Radio may often be mindless background noise, but Richard Jones has seen the power of a community radio station change students’ lives.
Jones works at the Lussier Community Education Center as the radio program manager. One of his students at the center was shy and would sit off to the side during any large group discussion time. Once the student started recording a show for the center’s developing radio program, he changed visibly.
“He was immediately more vocal, he became more active,” Jones said. “His personality changed a little bit in how he interacted with the other kids. He gained confidence.”
Now, thanks to a $25,000 grant from the Foundation for Madison Public Schools, the program, known as “Youth on Air,” will allow more students to make their voices heard across the city on a low-power FM radio station and online.
“It’s giving young people access to the skills that a radio station can provide, as well as self-expression,” said Paul Terranova, executive director at Lussier.
The idea for a radio station at Lussier started a few years ago when community members, who were running a station out of a garage, approached the center about applying for a Federal Communications Commission license.
Lussier staff saw a radio station as an opportunity to further its mission.
“As a community center we see our role as we’re a place where people come to share their gifts,” Terranova said. “Often people think of a community center as a social service organization, and there’s a lot of service here, but we think of ourselves primarily as an organization to galvanize talent.”
Lussier applied for and received a low power FM radio license in 2014, allowing the center to create community station 95.5 WWMV, Many Voices One Community.
Staff then began approaching area schools and surrounding community centers to see if people would be interested in creating content for the station. They were met with universal excitement.
“Just at the high school, we had teachers who were supporting the student literary journal and the athletic director all saying ‘Wow, this is really cool, we could do something like this,’” Terranova said.
Jay Affeldt, principal of Memorial High School, is one educator who’s enthusiastic about the potential of the Youth on Air program. Almost any student can be involved, even if they are mic-shy, Affeldt said. He also believes it’s a great opportunity for students who want to work in media.
“We’re constantly trying to figure out how best to engage our kids, and when you start talking about a radio station, you see their faces light up,” Affeldt said.
Lussier has the recording studio that will make this possible, and will collaborate with Memorial High School, Jefferson Middle School, Muir Elementary School and other community partners. The project aims to work with 100 students from the three schools in the first year.
In April, the program received FMPS' $25,000 grant. It’s largest single gift toward the program, and will effectively launch it, Terranova said.
The foundation awards multiple grants every year. This year, the organization gave out four grants that totaled $92,260. Grants for the 2016-2017 school year included the Youth on Air grant, a grant to Elvehjem Elementary for standing desks, stools and mats to cut down on disruptive behavior in the classroom, an after-school arts program at Lake View Elementary that will provide lessons in activities like Hmong dance and African drumming and an off-campus support center for Chavez Elementary.
The money will be used to buy needed equipment — like an antenna — and will help pay for a part-time staff member and for five high school student interns.
Even without the antenna in place, the program has already started creating programming that can be broadcast on air in the future. This spring, University of Wisconsin-Madison journalism students partnered with students at Lussier, teaching them broadcasting skills and creating content. The station has also already started a few shows that can be heard on their Soundcloud account, including a show hosted by a clinical psychologist and a jazz music program.
With the antenna, the station will reach about 10 miles from the center. It plans to begin on-air broadcasting this fall, and is still finalizing programming. Broadcasting ideas include English poetry assignments, student music groups and live school events like pep rallies or sporting events.
“We’re looking for great diversity in programming and thinking about all the voices that often aren’t heard in our community,” Terranova said. “What don’t they hear on the radio? What kinds of conversations aren’t present yet?"
The idea is to spotlight the great events that are already going on in the schools, Jones said.
“We don’t need radio to make community happen, we need radio to highlight the community that’s already happening,” Jones said.