How a public radio station collaborates with high schoolers to produce audio documentaries

What was your high school journalism experience like? If you were anything like me — I’ll tell you the stories of how I got in trouble running my high school paper another time — you probably weren’t producing hour-long radio documentaries for your local public radio station.

But that’s exactly what groups of high schoolers at University Laboratory High School in Urbana, Illinois have been doing for more than 20 years now.

The high school and nearby Illinois Public Media have partnered on a joint program since 1993. Every year, a group of students reports, edits, and produces an audio documentary on a topic of importance to the community that airs on the station. Last month they broadcast a documentary on diversity and inclusion at the nearby University of Illinois.

This week in Solution Set, we’re going to dig into the partnership, learn what the students got out of the program, and more.

Solution Set is a weekly report from The Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Every Thursday, we take an in-depth look at one neat thing in journalism, share lessons, and point you toward other useful resources.


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Here’s the TLDR:


TLDR

The Challenge: An Illinois high school decided to partner with its local public radio station to create an oral history documentary program.

• The Strategy: The documentaries take two years to create, and students from 8th-12th grades participate in various aspects of the production.

• The Numbers: Dozens of students participate in multiple ways each year.

• The Lessons: The project empowers students as they’re given real responsibility throughout the production.

The Future: The program plans to continue, and WILL even hopes that it could develop the next generation of public radio reporters.

• Want to Know More?: Scroll down to learn more about the partnership and other student media opportunities.


The Challenge 

University Laboratory High School and Illinois Public Media are located a five-minute walk away from one another near the campus of the University of Illinois. In fact, both are affiliated with the university.

So when a social studies teacher at Uni High, as the school is known, wanted to teach students how history and past actions continue to affect people today, she turned to the public radio station, WILL, to see if they would collaborate on an oral history project that would enable students to conduct interviews with locals and turn that material into a radio documentary.

The station agreed.

So not only did students get to learn about local history, but they also got to work with station staffers to learn journalism and audio production skills as well.

These initial discussions happened in 1993, and today, 26 years later, Uni High and WILL are still collaborating on the oral history documentary project.

And as successive generations of students, teachers, and station staff have cycled through (Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson is an alum!), the program has evolved, especially in recent years, as it has become increasingly immersive and more attuned to the current digital age.

Here’s how the program works.


The Strategy

Last month, Illinois Public Media aired “Beyond Opening the Gates: Diversity and Inclusion at the University of Illinois,” the latest audio documentary produced by Uni High students.

The hour-long show was broadcast on-air and online. The station and school also held a community gathering to discuss the issues highlighted in the documentary.

The broadcast and event were the culmination of a two-year production process that involved students

The documentary production process involves dozens of students and typically takes two years from start to finish, and it involves students throughout their high school careers.

Every year, the project is led by a group of older students who have decided to take on leadership roles. Those students are called WILL Interns, and they apply for the position.

The interns are divided into two teams: Production, which writes and edits the documentary, and pre-production, which identifies and records potential interviewees.

“It operates like a club, except that it’s quite a bit of time commitment on their part. That’s why we have the application. We want students that are really serious about it.” social studies teacher Melissa Schoeplein, who oversees the program, told me.

Over the summer, the WILL Interns get together and pick a topic that they’d like to examine for the next documentary. Last summer, the student leaders decided to cover issues of gun violence in their community.

They were inspired by the student walkouts and protests that followed the Parkland shooting last year. The students then spent the fall conducting off-air pre-interviews, which helped them learn more about the topic and decide the angles they’d like to pursue for their stories. The students learned from their initial research that Champaign-Urbana was experiencing an increase in gun violence locally.

“The students get to learn more about the issue, they figure out who are good people to invite to interview and people who had less information and they don’t want to invite them,” Schoeplein said. “During that whole process we will come over to WILL and have a couple meetings, and the leaders will share…ideas and get feedback.”

Once the topic is identified and pre-interviews begin, Schoeplein begins a parallel process with her 8th-grade class. (Uni High includes 8th through 12th graders.)

In class, she leads a month-long background unit for the students to help orient them to the topic. For the gun violence topic, she taught the students about the history of the 2nd Amendment, statistics and data on gun usage, and different perspectives on the issue.

The students are then divided into teams of 4 to 6 people and are assigned a community member to interview. The subjects are selected through the pre-interviews conducted by the older students,

Each student is assigned a role on the team — there’s a team leader, an interviewer, a scribe who takes notes, and a recording technician. The interviews take about two hours each, and they’re conducted at the Illinois Public Media studios.

Illinois Public Media staffers train the students on how to use the recording equipment and how to approach the interviews.

Given the size of the class, the interviews can take many months to complete. But once they’re done, the students transcribe the interviews, highlight the interesting bits of the conversations, and and then “do a personal reflection about the experience, but really then they’re done.”

At the end of their 8th-grade year, the students are invited to apply to be interns to continue working on the project.

“The next school year, there’s another team of interns that goes into production mode,” Schoeplein said. “They’re the ones that are doing the editing.”

As students progress through high school, they take on leadership roles and help mentor the younger students. The student leaders regularly meet with WILL to update them on the project and get edits, feedback, and other suggestions.  

“Last year, in the pre-production phase it’s taking the lead in the delegation of different tasks. Currently, we’re in the editing phase so we assign everyone to teams for website, music, outreach,” project leader Nathalie Stein, a Uni High senior, told me. “Another responsibility is meeting with WILL and having the connection between the two to make sure they’re on board with what we’re doing it.”

“As with any project, people have a passion or an interest in the project, but the hard work of actually getting it all together is less glamorous, and that’s what we have to do to make sure it’s on track and people do what they’re supposed to do,” Annette Lee, another project leader and Uni High senior added.

The station’s involvement has evolved over the years, said WILL Director of Education and Community Engagement Kimberlie Kranich.

“We used to be more involve,” she said. “Students would actually come over and meet with one of our journalists to do the editing, and they would help putting the story together. Then we had some staff turnover and we didn’t have the capacity to give that much time. We said, ‘Hey — what about looking at us as independent producers. We’ll guide you on certain touch points along the way, and then see what happens at the end.’”

There are always two documentaries being produced simultaneously. Reporting on the gun violence project started in September 2017 and is slated to air this fall. The other project the Uni High students are working on now is reporting on immigration policy and refugees who have settled in Champaign-Urbana. That project started last September and it will be broadcast sometime in 2020.


The Numbers

About 65 Uni High 8th graders participate in the program each year, and they interview about 15 people for the documentary.

The documentary program is a core part of the social studies curriculum, and it takes up about one-third of the year.

“Part of embedding it in the class was to make it more sustainable. That way the teacher can give dedicated time during the school year to it,” Schoeplein said.

About 15 or so students continue working on the project past their 8th-grade years.

And there are typically three or four seniors who lead the project team.

Kranich said she hears from listeners from time to time on social media and in person who will ask about the Uni High program. It’s become something of a community institution since it has been around since the 1990s.

To promote the “Beyond the Gates” documentary, the students produced a five-part series of clips that aired on WILL during Morning Edition, the station’s most listened to program.

WILL used to charge Uni High for the program, but it changed its budgeting a few years ago and the station no longer charges the school.

And while Kranich couldn’t say if the Uni High partnership led to increases in membership or financial support for the station, she did say that it fits into larger trends that Illinois Public Media donors like to support local community institutions.

“I’m sure there is a bump. This is part of the package, that we have a commitment to youth and Uni High. Sometimes people call in and say they want to donate because of this…but the more relevant we are to our regional communities, the more people give. Nobody else can do this work but us.”


The Lessons

• Give the students real responsibility: While Uni High and WILL staff help guide the program, it’s truly driven by the students, who lead the work and make the major editorial decisions.

“They’ve always been supportive and helpful with us,” Stern said. “One thing that’s nice is that they let us take the lead. We come to them with our outline and script, and our project ideas, and they [let us know] what we need to do to get it ready in time and what we need to do to make it up to their professional standards, but at the end of the day it’s us making the decisions and us doing the work, and that’s nice that we’re given that trust and responsibility.”

She shared, for example, how she had to make multiple trips to a refugee center to try and track down a source who didn’t have an email address and was not returning phone calls to the center. “finally the stars aligned and I got to speak with her and her interview was great. It is sometimes really hard,” she said.

Though the program is not run out of WILL’s newsroom, Kranich said the documentary has to meet the station’s normal editorial standards, and it treats the students like they would any other producers.

“We treat the students how we would any other person that wanted to get content on our air,” she said. “We don’t talk down to them. We talk to them as professionals. It’s a real conversation that you might have in a news meeting or in any other editorial meeting at the station.”

• Multiple ways to participate: The multi-layered design of the program enables students to participate at different levels that suit their interests.

By making the initial documentary part of the core curriculum, it makes it easier for students to get involved because it’s part of their classroom assignments. The students also get specific roles that may be better suited to their goals and interests.

By lowering the barrier to entry, students might learn that they love the work and want to get more involved when they may not have expected it to be one of their interests.

The students who want to continue the project can continue the work through the internship program, and those who don’t want to can be done with it.

By empowering students to participate in different ways, Uni High and WILL are making these journalistic skills more accessible to a wider array of students.

Cover real-world issues: The students don’t shy away from covering controversial or hot-button issues. In fact, both Uni High and WILL encourage the students to take on issues that are important to them and the community.

Here’s how Kranich described it to me:

“From the media organization standpoint, we like these timely topics. For example, the students did one on marriage equality. They were almost finished when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage…We actually had to delay the broadcast because it was near the outcome of that. They try to identify current topics, and then we sometimes have to wait to see the decision because that would’ve affected that piece.

Another one, we’re working on immigration and refugees. Of course, the whole declaration of emergency is based on people trying to get into the country from elsewhere. We just recently talked to the students about that: How will it manifest in this work? We’re a hub. We welcome newcomers, and so there’s a specific local manifestation of a national dialogue, and the roots both nationally and in this community go far back. We want to make sure that those two pieces of history are woven into this documentary.

Those are the kinds of things we talk about with the students, and the teachers are marvelous, all the folks we’ve worked with are good teachers. They have our confidence, and we’re trying to turn it into a journalism product that meets our standards.”

By covering stories that are timely and relevant to the community, the students are not only learning about the issues themselves, but learning about the impact journalism and documentary storytelling can have as well.


The Future

The student leaders will soon pick next year’s topic, and the process will start again with a new bunch of 8th graders.

Schoeplein, however, is hoping to make some tweaks to the program.

In recent years, the production has spilled over into the summer — and it will this year as students wrap up the show on the refugees.

The timeline over the years seems to have varied. I think it used to be two academic years, but in recent years students have used the summer to finish up,” Schoeplein told me in an email. “I’m trying to change that pattern and have docs be done in the spring of year 2 and ready to be aired whenever WILL decides it is good (late spring, summer, or fall). But, it looks like the refugee team is planning on having some summer work (hence, the fall air date). Also, sometimes WILL is busy. For example, with the midterm election this fall they had a lot of programming going on related to that and so the Beyond Opening The Gates project got pushed back just because there wasn’t much time for WILL to give feedback until after the election.”  

WILL has no plans to stop supporting the program — and, in fact, it hopes it can help develop the next generation of public radio journalists.

“We figure that the more people we interact with and amplify their voices and good work, the more public journalists that there will be in the world,” Kranich said. “We definitely need them.”


Want to know more?

• Here’s a 2015 Poynter Q&A that will give you more background and detail on the WILL/Uni High partnership.

• Last year, I wrote a Solution Set about how a local newspaper publisher in Denmark created an education program for high schoolers. 

• If you want to learn more about high school and college journalism, I’d encourage you to subscribe to the Lead, a newsletter that covers news and opportunities for student journalists. It’s written by Seattle Times producer Taylor Blatchford. You can sign up here.


Anything to add?

How’s your newsroom working with students in your community? I’d love to hear from you. Feel free to email me at [email protected] or tweet me at @ylichterman.

See you next Thursday!