The Backstory of Blunt Youth Radio.

By Johanna Franzel, formerly of Generation PRX and Blunt’s Incarcerated Youth Speak Out Project.

Blunt Youth Radio founder and director Claire Holman.

As a field, youth-produced radio occupies a contradictory space. It is visual, but not image based. It requires technology, but is simple to create. It yields public radio stories,  but neither the look nor sound of public radio.  Where “media” can convey something with flash or bravado, radio made by young people stems from the opposite: authentic voice and experience. Those youth radio groups that stand out as leaders in the field manage to balance this contradictory set of qualities, and remain dogged in their commitment to producing work.

Blunt Youth Radio isn’t only one of the longest-standing youth radio groups in the country, it embraces a singular commitment to letting young people discover their own stories. Where other youth radio projects sometimes burn out quickly, or turn to professional editors to polish the young people’s stories, Blunt never strays from its youth-directed approach. Production might be unvarnished at times, on air hosting sometimes includes awkward moments, but Blunt bestows real responsibility on its members. It trusts young producers to make their own choices.  It boasts a two decade-long legacy of showing up to do the work.

Background

Blunt’s approach to youth-produced radio can be traced to its roots. In 1994, Claire Holman was working as a freelance journalist when she was asked to help start a local talk show. The show got her thinking; she was neither a teacher nor a media educator, but she did possess certain core beliefs. “I got into this with the idea that young people are capable,” she explains. “That was my whole idea: ‘Hey, I could have done this [talk show] when I was in high school, and I would have liked to do it.’”

Some two decades later, Blunt Youth Radio Project is one of the nation’s longest standing youth radio projects, recognized for its pioneering youth-led talk show and audio productions. Claire is the director of Blunt, but also the fire behind it. Neither soft spoken nor indirect, she brings a passionate journalistic style to her leadership. Participants will tell you that this straight talking, no-hand-holding style is precisely what has built such deep affection and loyalty over the years.

I recently sat down with Claire to learn more about the ways in which she’s shaped Blunt Youth Radio Project, and how the project in turn has shaped her.

Johanna Franzel: Please give us a little bit about your background - how would you describe your approach to working with others? What are some of your guiding principles as an educator?

Watch. Blunt alumni and current members talk about giving a voice to the "other side".

Claire Holman: I feel like having an ethical basis for what I do is important, and I really do care that [my work] fits into my idea of what is right and wrong and how people should treat each other. I guess I’m interested in the idea of good works; I want to be known for a positive contribution, having been a person who’s used the force for good, basically. [laughs]  I’m lucky to work inside areas that are to me, meaningful. I feel very fortunate.

Not to be simplistic – because it’s not always true that there’s right or wrong, much lies in the area between – nonetheless, I’ve been pleased actually in a couple of the interviews we’ve done related to this project that people talked about needing to listen to views they didn’t respect or even despised. Not that they changed their views as a result of it, but it was important to them to hear that [other] side, to give a voice to that side.

JF: What led you to begin Blunt? What were some of the larger (and smaller) goals you had for the project?

CH: I never in my life have seen myself as someone who would work with young people. I come from a very large family, I have been around young people my whole life. I just never thought that would be where I put energy truly. But I stumbled into Blunt Youth Radio because I had been freelancing at Maine Public Radio, and I got invited to help start up a talk show here, and we started Big Talk (which is still in existence today).  And I thought, “I would’ve loved this in high school.” In my group of friends, we had lots of ideas and lots to say and really no place to say it.

So I thought, “Well, I’ll just get some money and buy some equipment and teach these kids how to do it and that will be that.” But it turns out actually, that they move on and they need more guidance, training and follow up. You have to find the next group of people. So here I am, and that was 1994 and it’s 2014 now. Isn’t that something?

JF: Can you give some examples of how love and forgiveness have informed particular aspects of Blunt Youth Radio?

CH: On a very simple level, one thing I’ve learned is that you have to hang in there with people.  One of the people we’re going to interview for this project, she was in the first year of Blunt, and she just disappeared from view for quite a long time and then came back. We could easily have said, you know, “You didn’t show up for these things; you’re out,” and I’ve just found it’s not productive to do that in the end. And I know she credits her time with Blunt as having been important to her. Hanging in there with people has made a difference. It doesn’t mean they all come back, but a number do. I don’t know if that’s love or forgiveness, but acceptance – meeting people where they’re at.

Certainly, acceptance [is core to Blunt]. Accepting their own limits at times - how hard it is to be exactly how [the teens] want to be while they’re on a live show – and accepting other views and understanding that others in the world cherish their own views as much as they cherish their own. That’s always hard to accept,  I think because it’s hard to imagine an idea you don’t like being cherished by another person – especially an idea that you find repugnant.

For myself on a more personal level: Although I’m probably fairly fierce as a personality, I’ve learned to be more accepting.  People like me get very good at apologizing, actually. And I’ve been forgiven a lot for things, [like] getting angry.  I don’t do it all that often – just a couple of times a year I’ll get upset and yell, but usually that works out in the end.  I don’t know if that’s what I’ve learned of it, but I’ve had the experience of [love and forgiveness].

JF:  What do you think the teens learn from you in particular? What do they take away from your style and approach?

CH: I think for a lot of kids I do get in there with them; I am pushy and I expect them to get their act together. It is a live show, there is a lot of, “Do it now. Let’s focus on your success not your feelings, because you’re going to feel great when you succeed.”  Not that their feelings don’t matter - of course they do - but sometimes you need to just jump.  So I facilitate a lot of jumping. Because we’ve needed to, because it is a live show.  

I’ve seen [youth radio programs] where they’ll put something on a website at the end. You need to have something real that needs to get done. It misses the thrill. It doesn’t get you off the cliff. Have something [the young people] really have to do because it’s more meaningful and creates that positive tension.

Young people really do have significant responsibility here, there aren’t adults hovering around them. And that is in part thanks to the open door policy at WMPG. Many other radio stations would be much more circumspect and not allow them to be as hands on as they are and come and go as they do. Honestly, that’s important.

JF: How has your sense of this work changed as you’ve led Blunt over the last 20 years? What are some of the elements that have surprised you?

CH: Honestly, it’s been great working with young people. I didn’t expect that. They’re fun, they’re energetic, they learn so fast.  You don’t have to teach them again and again. They often care.  They may act cynical sometimes out of style, but substantially they’re mostly not jaded or cynical. That’s a pleasure, you know?

I didn’t expect that they would look to this, to Blunt Youth Radio, as a centering place in their lives, [as] something they’d come back to that would be there for them. So here I am. With no funding, putting on this weekly show. That I didn’t expect either. I never expected it to turn into a job.

I feel fortunate to have had an impact - to have had an influence on these young people’s lives. I know there’s many things that influence any person’s life - you can only take credit for so much - but it’s really been an honor to have young people come back and say “this was important to me.”  And it’s kept me going.

JF: What are some of the changes you’ve noticed in Blunt producers as they go through the program? What effect do you hope Blunt’s work will have in the world?    

CH: What I hope is that young people who are involved will feel empowered. I mean, that’s our mission – youth empowerment through direct media access - so [I hope] they will feel empowered to carry out things that are important.  That’s going to be really different person to person. Not everyone is going to be an activist, but that they feel more able to try something different and learn it, that they feel more able to contact people in positions of power and authority and to deal with them on a more or less equal space, those kinds of things.

JF: I’m interested in how hearing these broadcasts changes listeners’ relationship to and understanding of the young people, particularly regarding Blunt’s Incarcerated Youth Speak Out Project.

CH: Our work with [Long Creek Youth Development Center, an incarceration center that’s been a Blunt teaching site since 2001] – whenever we air that work, we often get adult callers who will say how moved they were by hearing the voices of these young people talking about what it’s meant to them to be locked up.

Talking about Long Creek, it’s also been a profound experience for me because I don’t come from the part of society that is frequently incarcerated. I grew up knowing no one who went to jail.  It was moving to see how those young people at the jail spoke of their families. Almost to a person, the love they felt for their families, families that [society] looks on as not families, as not worthy, as barely a parent. These young people don’t talk about their parents that way. Even though they may recognize the failings - it was profound.  And the same is true about their own prospects as parents and their [will] to love their [own] children.

JF: Particularly for the incarcerated program, what examples have you seen of radio work creating opportunities for love or forgiveness?

CH: I certainly think that for those youth – like for anyone – the chance to tell your story, to think it through and to be heard has some value and gives you some perspective and makes you more able to understand your own experience and the experience of those near you.

A big part of the reason the work at Long Creek is powerful is that these are voices we don’t get to hear. Although [the incarcerated students] have often done things that are reprehensible, they’re still people.  For our listeners to understand that these are young people with hopes and aspirations who love their families, who want something out of life. Society needs to hear that message because these young people need to be forgiven. We are too likely in our society to lock people up for a long time and to hold it against them forever, reducing their opportunities and so forth.  We do need to hear those stories.

JF: How are audio and interviewing – the tools of the radio trade – useful for this incarcerated group in particular?

CH: When you’re able to ask questions you get to change the dynamic. We had one young person who got to question the judge who sentenced him.  That’s a powerful moment for a young person to be in that position, finally. We [also] did as much as possible try and encourage them to interview parents. The chance to reflect is important, and it’s an important part of healing I think.

I don’t think we could say young people were healed completely from being with Blunt, but I think we could take credit for being part of that process.

Every so often someone [from Long Creek] – because we don’t have access to the records it’s not easy to stay in touch - will get in touch and say “Hey do you still have a copy of the piece I did?” So I know from that that the meaning is there

It’s a profound experience to me personally to be trusted by these young people. To help them to get on the air. It’s nerve wracking – it’s taught me a lot about people’s ability to work together and to trust each other.