How pubmedia can build relationships with teens and tweens  

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Joan Ganz Cooney Center

In a new report from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, researchers looked at public media’s ongoing work with teens and tweens of Generation Z — and the potential to expand and strengthen service to young people. Researchers conducted in-depth interviews with public media professionals who work with middle- and high-school–aged students and young adults who are alumni of educational and content-focused programs. 

The report, “Gen Z in the Room: Making Public Media by and With Youth for the Future,” documents how public media organizations large and small are collaborating with youth and summarizes the insights that project leaders have gained from their work. It also highlights the challenges and opportunities of youth media programs — and the value that youth participants found in their experiences — while offering recommendations to build and sustain public media’s relationship with this audience. 

This excerpt has been edited for style and length. 

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to public media engagement with youth. However, understanding the challenges and opportunities associated with this work will help stations approach their planning with clear-eyed expectations and motivation to overcome obstacles as they arise. This excerpt from “Gen Z in the Room: Making Media by and with Youth for the Future of Public Media” highlights lessons learned from youth alumni and project leads, noting the ways they have dealt with constraints and found success in light of these challenges.

Tensions of featuring personal experiences of youth

When asked for recommendations on how public media could engage youth participants, some alumni pointed to the ways in which vulnerability could be a desirable feature in their storytelling. Personal reactions in response to news events are common on social media and were described as especially relatable by our youth participants:

I would … get them involved, not just behind the scenes, but on camera, and get them to really be vulnerable with a camera and share their experiences. Because that’s also what people want. They want to see vulnerability, they want to see emotion. They don’t just want to hear a person tell you the news. And with Roe v. Wade, or, you know, the killing of George Floyd, what a lot of content creators were doing, were showing their emotion, showing their disdain, their disgust, their anger, sadness, fear, and that drove in mass audiences, because that person is feeling the same way I am. I can relate to that person. I know what they’re feeling. I know the pain they’re in. So that really just drives in audiences.

— Youth project alum

Yet there can be ethical tensions in how newsrooms balance journalistic standards with what young people deem authentic. Many stations doing co-production with youth want to uplift youth “expertise” by inviting stories based on their own experience. Personal stories, especially those that describe challenges and even trauma, may draw larger audiences. However, it can be problematic to showcase young people’s stories or raw reactions to current events without reflecting on how those responses are connected to personal experiences that may have been upsetting. Some of the youth alumni we spoke with were concerned that young people’s difficult experiences shouldn’t be used for media organizations’ benefit. One alum reflected that it was difficult at a young age to have the perspective to speak authoritatively on issues beyond one’s own personal experiences. This interviewee noted that youth media programs tend to amplify sensitive or even traumatic stories of young people, choosing those over more objective or detached stories:

Young people are oftentimes encouraged to make … stories about familial trauma, familial history, very personal things, and they’re less interested in more traditional journalistic inquiry in the stories. I just definitely noticed that’s a very strong trend in the stories that they accept and put out.  

Youth project alum

Another alum, noting the bias towards negative stories, said that giving youth from marginalized communities a platform for stories makes this dynamic important to avoid:

If you force the youth in your program to report only on their lived experience, and especially if you are targeting youth that are marginalized, or multipl[y] marginalized, you are forcing them to exhibit their trauma for the benefit of your audience. And that’s just that. If you’re asking somebody to report on being part of a community where they are systemically discriminated against, and that is what they are allowed to report about, whether behind several veils or not, then that is discrimination.

Youth project alum

Stations need to examine how to elevate young people’s expertise in ways that add depth, nuance and unique perspectives without inadvertently capitalizing on harmful experiences youth participants have faced for the sake of a good story.

Unlocking funding through youth work

Nearly every project lead we interviewed spoke about the challenges and trade-offs related to securing funding or maintaining financial sustainability. Even for long-standing, well-established projects, funding was described as a frequent source of uncertainty and constraint. Developing diverse revenue streams presents a hurdle and requires repeated rebalancing of staff time and priorities. For stations that rely on operating funds from donors, there are also incentives in their business model to serve older audiences. Making the case to these donors that public media needs youth project work is uncharted territory for most stations.

Additionally, the monetization of products and services associated with youth initiatives is seen as elusive and sometimes counter to the goals of public media. As one project lead described, sometimes these trade-offs emerged when thinking about the scale of impact for educational projects and the need to keep those that bring in reliable revenue:

You hear a lot about … depth versus breadth of programming, and … we decided that we were going too wide and we didn’t want to do that anymore. So we’ve had to focus on one school. And … if money is limited, you have to make those choices. … Our summer programs … we still charge for them. They’re the only program that we charge for. …There’s trade-offs; that’s an uncomfortable situation.

Project lead, larger joint-license station

Lack of significant and sustained public investment was cited repeatedly as a significant barrier, not only for production of content for tween and teen audiences, but also for achieving ongoing support for programs that collaborate with youth. One project lead described a team wanting to double down on its work with tweens and teens, but gaining buy-in from station leadership required securing external funding. This interviewee speculated that, if there were a large pot of funding for tween or teen work akin to something like Ready To Learn, that’s where the station would focus:

If we had to choose between applying to CPB funding for RTL little kids stuff or for RTL teens and tweens stuff, we would go for the teens and tweens stuff because that’s just where our thinking is. … [The biggest challenge is] station buy-in from the top. If you have leadership that gets it, and wants it, the possibilities are endless. In our case … the value in doing this work is understood, especially when money comes in around it. But to really take it to the next level, there’s no way we could do that right now. Because, you know, without the funding support, leadership just wouldn’t sign off on it. … So that’s the biggest challenge.

Project lead, smaller joint-license station

Many also find the short-term incentives that drive the funding process to be frustrating. Financial support for projects, particularly sponsorship, typically depends on reach. Even stations that have found success with productions that involve youth can struggle to translate that momentum into further donor engagement or corporate or foundation interest in growing beyond these productions.

We’ve had [a longstanding commitment to a youth show], and it is one of our most successful (in terms of many, many metrics) local series that we’ve produced, because, in part, we’ve been able to support it with local corporate underwriting. We’ve never been able to do that with another local show to this degree. … I went to foundation development [to make a pitch for tween or teen content].…I’d say I’m gonna develop this new thing. And they were like, “Well, we don’t really know that age group. We don’t have any prospects. We don’t know anyone that supports that age group. So unless it’s a priority for the [organization], that’s not really not our priority.” … Same thing with corporate underwriting; they just couldn’t figure out the way to make the dollars work.

Project lead, larger joint-license station

Sustained corporate funding for youth-centric projects is especially difficult to secure. Comparatively, stations have found more success with private foundations that have goals connected to education and youth development, technology and STEM, career readiness and workforce development, and/or support for underrepresented youth. Yet relying on private foundations for funding can present its own set of trade-offs. For instance, media education programs that work directly with youth and must prioritize clear educational outcomes do not generally have the capacity to expand to large audiences or reach self-sustainability within limited grant periods.

In light of these constraints, some stations have found that platforming youth for a general audience, as opposed to creating content for youth audiences, is more likely to lead to secured operating support, funded through general membership and underwriting. In other cases, project leads told us that pursuing a diverse range of funding sources and leveraging matching support can enhance sustainability:

We have had success securing local foundation grants for this type of work and matching funds for our media literacy work. This is very fundable, up to like the $20,000 – 25,000 [level] but it’s not enough to have a full-time youth media coordinator. It’s not enough to build the lab and do all the things. It’s enough to keep one-off projects going. … The beauty of a larger pool of money coming in from CPB, like when the American Graduate money came in, local foundations were like, “Oh, we want to match that up to what we can match.” So then the local money starts coming in, and then you have, like, real, $400,000 to $500,000 to work with.

Project lead, smaller joint-license station

There is no one funding pathway or strategy that will work for every youth project. How stations position their work with youth — as content production for news departments or as an education-centered experience for youth — will also significantly affect the type of funding a station might pursue.

Moving forward, it will be important for stations to consider what conditions and for what reasons they might commit operating funds for their youth-centric work. This will look different for stations whose strategies involve production of content created by and with young people versus stations that are focusing on youth development work that’s more agnostic to content quality and reach. Aligning youth projects with station strategic planning, so the institution sees the work as core to its priorities, is an important preliminary step to sustainability.

Youth participants see broadcast as a powerful way to share their work

For stations engaged in high-touch production of content with youth, “making it to broadcast” remains the primary goal. Given the fact that young people primarily get their content digitally, our research team was initially surprised to learn that youth media programs, including the young people participating in them, remain motivated to go to broadcast. Stories from youth media creators are often published online in some form, but the ultimate win remains a segment on broadcast:

It’s always really exciting for them when their story goes out on the air. …There is something so exciting about being able to … turn on the radio and for them to hear it. …It’s absolutely reaching a wider audience. For students to know that your story is going to be downloaded on the podcast a few hundred times versus heard by thousands of people during a prime broadcast spot, that’s huge for them.

Project lead, large radio station

The interviews revealed a fundamental challenge facing public media as it transitions to digital: broadcast continues to hold sway because it enables reach that is difficult to consistently achieve through digital distribution. 

The general attitude [in our program], at least among the students, was that broadcast was sort of like the big time and once we get there, it would be awesome. Whereas digital, for us, was [that] we got put up on a website somewhere, and no one would ever find us. If we were to have uploaded our stuff to a YouTube channel with, like, 100 million subscribers, I think we would all be a lot more excited for that than broadcast. I think it really is an issue of distribution, and finding a platform with a lot of active audience members.

Youth project alum

Without a system-level investment in digital infrastructure, content produced with youth does not typically reach wide audiences online. One interviewee said:

[Our program] has struggled with getting people’s ears on the stuff that doesn’t go on air. We have a pretty strong audience when it comes to adults that listen for the youth perspective when that goes on air. But otherwise, when it comes to like, listens on our podcast app, or like Twitter, we don’t get anything. And I feel like some of that is really the conundrum. How do we get our work in front of people?  

Youth project alum

Similarly, when digital content is produced with youth audiences in mind, the options for distribution remain mostly limited to commercial platforms. For educational content, PBS LearningMedia was noted as the primary vehicle for reaching middle- and high-school–aged students via teachers and schools. But there is currently no equivalent to PBS Kids for older youth, and while PBS Digital Studios’ target audience is younger than PBS’s general audience, it does not specifically focus on serving tweens and teens. Digital audio platforms such as Apple Music and Spotify offer limited examples of public media productions for younger tweens, and teen audiences might find relevance in some audio journalism for adults, but no one digital distribution platform is specifically targeted to them or to an intergenerational audience that would include them.      

Youth-centric work can help advance goals for digital transformation

Throughout many of our interviews, project leads noted that stations are not fully prepared for the changes in engagement that digital content demands. This evolution, and the accompanying engagement of Gen Z audiences, is recognized as critical to public media’s future relevance. Yet tensions exist between serving the existing audience members and donors and serving the future audience of digital natives. As one project lead put it, “People are too attached to the things that bring in the money and the things that keep the station going without realizing it’s stunting how we evolve.” Only a small handful of stations appear to be leveraging their youth-centric work to advance goals related to digital transformation. This is a powerful area of untapped opportunity.

One common refrain in the interviews, particularly among the handful of stations with significant digital strategies that have explored content production for tweens or teens, was the important role of experimentation. At the same time, several of these digital innovators remarked on the difficulty of developing a coherent digital strategy while also experimenting with emerging technologies and contending with the limits of existing infrastructure:

More recently, we’ve really focused on the possibilities for reaching younger audiences through YouTube. And you know, we’ve done some exploration in other places, like Facebook, that we’ve since sort of abandoned, and Instagram, and now TikTok. But we haven’t had a really concerted long-term strategy or approach to the way that we’re engaging younger audiences, beyond [project show] and beyond YouTube. We’ve played in lots of places where we’re, like, “Oh, educators might be here.” So there’s just been a long list of places that we’ve placed some content, tried things out.

Project lead, larger joint-license station

Let’s see if we can create other content, if we can build scale and see what happens. … I tried a number of different things. I tried a show, I tried a podcast, I tried two podcasts. And what was interesting…, every time I created something … there was nowhere to put it. And also zero infrastructure.

Project lead, larger joint-license station

Time was mentioned as another key challenge, particularly as stations work to build audiences on new platforms. One project lead pointed out that it takes three to five years to build a following on social media. And digital-first represents a fundamental shift in engagement that demands ongoing cultivation and dialogue:

When you broadcast something … the broadcast is the ultimate thing. And then it’s like, “Okay, what are we going to [work on next]?” With social media and YouTube, when you launch something, that’s the beginning of the relationship with your audience. And there’s an expectation that community is going to be supported and built, and it’s going to be dialogue. It’s not this passive “sit back, watch this show.” It’s a lean in. You just posted something I’m really interested in, and how can I communicate with you? When you look at people’s budgets, they often end when the thing launches, and that’s actually when there needs to be a lot of money invested, or time. Because the expectation is very, very different.

Project lead, larger joint-license station

Even with these challenges, project leads spoke of successes and encouragement from leadership to continue pursuing digital-first content. Among the minority who have been experimenting with creating content for young people and distributing directly to them on the platforms they use most, some are beginning to be recognized in their stations for particular expertise. As one project lead reflected, work creating digital products for Gen Z and distributing them through social media benefits the station broadly:

It was only in the last year that a wider digital video strategy really started to form at [our station] that had a big priority of reaching Gen Z audiences as part of the strategic digital growth overall; and then all of a sudden, it was like, “The [youth initiative team] has been doing this. Maybe we can learn something from them.” Now there’s recognition that we’ve been doing that work, and it’s really core to the overall digital growth strategy for [our station].

Project lead, larger joint-license station

Recommendations for an evolving public media system

Youth project goals should align with core station institutional needs, and station leadership should embrace and communicate the role of youth projects in advancing strategic direction to both internal and external stakeholders.

Youth-focused projects should be included in station strategic planning and designed to support key institutional goals. Station leadership should envision and articulate how youth-project work advances strategic direction and build commitments to youth contributions to public media, both within the station through cross-departmental collaboration and through donor engagement and community partnerships. 

Stations should strengthen their capacity to recognize stories that need a youth angle and train staff to include young people’s voices and experiences.

Young people’s voices can fundamentally change the dialogue that public media makes possible. While not all stories inherently have a youth angle, many of the most pressing issues of our time — climate change, human rights, sustaining democracy — are fundamental to Gen Z and may be understood by younger viewers and listeners differently than by their parents or grandparents. Additionally, youth perspective in productions is needed for public media to fully represent the community.

The public media system should experiment and share light-touch, sustainable ways to involve youth and center their perspectives in station work.

Stations can build upon and look beyond traditional models of engaging young people through youth development projects, often housed in education departments. While these approaches can be impactful for the relatively small number of young people involved, they are challenging to expand, and capacity constraints mean that youth co-production for wide distribution is out of reach for most stations. In the coming years, the system should experiment with lighter-touch ways of involving youth in station-led productions, community initiatives and civic projects.

Stations should look to youth to help identify opportunities to make public media more relevant to younger audiences.

Youth perspective is critical to the ongoing digital transformation of the media industry. This is not only about the tactical questions of what platforms are used or how to predict algorithms to reach audiences, but also about the ways that the internet is fundamentally shaping youth culture and media habits. Any attempts to develop content for young people will require robust commitment and experimentation. Yet building connections to young people is a needed first step. Stations can use their work with youth to reveal opportunities for making public media more relevant to younger audiences.

Mary Madden is a veteran researcher, writer and nationally recognized expert on privacy and technology, trends in social media use and the impact of digital media on teens and parents. She is an affiliate at the Data & Society Research Institute in New York City.

Elizabeth Rood is an education advisor, researcher and writer with expertise in youth development, learning and participatory program design. She is the founder and principal of Learning Designs Consulting, which provides advisory services in educational media and experiential learning.

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