Stay classy, Minneappy.

Collaboration, not isolation: What I learned working with NPR’s Next Generation Radio project

Up until a few weeks ago, radio journalism was always something I had done in isolation: the college I attend is a small one (~2500 students), and the journalism department there is even smaller than most of my college’s other, already-small departments.

But at Augustana, I’ve come to realize that small doesn’t mean inferior. It just means “occasionally lonely” — that much of the time, I’m going solo on stuff that’s important to me, but maybe not as important to my peers: say, radio journalism. Last spring I was the only one in my reporting practicum course who turned in .mp3’s rather than .doc’s. In other words, while other students stuck to the print path, I wandered off into the wilds of radio journalism, because it was different, it was visceral, and it was foreign to me…

“What’s a good way to record an interview over the phone?”

“How do I take the um’s and the uh’s out of subjects’ voices when it comes time to edit?”

“How should I sound?” (Like myself, I would learn.)

These were just a few of the many questions I asked throughout the process. It was rough, but it was fun. Like learning should be.

Fast-forward another term, and I’m still doing my radio journalism thing, still more or less alone: sure, I’m contributing to my local public radio station every now and then, and I’m still learning a lot, and I’m still (I like to think) serving my community, but where are the other radio students? They weren’t there. Or, I should say, they weren’t here, inside my college’s teeny tiny department. But I knew they were out there. (*points to the planet in general*)

I knew there were students out there who realized that writing doesn’t need to be terminal — that it doesn’t always need to end once it’s written. That you can breathe life into words through voice. That writing doesn’t always have to be read — it can also be heard. That writing doesn’t always have to glow from a screen — it can also flow through the air. That writing doesn’t always have to be experienced sitting down — it can walk with you.

It was just a matter of finding students who also recognized what sound can do, who also were going down the path less taken.

And find them I did…

It’s my college’s fall symposium day, and I find myself sitting in a classroom I don’t have a class in: it’s a voluntary advising session for journalism and communication studies students. Usually I wouldn’t rise at an ungodly hour to go to a classroom I don’t have a class in, but there were free donuts, so I came for the free donuts…and stayed for the career advice.

One of the professors at this session says that we (as in the faculty) want you (as in me, I suppose) to thrive (as opposed to traipsing aimlessly through life). On paper, that may seem like bleh, who cares, I mean of course I want to thrive — who doesn’t? But it was the way he said it that got to me, that got me to redirect my attention from my donut to my future: his delivery was of unbridled enthusiasm, as Kramer would say. So I listened.

Once Snowball is done with his impromptu TED Talk (yes, his name is Snowball, and he goes simply by “Snowball,” not Professor Snowball, because he is awesome and because it would be impossible to say “Professor Snowball” without bursting into laughter, if you haven’t already laughed at simply “Snowball”), another professor has his turn at the lectern, and talks about student conferences. In particular, the upcoming student conference of College Broadcasters Incorporated.

At the time, I had no idea what CBI was, so I whipped out my phone with my non-donut hand, and Googled it. Turns out it’s basically a union for journalism nerds who are still in college, and who prefer to work electronically as opposed to paperly, so I perk up.

I do some more thumb-scrolling through CBI’s website, until all of a sudden, I find it. An invitation to apply for NPR’s Next Generation Radio project. Here’s my chance to not just network (eww, that word gives me the heebie jeebies) with other students who are into radio journalism, but — more importantly, and more funly (word?) — work with other students who are into radio journalism. As I scroll through my screen, I find that Next Gen is coming to CBI’s fall conference in Minneapolis, in just a few weeks. I better apply before it’s too la — OH CRUMB THE APP IS DUE TONIGHT.

After I cover a visiting symposium speaker that day, I rifle off my app, stream-of-consciously cobbling together my essay, because I don’t really have time to think about what they might be looking for, I don’t really have time to say what I think I should say. I just pound my nerdish enthusiasm for radio into my keyboard, frantically forging ahead on the app until I reach the end and hit submit, and apparently it was something coherent and okay because a few days later I got an email notifying me that I got a spot on Next Gen.

W00000T! I haven’t been this excited since the Cubs won the wildcard, which wasn’t that long before this notification, but this was a BIG deal to me and I got really loud and happy then, so that’s why I’m comparing this to that, because here again, I got really loud and happy — not in my house, though, but rather on my college campus heading to class, so people gave me strange looks like the ones you get when you’re having just too good a day.

Fast-forward a few more weeks, and I’m in Minneapolis for this project. Fast-forward a few more days, and the project’s done! Seriously, it went by that fast — about as fast as it took to write those last two short sentences. They say time flies when you’re having fun, but they never say what happens when you’re (a) having fun, (b) building stories, and (c) doing so with other people who are also into having fun and building stories. What happens is it goes by at lightning speed, and it’s all a blur, until you think back at what you learned…

I learned that in radio,

I learned there’s this brain implant that can detect a seizure before it happens, and then zap it in order to dampen the seizure, or prevent the seizure from happening altogether.

I learned that Hyatt likes to capitalize words unnecessarily.

I learned that Audition isn’t just for musicians.

I learned that Minneapolis isn’t always a desolate tundra.

The view from the twenty-somethingth floor of the Hyatt Regency Minneapolis

I learned that, even though they might sound serious on the radio, journalists can be really funny off the air.

I learned that Reddit isn’t just for doge memes — it’s also for finding someone whose story could use telling.

This thread is where I found my subject.

I learned how to hold a unidirectional mic.

I’m probably not holding the mic quite right in this tweet, but at least I was learning. Thanks for the tweet, Melissa! And for letting me borrow your mic! And for serving as my professional mentor throughout this project! You were an endless source of positive energy throughout this project. Though I’ve never run a marathon, I imagine Next Gen is the j-school equivalent of a marathon, and you were the fan at the side of the street holding out a cup of water, telling me to keep on going, you’re almost there!

I learned that Instagram isn’t just for selfies. It’s also for stories.

I learned how to pitch (a story, that is, not a baseball — you do not want to see me pitch a baseball).

And I learned that you don’t always have to tell someone’s story with your own voice. You can build it with their own voice, which was the challenge of this project — we could only use others’ voices to build a story. The writing was in the editing, and in a short lead-in to help set the scene…

Erica Reinke was a graduate student at Vanderbilt University in 2012. On Halloween, driving to her internship, she experienced something that changed her life. It was a day that Erica will always remember, if only because on that day, she couldn’t remember a thing.

In other words, I learned a lot at Next Gen.

So after I finished my story, and checked — I mean, X’d — it off ye olde board of progress…

…and as I stood there in the Hyatt conference room upon presenting my story at the very conference I had heard about only a few weeks prior…

…you know I had a hard time answering the question Next Gen founder Doug Mitchell asked me — “What did you learn this week?” — in such a way that wouldn’t take up the whole hour we had reserved the conference room for. I can’t remember exactly what I said, but it was essentially this:

I learned that radio journalism can be something you do, and it doesn’t always have to be in isolation: it can also be in collaboration. In other words, there are other young people on this planet who give a damn about public media. I’m not alone. I found my people.

“Cool cat journalism nerds”, as a friend of mine back home would later call us

My hope is that the next generation of public radio doesn’t see public radio as white, that it doesn’t see it as old, that it doesn’t see it as upper class, that it doesn’t see it as any color or ethnicity or status or background. My hope is that it doesn’t see public radio as anything, but that it hears radio — that it holds an ear to every street corner in the community it’s tasked with serving, listening to whatever conflict needs reporting, whatever story needs telling, whatever voice needs amplifying, with whatever tools best get the job done. If this most recent batch of diverse stories is any indication, then I am very hopeful for the future of public radio.

This post is dedicated to my fall term professors at Augustana College (not University): Reuben Heine, Ian Davis, Carolyn Yaschur, and Daniel Morris (whose new book is out now and available at an near you). Each and every one of these people recognized that earning a spot on Next Gen was important to me — important enough to miss a whole week of class, as the project coincided with the eighth week of this past 10-week fall term at Augie. (“10-week term?!” You read that right. That’s trimesters for ya.) My professors worked with me so that I could attend Next Gen without paying for it with my GPA. I only had to pay for it with my sad excuse for a bank account. (Remember — I’m a college student.) Actually, that’s not true: Augustana’s student research fund paid for the biggest expense: my hotel (where the Wi-Fi is just as overextended as it is on Augie’s campus). It’s easy to hate on your college when you’re sour about how short this fall break is, but I will postpone the pouting until next term. This term, it’s time to show some love: thank you, Augie, for supporting me on this fun expedition of learning that will always be a part of me and what I do.

My name is Ben Thomas Payne, and as of this writing, I’m a senior at Augustana College, where I’m just a few months away from graduating with my Bachelor of Arts in Multimedia Journalism & Mass Communication. It’s just one more term of courses, and one summer internship before I walk. I’ve got the courses scheduled, but I’m still on the prowl for an internship or work experience over the summer (and perhaps beyond the summer…you never know), whether that’s paid or unpaid. If you know of any journalism organization that could use the kind of energy I poured into this post, I’d love to hear from you. You can get a quick rundown of my experience here.