Augustana College (Rock Island) / Photograph by Augustana Photo Bureau

I skipped out on a meeting to play with my new walkie-talkie or: How the future of public radio made me drop everything I was doing and learn how to wave

Don’t worry: it wasn’t a work meeting. It was one hour of a day-long voluntary retreat I attended earlier this week on the campus of Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, where I currently study. My job — that of mostly unpaid journalism student — is not in jeopardy.

So now that that’s been clarified, you can relax. I appreciate you worrying for me, but my mom’s got that covered.

As I said, this was not a work meeting. There was, however, good and hard work being done here by a conference room full of PhDs and a smattering of GNDs (Got-No-Degrees…undergrads such as me): all of us voluntarily spent a full day of our (freakishly early) spring break to practice active listening and learn about the many layered dimensions of social identity — a kind of groundwork to build bridges between the many different individuals, groups, and cliques that comprise our slowly diversifying campus community, a community originally built by Swedish immigrants as a Lutheran seminary —

— but a community that has since evolved, and is evolving, into a tapestry of native Chicagolanders, native Quad Citians (that’s me!), native Midwesterners, native Coloradans (who make up a bizarrely large share of our student-athletes), native cosmopolitans, and a myriad number of miscellaneous geographic groups, such as Arizonans — two of whom belonging to this group of origin I thank for bringing their comically brilliant (and prolific) uncle to campus two Novembers ago:

Notwithstanding the national and international makeup of Augustana’s student body, there’s still a lot of white in our tapestry, and there’s still a lot of middle- and upper-middle-class status in our socioeconomic fabric — a problem that deserves its own Medium post (or better yet, its own Medium publication), and a problem that helps explain why dozens of us Augie people gathered to get serious about bridge-building.

A day-long retreat of mostly white people sitting in circles to practice active listening? Yeah, I know: sounds like a Portlandia sketch.

But the training was über-relevant to me and the kind of work — public media and engaged journalism — I’ve been practicing and playing with nonstop since last spring, when I first encountered the craft through a course on audio and video reporting.

(Who would have thought an undergraduate who began as an architecture student — far from home — would eventually transfer to the college his great-grandpa helped (physically) build, a college where he’d end up discovering journalism? I, for one, couldn’t have seen this coming four years ago. I suppose that’s what college is for. Serendipitous redirection.)

Sure, I’m using “bridges” metaphorically in that tweet, but when I say that the bridges we were learning to build this past week at Augustana were bridges of diplomatic dialogue, I do mean “diplomatic” quite literally: the organization that conducted our training was founded by Hal Saunders, an American diplomat who helped broker the landmark Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt.

And by “dialogue”, I don’t mean chit-chat, and I don’t mean debate. I mean dialogue, which has no synonym:

Dialogue is a process of genuine interaction through which human beings listen to each other deeply enough to be changed by what they learn. Each makes a serious effort to take other’s concerns into their own picture, even when disagreement persists. No participant gives up their identity, but each recognizes enough of the other’s valid human claims so that they will act differently toward each other. — Hal Saunders

Basically, we were learning how — in this time of unprecedented political polarization — to be neutral.

But we weren’t just learning about the mindset (neutrality) behind dialogue. Moreover, we were learning about the action behind dialogue: overture. Or, as Danny Glover — yes, the actor (and activist) — so enthusiastically put it last Sunday in South Carolina, “sustained engagement”:

Fast-forward eight hours into our dialogue training…and one infuriating hole-punch fiasco with my binder of notes —

— and me and my group of civic-minded nerds are practicing how to ask more sincere / less superficial questions. This was right up my alley, because as a journalism student, I enjoy question-crafting and question-asking, be it a question for a former Augustana religion professor (and current theologian of world renown) about his candid criticism of Augustana’s Lutheran faith principles —

— or a question for a former student activist (and current candidate of world renown) about his plan to make public colleges and universities tuition-free:

Back at our question-crafting convention, things started to get testy when the topic turned to feminism: some of the PhD participants forgot about our primary objective: to respond to each other’s opinions with conscientious questions designed to shine an iridescent, impartial light on the respondent’s thinking. (Apologies for the lofty language…I just love questions.) Instead, more than a few of these profs reverted to prof mode, dueling over the finer points of fourth-wave feminism in the esoteric arena of academic debate, like Toni and Candace in the independently-owned arena of the Women & Women First bookstore.

So it was at this off-topic point in the day that I let my mind wander over to somewhere it probably shouldn’t have wondered over to while in the physical presence of others, but as a journalist, somewhere it just had to be: Twitter. A few minutes into mindlessly scrolling through my timeline, that subconscious chunk of my brain in charge of mindlessly thumbing through Twitter hit the “STOP WHAT YOU’RE DOING RIGHT NOW YOUR FRIEND MATT JUST TWEETED ABOUT A NEW APP THAT COULD VERY WELL ALTER THE COURSE OF JOURNALISM FOR THE BETTER” alarm. I didn’t know such an alarm existed.

As I said, Matt’s a friend. (Yes, someone who I actually interact with IRL, outside of Twitter.) Matt’s also the most tech-savvy, tech-enthusiastic person I know. (He was the one who tipped me off to mobile live-streaming when that debuted last spring.) So when Matt tweeted about this Anchor app — this app that lets you record short (up to 2-minute) conversational slabs of sound and share them publicly, this app that essentially does for audio what Twitter has done for text (that is, creative constraint and a socially networked user experience) — I wasted no time pulling up the App Store and downloading it.

I turned on (my early adopter mode), tuned in (to this new cyberdelic experience), and dropped out (of the Toni & Candace feminism fight fest). After removing myself from the ad hoc debate hall, I curled up inside a cozy windowsill overlooking Augustana’s majestic swamp (two words you never thought you’d see together, yes?) —

Photograph by Dan Garrett

— and voiced my first audio message, or, as Anchor calls it, my first wave:

Question: what was I talking about when I said “different ideas of radio and public radio that I’ve been boggling around in my mind”?

Answer: this trio of tweets I sent out last month (the second of which I waved in reply to this past week):

Speaking of NPR’s Next Generation Radio (#nextgenradio) project, you can expect student and early-career reporters with this project to start sourcing subjects and stories from the ground up through such tools as Anchor, GroundSource, and Hearken. As someone who participated in Next Generation Radio last October in Minneapolis, and as someone who sourced his subject and her story through digital means (Reddit), I know there’s a place for these tools on the tool belt of any journalist who is — as project founder Doug Mitchell described his project’s ethos — “finding and telling stories that live under the radar”:

But it’s not just early-career journalists who can make use of Anchor. Veteran journalists too can make use of Anchor, or a similar social audio portal developed in house by their organization for proprietary use. In fact, the very day that Anchor dropped on the App Store a few weeks ago (unbeknownst to me at the time of course), I personally pitched to Michael May — the director of NPR’s new Story Lab — an idea of mine: to tap into the new digital usership of NPR One to give users not only a place to listen to NPR on their phones, but a place to talk with NPR on their phones:

I also made a similar pitch at the regional level: in the hopes of connecting young Illinoisians like me with public radio, I nerded out about the potential of social audio to the producers of Illinois Public Media’s new statewide talk show, The 21st —

— to which Illinois Public Media replied:

What an exciting time to be a journalism student on his way out of college! And yet, journalism isn’t a popular program of study at my college. Probably because of all the naysaying parents, who, out of fear, naysay that journalism is dying. Clearly, it’s not. Given this infusion of tech that’s just waiting to get used by real people for real people with real people, journalism’s adapting.

Journalistic tech and journalistic ideas are working together. Like those two little wires in a light bulb that support the filament. And yep, you guessed it: in this I-hope-not-so-corny metaphor, the filament is informed, informative journalism that shines a brilliant light for its user.

“This instrument can teach, it can illuminate”

The only way that we as engaged journalists can put ideas into action is — you guessed it — through action. We have to actually start breathing life into this new technology, and into future technologies. Otherwise, our marvelous tools amount to nothing more than “wires and lights in a box”:

Are there ethical implications to tapping into Anchor for journalistic purposes? Of course. There are for any technology, new or old, emerging or dying, digital or analog. And they should receive the full treatment of a journalist’s scrutiny.

But just as it is part of our job as journalists to act prudently with the public’s trust, so too it is part of our job as journalists to act aggressively with the inventors’ creations, with new media…I don’t know if I agree entirely with Marshall McLuhan when he wrote that:

Or when he said that:

But I do believe that what McLuhan was getting at, and what I do agree with McLuhan on 100%, is that it’s in journalists’ best interests to play (nice, and ethically) with the toys (he called them mediums) that technologists build them. Will we ever realize the global village that McLuhan imagined? I don’t know. But I do know that the only way we’ll find out the answer to that is by applying and tinkering with technology. So play. Play with that new app, that new drone, that new drone app (yes, actually a thing), or something completely different.

“And now for something completely different”

Yes, I said play. Yes, in an industry that prides itself on serious coverage of serious issues — say, a contentious city ordinance that raises hackles and threatens to divide the community — I said play: because being playful does not in the least bit take away from the seriousness of whatever development/issue/problem I find myself covering. Because seriousness and solemnity are two entirely different creatures:

I reckon the reason the American public’s respect for journalists has fallen significantly in recent years is not because journalists are frivolous in their work, but because journalists are solemn in their work.

Solemnity has no place in any creative space, whether that’s an art studio, an incubator, or a newsroom.

Perhaps the American public feels it’s being talked down to, rather than talked with. Perhaps the reason you’re much more likely to find a classmate of mine at Augustana on Twitter than the Times is because they know their friends will care about their stories, their experiences, their emotions…but journalists? Why would they care? Don’t they just care about politicians and public figures?

The time and the technology has come for journalists to start treating individual members of the public as public figures…Public figures deserving of their own hotline with the newsroom, just like the mayor or the senator or the celebrity enjoys already.

The public is messy, so the dialogue being built might look more like a chicken house at times than a cathedral , but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun to build.

“Regard it as just as desirable to build a chicken house as to build a cathedral.” — Frank Lloyd Wright

Let’s adopt Anchor. Let’s adopt GroundSource. Let’s adopt Hearken. Let’s do more than just put these tools on our tool belt. Let’s use these tools. Let’s make them work for us and for the people we serve.

As McLuhan said, let’s not fixate on the message being sent. Let’s go about building a media environment. Of playful journalism. Of improvisational journalism. Of jazz journalism. A journalism where practitioners pick up new techniques and new instruments during and after their formal education, and weave those new techniques and instruments into their ensemble, as they practice, perform, and — most importantly — play.

Let’s play with our neighbors. If our craft is one of bridge-building, then our product can be not just a marketplace of ideas, but a smörgåsbord of voices.

And with that, I’m gonna shut up writing right now, so I can start waving.

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.