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Unleashing youth voices on Blunt Radio

I recently talked with the founder and a couple of student broadcasters about the evolution and impact of an influential local radio show – the Blunt Youth Radio Project

In this fragmented, broadcast age of pod-casts, satellite connections and streaming, Portland-based community radio station WMPG is keeping radio relevant for youth, who are producing a number of shows, including Blunt, that give local kids a voice and empowerment through direct, media access.

Blunt is an award-winning, call-in talk show primarily programmed by local high school students who are trained in all areas of radio production: interviewing, hosting, reporting, editing, and engineering.

Since it debut in 1994, Blunt has led to a lot of local buzz, and has included memorable segments by incarcerated kids. The show is one of WMPG's 94 programs, most of which are locally produced.

Blunt discussions

On a recent, warm July evening at the WMPG studio, located in Portland on the University of Southern Maine campus, I spoke with Anthony, a 17-year-old Blunt volunteer who has been with the program for three years.

He had just co-hosted an hour-long show on the “Summer of Love” and conducted an engaging interview with two 60s survivors. The conversation was both historical and personal, covering the Vietnam War, protests, Woodstock, and, yes, even LSD. It seems Anthony feels that radio is an institution that still offers new opportunities to explore wide-ranging topics.

Olivia, 16, is another Blunt volunteer who is passionate about social justice issues and sees the show as a vehicle to talk to interesting people about “big” subjects. Besides that, she says the experience is fun and that Blunt is a great place to meet new friends.  

Claire Holman who has been the consistent and guiding force behind Blunt since she initiated the show, believes that a radio show primarily run by teenagers is very much about providing a voice. She says that the young people she works with are full of hope and anticipation of things to come.

“We are a positive youth develop program,” she says, noting that Blunt’s mission is youth empowerment through direct, media access.

Holman got her start at WMPG’s Big Talk, a show that still airs on the station.

Blunt takes the notion of community radio as a forum for otherwise unheard voices into significant and attention-grabbing places. Topics are chosen six to eight weeks in advance at group meetings. Recent shows have focused on patriotism, local hip-hop, and homeless youth. The name Blunt was chosen because it had a good sound and connotation –– direct and to the point.  

The program has received Gold and Silver Reel awards from the National Federation of Community Broadcasters as well as a number of First Place Radio News Awards from the Maine Association of Broadcasters. 

Community roots

Back in 1970, local community radio’s future began on the Gorham campus of the University of Southern Maine when a student used a transistor radio to begin broadcasting out of his dorm room.  From this humble beginning WMPG became a media force in greater Portland. With a recent “power up,” an increase from 1,100 to 4,500 watts, the station has spread its influence to points into central Maine and west, to the New Hampshire border. WMPG also has a web presence on www.wmpg.org. The expansion reflects the increased scope of what was called college radio 30 years ago and is now more likely to be called community radio.  

(I had a radio show myself at WMEB in Orono in my late teens. Commercial radio did not reflect my tastes or concern, so following Jello Biafra’s advice  “don’t criticize the media, become the media!” I began doing my own show. College radio played local bands, genres like reggae and rockabilly, and was crucial to break bands that went on to become household names such as REM and Nirvana back when commercial radio would barely touch them. I’ve had my own show on WMPG, The Random Thought Crime Generator, since 2005.)

In the past, community radio was the only game in town for local broadcasting, but with other options multiplying, will radio abide?

WMPG Program Director Lisa Bunker has faith.

“Even in this cyber age, radio clearly has an enduring coolness about it which continues to attract new talent in each generation, Bunker says. “There’s just something beguiling about it –– that idea of broadcasting your voice and music and thoughts and ideas and humor and energy out into the world, where who knows how many people doing who knows what will hear it.” 

Additional youth offerings

In addition to Blunt, other youth focused shows on WMPG include:

* Chickens Are People Too: “Music for kids of all ages.” Saturdays from 8 -9 a.m.

* Tweenlight Zone: “Music, talk and fun for middle-aged kids.” Saturdays from 9-10 a.m.

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