Audience initiative led by Sesame Workshop’s Cooney Center backs station projects co-created with Gen Z

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Tara Wren experienced a eureka moment during a 2020 public media conference presentation on audience research. As experts from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop discussed the impact of public media’s inconsistent programming for middle- and high-school students, Wren, director of education for Mississippi Public Broadcasting, realized the long-term implications for public TV and radio.

During the January 2020 National Educational Telecommunications Association conference, researchers from the Cooney Center shared preliminary findings from their qualitative study of public television’s “Missing Middle” audience; tweens and teens of Generation Z who graduated from PBS Kids programming in early elementary school rarely, if ever, looked back. Their criticism of public media was alarming, with most students saying programs on their local stations didn’t interest them. Others “hesitated or expressed confusion” when asked what public media, both radio and television, meant to them.

Wren

Wren remembers thinking “They’re exactly right” when she heard the researchers’ findings.

“We have the little ones with the PBS Kids programming but we don’t have that middle audience,” she said. “When they age out of the PBS Kids programs, they kind of leave public media.” Within stations, kids’ migration to other forms of media is seen as part of a long-established pattern that ends when they enter adulthood and rediscover public TV and radio. Or at least that’s the hope, Wren said.

Wren, whose job involves working with schools across the state to build a digital education network for their students, believes it doesn’t have to be this way. Public media can bridge the gap between young children and older adults in its audience by developing consistent and distinct programming for tweens and teens, she said.

The Cooney Center’s presentation encouraged Wren to consider ways that MPB could engage tweens and teens and introduce them to public broadcasting during their formative years. Her idea, which took a year to develop and required help from school principals and guidance counselors, was to create the MPB Student Council, which involves middle- and high-school students as advisors who share their perspectives on programming. The students, who live in different parts of the state and participate through Zoom and other digital platforms, also receive support with college preparation and career readiness.

Now MPB is expanding that work as one of 12 stations selected for a six-month accelerator program to develop and create content by, with and for tweens and teens. The Next Gen Public Media Audiences initiative, funded by CPB and led by the Cooney Center, provides grants of $15,000 to stations to produce video, audio and other media projects that involve tweens and teens in content creation. The program is designed around key findings of the final “Missing Middle” report, which found that tweens and teens seek authentic representation of their lives in the content they consume, and that they want to be directly involved in the creative process.

Preston

The initiative helps stations start projects that can continue after the program ends in August, said Michael Preston, executive director for the Cooney Center. He hopes that the accelerator will be able to fund new projects after the inaugural six-month grant round ends.

In awarding the grants, “we tried to select a variety of station types, sizes and geographical locations,” Preston said. “We wanted stations to see that the learnings are possible for everyone and not just for a select few in the system.” Five of the grantees are public radio broadcasters; three are public TV stations; and four, including MPB, operate both TV and radio stations.

High-school students were involved in evaluating stations’ proposals and selecting the grantees, Preston said. They showed a particular interest in projects that focus on climate change, mental health, racial justice and civic participation. Several projects target youths who are underrepresented and underserved by public and commercial media, including Native American and Indigenous populations, neurodiverse students and Black high school girls.

Youth-led audio programs

Out of 12 grantees in the inaugural cohort, three will create audio programs. MPB is one of them. The grant supports expanding the student council’s activities into producing a podcast about social issues affecting its members. In Connecticut, producers of WSHU’s climate change podcast Higher Ground are co-producing a special series of episodes with middle-school students who are interested in STEM fields.

MPB’s plans call for student council members to record one podcast episode each month during the first year; a video component produced for YouTube is also on the drawing board. So far, the students have recorded podcasts on “teachers who teach uniquely,” school dress codes and communication issues between parents and their tweens and teens.

Members of the student council came up with all of the ideas for podcast topics; Wren and MPB staffers who specialize in audio programming are guiding the production process. Enabling council members to take charge of the project empowers them to bring their unique perspectives to the podcast, Wren said. “I feel very strongly that students should have their own voices and that they should be heard,” Wren said, acknowledging that the “Missing Middle” report reinforced this belief.

With the students dispersed across the state, MPB is relying on Zoom and other digital platforms to produce the podcast virtually, which presents logistical and scheduling challenges. To help make things run smoothly, MPB enlisted the support of council members’ parents, Wren said. Parents have told Wren the program has helped their children build confidence in speaking out about important issues, Wren said.

WSHU, a university-licensed public radio station in Fairfield, Conn., is creating student-led episodes of Climate Change Proof in Bridgeport for the second season of Higher Ground. Eighth graders from different schools will produce up to six episodes as they learn about climate change and its effects on Bridgeport, a coastal community that is Connecticut’s most populated city, and the world at large. The episodes are currently being recorded and are projected to be released in July.

Sheridan

“Our goal is to transform them from eighth-grade STEM kids to high school environmentalists,” said Terry Sheridan, senior director of news and education for WSHU. “The exciting thing is that we’re also teaching them podcasting. They’re the ones that have the microphones … they’re the ones with the headphones going around trying to get sounds of different elements.”

WSHU partnered with the Discovery Science Center and Planetarium at Sacred Heart University, the station’s licensee in Fairfield, Conn., on the project. J.D. Allen, WSHU’s managing editor and host for Higher Ground, and producer Sabrina Garone are working with the students on the podcast.

WSHU is splitting the $15,000 grant with the Discovery Science Center and Planetarium, said GM A. Rima Dael. She described the podcast as “an educational tool” for schools in and around Bridgeport, adding that the partners will create learning guides and other study materials based on the podcast’s findings.

“Let’s not forget that this is a win for students,” Sheridan added. “They are having fun going through this. This is not like they’re sitting in class getting lectured to. They’re outside having fun while learning new skills.”

Targeting youth whose lives are underrepresented in media

Three of the accelerator projects focus on tweens and teens within a specific cognitive, racial or gender-based demographic. For example, South Carolina ETV is working with Black female high-school students to develop Conversations with Crescent, an animated educational series featuring their perspectives.

KBTC PBS in Tacoma, Wash., is creating Ability Awareness, a series of video shorts that show how neurodiverse youth can address life skills and transition to the workplace and independent living as young adults.

Isabela Reed, a community engagement manager for KBTC PBS, is leading the project. The station retained an independent producer who works with neurodiverse youth to help manage the production and partnered with the Lewis County Autism Coalition, which is providing expert guidance in shaping the content. KBTC is working with the Federal Way School District to identify students to participate in creating the videos.

“There’s not a lot of media that is appropriate for the neurodivergent community,” Reed said, adding that the project will produce at least three “how to” and “tips” videos that discuss conversational skills and self care. Participating students will gain experience with using video production tools.

Another grantee, KWMR in Point Reyes Station, Calif., is partnering with an outside organization to produce a 27-minute pilot episode of Indigenous YOUth Nation, a radio magazine for Native American and Indigenous communities. Producers of UnderCurrents, the public radio music series, are leading the production. The program will air on Native Voice One and be distributed through PRX.

Jeneda Benally, a musician from the Diné Navajo Nation in Northern Arizona, created the concept for a radio show that engages youth from Indigenous cultures. Last year, Benally pitched it to Gregg McVicar, creator, host and producer of UnderCurrents. “The idea is to normalize Indigenous culture, practices and activities,” said Benally, EP of Indigenous YOUth Nation. The history of racist stereotypes about Indigenous people affects the youth today, she said.

“Youth so often have been made to feel they have to choose between what is modern and what is traditional as being an Indigenous person,” Benally said. She wants Indigenous YOUth Nation to help them navigate those choices by showcasing a variety of cultures.

The pilot program will have eight segments, including “Word to Know,” which will spotlight words or phrases that are important to Indigenous cultures, and “Day in the Life of,” which will follow a tween or teen doing everyday tasks that are part of their culture. Another segment, “Time Traveler,” will showcase a youth ambassador searching the Library of Congress archive for Indigenous artifacts and knowledge.

“So many of our ancestors’ voices, photographs and information exist in the Library of Congress — a lot of people don’t know about the treasure trove that holds our ancestral knowledge,” Benally said.

KWMR, a community radio station that has produced several youth programs over its history, joined the project in a fiduciary role, according to Station Manager Amanda Eichstaedt. As a CPB-qualified station, it was eligible to receive grant monies from the corporation on behalf of the producers.

“We do see this as being the first pilot in hopefully a very long series that will continue to inspire youth, empower cultural knowledge and help create a necessary dialogue between generations about cultural preservation,” said Benally.

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