Current Online

Projects turn up the volume on youth violence
Broadcasts on WTTW, WBEZ this month, national campaign proposed

Originally published in Current, April 11, 1994
By Karen Everhart Bedford

Chicago public broadcasting outlets WTTW-TV and WBEZ-FM this month are presenting special broadcasts on violence as part of their annual community focus series, Chicago Matters.

In Detroit, a similar antiviolence project based at WTVS aims to make the station a participant in the city, not an observer.

The local project comes to air just as CPB and other major public broadcasting organizations are considering a proposed systemwide outreach campaign on youth violence.

Like the Chicago series, the national effort would offer high-profile programming as a way to engage and enlist the public and community-based organizations in exploring and working toward solutions.

Three prominent PTV groups—the Nitty Gritty City Group of PTV stations, the Public Television Outreach Alliance and Bill Moyers' Public Affairs Television—have asked CPB to fund a "National Campaign to Reduce Youth Violence."

Wednesday nights in April

Violence is this year's central topic for the fifth year of Chicago Matters. The series, developed in collaboration with the Chicago Community Trust, brings to air a month of special programming each April on an issue of community concern. Its funder, a 79-year-old community trust with an endowment of $700 million, provided more than $300,000 for WTTW's on-air effort, and $100,000 for WBEZ's, according to Richard Turner, communications director for the Chicago Community Trust.

With the mainstream media covering violence almost to the point of saturation, the challenge for Chicago Matters producers was to develop programs that no one had done before, according to the series executive producers, Elizabeth Richter of WTTW and WBEZ's Johanna Zorn.

"Even [since] we decided what we were going to do, a lot of things have been duplicated," said Zorn. Collaborators chose the overall topic a year ago and held a seminar for radio and TV producers to bone up on the subject last fall. Their contact hasn't been as intensive since then, she added, except to plan cross-promotion and series related forums at the Chicago Public Library, a new partner in this year's project.

The library is holding a series of community-based forums that bring radio and TV producers into discussions with the public, and offering a special collection on violence-related topics that includes tapes of the programs. Its participation in the project adds "shelf life to all these things," said Turner.

The radio and TV offerings were produced separately and are airing in entirely different broadcast configurations.

In a break with past years, WTTW is taking the "seamless" approach. Rather than scatter Chicago Matters programs throughout the schedule, WTTW will fill its entire Wednesday primetime throughout April, Richter explained. Chicago Tonight, the station's signature interview series, will lead the coverage, followed by WTTW-produced specials and acquired shows. Host Phil Ponce will introduce each evening block.

Highlights of the schedule are the specials, which include: "Dread," a documentary about a rehabilitated criminal who now works as a counselor; "Growing Up Scared," a talk show designed for children to watch with their parents and hosted by NPR's Ray Suarez; "Guns Under Fire," a discussion of gun violence featuring the perspectives of people who own weapons; and "Breaking the Cycle," a town meeting that will deal "head-on" with black-on-black violence, according to Richter.

WTTW also produced one-minute spots dealing with such subjects as domestic violence, date rape and how children cope with violence. The April 23 edition of Chicago Week in Review will examine the media's role in covering violence.

Father and son in the gang

WBEZ's Chicago Matters series runs three weeks longer than WTTW's, plugging right into local breaks in NPR's Morning Edition three days a week. "Voices," a series of personal essays about violent crimes, will air on alternate days.

Live-to-tape community forums at two area high schools—one in a northwestern suburb, the other in southwest Chicago—are scheduled for two consecutive evenings this week. Both shows feature teen perspectives on violence. "They are the experts. They are the show," said Zorn.

Two separate interconnects with black-oriented WVON-FM and Spanish-language WOPA-FM will air early in May; both simulcasts are designed to get the city's ethnic communities talking to each other about violence.

The radio series culminates with five half-hour documentaries during the evenings of May 16-20. Among the topics treated in the long-form reporting will be a report on churches' efforts to recruit kids out of gangs, a piece about the intergenerational influence of gangs within families, and a profile of immigrant children from war-torn countries who now live in Chicago.

Zorn was struck with tales from the city that illustrate the pervasive effects of gang violence on daily life. "Kids can't get out of gangs because of their parents. They can't invite kids whose parents are in different gangs to come over to play," she elaborated. "I don't know to what extent the public knows about this problem."

She acknowledged her own doubt that coverage of violence may have reached the point of being "too much," but said she eventually came to the opposite conclusion. It can't hurt to "turn up the volume," so all the coverage "isn't just a phase."

National campaign proposed

Similar sentiments are building support for the proposed National Campaign to Reduce Youth Violence, which seeks to enlist all of public broadcasting in the effort.

The three originating groups aim to achieve together what none could accomplish alone—create a broadly based solution-oriented approach to the problem of youth violence. They have requested start-up funding from CPB to establish a central office and hire a coordinator, according to Nitty Gritty City Group leader Robert Larson, president of WTVS, Detroit.

Larson and Jack McBride, chairman of the Public Television Outreach Alliance, presented their funding proposal to the CPB Board during its March 24-25 meeting in San Antonio. A decision on whether CPB will back the effort is imminent, he said.

If and when the campaign receives that funding, the project would move quickly into "summit phase," and would aim to present a high-profile Bill Moyers series next January.

The summit would be national in scope and include not only public broadcasters but representatives from other media, such as commercial and cable networks, and community-level organizations and government agencies with which the urban Nitty Gritty stations have alliances. The purpose of the conference, according to a summary proposal, would be to "set an agenda and commit to its realization."

In addition to seeking CPB's support, the campaign's leaders have contacted major organizations within public broadcasting to ask for their participation. "It's important to get as many people on at the beginning so everyone has input into this multiyear project," said Larson. He plans presentations at the Central Educational Network and PTV annual meetings in May and June.

The problem of youth violence, a focus of WTVS's community outreach for years, is urgent, he said. "It's been around a long time. Nevertheless, we have to move quickly."


"We've been recognized as one of the participants in the life of the community
and not merely one who reports on the life"

WTVS plays coordinating role in city's antiviolence project

Originally published in Current, Nov. 1, 1993

Detroit's WTVS is beginning work on a multiyear antiviolence project that will try to reach young people in nine city neighborhoods.

The project is one of several community efforts that have recently won the station some $795,000 in grants.

WTVS is taking the lead in the antiviolence project as a member of the Interim Commission to Prevent Crime, Drugs and Violence, which also includes the city school system and police department, the local FBI office, Black Men Inc., the Detroit Federation of Teachers and other community groups.

"We've been recognized as one of the participants in the life of the community and not merely one who reports on the life," says Bob Larson, WTVS president.

WTVS broadcasts, closed-circuit videoconferences and training videotapes will be used in the antiviolence project to build support from adults and young people, and introduce students to conflict-resolution, peer counseling and other violence-reduction techniques.

The commission expects to continue its work for a decade, Larson says. "They say it takes about three years within a [school] building to have a pronounced impact."

Safety for children, he says, "is a right that mothers ought to have in any city—to send their kids to school without fear of what will happen when they walk by a crack house or into the school yard."

The project began in May with an on-air town meeting about violence, and will continue Nov. 17 with a two-hour program including an introduction by Attorney General Janet Reno, a presentation by Boston violence prevention specialist Deborah Prothrow-Stith, a documentary segment and another town meeting, says Gerald Smith, WTVS director of community development.

The station also will produce six short antiviolence videos to reach parents and teachers and eight for use with young people.

Lew Colson, a former Detroit police youth worker working on the project, says it will train an advance team to develop cooperation among block clubs, schools, churches and other neighborhood groups.

Based on 20 years experience in youth work, he believes high-school students will accept an effectively presented antiviolence message if it helps them understand who they are, educates them about violence, gives them positive activities and inspires them with hope.

"Every place we've ever gone, it's worked," says Colson. Schools typically see crime, drug use and violence decline 30 percent a year, he estimates.

Using the "weed and seed" approach advocated by the FBI, the project aims to "weed out" violent kids and "seed" the others with positive activities and outlook, according to Smith.

The antiviolence project is backed by two grants—$175,000 from the Skillman Foundation and $120,000 from the Michigan governor's substance abuse program.

In addition, the station won $200,000 from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation for the third annual City for Youth project, which this year aims to prepare students for entry into the world of work. Four commercial TV stations in the city will co-produce and broadcast programs on the theme along with WTVS, starting in January.

In addition, the station is spending part of its three-year $300,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation on a second series of StreetWatch programs for the Nitty Gritty City Group stations, Larson says.


. To Current's home page
. Earlier commentary: In Detroit, Bob Larson said he wanted to employ public TV's communications power for the benefit of the city and its people.

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