Passing The Mic: NPR and The Next Generation in Radio
I'm sitting at my desk at NPR Headquarters in Washington DC. Outside it's cloudy, humid, and raining again. I've been trying to write this article for most of the day, but I keep getting interrupted. What can I say? I'm a popular guy around here. I'm the "Answer Man," the all-knowing, all-seeing guru to those who come seeking a job in public radio. (They usually start out as NPR interns.)
In the last 30 minutes, four interns have come by. First it was Cat McDonald, our NPR Online-Editorial Intern. She has an idea. She wants to interview the hosts of our newsmagazines about being a host. Cat (Cathy) wants to contribute to the one-hour radio program NPR interns write, edit, and produce themselves called Intern Edition. She doesn't know it, but as I write this we chose her to co-host Intern Edition. (She beat out 19 others who auditioned.) I say "Great idea."
We have 46 interns at NPR this summer. That's a historic number, beating last year's record of 38 quite easily. We even have our first international intern, a young lady I met last October when I was in Santiago, Chile visiting and doing seminars at the school where I taught in 1997. Since I had been there I felt it was time for someone from there to come here.
Cat leaves and I go back to typing. Ten minutes later, Rebecca Ekpe, the Weekend All Things Considered intern, comes by. She had photos on a digital camera of an undocumented immigrant. Rebecca is from Ghana and just graduated from the University of North Texas. Her story for Intern Edition is about asking DC area immigrants if they have realized "the American Dream." At the moment I can't find my card reader to put her photos on my laptop so we agree to do it later. I turn back to the computer screen and keyboard.
I manage to write the first paragraph before Intern Edition Executive Producer Katrina Matthews, who has two degrees from Louisiana State University, and Managing Editor Deanna Garcia, who just graduated from New Mexico State, are standing over me.
"We have a great idea," they say excitedly. "How about we have the host of the show interview the hosts of NPR's shows?" I laugh, then say, "Cat McDonald was just here pitching that idea." "Oh," they say, "Well, Cat just talked to us." We all laugh.
These are typical scenes in my job as project manager for NPR's Next Generation Radio. I usually say it's an initiative funded entirely by NPR designed to bring young people, new voices, and ideas to public radio through hands-on training. I've been at this for ten years. First, I was doing it on the side.
In 1994, one of my best friends, Traci Tong, a producer and director for the PRI program The World, roped me into helping her lead a radio training project at a conference called UNITY: Journalists of Color. The four minority journalist organizations were meeting for the very first time at a single conference to find common ground and to address issues with one voice. Our radio project was titled United Voice.
Neither of us had any kind of project management experience. We competitively selected our student trainees, and for several months, spent each day on the phone together planning the project. We assembled a team of like-minded colleagues as mentors and, with luck and chutzpah, we pulled it off.
Emboldened by the experience, the next year I started a radio-training project with the National Association of Black Journalists. My then colleague Maria Martin, who founded the NPR program Latino USA, and that show's host, Maria Hinojosa, who reports for CNN, as well as NPR's Mandalit del Barco, worked on a radio project with the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. Traci started the radio-training project for the Asian-American Journalists Association. Another NPR colleague and I worked to launch a radio project with the Native American Journalists Association.
By 1999, after another successful UNITY radio project, I decided to put all of this under NPR's tent in order to raise our profile and make it much more than a minority focused radio-training program. Luckily, I had NPR's senior managers on my side. I dubbed our program Next Generation Radio. I decided to call it that because that's exactly what it is, radio done by the next generation of people who are interested in reporting and producing in public radio. In 2003, I either led and/or managed 13 different radio training projects across the country and at NPR, where college students of varying ages had the opportunity to produce a real story in real working conditions with real deadlines.
Another interruption. One of our next gen participants from a project we did with Heineken and Billboard Magazine in 2000 for commercial Spanish language radio stations just called. She's now doing public relations in DC and wanted to give me her contact information. We've been training students who speak both Spanish and English for four years now as part of our overall partnership with the NAHJ.
A mentor on our NAHJ radio projects has given me the Spanish nickname "Padrino" or "Godfather."
A major factor in the development of Next Generation Radio has been the Internet. In 1999, at the height of the dot-com craziness, a former colleague and I started our own Internet company we called Freshwav.com. (I kept my NPR producing and directing job.) We wanted to take all those people with radio programs who were not being heard and edit or produce them and put their programs on the Internet for a small fee. Not many people had high-speed connections then, we had no money, and no one wanted to pay for our services. We crashed, alongside hundreds of other start-ups. As a good friend of mine who also experienced a dot-com crash wisely advised me, "You should be burning other people's money, not your own."
What I learned during that insanity about the growing convergence of media and technology and who adapted quickly and used it to their benefit is the reason we have Next Generation Radio at NPR today. In fact, the name came from a phrase that was thrown around during my start-up days when referring to the next generation of operating systems, routers, hubs, switchers, cell phones, etc., etc. I even went to "Yahoo!" and registered two domain names I still rent today: "nextgenerationradio.net" and "nextgenerationradio.org."
There goes the phone again. Maria Hermosilla (our intern from Chile) and Martina Castro, the intern at Talk of The Nation and my next gen radio website columnist, both need reporter kits to finish interviewing people for their Intern Edition stories. The political conventions, Olympics, Interns and our UNITY Radio project all happening at the same time means NPR is tapped out of equipment. We figure out a way for both of them to get what they need. I go back to writing.
I've been with NPR for 17 years. My interest in public radio began the same way it does for our current interns. My parents listened to NPR and were big contributors to their local station. I worked at an NPR member-station in Oklahoma where I grew up and went to college. The news department was very serious. Our News Director at the time didn't allow us to be lazy, incompetent, or ignorant. There was no whining, no excuses for missing a story, being irresponsible, unethical, or not knowing how a bill got through the legislature. If you didn't measure up, you didn't work for him and he would say so to your face. Thankfully if he hadn't pushed me then, I would not be working here now. I was at my college public radio station for three and a half years reporting and producing. I landed a reporting/anchoring job at the top commercial radio station in Tulsa one week after graduation.
You know, life is a circle. I'm not nearly as mean as my old news director, but Next Generation Radio at NPR does essentially the same thing that many public radio stations have given up doing since I was in school. We give college students a chance to prove themselves in an environment that is stressful, often difficult, and unpredictable but very nurturing. So far, NPR itself has hired nearly 40 former interns and Next Generation Radio participants. We have others sprinkled throughout the public radio system as reporters from Boston to Atlanta, Detroit to New York City, Seattle to Flagstaff, Arizona.
My email is piling up and there's the phone again. Let's see…a student at a California university found our website, wants to get into radio, can't decide what equipment to buy...
NextGen Website Columnists