Programs/Publications

Feature Article from the December 2013 AIRblast

Get into the (New Talent) Game

by Luis Perez

We now turn the AIRblast spotlight to New Voice Luis Antonio Perez ('11). He is a host-producer at Chicago Public Media. Currently, he is acting station manager for Vocalo. For three years, he produced a daily afternoon talk show with another New Voice, Shantell Jamison ('11). AIR tagged Luis to be our New Voice captain in 2012 and 2013, and we invited him to be one of the keynote speakers at the AIR Mingle at the PRPD Conference in Atlanta in September. Luis represents a new generation of talent that is energizing AIR’s network, and offering new promise to public media nationwide. His remarks inspired the crowd of 150 PDs and producers in the room and listening in from across the country.

You've just read my introduction. I am also a nontraditional public radio listener. I'm a millennial Latino, from the inner city of Chicago, some college education, definitely do not make more than $90,000 a year, and I LOVE public radio. Here's the story of how that romance began.

It was 2001. I was 19. I was in college full time, working two part-time jobs, when I came home one night exhausted. I fumbled into my tiny studio apartment. I threw my bag stuffed with books and two changes of clothes into a corner. I was so tired I feel asleep on the floor in the middle of my room, on my back, arms outstretched. Then, my clock radio came on. I had accidentally set the alarm for 7:00 p.m. instead of 7:00 a.m. This nasally, crackly voice cut through: "From WBEZ in Chicago, and Public Radio International, it's This American Life … I'm Ira Glass." The episode was "House on Loon Lake." Ira sets up this classic mystery story — an old abandoned house some kids stumbled upon and decided to break into. Ira promised the house was exciting, creepy, mysterious, and tantalizing. He suggested that we at home consider turning down the lights. What unraveled was an hourlong tale of this singular house in Maine, being explored by kids who were just as curious and mischievous as my friends and I were growing up in the inner city. I lay there on the floor motionless for a full hour, listening.

I was hooked after that. I've shared this story with some of the New Voice Scholars, and many of them have told me that "House on Loon Lake" was the story that introduced them to public radio too. Before that experience, radio was forgettable. Now it was something else. Radio was so much bigger and more powerful than it had been for years before.

Every fan has had that moment — the spark that turns into a flame that rages into a fire. For those of us who work in public radio, that love turns into passion and that passion becomes a commitment.

A few years after first listening to "House on Loon Lake," I was recruited by a new project called Vocalo at Chicago Public Radio. They were looking for nontraditional host-producers, for a new nontraditional public radio station. I've spent the last six years taking my love from passion to commitment growing with Vocalo.

Now I'm not just listening to public radio, I'm part of it. I'm one of the people out there listening for stories and new voices. People are sharing their thoughts and opinions with my microphone. I'm doing my best at understanding different points of view and presenting them to the public through radio.

In 2013, I was so grateful to be able to attend PRPC for the second time. In addition to facilitating the New Voice scholars through their experiences at the conference, this was one of the only times of the year when I would be able to interact directly with the decision makers in public radio. Quickly I was struck by two things: one, how refreshingly honest everyone was in discussing the need to diversify public media; two, that the conversation about diversifying public media has been going on FOR-EV-ER. Lots and lots of talk, over and over again. It got me to thinking about why there was such a huge disparity between the big talk and the little progress.

It's like a team drawing up plays in the locker room but ignoring them once out on the field. Is everyone giving a best effort? Is everyone even on the field? From the outside looking in, it seems as though leaders in public media are sitting on the bench in the game-time battle for diversity. Bench players. Sitting clean with a lot to say but little to show on the field. Nodding effusively, agreeing that we must serve a broader range of the public while being secretly satisfied with the status quo of narrowcasting.

Others, like Torey Malatia and Sue Schardt, charge out ahead of everyone onto the field season after season. Sometimes I feel like I'm one of a handful eagerly running out on the field with them, trying to catch up and do my part. They are field players. They discuss the game, draw up plays in the locker room, then take the field and execute those plays. And when their uniforms get dirty, they make adjustments as necessary.

Some will declare: "I am a big fan of diversity. I champion all efforts. What more am I supposed to do?" In my opinion, that is no more than being a fan. The difference between a fan and a player is that the fan doesn't wear the uniform. If you wear a uniform on team "public service through media," you're either a field player or a bench player — a leader or a follower. Which one are you? If you aren't sure, look at the players next to you and ask if their uniforms are completely unscathed.

After decades of little progress, it's been long enough. It's time to get off the bench. It's time take the uniform we all wear and run out onto the field together.

This year was the fifth time that AIR has given scholarships to producers and media makers who strive to give voice to the underrepresented. Those scholarships, funded by CPB, NEA, and the Ford Foundation, make it possible for new voices to attend conferences like the PRPC. I've been involved with the New Voices program for three years. Every class is rife with eager, passionate, versatile, talented, hardworking, and committed individuals from a wide range of backgrounds across the country. They are storytellers and they are leaders. Every interaction I have with each of my fellow New Voices makes me more and more certain that they are the future of public media.

I believe those of us in the public radio system, particularly those in leadership, have a responsibility to these and all new voices. It is up to us to create the space to give them the opportunity to do their work. It is up to us to find ways to connect them to our well-established networks. It's up to us to nurture them and guide them to places where they can serve the public through media.

If we fail to step up and embrace the next generation of diverse talent, they will go elsewhere. There will be other opportunities luring them away. They are too talented to be ignored, too determined to wait, and too passionate to give up. They are committed to their communities. They will find a way to serve the communities that need them. They will reach their audience with or without us.

So, what can you do now? It doesn't have to be an extraordinary step. Reach out to the AIR New Voices or find the unheard and underrepresented new voices in the communities you serve. Talk to them and find out what makes them tick. Bring them into your thinking. What are your challenges? What are the barriers you are trying to overcome? You might be surprised. You might be talking to your solution.

AIR is doing its part by finding the most motivated new voices and simply giving them a chance to be put in a position to cross paths with that other individual who could be the catalyst that helps them reach the tipping point. The evolution of public media is all around you; you can hear them if you listen.

I'm proud to count myself as one of those working to create an opportunity for select individuals to have more access to people in the system. There is now also an opportunity for the system to have access to them. There are new voices out there at different stages of their careers with different dreams and different needs. Some are just starting their journey; others are well on their way. Read their profiles; reach out to them. I know them; they are willing to share their thoughts; they want to hear from you.

[New Voice Reports are here: http://airmedia.org/PDFs/NewVoices2013-Reports-final.pdf. If you're interested in "meeting" one of AIR's New Voice producers, send an email to AIRblast@AIRmedia.org.]

Make the move now. You don't want to be sitting on the bench, talking to the people on either side of you about the game, while the rest of us are out there in the field blazing forward doing what needs to be done, by any means necessary, for our communities, for the audience, and for the public.