Friday, November 04, 2016

Radio kids and Mexican bread

Sometimes, a walk through rainwashed and puddle-ridden streets can lead to unexpected joys. When my friend Mariel asked if I’d like to accompany her on a field visit, to observe a youth organization at work, I agreed, welcoming the opportunity to go beyond the rarefied environs of Cambridge. Getting off the train at the somehow appropriately named station of Maverick in East Boston, Mariel and I traverse a couple of blocks (stopping briefly at a Brazilian Bakery to munch on small cheese buns—pao de queijo) to reach a small doorway set into a brick building whose impassive exterior belies the youthful effervescence that bubbles through the moment you enter. Mariel tells me it is an old fire station that the organization has renovated. In the foyer two young men, engaged in a serious discussion, direct us to the basement. The path downstairs takes us first through a large room filled with instruments and a cluster of chairs, and laughing teenagers. “Brittany’s in the radio station,” says one of them, waving us towards the stairwell. They all seem comfortable in their skins as well as in this warm, colorful space. The narrow corridor of the basement is lined by shelves stacked with vinyl records, while the free wall space is covered with posters of upcoming concerts and workshops and press coverage of past ones.

This is the home of Zumix, a community based organization in East Boston that uses the arts and music to engage youth in the area.  It began by using music as a means of drawing together young people in a community that was recovering from a period of intense youth violence in the area. A few months ago, Zumix received a license to operate a low-power FM transmitter and run their own radio station, and this was an opportunity to go beyond creating and performing music for the community to reach an audience outside the neighborhood—and to engage in broader conversations of interest. Given my soft spot for radio (thanks in large part to my colleagues at the Department of Communication at UoH, the UNESCO Chair on Community Media, and Bol Hyderabad, apart from a lifelong commitment to NPR!), I was thrilled to be able to visit a youth run community radio station here in Boston.

Today, the kids will produce the first episode of a one-hour weekly magazine show that they’ve planned as part of a workshop on radio production that Zumix offers to middle and high schoolers. Brittany Thomas, the Zumix Radio Coordinator, is in the studio, getting ready for the session. I'm chuffed to discover from Brittany that they were assisted in setting up the technology for the station by radio activist Pete Tridish, who's been a visitor to Bol and is familiar to many of those in India's community radio network. Three members of the production team walk in behind us, visibly excited about the theme they are planning to build their show around: social media and digital communication. Brittany stays on the margins as the three—Lydia, Janna and Geana—get familiar with the program flow and discuss the content. She prods them, ever so gently, to think about specifics. They are still waiting for Dawry, who will be the engineer today, handling the console.

“What songs are you going to play?” She asks. “Maybe something to reflect the show theme?”

Lydia taps away excitedly on her phone. “Oh cool! How about this…or this?” She reels of a couple of names of songs and artists and the others chime in with their own suggestions, and they have to make sure that the lyrics are clean ("Oh that one has the name of a drug, we can't use it," says Lydia in response to a suggestion by Geana.). Clearly, social media has become an important backdrop to popular music narratives. Brittany reminds them that they will be answering two questions sent in by their partner group in Spain, where Zumix co-founder Bob Groves now lives and works.

While they mull over their ideas, Janna, a junior at the East Boston Latin School, talks about the mock election they had in school that day. She’s very well informed about all the ballot questions, and has definite opinions about some of them and articulates doubts about the others. Geana is quieter but the others nudge her to talk about the book she’s writing. She agrees to read the prologue in one of the segments in today’s show. I'm amazed that she can write down the entire prologue from memory! 

And then, Brittany has an idea. “Mariel and Usha are going to be guests on the show today,” she announces. The girls are excited, and immediately begin thinking of questions to pose to us. Lydia gets her initial curiosity out of the way, with “What’s India like?” Then they proceed to questions specifically about the theme, with Lydia asking about internet hoaxes and urban legends, Janna wondering about the impact of filters on self-presentation and self-image, and Geana expressing an interest in how teens in India use social media and whether it’s different from American teenagers. I feel like I’m going to be grilled by an expert panel! (And they are after all natural users of social media—Lydia for instance was Snapchatting all through!)

Dawry walks in just before the recording begins, and takes his place at the console, with Brittany acting as his tag team (it’s their first time doing the show). He's responsible for playing the sound files (promos and sponsorship info) between segments.

Brittany and Dawry at the console

(L to R) Geana, Janna and Lydia. Mariel in the background.
The hour passes quickly. I've been put on the spot, but I've had a blast.

The kids were great; radio is new to them, but they are excited about it, and while there were many moments of nervousness at the mike, they were unselfconscious about their gaffes, and just picked themselves up and bashed on. But what made all this possible was the almost invisible facilitation by Brittany, who stayed out of it while children were muddling through the format, when they were going over time or fumbling with the announcements. Occasionally, she points to the road map on the whiteboard to remind them about their planning discussions. After all, the radio station is their space, and she was there to help them occupy it, to fit within it, in their own ways. After all, it was about creating a sense of ownership, responsibility and agency. Quality could come later. 

We walk out of the studio to make room for the next show; two older teens take their places around the production/relay space. Their confidence is much more apparent, in the way they smoothly slide into the chairs and adjust the microphones. The four who have just finished the previous show are already talking about next week’s episode. The elections, of course. After a few quick comments Dawry rushes off to catch up on the rest of his evening. Lydia is looking down at her phone to catch up on Snapchat and Geana smiles a shy goodbye.  Janna hangs back--this time, it's to answer our questions about her plans for college—international relations, definitely at one of the universities in Boston, she says.

The chairs in the large room upstairs are now occupied and an animated conversation is under way. You can hear the strains of music, recorded and work-in-progress, seep through the walls from other rooms, maybe other floors. Despite the lengthening shadows of fall, there's a warmth and energy in here that can only come from complete immersion and enjoyment in the present. Mariel, who's been here before, explains to me that Zumix is all about getting the youth to find ways of expressing themselves, and in the process, finding who they are what their passions might be. That's a community building mechanism for sure.

It’s dark and the streets are still wet as we leave Zumix. Mariel walks me through this largely Latino neighborhood as she looks for the Mexican bakery where she can buy the special bread made for the Day of the Dead celebrations—which she has been missing, intensely.

Sweet bread is a great way to end the day, I think.

PS: Here's a list of the songs they played on the show:

1. YouTube Culture by Jon Cozart--"oh that's perfect" (Lydia)
2. Mr Potato Head by Melanie Martinez--"it relates to the idea of filters and photoshopping" (Janna)
3. Titanium by David Guetta et al--"it's about empowerment--and isn't that the idea of this show?" (Janna)
4. Put your Phone Down by Erykah Badu--this one's a recommendation from Brittany.

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