10 Years In: Why All The Personal Stories?

One of the questions I’ve been asked most by adults when they hear that I produce Radio Rookies is “why do teenagers always want to tell personal stories?” My initial reaction is to feel defensive and even a bit dismissive of the point (on behalf of the Rookies themselves and the program), but of course it is a legitimate question. Why are Rookies stories so often personal in nature? Why not encourage them to reach far and wide for their stories, just as professional journalists must do for theirs?

Over the past 10 years, Rookies have reported on some of the big journalistic issues of the day—politics, violence and immigration, to name a few--but most of the documentaries do have family and close friends right in the center.

I think the most important step in the Rookies workshop is working with the teens to help them select their story topics. During the brainstorming and then pitching process, one of the main qualities we’re looking for are stories that Rookies have unique access to, something a veteran reporter might have a tough time stepping inside of and getting all the necessary sources. A teenager reporting on gangs in his school is likely to find something very different than an adult reporter filing on the same topic; the Rookie already has inside information and characters from day one, and while the adult reporter can find those same sources, the interviews are likely to sound quite different. Nine times out of ten (that’s an estimate) a teen will give different answers, in both content and sound, to another teen than to an adult reporter.

In addition to access, we also want Rookies to report on a topic they’re deeply curious about and not just simply something they have a strong opinion about, so while the stories may be personal, they’re also reported. The Rookies are going to spend the next six months researching, talking, thinking, and writing about the issue so it helps to be full of questions that can lead a story in unexpected and interesting directions.

Finally, I think it’s important to say that the Rookies often do equal amounts of interviews with people far outside their closest circles, but often the best tape (yep, I still call it tape) is in those intimate moments in the morning getting ready for school or at a family BBQ when the mic is on but people are just living their lives and letting the audience have a listen.