I was hired to teach social studies at Uni in 2006. At that point, the partnership was well established, and the responsibility of overseeing the annual oral history project came with the territory. Having been trained as a cultural anthropologist, I knew how to conduct open-ended interviews and field research, and I loved introducing young people to oral history as a means of learning more about people and processes of social change.

I was fortunate to be paired up with Dave Dickey, a WILL radio journalist who enjoyed working with young people and had the patience of a saint. While I knew little about using a recording studio or writing for radio, Dave showed me the ropes in my first year. He taught all of us many useful techniques, and we helped him discover some of the less well-known stories that mark the history of our community. The more we worked together, the more the projects and the opportunities for student leadership grew.

What kind of training do the students receive? What is the time commitment like?

Our projects involve about 80-90 students per year, working at two interrelated levels. The 65 students in my “subfreshman” (8th grade at Uni) social studies class are the worker bees. They participate in a class oral history project as a requirement of the course. In class, we devote several months of the school year to doing background research on the topic of the class project; learning how to do oral history interviews; preparing in teams to interview specific members of the local community who have been selected for their expertise or experience with the topic; conducting, recording and transcribing these 90-minute interviews; and writing short radio scripts or essays that feature interview segments and put individual interviewees’ experiences into a broader context.

The subfreshmen are led by a team of older students in grades 9 – 12, who apply and are selected to serve as “WILL interns.” These students do this work on an extracurricular basis, taking advantage of a weekly activity period to meet during the school day and devoting several hours weekly to doing work for the project in their “free time.” Having learned the basics of oral history as subfreshmen in my class, the interns develop further skills in designing a project, doing background research, contacting and vetting potential interviewees, conducting pre-interviews, training younger students, and in other ways helping to ensure the success of the interviews that are conducted by the subfreshmen in the radio station’s recording studio. Once the younger students have transcribed the interviews, the interns work as a team to select the best segments from the entire set of interviews on a given topic and to craft and produce pieces of various lengths to be broadcast on the radio or disseminated via the Web. Since these students are working outside of class, the production phase often takes an additional year.

For students who serve as interns, the time commitment varies from a couple of hours a week during term time to as much as 20 hours a week when school is out and they are finishing a documentary. Students who enjoy this work often choose to continue with the program over multiple years, and eventually become the leaders of a team of 10-12 interns. Technical and leadership skills are passed on from one intern to another, making this a highly collaborative process. Given their aptitude with digital technologies, students are also really good at teaching some new tricks to their faculty sponsor!

Noah Blue, Zach Hamilton, Vicente Aldunate and Austin Chen examine each other’s cartoons in Janet Morford’s 8th grade social studies class. (Photo by Janet Morford)
Noah Blue, Zach Hamilton, Vicente Aldunate and Austin Chen examine each other’s cartoons in Janet Morford’s 8th grade social studies class. (Photo via Uni/WILL))

How do the students decide on a topic for their oral history project?

Given the amount of time that the interns devote to these projects, we have wanted them to have a significant role in determining the focus of each new project. So at the beginning of the two-year cycle, we go through a process that we call “sleuthing.”

Students who have been chosen as leaders of a new project team propose potential topics. They do some preliminary research and then present the pros and cons of a specific topic to the rest of the team. It’s usually pretty easy to come to a consensus about a topic that will work for everyone involved. We are generally looking for topics that are of national or international relevance, but that can be explored through the perspectives and experiences of people in our local community.

A number of our projects have traced the history of efforts to expand the rights of a particular demographic, such as people with disabilities, racial or ethnic minorities, interracial or same-sex couples. Others have focused on issues such as sustainability in small-scale local farms, gender equity, and the experiences of veterans who served at different times. Once we start delving into our chosen topic, we are always amazed at the people, the places and the stories that we are led to discover.

Lara Orlandic, Anna Kanfer and Gloria Ha, Three senior student producers, voice the narration for their one-hour radio documentary. (Photo by Janet Morford)
Lara Orlandic, Anna Kanfer and Gloria Ha, Three senior student producers, voice the narration for their one-hour radio documentary. (Photo via Uni/WILL))

If students really enjoy the project, can they deepen their involvement with the station?

Yes, they certainly can. Some students have the chance to work closely with a particular member of the station staff, and this may be someone whom they continue to seek out as a mentor beyond the completion of a project. For other students, using the recording studio to conduct an interview, voicing the narration for a documentary, or doing production work at the station is also what helps them feel a personal connection to the public media outlet. Knowing that their work and the voices of the people they interviewed will be aired on local public radio gives them a compelling reason to tune in. Given our long-standing ties with WILL, we have also been asked to participate in public events, such as an evening program at a local retirement home to promote the broadcast of a Ken Burns documentary. Imagine the delight of the residents when more than 50 teenagers showed up on a school night to watch the promos and talk with them about their memories of the Roosevelts!

How does the relationship between the station and the students change as the students work on the project? I imagine they might have more of an interest in public radio, but then again, they're 13. Do you have students who become "Morning Edition" regulars after participating?

Initially, many of our younger students joke about how their parents force them to listen to NPR when driving to and from school. They are not naturally drawn to the news reports, although we do have some young fans of shows like “This American Life” and “The Moth.” However, with time, they come to see public radio and affiliated websites as sources of reliable news and interesting coverage of issues. At the very least, our partnership with WILL and the powerful experiences they have when they conduct an interview at the radio station help make public media more real and compelling for them.

What documentary are they working on this year?

We have just finished a couple of very interesting projects: a one-hour radio documentary on the history of the right to marry in interracial and same-sex relationships, as well as a five-part series of short radio pieces about small-scale farms that produce food (as opposed to commodity row crops) in east-central Illinois. Both of those student productions should be airing before the end of 2015.

The new project that we launched this summer explores the history of our community’s connections to people and programs in the Mississippi Delta, as forged through the work of Habitat for Humanity and other community development organizations in the Delta. The students are very excited about being able to travel to Mississippi to do some of the interviews for this project and to help provide decent, affordable housing for people in need.

If other local media organizations or public radio stations wanted to start a project like this, what advice would you have for them?

For a partnership like this to work, you really need to have clear and on-going communication between the adults involved on each side. Each institution has its own rhythms and routines, and so it’s important to learn as much about each other as you can and to try to be flexible with the process.

While local media organizations are used to moving quickly and following new developments, they may need to be patient with the slower process of student-driven discovery and production of content. It takes more time, but it can bring new perspectives and new audiences to their programming. Invest in relationships with local schools and teachers. Find out what they are interested in. Invite them to your facilities and your events. Give them a chance to learn and grow with you.

Do you think this changes the students' parents' relationship with the station?

Yes, I do. Each time that one of the radio documentaries produced by our students airs, we receive a flood of responses, thanking us and the station for supporting this partnership. Listeners say that they enjoy learning new things about the history of our community and its connections to the wider world. Many are deeply impressed by the quality of the students’ work. Parents witness how much their children learn from the experience of interviewing a community member, from crafting a narrative that draws on this and other interviews, and from producing a documentary for a broader audience. This does often make parents and other listeners more appreciative of the doors opened and connections forged by their local public media outlet.

  • Profile picture for user Melody Kramer

    Melody Kramer

    Mel leads audience growth and development for the Wikimedia Foundation and frequently works with journalism organizations on projects related to audience development, engagement, and analytics.

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