How KUNR’s internship program for high school students illustrates the value of youth voices during the pandemic

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Isabella LoConte

KUNR Youth Media alum Isabella LoConte interviews her grandmother, Edith Scott, in Reno, Nev., on Feb. 3, 2020.

This article first appeared on the website of the Radio Television Digital News Association and is republished here with permission.

What is the best way to find out how the last year has affected high school students? Hear from them directly. I don’t mean interview them, or sit down in a classroom for a day, but encourage high school students to share their stories with their own voices.

In KUNR Youth Media, high school students are trained by professional public radio reporters and get hands-on experience with pitching stories, voicing, conducting interviews, and editing audio stories to air and publish on KUNR Public Radio, the NPR member station in Northern Nevada. The program is run in partnership with the Washoe County School District, and students can earn a class credit.

I joined the program as a mentor and editor in August 2020 as my service project for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project. Early in the pandemic, KUNR Youth Media adapted to remote work and continues to keep students out of the field for safety. I haven’t met any of my students in person, but I’ve learned how to navigate the class completely remotely. I have a few tips for success if you’d like to implement this kind of program in your own newsroom — even if it’s a small one like ours.

Why pass the mic to teens?

By equipping student reporters with microphones, they can provide a unique insight into how the pandemic has disrupted schools and how the last year has upended any sense of normalcy for today’s youth. Student reporters are able to express themselves authentically and candidly through audio that can all be done at home.

KUNR’s audience gets an insider’s point of view of what teens are going through, what they miss about pre-pandemic times and their hopes for the future. The newsroom can share this fresh perspective in a way that wouldn’t be achieved in a sit-down interview with a teen.

The program also serves as a pipeline to the journalism workforce. I’ve worked with several alumni when they returned to intern for KUNR while in college. KUNR Youth Media also expands the station’s listenership. When student reporters share their work with their peers, it allows KUNR to reach a younger audience

How the program works

KUNR Youth Media is structured like a class. Each semester KUNR selects a small cohort of students with a junior or senior standing. The program is run by Robert Zorn, a well-regarded instructor who teaches video production, photography and journalism at the Academy of Arts, Careers and Technology in Reno. We meet with the students once a week for two hours on Zoom after school.

The semester starts off with workplace basics: why it’s important to check your email, show up on time, and meet all deadlines. Students receive an orientation and complete assignments, like writing journal entries and building their resumes, from the WCSD Work-Based Learning Programs facilitated by the Career and Technical Education Department.

The students also get hands-on instruction by KUNR reporters and editors. They receive editorial guidance from KUNR News Director Michelle Billman. Students experiment with multimedia components and graphic design with KUNR Digital Editor Crystal Willis. The students get to interact with guest speakers, like the dean of the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, Al Stavitsky, who talks about opportunities in journalism. The students also get mentored by professional reporters like myself. We work through the pitch process with the teens, hold listening sessions and help get their stories ready for air.

Creative story formats

KUNR Youth Media alum Janelle Olisea records an audio diary for KUNR at her home in Sparks, Nev., on Feb. 24, 2020. (Photo: Nelson Olisea)

Different story formats are assigned throughout the semester to help the students grow their skills. One assignment includes StoryCorps-style interviews. This format gives students experience drafting interview questions and conducting interviews, along with practice at recording their own voice. One teen interviewed her mom about what it was like growing up as an Asian American in a predominantly white community. Another student chatted with her English teacher about the challenges and triumphs of the last year in a piece which aired on NPR’s Here & Now and was featured in KUNR’s hourlong special remembering the anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic.

My favorite projects to assign student reporters are audio diaries and commentaries. Throughout the semester they record intimate reflections about their lives at their at-home “studios,” which are often their closets or their cars. The audio diaries and commentaries serve as historical accounts of what local teens experienced during the last year, such as what it was like to stay inside all day (a piece which was published on NPR’s Here & Now), post-election hopesthe meaning of Hanukkah and getting tested for COVID-19.

What works best for remote radio work

  • Do everything as an example first over Zoom. Most students haven’t used recorders before, so I found it’s crucial to have everyone test their recorders over Zoom.
  • Utilize screen share. Most students have never used audio editing software. Since I can’t be there in person guiding them through it, I encourage the students to share their screens to walk through editing and exporting audio.
  • We use Slack to communicate and as a place for students to upload their audio.
  • Recruitment can be done virtually by attending remote classes. This also helps promote public radio to younger audiences, but most recruitment is from students telling their friends about the course. 

What I wish I had known

  • Spend time explaining how to collect audio at home. Due to the pandemic, I’m not teaching students how to ask to turn off the music at a coffee shop, but there are just as many distracting noises at home.
  • Collect all multimedia components at once. I started requiring students to submit a Google Drive folder with all of their assets needed for air and web.
  • Ask for help from your colleagues. The stories need an audio edit before they air and need a web and social copy edit. I suggest having multiple reporters and digital staff members assigned to various support tasks.
  • As we all know, conversational voicing is a lifelong pursuit. For this type of program, you might strategically choose formats with limited voice work until the students have had access to enough coaching. We have found that voice coaching over Zoom can work, but it takes time.
  • One semester is enough time to go over the basics and produce some stories for air, but if students can participate for multiple semesters, they can learn more. 

As a recent college grad myself, I was nervous that I was too early in my career to be mentoring students, but I connected with the students and was able to relate to them. Editing their stories helped make my reporting stronger. I also tried to be a professional role model for the students. I wanted to exemplify, especially as a young woman, that they can be professional public radio journalists.

Lucia Starbuck is a corps member with Report for America based at KUNR, focusing on community reporting and the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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