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Youth Express

location_on Pittsburgh, United States

Live and on-demand broadcast of original writing, music, roundtable discussions, and journalism from area teens.

When youth realize that their voice matters, they realize that they matter. Since 2013, Youth Express has used tools of radio to create and distribute commentaries, discussions, documentaries, and other youth-generated content through a 24/7 radio station available on standard radio apps for smartphones and connected cars, a custom mobile app, social media, and on the web at youthexpress.org.

HundrED 2020
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Overview

HundrED has selected this innovation to

HundrED 2020

Pittsburgh, USA

2013

Established

18K

Children/users

1

Countries
Organisation
Not-for-profit
Target group
All
Updated
November 22nd, 2022
I built a sense of awareness and an urge to learn more about the voices in my community. Youth Express strengthened my group work skills, ability to talk with strangers, and media making skills.
Alexandra Sorce, 17, Radio Documentary Producer

About the innovation

How can we modernize the tradition of radio storytelling to amplify youth voices and reach adult audiences who need to hear these voices the most?

Youth are talked about, studied, marketed to, worried over, and blamed for almost everything. They are usually asked for their thoughts only in times of crisis or when there is money to be made from them. Youth Express demonstrates that youth voice matters all of the time. 

Youth Express is not simply about creating radio targeted to youth; rather, it focuses on disseminating the voices of youth to new audiences (including adults) while promoting intellectual, creative and professional growth, all in a way that stresses learning -- for media makers and listeners

Youth Express operates from independent studios in an urban setting on Pittsburgh's Northside and brings together students from different neighborhoods, backgrounds, and school districts as they interact and learn from one another.

Why radio in the age of ubiquitous digital cameras and YouTube? Simply stated, radio is a tremendous equalizer; all can participate regardless of physical capabilities or appearance. Radio stresses the use of fundamental language and communications skills. With the trappings of television lighting, set design, and graphic enhancement removed, radio allows makers – and listeners – the opportunity to use imagination in a provocative way that not only entertains, but also engages and educates.  Radio also provides a degree of privacy to the creator that often is impossible with other media. It is the perfect balance -- and also is a cost-effective medium for information gathering, preparation, and dissemination. 

Youth Express is the result of a bold initiative to create a 24/7 Internet radio service that delivers essays, poems, theater, music and other original works created by area youth. Making youth expression available and prominent achieves multiple goals: 

  • Participating youth sharpen skills (e.g., interviewing, writing, speaking, persuasiveness, editing, teamwork, deadline compliance) that support academic standards, 21st century skills and college/workforce readiness. 
     
  • Providing a distribution method and audience for student work helps all students aspire to share thoughts and ideas, write clearly and become more engaged with their community. 
     
  • Showcasing youth voice helps (1) eliminate preconceived notions about neighborhoods, ethnic or racial background, and other factors, (2) improve overall understanding and empathy for people whose situations are different than their own, and (3) inform other generations about youth-centric issues. 
     
  • Use of radio is economical, ensures privacy, simplifies acquisition/delivery, and embraces the growing market for content for smartphones, podcasts and Internet-equipped car radios.

While some Youth Express students have gone on to journalism or broadcasting careers, Youth Express is not a career training program. Rather, it is a platform that recognizes that all youth have an authentic voice that warrants dissemination. 

Finally, in a time when civil dialogue and cultural understanding may be at an all-time low, Youth Express builds connections and empathy. Our platform welcomes and blends audio created by  students from urban, rural and suburban schools. We also host meetups and special programs to encourage cross-school collaboration. Students and listeners alike have told us that they have experienced increased empathy and understanding when they hear authentic audio from real youth, often hearing someone from a different neighborhood or background for the first time. Educators have used specific Youth Express audio for professional development.

Impact & scalability

Academy review results
High Impact
Low Scalability
High Impact
High Scalability
Low Impact
Low Scalability
Low Impact
High Scalability
Read more about our selection process

Media

Celebrating the Class of 2020
Youth Express, in partnership with Remake Learning, The Grable Foundation, and WQED Media, is celebrating the graduating class of 2020. Graduation is typically marked with commencement ceremonies and other events to provide closure to students finishing high school. The COVID-19 pandemic has limited the ways that graduates can be acknowledged. So, using an interactive map, students, teachers, parents, and other supporters can pin a school or town and create a message, audio, video or text, celebrating the work of these graduating seniors.
Youth Express Listens
While COVID-19 has limited many of our interactions with others, we still wanted to give youth an outlet to express their concerns and share how their lives have changed. Youth Express has implemented virtual recording booths to allow this form of expression to continue. Using a microphone built into their desktop, laptop, or smartphone, youth can record and submit reflections on the pandemic, #BlackLivesMatter movement, and other relevant topics anywhere with an internet connection.Once these recordings are processed, they are featured on a public SoundCloud playlist.
Scalability, Sharing and Professional Development
We enjoy sharing our ideas and learning from others. Based on the professional development and consulting we've provided to schools and community centers, we have learned that the key barriers to success are usually not access to equipment or funding, but instead a need for (i) strong, well-honed programs and projects that provide youth with enough structure to be successful while still allowing creativity and (ii) training for adults in equipment use as well as principals for creating a trusted space in which youth will feel comfortable expressing themselves authentically.With respect to programs, we have developed dozens of tested and documented processes to support projects we have implemented and refined repeatedly. While our methods include details and suggestions, they also allow room for ample flexibility since it is essential that the methods used reflect the culture of the youth, neighborhood, school/community center, and region of those involved. Programs we have offered and tested repeatedly include youth creation of public service announcements, person-on-the street interviews, commentaries, documentaries (including interviews with experts), roundtable discussions, live talk shows, personal narratives (including hundreds of well-honed prompts) and oral history collection. With respect to training, SLB has provided classroom-style and informal training to hundreds of educators, librarians, and other adults with an emphasis on gaining comfort with the equipment, project ideas, and best practices.While the practices and methods described above are important for scalability, we also believe its imperative to use systems that are open-source, world-deployable, and low-cost solutions wherever possible. For example:While we often teach students using editing software they will see in industry (e.g., Adobe Audition), we also provide recommendations for freeware such as Audacity, Reaper,  and Goldwave, all available at no cost.  While U.S.-based radio content solutions are plentiful, we favor systems that are designed for use throughout the world. Software we use or recommend for others include products from Spacial Audio (South Africa, U.S.), RadioJar (Greece) and Airtime (Czech Republic), all best-in-class, available in virtually all languages, and used in hundreds of countries. 
Intentional growth and scale...
Since the launch of Youth Express, the demand for equipment and services has increased dramatically. In 2017 and 2018, our staff visited twelve peer facilities across the United States to exchange information and research best practices. Along with research on additional facilities in the U.S. and throughout the world and -- most importantly -- input from area youth, SLB will complete a major studio expansion in October 2019. This expansion will include two new studios, a 24-seat media-making classroom, eight high-powered editing workstations, and 75-seat performance/audience space for spoken word and youth-created music. 
Walk-up satellite studio...
While we offer hundreds of staff-led Youth Express studio and field workshops annually, we also wanted to create a walk-up experience that teens could access and operate independently. In April 2019, we launched our first Youth Express Satellite Studio. The studio makes use of a custom-made soundproof booth made by Framery (Tampere, Finland) fitting up to six teens along with an SLB-configured digital mixer, sampling device and audio recorder made by Rode (Sydney, Australia) as well as headphones, microphones, Bluetooth connections and cables. While guidesheets and ideas are provided, the studios is designed for self-exploration. An interface is provided that allows users to email their audio to Youth Express for airplay if desired.  
Review: Amplifying youth voices
"SLB unites the community by giving a variety of people the chance to share their voices and their skills with others via radio, and by being a fun place that people can experience together safely."-R.J., community member
Review: Programs that cross boundaries
"My teen daughter connected with students that she'd never have met in our conservative suburban area. SLB programming helps shrink our world and gives a comfortable, safe place for kids to explore exciting aspects of their lives and showcase their abilities."-Susan, parent of youth participant
Streaming 24/7
Youth Express content is distributed via Internet radio every hour of every day.Listen to the 24/7 stream
Youth radio documentary producer, Alexandra Sorce
"I was able to experience just how cool radio is... I built a sense of awareness, and an urge to learn more about of the voices in Pittsburgh in the process of researching for each radio piece. My experiences at SLB have also indirectly better prepared me for college by strengthening my group work skills, ability to talk with strangers, and general media editing skills."
Youth Express App
A part of amplifying youth voice is to make youth-led discussions and original content easy to access with a mobile device. The Youth Express App opens up the Youth Express on-demand library and 24/7 live stream to iOS, Android, Kindle, and Windows users.Download for: iOS, Android, Kindle, or Windows
Youth Express Podcast
Original writing, reflections, music, radio theater, journalism, and more from Pittsburgh-area youth are featured in a weekly podcast distributed to all major podcast platforms. Listen and subscribe to the Youth Express Podcast
Youth Documentary: Money Management Matters
Heinz Youth Philanthropy interns Nichole Vreen, Dejah Clark, and Micah Arnold documenting financial literacy in their schools and communities.Listen to Money Management Matters

Steps

Establish adult and youth champions to start the program

1. Find a teacher who is devoted to amplifying authentic youth voice and who has the patience to gently guide youth -- and learn from them -- as they find their way.

2. Find two or three students who also are eager to develop a Youth Express program.

3. Draft basic guidelines for content (e.g., original writing, music, roundtable discussions, commentaries, documentaries).

4.  Recruit a core group of students to evaluate the draft plan and build the program.

Create a trusted space for sharing and recording
  1. Choose a comfortable space, ideally one that allows youth to sit in a circle and that is isolated fro m other activities. A classroom is fine. A gymnasium or cafeteria is a poor choice.

  2. Strive for a space that is reasonably quiet. While some amount of noise is fine and will not be picked up by properly used microphones, be especially mindful of rooms that could pick up "sudden" noises such as automobile traffic from an open window, frequent hall traffic, or noise from a fan.

  3. If possible, choose a room with carpeted floors and/or chairs that won't squeak.

  4. Initial equipment can be very simple and helps students feel ownership and control. We suggest a simple digital recorder (Zoom H4n), microphone and XLR cable (Sennheiser e835), headphone amplifier (ART HeadAMP), and four sets of over the ear headphones (AKG 240 or similar).
Establish a cohort of students and meet regularly

Here's one simple way to start:

  1. Recruit a group of 8 to 16 students.

  2. Develop an initial schedule; we suggest meeting weekly for 6 to 8 weeks with each session lasting 40 to 60 minutes. 

  3. Sit in a circle. Speak calmly and help students transition from their prior mindset to that of Youth Express. 

  4. Provide a simple introduction of how microphones and digital recorders work. 

  5. Introduce a "speed writing" script that will help students quickly formulate an interesting short set of sentences or paragraph to record. One we like to use on the first day is:

    My name is __________ (first name), I'm _____ (age) years old and am in _______ (grade level ) grade at ___________ (name of school). Other people would describe me as ___________, _________, and _________ (list three adjectives and stress that this should be based on how others would describe you). In my spare time, I like to _____________.

  6. While students will want to fill out a script as if it were a worksheet, others will want to use the blank script as a speaking guide. Both methods are fine and also help students feel comfortable.

  7. Have each student record his or her script. As these speakers share their script one by one, we suggest create rotating roles to help maintain engagement and support. We like to use roles of (i) producers, who will be responsible for quieting the group before recording, (ii) engineers, responsible for monitoring and saving recordings and (iii) listeners, responsible for detecting paper rustling, loud background noise, etc.

  8. The class period will likely be over by the time all speakers have recorded. We deliberately do not listen to the recordings until the following week. 


IMPORTANT NOTE: The method above is simply one way of starting. Other options include developing a cohort based on youth engaged in a school newspaper, creative writing club, or debate team. Another popular technique is to look for the indigenous writing happening in language arts, social studies and other classroom work.

Establish a routine for recording, publishing, listening
  1. Listen back to the recordings from the prior week.

  2. Listen for teachable moments and areas of curiosity. For example, nearly everyone thinks that their recorded voice sounds different than their actual voice. Explain that a person primarily hears one's own voice through the bones in his head while others (including the microphone) hears through a sound wave that moves through the air. This is why wearing headphones is helpful and why most broadcasters and singers where headphones or sometimes cup their ears to hear their voice as others do.

  3. With the light editing you did offsite, most students will feel increased confidence on listening back. Now it's time to introduce  a new "Speed Script" for the week -- one that is more complicated yet still relatively easy to create and record (e.g., something I collect, a team I'm part of, three wishes, a book I'd recommend, my earliest childhood memory). SLB has hundreds of examples available.

  4. Record using techniques similar to the prior week and continue listening back and building confidence.


Add special projects as teens gain experience

While students who have made it to this part of the program will have lots of ideas, it's still important to provide some degree of structure in order to (i) help students work within a framework and (ii) yield a work product that is listenable. While counter-intuitive, the constraints provided by the structure actually encourage creativity. below are some sample projects we especially like.

  1. Commentaries -- Students present a well-reasoned position on a social or political issue as a 1-minute narrative. Standard openings and closings are used to help all commentaries come together as a family. For example, each can begin "This is FirstName LastName with a commentary for Youth Express" and can end with "For more Youth Express commentaries, visit youthexpress.org". Here are  samples in which students deliver opinions about (i) the message it sends when a person comments on another  person's accent, (ii) misconceptions about transgender issues, and (iii) white supremacy.

  2. Roundtables -- Three to five students form a groups and select three topics to discuss. A format is established to help hold the program together and consists of (i) introductions of the students and the three topics, (ii) coverage of Topic A, (iii) a reminder of the show hosts and topics, (iv) coverage of Topic B, (v) another reminder, (vi) Topic C, and (vii) a standard closing. An audio mixer and additional microphones will be needed. The roles of engineer and producer introduced earlier will be more challenging as the engineer navigates mic and recording levels and the producer helps make sure that the segments covering Topics A, B and C are each 3 minutes in length and the "in between" segments are no longer than 30 to 60 seconds, thus yielding a program of 12 minutes or less. Here are samples from 9th through 12th graders.

  3. Documentaries -- A pair of students identifies and pitches a topic, records interviews with subject matter experts, selects soundbytes and writes narrative that helps educate the listener, and blends the soundbytes and written narrative together to yield a 3 to 4 minute documentary. Here are examples on topics ranging from criminalization of black girls to life for Somali Bantu refugees living in Pittsburgh

The types of programs sharpen empathy, writing for an audience, working in teams, analyzing information, interviewing others, active listening, working in accordance with a process, and meeting deadlines, critical 21st century skills for all students.

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Broaden distribution and participation

At SLB, we believe that youth-created media needs to be heard by a broad audience. While students are usually adept at distributing their work among their own peers, it's our obligation to work together to make certain that adults, students from other neighborhoods, and the general public hear their work. Some of the ways we do this include:

Youth Express Podcast

Youth Express Website

Youth Express App

Enhance facilities and opportunities with youth input
If the program takes root, consider developing a space devoted to youth voice. Equipment requirements are relatively minimal. 
Reflect and keep at it
Making media requires faith -- faith in the process, faith that people are listening, and faith that messages are truly transforming the lives of their creators as well as the people who listen. For this reason, it may seem tempting to stop as you wonder if anyone is listening. Maintaining the vision and effort is critical and we've never seen a well-executed project not payoff. 

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