In recent years when speaking with people in high school and college in their classrooms or while presenting, I have felt the tables turning. There was a time when people like me visited school to lecture students about “life in the real world.”
We grizzled radio veterans can learn a lot from young people who often have little to do with radio and the content we create. If you want to stop a radio pro in their tracks, ask him or her what Gen Z wants. You're likely to get “radio silence.” And for good reason. We don't even research this generation, nor do we cater to them.
And yet, they may hold some of the answers to what radio professionals ought to be looking for. Last week, brother Paul spent an afternoon in a Detroit area high school. He returned energized and excited about what he saw and heard, offering to share it with you.
How could I say no? – FJ
By Paul Jacobs
The Plymouth-Canton area is a bedroom community in suburban Detroit, nestled between Ann Arbor to the west and inner-Detroit suburbs to the east. The community is predominantly white (72%), well-educated (59% have a Bachelor’s degree or higher), with a median household income over $107,000.
Perhaps like your city, town, or municipality, this area represents a suburbia full of schools, services, and shopping. But also like a growing number of regions across the United States, it now finds itself woefully lacking in news coverage from in and around the community. Reporting on school board meetings, election issues and candidates, events and culture, and city government issues is elusive, not such an odd state of affairs in 21st century America.
Two weeks ago, I wrote a guest post about George Santos and an important news story that eluded all the big players. Politics aside, New York voters elected an apparent fraud to the U.S. House (we’ve lost track of the lies).
If you'll recall, the story broke before the election at a small, local weekly newspaper in the district, but was not followed by New York's news behemoths until it was too late – after the votes were cast. Now, the electorate is stuck with a representative who has grossly misrepresented himself. And there may be nothing anybody can do about it.
The gist of the post was to point to the lack of local news coverage, and wonder why a gaping opportunity – or in marketing terms, “a hill” – is unaddressed in most markets.
And that brings us to suburban Detroit. As mentioned, like so many communities, Plymouth-Canton doesn’t have a reliable source of local news coverage, making it challenging for residents to find out what’s happening in their city. Their local newspaper – the Observer-Eccentric – was sold to Gannett in 2005, since falling victim to budget-cutting and shrinking resources. The paper once had their offices in downtown Plymouth where you could just walk in and talk to reporters, suggest stories, and pitch your public service events.
That office is now closed. And last month, the newspaper announced they were no longer going to produce a print edition. In other words, they’ve undergone significant cuts to their newsroom and as a result, the quality of their local news coverage has suffered.
None of this is unique. It’s part of a growing trend of declining local newspapers, along with the thinning out of television and radio newsrooms. Thanks to the Internet, we have more news and information coming from more sources than we know what to do with. And yet in so many communities, local news coverage is poor or nonexistent.
On the heels of the Santos post, I was invited to attend a “Lunch and Learn,” organized by the Local Impact Alliance. They gather monthly to share information with local residents. The topic? “How High School Students Are Filling The Local News Void” and the presentation was made by a high school radio station, WSDP (88.1 The Park), a student run radio station embedded in the school. Needless to say, my curiosity was piqued.
WSDP is an award-winning radio station with a rich history. They’ve been nominated for four Marconi awards (in the public radio category) and have won numerous Michigan State Broadcaster honors. They are celebrating their 50th year on the air, an incredible accomplishment for any radio station. In all, the station has more than 1,000 proud alumni.
Numerous graduates of this high school program have gone on to stellar careers in broadcasting. The station is run by broadcaster and educator Bill Keith, and by Assistant General Manager and former journalist John Kreger. The station’s format is CHR, and their educational charge is to train students on all aspects of radio broadcasting, including news.
During the presentation, Bill outlined why local news is of paramount importance to the community and democracy. He described his mission this way:
“Our plan is to make 88.1 The Park more than a ‘high school’ radio station. We want to become a vital community resource.”
Nothing like aiming high – even in high school. As the Observer-Eccentric vaporized with no local outlet to replace it, Keith and Kreger rose to the occasion. Their focus on local news is logical, smart, and important. They are exposing their teenage students to rigorous training in journalism, bolstered by the experience of doing research, writing, reporting, interviewing, and editing.
This regimen will prepare these kids for jobs in broadcasting after graduation or to assume leadership positions in college radio or other journalistic endeavors. I told this story to a colleague in radio who questioned about the wisdom of training students for jobs that may not exist when their schooling is finished.
But these skills are universal. News gathering is an exercise in storytelling. And the process of reporting their communities will further their careers, no matter what path they take. It will also prepare them to be better citizens, wherever they make their home.
How wise are these kids? The Park's news operation is run by News Director Anuya Shetty and Public Affairs Director Avneet Pandher (both pictured). Their mission is a simple but important tome:
“We want to give voice to all parts of the community who otherwise might not have a chance to get their information or stories out.”
That goals statement is apropos for every commercial and public radio station in America. It just so happens to come from a couple kids not old enough to vote, but who certainly understand the value of journalism in a democracy.
The students are responsible for the news heard on the air, covering everything from upcoming events to live election night coverage for races relevant to their local community. Along with daily news coverage, “Community Focus” is a 10-15 segment that hones in on local issues, upcoming events in the community, storytelling about interesting and notable locals, and highlighting educators in the district.
Over the past few years, in one focus group after another, we consistently hear listeners verbalize the need for more local coverage and information from their favorite station, whether it’s public or commercial. And in our Techsurveys, we continue to see the importance of local and community coverage grow with each passing year.
News about Biden, Trump, COVID, or inflation is easy and ubiquitous – there are thousands of sources available. But finding out what’s happening in your community, school district, or local downtown area is nearly impossible. It is a premium news product, and yet few media outlets embrace it. And then along comes this student radio station running circles around their much larger and better-funded colleagues. It is truly inspiring.
Ironically, during the Q&A portion of the presentation, a representative from the Canton Township Board of Trustees complained he hadn’t seen a local journalist covering a trustee meeting in over two years. As he said this, both Anuya and Avneet smiled knowingly. They know opportunity when they see and hear it.
It is noteworthy that a group of highly motivated, savvy high school students recognize the need in their commmunity, as well as seizing the opportunity vacated by so many mainstream media outlets. And credit to their leadership and the support of the school to pursue this important mission.
If there's a bad actor like Santos trying to game the system, the Plymouth-Canton news team from the Park are ready to do their jobs.
Maybe it’s time for radio to go back to school.
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- Getting Schooled By A Bunch Of High School Students - January 24, 2023