Young listening: An ethnography of YouthWorx Media's radio project
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Young listening: An ethnography ofYouthWorx Media's radio projectAneta Podkalicka aa Institute for Social Research, Swinburne University ofTechnology , Hawthorn, AustraliaPublished online: 27 Jul 2009.
To cite this article: Aneta Podkalicka (2009) Young listening: An ethnography of YouthWorx Media'sradio project, Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, 23:4, 561-572
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Young listening: An ethnography of YouthWorx Medias radio project
Institute for Social Research, Swinburne University of Technology, Hawthorn, Australia
Listening as the act of aural consumption has commonly been the moment in culturalpractice around which analysis has cohered. This has certainly been the case with thecultural objects of popular music and radio broadcasting. Where young people have beenbrought into the frame of such analyses, the impact of listening on the formation of the selfhas been highly pronounced leading at times to public panic around particular musicalgenres and their associated socio-cultural practices, for instance around hip-hop, heavymetal and emo music. This paper investigates the combination of radio broadcasting andyoung people from the perspective of cultural production as a redemptive process.The taxonomy of a reflexive listening to oneself ; collaborative listening to others; andthe empowering and responsibilizing process of being listened to grounded in anethnography of radio production is employed to explore the social processes of learningto listen undertaken by the YouthWorx Media program that engages disadvantagedyoung people in media creation, while setting a scene for the projects evaluation.
Michael Welton argues that listening ought to be in the foreground of our thinking about
how deliberative democracy works, its key function being understanding and learning
from each other (Welton 2002, 198). This process of dialogic engagement can, according
to Bickford, be deeply transformative since by listening to others we can modify our
worldviews, which is central to collective figuring out, to the communicative exercise of
practical reason, in other words to political deliberation (Bickford 1996, 51). But how
does listening take place in practice? What are some specific ways and opportunities for
learning to listen and be listened to? What abilities are involved in this learning process,
and how does this experience then fit into a larger project of dialogic participation and
This paper reports on the YouthWorx Media (YWX) youth media project as a site for
analysis of listening called into being by the radio production context. YouthWorx Media
(YWX) is a collaborative youth media project based in Melbourne. It is an
organizationally complex initiative that brings together the creative and distributive
infrastructure of the youth community radio Student Youth Network (SYN) Media, the
social service of the Salvation Army, non-profit youth agency Youth Development
Australia (YDA), and the research expertise of the Australian Research Council Centre
for Creative Industries and Innovation with the aim of engaging disadvantaged young
people in media creation. Through its direct partnership with SYN Media, applauded for
its policies of open access and media training for young people (Rennie and Thomas
2008), YWX aims to offer disadvantaged youth an opportunity to have a voice, but also
ISSN 1030-4312 print/ISSN 1469-3666 online
q 2009 Taylor & Francis
Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies
Vol. 23, No. 4, August 2009, 561572
to be listened to by allowing them to circulate their stories to the established audience of
SYN. Since 2008, YouthWorx has run an open access and independent media program
for over 100 young people recruited from a range of Melbourne social agencies. In 2009
also YWX commenced an accredited course in Creative Industries II with 15 enrolees.
At YouthWorx young people are encouraged and supported to express themselves by co-
creating personal digital stories, recording original songs, producing artworks and radio
content. They are also given an opportunity to produce their own live-to-air radio
program at SYN. This broadcasting experience is special for disadvantaged kids as a
means of distinction and empowerment. Importantly, it presents them with unique
opportunities for learning to listen, with a direct bearing on a possibility of their
reintegration with society, and well-functioning democracy generally. To unpack how
listening can be learned in the process of radio making I propose a threefold model of the
varieties of listening, including a reflexive process of listening to the self, creative
collaboration and listening to others, and the empowering and responsibilizing process
of being listened to. This taxonomy is useful not only for understanding how
transformation is intended to occur for young participants involved in the YWX project
but also as a legitimate toolkit for its evaluation. Unlike the SYN cultural model, YWX
deals with a special demographic of youth at risk, that is young people who are either
in residential or foster care, long-term disengaged from mainstream education, with a
low literacy level, and/or drug, alcohol or juvenile justice issues. Social impact here
cannot be measured in terms of harder quantifiable job or qualification results suitable
for other target groups (e.g. SYN regular volunteers see Rennie and Thomas 2008),
but instead soft outcomes (Dewson et al. 2000). Learning to listen in the sense of
acquiring abilities of self-expression and self-reflection, collaboration with others, and
responsibility towards others is, as I argue, YouthWorxs ultimate objective, and as such
should constitute a benchmark for the projects impact evaluation.
To explore the transformative process of learning to listen, which extends beyond the
production of a satisfactory radio program into young peoples lives, I have used
qualitative research techniques informed by an ethnographic perspective. They have
involved regular and long-term participant observation, qualitative one-on-one interviews,
focus groups, questionnaires and analysis of young peoples multimedia creations. This
research approach can be identified as yet another act of listening, i.e. the researchers
engaged systematic listening to the project participants. A detailed account of what
can be called professional or ethnographic listening involving a range of ethical,
methodological and practical complexities will be the subject of a separate publication.
This paper instead offers a preliminary exploration of actual strategies used to help the
transformative process occur, how it is carried out, and what the participants responses
are. While the identified varieties of listening are actualized throughout the whole cultural
process that YWX engineers, I specifically highlight and engage analytically with the
three listening moments as experienced during the fieldwork. These moments include a
pre-SYN training context of YWX purpose-built Brunswick studio, the SYN radio studio,
and the broadcast situation are recalled as indicative of transformative soft social impacts
that the project is producing in its participants.
Moment 1: Reflexive process of listening to oneself
Be YourselfNothing sounds worse than a copycat! It is no good copying Nova or Fox, because odds arethat you will not sound like them. If listeners want that style, they will tune in to hear the real
562 A. Podkalicka
thing, not your impersonation. Remember that people listen to SYN because it is real peopleon the air be yourself. (Student Youth Network 2008)
To be oneself one needs to find oneself or ones voice. The idea of an active quest for
inner identity, self-expression and creative potential underpins a large number of
community arts projects that engage youth at risk in creative arts as a form of therapy,
self-expression, skill development, and social integration (e.g. Jesuit Social Services
Thiele and Mardsen 2003; Risky Business: Young People, Collaboration and Arts
Engagement OBrien 2005). In the art therapy context, finding oneself through art and
storytelling is recast as reconstitution narratives to bring order to the chaos of fractured
lives (OBrien 2005) to effect change and growth on a personal level. In development
communications, finding a voice means the actualization of a social right to express
oneself in order to participate in social, political and economic processes by using ICT and
media (Tacchi 2008). Related work concerns itself with documenting vernacular rather
than expert voices about poverty, health, education, etc., and developing locally produced
content (Tacchi and Kiran 2008). The self-representation of ordinary personal voices as a
means to enhance democratic representation and a positive social change through the use
of the digital storytelling (DST) process is documented in a large body of literature on DST
practice and research (Lundby 2008; Hartley and McWilliam 2009; Burgess 2006).
Similarly, in the field of youth media studies, in which YWX situates itself most distinctly,
the concept of voice is critical to explore the ways in which the youth are provided with
necessary access and (media) skills to express their personal stories (Maira and Soep
2005). Soep criticizes the notion of an authentic voice of young people often
romanticized by artists/project facilitators (Soep 2006), or automatically ascribed an
emancipatory value. Instead, she argues to frame a youth voice as an interactive
crowded talk occurring in the cultural production process, whereby a creators self-
expression takes into account also potential audiences responses and/or editorial
instructions or feedback. She further postulates a contextualization of youth voice within
broader socio-economic structures of educational and labour markets. Soep makes a
number of valuable observations that resonate with my research experience, which I report
on through the analysis of interconnected listening modalities occurring throughout the
The discovery of a personal value and exploration of the self is an important element of
the YWX process. A crucial aesthetic dimension in the form of media making experience
is being added to basic life necessities such as housing, food, and counselling, normally
provided for youth at risk by social organizations such as the Salvation Army. Craig
Campbell, Programs Manager of the Salvation Army Brunswick Youth Services, calls it
the stuff that makes kids eyes light up as it connects with their world (Campbell 2008).
This search for solutions to the problem of youth marginalization beyond food and
shelter (MacKenzie 2009) translates into a range of creative activities at the YWX studio
in the northern Melbourne suburb of Brunswick which sees young people develop and
reflect on their artistic self by co-creating personal digital stories, recording original songs,
producing artworks, and radio content. As part of his experience of making a song, one of
the participants explained, highlighting this introspective, reflexive angle facilitated by the
supportive social context of YWX:
Well, I spoke to my youth worker, and I said to him it would be grouse to make a song and hesaid, well, jot down some points of what you want the song to mean, to have a meaning orsomething like that. So I was thinking about all the stuff Ive been through, like being bymyself a lot, and stuff . . . So I kind of put that down, put that meaning into a song, and [later]had the social workers mate to help me out to put in some extra words and to make it make
Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies 563
sense and all that. I think it took about two hours to get the whole script done and get thechords right; and it was pretty much done from there. I just had to learn how to play it.
As part of the pre-SYN radio training, the participants come up with their own choice of
stories, music to play, do their research and record. For most of them, the opportunity to
record their voices and listen back to them is available for the first time in their lives. On a
material auditory level, young people are encouraged to listen to how their voice sounds
amplified by the mike in the radio studio. This listening can be both a projection of how we
imagine our voice sounds (as in singing along to a radio song in a car, which is often out of
tune but we dont care), or a more attentive intentional act in which we listen and modulate
our voice to follow a convention or create an approximation of a voice we like. There is
clearly a space between the natural and mediated voice in the context of radio production,
which can be reflected upon and explored in a creative performance of the self. This is by
no means always a pleasant experience. Some feel uncomfortable about listening back to
their recorded voices, with a recurrent comment being: I hate listening to my voice.
Do you remember how it made you feel to listen to your voice for the first time?
Yeah, as soon as I knew my part was coming up, the chorus was coming up [in a song], I justshut my eyes and my ears, and I didnt care what anyone was thinking or saying, but I cared,but I was acting like I didnt, oh, I didnt like this one . . .
What about speaking on the mike; presenting rather than performing a song? Do you like thesound of your voice?
Now I like it, but before when I was trying to be something Im not, I didnt like it then, butnow Im set . . .
The initial dissatisfaction generally fades away with greater familiarity and practice. The
value of listening to oneself in a material sense as a form of self-improvement was
recognized by an 18-year-old Thomas:
Its great to have a recording studio at [YWX], I can practise [my songs], listen back, seehow it sounds and what to fix up. Because it is different hearing yourself play. If you areplaying it, it sounds different but when you hear it back you can pick out what is wrong andwhat is not type of thing. It is good.
Generally, based on my observation, the use of arts and media as a means of engaging
young people at risk appears to work. Kids often get so caught up in their work that they no
longer pay attention to their body: they forget about a cigarette break, disregard hunger.
They seem to enter what Csikszentmihalyi refers to as flow experience characterized by
intense creative concentration where a sense of time disappears and existence gets
temporarily suspended (Csikszentmihalyi 1991). YWX facilitates this experience by
providing a strongly supportive and professional context of training. Located at a
dedicated venue in Brunswick, rather than directly at SYN premises as originally planned,
the program seeks to ensure young people realize that they can be listened to, and [thus]
there is a good prospect that they can succeed in the longer-term (Campbell 2008). The
kids involved appear to respond well to the organizational ethos of YWX. One of them
The people here are understanding; they explain a problem and they have either got solutionsor they can resolve it for you. I dont know, it feels like a different place it is not like aschool but it doesnt feel like a youth service either.
In the mornings the participants are picked up from their homes by a Salvation Army mini
bus, and accompanied to SYN by a YWX teacher/social worker. In the course of the
project it has been noted that in the absence of these practical measures it is difficult for the
564 A. Podkalicka
kids to make it on their own. Indeed, making it from YWX to SYN is both a challenge and
a significant achievement it is another stage in the process of learning to listen.
Moment 2: Collaborative listening to others
YWX kids come into SYN in small groups of two or three, ushered by their social workers,
but generally left to their own devices while in the studio. This is by no means a familiar or
routinized environment for them at least not at this stage of the project. Unlike social
work/community places they would have normally frequented, here other young people
are in charge, and they are cool. It is a rare place they travel to from outer north
Melbourne suburbs, leaving behind for a short time the insecurities of their homes, jobs,
and feeling kinda important. They are allocated a regular weekly time-slot within a
program called Detention, shared with the SYN target group of regular school kids. The
name Detention employed here is meant to convey a positive idea of the radio learning
and work as an alternative to punitive schooling. For YWX kids with unpleasant school
experience and high-risk behaviours often involving police and legal institutions this is
clearly more problematic. It is not a semiotic but structural challenge, indicative of the
very difficulty faced by youth at risk to be reconnected with the mainstream system, and
the related need for careful management of their transition.
At SYN YWX kids have full independence over broadcast content, as long as they
stick to SYNs editorial guidelines, involving the basic ethical and legal media conduct
such as no defamation or swearing on the air (Student Youth Network 2008), which they
learn at a training session run by SYN-trainers at the YWX studio in Brunswick. Coming
out to the House of SYN, as the radio station is affectionately called by SYN volunteers,
is absolutely voluntary but also considered cool. It means theyre ready to actually do it
for real. Still, a SYN trainer is always present during the Detention program, assisting with
technical skills and, if necessary, with ideas for upcoming segments.
Sit down guys and put the headphones on says a somewhat dispassionate SYN trainer, as theYWX kids enter the studio. Over the next hour he will be kept busy updating his facebookprofile on his notebook, and checking on what his friends are up to. He will also do thepanelling if required, and casually throw in a series of radio tips. But this is far fromprescriptive formal instruction. First he checks if everything works fine. Can you hearyourself through the headphones? Try the mike out. Listen to how your voice sounds . . .Now ready to start? He gives a sign with his hand that its time to go on air. A moment ofsilence breaks with a couple of deep breaths, as the young voices go on the air.
Walter Ong observes that the ancient Hebrew thought of knowing was conceived more by
analogy with hearing [than seeing], learning tended to mean listening to someone (Ong,
Farrell, and Soukup 2002). This moment in the radio studio illustrates the social production
of voice implicated in the community radio-making. The ways in which dialogical
communication between SYN trainers and YWX kids occurs, accompanied by technologies
and techniques of SYN, including the materiality of sound/voice and (in)formal production
guidelines, is critical to the process of learning to listen to others. The pedagogic social
engagement is reflected in the form of simple participatory interactions between SYN
trainers and YWX participants, but also amongst YWX kids themselves, who are often
friends and willing to carry on informal chats that draw on their shared experiences
or knowledge about themselves. With the semi-formal structure of community radio
production, more human relations in the studio (and, of course, reception) are very
Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies 565
important. The interaction between the YWX participants and SYN trainer involves a
transfer of technical skills and media competences, which, unlike a vertical model of
mainstream schooling, relies on a peer-to-peer approach. Still, SYN trainers as facilitators,
observers and critics of the learning-to-make-radio process are also agents of technologies
of governance that YWX employs in its redemptive practice, although in a clearly less overt
fashion than mainstream schooling. The theme of redemption is employed here in the
sense of the positive changing lives and attitudes of young people (Kinkade and Macy
2003, 16) through the use of media creation and aesthetic engagement, which may include
re-entering mainstream education and employment (Bloustien 2008; Bloustien et al. 2008;
Although the YWX kids normally come in reasonably well prepared, many with
written scripts prepared, ready-made CDs with tracks to play in the right order (courtesy of
their YWX teachers) and their own motivation, most of them do suffer from stage fright.
Tense voices, blushed faces, nervous ramblings of paper notes and glances thrown at each
other betray a feeling of great excitement mixed with insecurity. The initial highly charged
emotions tend to waver and voices gradually relax as the program goes on. One of the
YWX participants who plays guitar in front of an audience observed:
I felt more scared on radio than I did actually standing up to perform. Even though no one isthere in front of you, just the mike, I dont get it.
The other YWX presenter offered an alternative opinion that confirms radios reputation
as a less-inhibiting medium. For him live on-stage performance is more stressful:
I deliberately wasnt looking at anyone. I would have been even more nervous than I actuallywas, so nerves didnt really sink in, I was too focused on the wall! [Laughs]
Young people often run out of prepared ideas for segments in the course of an hour, and
new anxieties take hold: Hey, what can we talk about; what do you think we should talk
about? Why dont you play another song while were thinking about another segment?,
a SYN-trainer intervenes unfazed. While the YWX participants often tend to resort to
browsing a free whats on magazine available in the studio to come up with some new
segment ideas, a trainer offers useful guidance:
Talk about something that is important to you or youre passionate about. Dont forget peoplewho listen to you now are your age. Its very likely they share your interests and theyd beinterested in what you have to say.
This simple piece of instruction does the trick. The segment that follows is about their
respective passion for cars and motorcycles, and the music making with music always
one of the favoured topics featured in the YWX participants radio programs. After the
show a trainer tells me that it happens all the time: Detention kids often cant fill in a radio
hour, radio time is different than real time, he adds in a confident voice. For these young
people, SYN trainers are encouraging, full of praise, and often much more lenient. It is
important to make them feel at ease they tell me.
Importantly, this is also a moment where the listening to oneself encouraged and
practised at YWX Brunswick is required to shift to account for a real audience. This is also
evident in a SYN trainers simple piece of advice to a YWX girl doing the panelling for her
radio show: Use your ear to get it right. The timing of pressing buttons on the panelling
console matters for how a show is made and thus received. The use your ear to fade in and
out neatly, or write for the ear advice to prepare a radio script becomes a tool for a reflexive,
aesthetic judgement about the aural quality of radio as it goes to air (get the sound/voice
right, right transitions, etc.) and related concern for audiences pleasurable radio experience.
566 A. Podkalicka
This is both a self-reflexive process and a social process (we more or less know how it
should sound). SYN culture invites those things to be figured out in action.
SYN studio is a context where different social languages and milieus come together in
a creative collaboration to build social capital. Lotman argues that asymmetry in the
semiotic structures (languages) which the participants use, and second, in the alternating
directions of the message-flow (i.e. from a position of transmission to a position of
reception) is the precondition of dialogue, and a source of creativity (Lotman 1990). This
idea has been widely popularized by media scholars, working with the paradigm of
creative industries (Hartley 2007; Leadbeater 2008). Leadbeater (2008) argues that
creativity emerges when people from different vantage points, skills and know-how
combine their ideas to create new combinations.
As the YouthWorx participants learn to listen through the collaborative practices of
the radio production, with value for their self-confidence and cultural capital, some
SYNers learn about a different social world beyond the studio. Although there are no exact
figures, our cultural observation indicates that many young people who work here come
from a middle-class background, have interest in media work, and use SYN as practical
media experience to get started in the media business (Rennie Forthcoming). SYN trainers
admit they had never worked with young people like the YWX kids before, who have
markedly different life experiences. Davidde Corran, a former SYN-trainer involved in
YWX, observed that YWX producers tell real raw stories, which are fresh, surprising,
sometimes confronting, such as a segment about stealing or being punched by the cops
(e.g. Corran 2008). This is good for the radio SYN trainers tell me: We wouldnt be able
to tell these stories, and people should know them. This diverse representation is the key
priority for SYN, and deliberative democracy generally.
Moment 3: Empowerment and responsibility of being listened to
Always remember that SYN has lots of listeners, at all times. Remember, this is your show . . .so keep control of it! You have the power. (Student Youth Network 2008)
The distinctiveness of YouthWorxs approach lies arguably in the way the project seeks to
extend its public intervention beyond a creation of a therapeutic reflexive individual inner
voice, typical of numerous arts community projects, and towards an externally empowered
expressive social voice produced by technologies of community youth radio. The
broadcast context afforded to the YWX participants through the direct partnership with
SYN Media positions them in relation to a real audience, i.e. the SYN listeners, rather than
an imagined community, demanding that they learn to be listened to. Rennie and Thomas
argue that the presence of an audience impacts on SYNers practices of the self,
communication and relating to the world; the audience can be a compelling force,
providing the impetus to produce and the possibility of connection and interaction
(Rennie and Thomas 2008, 100). Additionally, the independence of SYN as a media
organization fully managed and staffed by youth challenges and extends the popular
concept of empowerment invoked by many youth media projects (Rennie and Thomas
2008) in that it seeks to equip young people with cultural and social capital but on their
own terms. Campbell explains that the idea of empowerment (giving a voice) implies
the position of vertical power, which also means that a voice can be taken away from the
youth at any time (Campbell 2008). While the YWX project is motivated by the belief that
the marginalized young people are active and intelligent but often in different ways than
are recognised in mainstream (Campbell 2008), capable of making their own choices,
collaborating creatively, and learning new skills, there is a tension between the horizontal
Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies 567
structure of SYN radio production and the vertical power relations of the social work, with
adults in charge clearly facilitating youth development. Importantly, the empowerment, in
the sense of being given access to the means of cultural production for the YWX kids,
comes with responsibility towards audiences and SYN co-presenters.
SYNs imagined community is predominantly young Melbournians aged 1225
(Student Youth Network 2008), and YWX participants are encouraged to produce their
shows with these demographics in mind. However, there are no stringent rules in place,
apart from the basic ethical and legal codes of practice such as no swearing or defamation
mentioned above. A generally very casual conversational manner, mostly carried out in
the form of interviews, heavily marked by the Australian youth vernacular and
characteristic cool style, seems to work well for the Detention program. Between talking
segments they play a set of pre-selected music tracks, mostly in the R&B or hip-hop style.
Conventions of the professional form do not matter here, with the emphasis being placed
on developing confidence for self-expression and self-representation. SYN trainers do not
pass judgement, but rather casually invite the new SYN producers to listen back to the
show to reflect and improve in the future.
The knowledge of live audiences puts YWX presenters invariably under stress, evident
in one of the YWX presenters reflection:
[I felt] weird [to be on the radio], cos people could hear me, but I couldnt hear them! [It was]nerve-racking but Im starting to get over the nerves.
Many of the YWX kids advertise their radio appearance to their friends and family
members prior to the show. A female presenter recalled:
I sent about 40 sms a day before saying Id be on radio, and some said mention my name, butI cant, but I can do at the end; many friends didnt listen because they werent close to theradio at the time, but those who did said I was a tripper. [Laughs]
This means not only an additional number of listeners, but a sway of text messages, or
even mobile phone calls that presenters receive during the program itself. This
communication is an indication of solidarity and support, sometimes a friendly suggestion
of a story to tell, sometimes an unwanted distraction. YWX presenters respond to it by way
of producing a series of shout-outs to their friends and families at the end of the program.
It is clearly important for maintaining a most immediate group belonging. On a more
formal level, however, this is generally discouraged as it alienates the larger publics, and
SYN editorial guidelines make it explicit. However, a certain leniency towards YWX
presenters is exercised. Davidde Corran explains:
The main reason I let them do their shout-outs is just because Im not as strict with these kidsas you are with most others. Firstly because its just an achievement that theyre there in thefirst place but also because its their first go so I give them some slack. If they were comingback regularly, Id explain why they shouldnt do shout-outs and probably get them not to.(Corran 2008)
These mediated interactions are also a reminder that the broadcasting opportunity is of
interest to YWX kids community networks despite the pervasiveness and popularity of
new media-based social networking technologies in their lives. Producing a radio show can
in fact be a marker of social recognition and distinction. One of the participants told me:
The radio is special . . . I asked my mates whether theyve never been on the radio, and theysaid no. And I have been on the radio. A few times already!
Producing radio means learning to be responsible to the audience, but also to the fellow
presenters and other SYNers. The SYN Radio Manual makes this media workplace
568 A. Podkalicka
dynamic clear by stating: SYN is just like having a part-time job. You are expected to be
punctual and organized in your involvement with SYN and throughout your SYN training
[Welcome to SYN Radio ]. This practical lesson in habits of responsibility, participation
and collaboration is mundane but critical for YWX participants, most of whom have been
disengaged from mainstream education, and often too unmotivated to leave the house.
SYN requires them to make time and work commitment: to prepare a program, travel
across the city and arrive on time. During the show, they need to control physical
movements (e.g. sit close to the mike but not too close, keep the voice steady) as well as
material objects (use headphones, press buttons on the panel). Producing sound or radio is
a motivated and not merely conventional action (Leeuwen 1999).
On one occasion Campbell summed up his belief on the subject of listening: voice
constitutes a person, and it constitutes a person within a community. Voice in the vacuum
cannot be heard; nothing is spoken until it is actually heard (Campbell 2008). This is
where the convergence between the individual voice encouraged by YouthWorx and the
community radios ethos is most literal and obvious. The YWXSYN partnership allows
SYN to reach further into the youth communities of Melbourne by offering YWX kids a
platform for expression (Webster 2008). This means that YWX kids can potentially be
listened to by over 100,000 listeners that tune into SYN each week. SYNs commitment to
diverse representation and progressive open access policies means that anyone can join in
provided they are under the age of 26.
The social organization of SYN provides mechanisms for participation, collaboration,
diversity of self-expression, and community. To education and political scholars, these lie
at the heart of political listening as a pedagogical practice of democratic citizenship
(Welton 2002; Bickford 1996). The task of developing deliberative democracy, according
to Bickford, assumes
hear[ing] something about the world differently through the sounding of anothersperspectives; we are able to be surprised by others and by our own selves. Speech isspontaneous, action is unpredictable; the fitting in and merging is not a matter of snappingtogether separable solid views or of mere addition. Rather, the field of meaning is itselfexpanded, recast. (1996, 162)
As the hour comes to an end, the YWX kids are given a burnt CD with their program along
with last casual instructions regarding radio production skills; I cant help but wonder who
listens, and what it is that they hear. Without dedicated audience research its impossible to
know whether listeners field of meaning has been expanded through stories that often
have an unpredictable twist. As part of my ongoing research I am interested in how this
experience in cultural production and self-expression translates into YWX participants
social lives. Immediately after the radio program, while still visibly excited, they look
somewhat lost trying to find the way to the nearest railway station to get back home.
Everyday guidance and emotional support cant be taken for granted in their lived
experiences, and so the potential and limits of using cultural practices to redeem the youth
at risk are tested. The transition between the moment of creativity here the unique
broadcasting opportunity and young peoples everyday life is critical for the projects
evaluation, but also incredibly difficult to measure. Qualitative long-term ethnographic
research provides a number of insights that need to be always contextualized, verified and
endlessly updated. Cultural observations to date indicate that the broadcasting situation
can play an important stepping-stone for the kids involved. Some participants consider it
Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies 569
a great means for testing their own skills, and boosting their confidence.1 A couple of kids
declare they want to be professional radio producers, with one of them embarking on the
making of a documentary about SYN as part of his CERT II assignment. For many their
radio performance becomes part of sociality they often listen back to their recorded
SYN program with their friends and family. After what she considered cool time at SYN,
Nina, for example, made a stack of CD copies to circulate amongst her friends who didnt
manage to listen to it live. Ill get my dad to listen to it in a car, she tells me laughingly.
Still, more research needs to be done into the effects of their broadcasting experience and
involvement in YWX on their lives.
There is clearly a tension between the projects normative claims of the youths
empowerment through finding a voice and actual social transformations upon their young
lives. They carry with them the baggage of their real lives that, while put aside during a
meaningful creative production, never really disappears. One of the participants explained:
It depends where you live and how you have been brought up. If you have been stealing cars,taking drugs and all that, well you cant really go nowhere . . . At least if you have come here,you can put your drugs aside for a few hours and do some work, and then you know you cancome back the next day and do the same thing. At night do whatever you have to do, but thenext day go and do your school. That is how I have coped.
The discourse of youth empowerment is not unproblematic. In the context of
YouthWorx, the empowering access for at-risk youth to the community media operates in
parallel with a system of control and guidance, albeit informal or peer to peer, embedded
in the practice of radio-making. There is also a tension between the horizontal peer-based
structure of the SYN model and adult-engineered YWX. These tensions never go away.
Nonetheless, as I have argued in this paper, YWX provides an example of the possibilities
of learning to listen for disadvantaged kids. Their ability to learn to listen foregrounded by
the broadcasting experience is critical for both the description of the cultural process of
radio production and evaluation of the projects social outcomes. As illustrated through the
examples, YWX kids learn to listen by moving from an individualized reflexive
expression of the self to the socially produced voice that means empowerment and
responsibility. This learning process, conceived here in terms of learning forms of
engagement and participation via the three identified practices of listening, is the
programs ultimate goal, and the basis for its evaluation. As demonstrated in previous
studies, SYNs media success can be assessed not only by its media outputs but also media
training offered to very many young Melbournians who often find employment in the
media sector (Rennie and Thomas 2008). YWXs youth demographics are different.
Young people with scarred lives require much professional support from social workers
and teachers. This demands a different research methodology and evaluation model. Soep
(2006, 200) observes that more research needs to be done on the extent to which the
benefits carry over into measurable social and educational capital outside a short-term
program. Projects like YWX demand real-life outcomes, in the sense that allocated
resources need to yield concrete life improvement for young people who are in a
precarious state in their lives, with real suffering and pain close at hand. While the
Salvation Army provides the necessary social work infrastructure, our ongoing
ethnographic research seeks to track down the actual real-life impacts on YWX
participants. The young peoples responses indicate that this process is challengingly
complex for youth as main agents of the program but also the programs managers, and
finally the researchers who need to listen carefully to document it.
YouthWorx is a useful model of social listening and social change in a broader sense of
deliberative democracy (Welton 2002; Bickford 1996). The political aspiration of diverse
570 A. Podkalicka
representation has been a cornerstone of community media, and SYN puts this idea into
action through its partnerships with YWX. If community radio continues to increase its
popularity2 in these times of ever-expanding media choices, and as the cultural is
increasingly intertwined with the social, then we need to pay closer attention to
collaborative social projects like YWX. The impacts of inclusion of the marginalized
young people within an organizational structure can also be of a social benefit for other
producers. From my cultural observations, it appears that the group of SYNers can
invariably learn from the process as well. While professional media standards undoubtedly
do matter for the retention of media audiences, the story itself and the form of its
presentation might be equally effective, if not more powerful. In fact, one of the SYN-
trainers involved in the YWX project remarked that the YWX participants raw stories,
in the sense of distinct life experiences, help SYNers see things differently (Corran
2008). In light of the lack of empirical data documenting audiences responses to the YWX
kids stories, these instant responses of other SYN volunteers are just one indication of the
social impacts/transformation that partnerships like YWX can stimulate.
Finally, the lived auditory experience of radio-making, with listening practices at the
heart of the process, makes the notion of voice and youth empowerment more concrete
and embedded in the social (creative collaboration, production, and circulation and social
lives). It is important that our research methodologies, while acknowledging the
theoretical discourses within which we write, produce knowledge about lived
engagements that can challenge the vagueness of many concepts such as voice that,
although often used, are only rarely clearly defined.
This work was produced with the assistance of the Australian Research Council through the ARCCentre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation. I would like to thank all YWX staff andparticipants for their collaboration and support on the project; this paper would not have beenpossible without the numerous conversations and discussions that took place at the YWX Brunswicksite, SYN, and the Institute for Social Research, Swinburne University of Technology. ChrisWilsons, Ellie Rennies, and Liza Hopkins valuable feedback on drafts is especially acknowledged.
1. Several studies indicate how improved self-esteem coupled with real-world capacities can leadto entrepreneurial activities (Bloustien et al. 2008).
2. The McNair Ingenuity Community Radio National Listener Survey for 2008 demonstrated anincreasing popularity of community radio in Australia, with a reach of 27% Australians a week(McNair Ingenuity Community Radio National Listener Survey 2008).
Notes on contributor
Aneta Podkalicka is a research fellow in the Media and Communication program of the Institute forSocial Research, Swinburne University of Technology, where she is conducting an ethnography ofthe Melbourne-based youth media project YouthWorx.
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