Serving two sentences, including one at New York City’s Rikers Island Penitentiary, as a teenager convinced André Vaughn to go straight. But the 21-year-old has discovered it’s a struggle to convince others he’s reformed. “When I came home from jail after the second time, it took me 14 months before I was placed at a job,” Vaughn says. “Literally, I watched them read my résumé and application, and they’d be shaking their head like it’s good. Then they get to the part where, ‘Have I been arrested or convicted of a crime?’ and they see the ‘yes’ there, and it’s automatically, ‘OK, we’re going to call you.’ ” The phone never rang.
“I know I’ve changed. I want people to know that just because you [have been in prison], it’s not like you can’t be changed, or you’re going to be like that for the rest of your life.”
Vaughn is getting a chance to tell his story—and, he hopes, the opportunity to change minds about ex-offenders—through a brand-new radio class. In March, Sound Portraits Productions, a nonprofit company whose documentaries have been aired on National Public Radio, began showing participants how to create their own audio histories. The effort, the latest in an array of programs that introduce at-risk or low-income young people to radio journalism, is designed to teach technical skills and help students appreciate the power of words.
This project is not entirely new ground for Sound Portraits. The award-winning company has made a name for itself producing documentaries about life in neglected communities. And in 1993, founder David Isay handed over recording equipment to LeAlan Jones and Lloyd Newman, teenagers living in a housing project on Chicago’s South Side. He worked with them to produce “Ghetto Life 101,” their tale of growing up and going to school in a poor urban neighborhood. Following a powerful response from educators, in 1997 Sound Portraits producer Stacy Abramson helped develop a “Ghetto Life 101" study guide for teachers exploring social issues. But she itched to launch a more formal program.
Working with education consultant Lisa Cowan, Abramson spent the past year creating a radio curriculum and obtaining funding. The two talked with journalists who run similar projects, including WNYC reporter Marianne McCune, whose two-year-old “Radio Rookies” workshops send New York City teens out to document subjects that affect their lives, such as access to guns. Abramson and Cowan also looked for the right venue for piloting their three-month course and decided to target young people who’d already spent time in jail. They hooked up with the Friends of the Island Academy, a nonprofit organization that works with 10- to 21-year-old ex-offenders.
FOIA, which is located in Manhattan, strives to break the cycle of criminal behavior by providing GED classes, counseling, and other services to young people who’ve spent time at Rikers. FOIA doesn’t work with many outside organizations, but Executive Director Beth Navone gave the radio project the go-ahead anyway: She was intrigued, she says, by the opportunity it offered “for our young people to become more responsible, to see something from beginning to end, to feel a sense of accomplishment.”
The class—five young adults between the ages of 18 and 24—meets Monday and Friday afternoons. During the early sessions, Abramson and co-teacher Susan Burton, an independent radio producer, taught students to use documentary radio’s basic tools: a microphone and a mini-disc recorder, which is smaller and lighter than a Walkman and is transported in a shoulder bag. Students also dipped into the editing process by plugging recorders into a computer, transferring pieces into a digital mixing program, and weaving fragments together to produce a seamless whole.
Getting used to radio’s various gadgets was the easy part, says Abramson. The students’ real challenge has been to choose and refine the stories they’ll tell in their four- to six-minute autobiographical pieces. “The idea behind this is to shine a light on a hard time, a time when maybe something happened that changed the course of your life,” she explains. “One woman in the class [has talked] about how she landed in Rikers because she cut someone up in her school. . . . I’m hoping she’ll go back to that time, interview people, and re- create what happened. She’s like: ‘Are you kidding? Why would I want to find that girl?’”
Once participants settle on ideas, the Sound Portraits teachers help them choose subjects to interview, create a cohesive narrative, and put it all together in a segment that, the producers hope, will broaden students’ understanding not only of radio but of themselves, as well.
Showing young people how to create radio programs “is not just teaching a technology, teaching a skill,” notes Radio Rookies founder McCune. “It’s getting to know the students; it’s really building trust with them. When we’re talking about what makes powerful stories, we always talk about intimacy and honesty and openness, and so you’re asking students to explore those zones. As a result, you really need to be there for them.”
So far, the program is going well. As for Vaughn, he appreciates the opportunity to be heard. “I’m glad what Stacy is doing is giving the kids here a voice,” he says.
Sound Portraits will broadcast its first students’ pieces on the Internet in early summer, and Abramson plans to refine and repeat the course. Ultimately, she says, “my dream would be to get a [radio documentary] curriculum into every school inside of a correctional facility.”
Meanwhile, she and Burton haven’t been able to resist doing a little recording of their own: They’re tracking the class’s evolution by taping parts of sessions, which they plan to post on the Web. And the two are enjoying their time in the classroom. Teaching is “harder than producing a documentary,” laughs Abramson, but, she adds, it’s “gratifying in a way that almost nothing [else] is.”