NPR Next Generation Radio project links reporting, social media savvy

USC Annenberg students learn how to tell a story and develop compelling Web-driven content

March 31, 2016 Ameera Butt

Sitting in a lounge during spring break, USC journalism student Noorhan Maamoon pored over the script for an upcoming radio story she had written.

Maamoon and four other students took part in the first NPR Next Generation Radio project hosted by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Organized by the Institute for Diversity and Empowerment at Annenberg (IDEA), the project also featured the work of a student from California State University, Fullerton.

Next Generation Radio reaches out to students of color who have an interest in public media. It started out as a side project for founder Doug Mitchell, an NPR producer who has launched radio-training projects for the National Association of Black Journalists.

Getting it together

The project centers on the students as well as the next iteration of digital tools and content development, according to Mitchell.

“While we do focus on audio storytelling, there is so much social media going on,” Mitchell said. “[We are] teaching them proper uses of how to use social media for telling people what you are doing in a content-development process.”

The radio pieces, which presented non-narrated stories similar to This American Life, tended to be about four minutes. Subjects ranged from a hula-hooping festival to a five-star chef who used her culinary skills on Skid Row.

Maamoon and others learned different tools and methods to tell their stories: reporting and compiling audio for the radio piece; using social media; shooting photos and videos; posting to the Web and writing an online version of the radio story. All of the stories, including videos and photos, ended up on a mobile-friendly website.

An interesting assignment

No radio experience was necessary to apply for the program. Mitchell said he and managing editor Traci Tong instead were looking for people who understood social media.

Maamoon, who didn’t have any radio experience before the project, did a piece on Mirvette Judeh, a Muslim woman from Buena Park. About a year ago, Judeh decided to put on the hijab, or Muslim head covering, to combat the Islamaphobia she saw around her. Maamoon met her during a roundtable interview for KTLA News earlier this year.

Maamoon, who also wears the hijab, followed Judeh around for a day. As the assignment progressed, Maamoon noticed that Judeh would receive disapproving looks from people. Maamoon herself had experienced negative reactions to her hijab in Los Angeles.

“As a hijabi, when you’re alone, you will notice the looks, but it’s easier to rationalize them and justify them — ‘No, they weren’t looking at me that way,’” she said. “As we were following her, she noticed it more, and I noticed it more.”

In the field

Sonia Narang, Maamoon’s mentor, is an independent producer who contributes stories to PRI’s The World. Narang coached Maamoon on what questions to ask and encouraged the use of social media in the field.

That’s how good radio is made — when you can connect and your interview subject lets you into their life.

Sonia Narang

“Noorhan was so polite and Mirvette said, ‘I like you and if I like you, you’re in,’” Narang recalled. “I said ‘this is perfect.’ It was great to see them bond and connect. That’s how good radio is made — when you can connect and your interview subject lets you into their life.”

Emily Lee, another USC Annenberg student, and her mentor, Jolie Myers, managing producer of KCRW’s Press Play, also took part in the project. Lee had never done radio reporting. Her story followed Francisco Martinez, a former gang member who wants to turn an abandoned South Central Los Angeles library into a community center.

“We had to come up with creative ways to tell a story in a different format, which is what we at Annenberg are all about now — digital and the convergence of radio, video, text,” Lee said.

The origin story

The Next Generation Radio project began in 2000, disbanded in 2008 and returned in 2013. The idea to bring it to USC Annenberg was hatched between Cyrice Griffith, program manager for IDEA, and Amara Aguilar, associate professor of professional practice for digital journalism.

Aguilar, a former mentor who served as Web developer and producer for the project, recalled telling Griffith how it creates a pipeline for diversity in public media.

“USC Annenberg, of course, gives students well-rounded background in storytelling. But I think this project is really going to push them further,” Aguilar said. “This just helps create a kind of personal connection with people in the industry, and that’s really, really important as we create these solid pathways in the industry.”

Griffith echoed Aguilar’s sentiment about creating a substantive mentorship program with a national partner. Griffith said the project piqued her interest because of the intensity of the one-on-one interaction between the professionals and students.

Most alums who participated in the project can be heard almost every day in public media stations across the country, Mitchell said.

“I think what we do is reinforce what they’ve wanted to do or open their eyes to what they could do,” Mitchell said. “The golden ticket is to actually learn how to tell the story in a variety of different ways.”