Reportage

A story of the digital generation

'YOU ARE LISTENING to sin,' said the radio announcer. That was a few years ago now and I remember thinking I must have misheard. The music was also a bit odd, plunging into bad taste and then getting good again. As it turned out I had been listening to SYN, and not 'sin'. SYN, I discovered, is made by people between twelve and twenty-six. The only playlist is the 'sweet 16': a collection of songs they happen to like that week. The cheekiness of the name is deliberate. All their lives 'the SYNners', as they call themselves, have been told that the media is bad for them. And so they play up to it, taking SYN to be sin, knowing that they are in charge now.

SYN stands for the much-too-serious Student Youth Network; nobody can be bothered saying that on air. Audiences like the station because it has a child-like innocence – it has none of the polished, fast-paced, ad-ridden hype of commercial radio. If you live in Melbourne you can find SYN on the radio, television and the web. If you search hard you can also find a few old copies of its magazine, Pecado (which means 'sin' in Spanish), lying around its inner-city headquarters. SYNners will be listening to their peer-produced content in their rooms, watching it on television or downloading it to their iPods to take on the train. Some tune in and decide 'I can do better', so they call up and book in for a training program, others are online building the technologies, or in studios telling the newbies which buttons to press.

For all of the talk of a new communications paradigm there are very few stories of the people who are actually making it. SYN is a very small enterprise where people go to learn about, and become part of, the media. The high dramas of media dynasties, acquisitions and political influence lie pretty far from their reality. But the 'radical changes' occurring in the mediascape come from the sudden, wide-scale participation of ordinary folk in media production and distribution. New ideas and technologies are emerging out of non-market-based activities – friendship groups and hobbies – outside of professionalised industry. It is these stories that now need telling.

The life of SYN is also a story of digital literacy – a new literacy involving the ability to write, not just read, the forms and languages of digital media content. Through this poorly funded and only loosely organised institution, young people are planning their response to the hard questions: 'Where does new media participation lead to?' 'Who is it benefiting?' They are working out which structures will advance their capacity to communicate, get educated and compete in an increasingly competitive knowledge-based workforce. The policy-makers can't seem to keep up, relying on the private sector to deal with whatever major economic and social consequences digital communication throws up. The SYNners decided to figure it out for themselves.

 

THERE ARE DIFFERENT versions of how SYN started. The one that interests me most concerns the station's school days, before it grew up and became independent, so I visit Thornbury High, a large secondary school in Melbourne's multicultural northern suburbs. Two teachers, Paul Van Eeden and Colin Thompson, meet me at reception in the late afternoon and guide me through the wide corridors, which would usually be crammed with kids, and into the heart of the school. Van Eeden's energy and middle-aged hippie vibe appeals to kids. Thompson, a former maths teacher with a drawl is a self-confessed 'sports jock'. When he starts speaking about the media, a deep and ambitious interest is revealed. The two teachers struck me as opposites, brought together by a shared passion and hours of hard work.

They lead me into a large room that has been converted into a television studio, kitted out with studio cameras and blue screens. A smaller room off to the side is filled with computers for video editing. This is the production centre of Class TV, a weekly television program screened on C31, Melbourne's community television station. The walls are covered with newspaper articles on Class TV as well as Thornbury High's first media experiment, Radio 3TD. The radio station is long gone, superseded by television, and by SYN. The two teachers are keen to tell their radio story and how SYN was the demise of everything they had worked so hard to create.

One of the school's brightest pupils in the early 1990s was Rorie Ryan. With the help of the Student Representative Council, Rorie raised money from the Education Foundation (then known as the Small Change Foundation) and was made the school's Junior Citizen for his efforts. He used the money to buy a mixing desk for the school, then set about creating some noise. Broadcasting on ten speakers, the Junior Citizen started a radio station that could be heard in the corridors and across the playground. The teaching staff were not impressed that their school had been turned into a massive ghetto-blaster. The students loved it. Two years later, Rorie was doing work experience at 3RRR and discovered that he could apply for a Temporary Community Broadcasting Licence, which is something like a test licence. Still only fifteen, he put together an application with the help of one of the English teacher aides. In 1996, Rorie's final year of school, Thornbury High became a licensed temporary broadcaster.

According to Paul Van Eeden, 'Rorie seemed to have this tremendous power over the school'. He had keys to everything. Although most of the teachers refused to supervise the radio station on top of their regular workload, Van Eeden, the facilities manager, was an early riser and didn't mind. Listening to and observing the early-morning broadcasts, he realised that radio production was actually good for the kids. They were learning things, having fun, becoming confident and getting to school really early. Van Eeden had been unhappy in his job and was looking for another school, but he stayed at Thornbury High because 3TD needed him.

Colin Thompson, the new maths teacher, had his office across the hall from the radio station. The first year kids kept knocking on his door looking for help when the big kids kicked them off air. Thommo, as he is known, became interested in the station and got involved in the licence application. 'The kids were really enjoying it,' he tells me, 'and they weren't enjoying my maths class.' Letting kids broadcast could have been a disaster and the teachers knew it. 'We were risk takers,' says Thommo. 'If we weren't then SYN would never have happened.'

The story of the radio station is heart-warming. But as I hear about it, I feel there is a subtext – a critique of the education system as a whole. If schools had been a satisfying place to work, if teaching had been all that teachers wanted it to be, if students were learning things that would make them interested in the world and able to be part of it, then 3TD would not have emerged. The students responded to 3TD with energy, engaging in a way that the school curriculum could not achieve. For the teachers, it provided a new kind of learning; students could express themselves on their own terms, resist conformity and understand the media from the other side. They witnessed the intangible lessons that came from learning by doing and public performance. The structure was simple: mostly the kids just played their favourite top twenty songs, or discussed topics from schoolbooks. This revealed the humorous, down-to-earth culture of kids from the working-class, 'ethnic' suburbs. Van Eeden and Thommo discovered a newfound passion for teaching. The way they tell it, 3TD was a little beam of sunlight in a system that was otherwise a bore for everyone.

3TD was also time consuming. Getting a temporary licence was the first step in applying for a full-time licence in a highly competitive process. With fourteen community media groups competing for four licences, the stations broadcast on temporary licences for short stints and shared channels. As a listener at the time, I remember being confronted with a sudden strange amount of choice. 3TD found itself alongside six other temporary community broadcasters in its first test transmission. Its frequency, 87.1, reached far across the broadcast spectrum. The shows were being heard as far away as the Mornington Peninsula. Eight other schools joined 3TD, providing programming for the test transmissions. Listeners from all over Melbourne called to say they loved it. One afternoon, Paul Van Eeden received a call from Nigel Slater who was running SUB FM, a station based at LaTrobe University. The tertiary stations were realistically thinking that there would only be one youth licence, if any. He suggested that 3TD join forces with a group of four university stations and together apply for a full-time licence. 3TD decided to join, but at a meeting with the tertiary stations, there was some hostility to the school students, who were offered bad timeslots and little input at the board level. After two years of negotiations, 3TD and RMIT University's SRA decided to form one station. They agreed to call it Student And Youth Radio, or SAY-FM. Jo McCarthy, who later became SYN's president, came up with a better nomenclature: the Student Youth Network. SYN was born.

 

IN 2003 WHEN SYN moved from being a temporary radio broadcaster to a full-time station, Craig Twitt was president. We meet at the pub one afternoon so he can give me his personal archive. Craig grew up in the country and moved to Melbourne after finishing school. He enrolled in a commerce degree at Melbourne University but felt alienated in his course: 'You're not into sport and you're not into the More Beer society ... SYN had a mix of really, really interesting and eclectic people that you couldn't find in other places. And SYN parties were excellent.'

When I meet him, Craig is working at 3MBS as the volunteer coordinator. 3MBS is one of the community broadcasting stations that received one of the first non-commercial licences in the 1970s. When Craig describes it as 'one of the oldest stations', he is talking about the age of the volunteers – a high proportion are retirees. At MBS, 'volunteer turnover' doesn't mean that people are going off to get jobs or move cities: 'In twenty years, 80 percent of their current volunteers will no longer be in this world.' Craig is used to being the young guy at MBS, he is only twenty-seven, old by SYN's standards.

The large folio he hands me is filled with newspaper articles, radio schedules, press passes, and SYN condoms and stickers. In amongst the paraphernalia is an A4 Melbourne University tutorial sheet. On one side it has a series of essay questions ('What do you understand by the transparency of monetary policy?'). On the other it has his notes for his radio show, Melbourne's Bitter. That week's work involved research for an interview with someone from the student union and compiling a list of album tracks he was planning on playing that week: Bob Dylan, Augie March and Art of Fighting. The essay on monetary policy obviously had to wait.

I also find an old envelope addressed to Craig. On the back, someone from SYN had scrawled: 'stop ripping off our humble radio station and renew your membership! You shame us all.' Craig renewed his membership. In fact, not long after our meeting, he left 3MBS and returned to SYN as the assistant station manager to help get the finances in order. One day he forwards me a bunch of files from the SYN newsletter archives from the time of the merger. An SRA newsletter shows an inflated, undergraduate identity – demonstrating that the transition from a university club to an open organisation was not entirely smooth. During the temporary broadcasts, the two groups initially decided to share the airtime – a fifty-fifty split – whilst maintaining distinct identities. Craig recalls that SRA was appalled by the content being produced by the 3TD kids. SRA might have been just a bunch of uni students compared with the bullies that dominated Australia's mainstream media, but they still protected their turf when the kids asked to join the club. The SRA newsletter consoled its membership about the drop in standards, assuring them the merger would greatly increase the station's chances of getting a full-time licence.

The Australian Broadcasting Authority, luckily, was not impressed by the line-in-the-sandpit approach to airtime and made it clear that the groups had to fully amalgamate if they wanted a shot at the licence. Turning SYN into a cohesive whole meant implementing training and coming up with a programming structure where all shows were subject to an evaluation process. The process was lax by SRA standards but a completely new concept for 3TD. Van Eeden and Thommo fought against demo tape applications and in favour of younger representation on the board, including a rotating president (one year tertiary, secondary the next). They didn't succeed.

The licence application process was arduous and competitive. Mary Delahunty, the Victorian Arts Minister at the time, helped out with funds for a business plan and the support of key politicians. Stations were permitted to comment on other applications. SYN pitted itself against two dance music stations, Hitz and Kiss, arguing that young people could not be represented with a single music genre. The dance stations were faddish and would cease to be relevant when the music was no longer new and interesting. SYN would offer diversity by nature of its accessible programming grid. Music tastes could come and go, and the station would always be relevant to what young people were listening to. That was the argument, anyhow.

The Sydney licence round came up first and when the 'cool' station there beat its dance music competitor, SYN saw the win as a good sign.

Paul Van Eeden describes the Melbourne ABA hearing as 'almost like a trial'. Wanting to fill the cavernous, grand auditorium of the Melbourne Town Hall with SYN supporters, the teachers decided to bus in school classes. The interrogation lasted for an hour and a half, and the school kids got 'bored silly'. When the hearing was over and the ABA members stood up to leave, the girls and boys broke out into thunderous applause. Van Eeden remembers the mistaken response: 'We heard back that they were really impressed with our kids because they were passionate. But the kids all clapped and cheered because they could finally get out of the place.' Adults, he observes, have different ideas of youth empowerment from the youth they are claiming to empower.

There was genuine surprise and relief when SYN won one of the Melbourne licences, despite less publicity than the dance stations and only being on the scene for a short time. The broadcasting authority then issued a further five youth radio licences around the country, including Edge Radio in Hobart and Groove FM in Perth. Now the difficult business of establishing a radio station commenced. The SRA newsletter put it out there: 'Anyone got a rich uncle?'

The rich uncle turned out to be RMIT University, which paid for the transmitter. But as SYN evolved, the tertiary identity grew weaker as voluntary student unionism began killing campus life. And despite SRA's fears, the school kids were often better in front of the mike. The challenge was to keep the station young, accessible and fiercely independent.

 

TODAY, THE SYNNERS regard Van Eeden and Thommo as two old guys who were instrumental in setting up the station, but who ultimately had to go. From my observation, everyone seemed to get on with the teachers whenever they were in the room. Private interviews suggest that the relationship between the teachers and SYN was more complex, with disparate interests and cultures. SYN could not have teachers involved and remain independent. The teachers felt that they were the protectors of the high school-age kids, who would be subsumed in university business without them.

Van Eeden and Thompson voluntarily left the SYN board. Under the current model, schools are treated as clients rather than having real ownership over the station and Thommo thinks 'we got shafted'. Van Eeden and Thompson's innovation was to bring a new kind of literacy into the school. Once it was established, SYN needed to become part of the media system. That demonstrated the importance of digital literacy to the education system and SYN was able to teach the teachers.

Most of the organisation's income comes from training programs, which were carefully redeveloped by Georgia Webster in 2007. She has since worked her way up through SYN's volunteer and staff ranks to become station manager. In her opinion, high school media studies rarely include production and focuses on a critical understanding designed to discourage media participation. When teachers come into SYN they are amazed at the way their students take to radio – not just as DJs, but in technical and production roles and researching issues to discuss on air. SYN offers a different way of learning which is in many respects the opposite of school. The founder of the Educational Video Centre in New York City, Steve Goodman, observes a similar pattern: 'The failure of schools and after-school programs to address the media as the predominant language of youth today, or to recognise the social and cultural contexts in which students live, has resulted in a profound disconnect.' I asked the SYNners if they agreed: 'What was it like being trained at SYN?'

'It's a bit of a sink or swim kind of thing so it was very practical, very hands on,' one replied. 'You sort of see immediate results from what you're learning. Not that you're learning an idea and then years later you get to put it into practice. It's very much "here's the button you need to press, you go and press it".'

Schools have historically taken an antagonistic approach, to the media in their studies of it. Critical media literacy has been the standard approach with students learning about stereotypes or news values, usually in an English class. This strand of media studies emerged with the study of radio propaganda in the 1930s. By the late 1960s, it had begun to focus on television and commercialised culture. Students learnt how to translate the semiotic meanings within images, press biases and the illusion of objectivity. However, by teaching students to 'read' the media, but not to 'write' it, schools distanced students from the media. Critical consumers are powerless, however wise they may be to the inevitable tricks of an unrelenting force. Elizabeth Daley, Dean of the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California, writes, 'These courses ... enforce the belief that real education remains in books and that real knowledge is rational and linear. Students are taught to read visual texts in order to defend themselves against the onslaught of visual culture. Second, these courses have been extremely one-sided in the definition of literacy, focusing on a "read only" approach.'

Young people learn how to make media by figuring it out for themselves, especially through social networking sites and content-sharing networks such as Flickr. As media studies professor, John Hartley, has pointed out, digital literacy investment 'is almost all private, seeking to develop markets rather than citizens'.

 

BY 2006, OVER five thousand young people had been members of SYN after only three years of full-time broadcasting. Many were active volunteers at some point, undergoing training and then working on a radio or television program. Others would have made it into executive volunteer roles, managing its operations, or working on the board, directing station policy. If you add the kids that come through in school groups, either as short half-day trainees or term-long radio announcers, the participation figure is much, much higher. Regular volunteer meetings are held to induct new SYNners into the organisation, often with fifty to a hundred people turning up on a school night. The vast majority of SYN members are under twenty-one.

Work experience is one of the primary reasons for getting involved in SYN and its alumni register – those who are known to have gone on to work in the media industries – is impressive. At the start of 2006 there were sixty people on the list; a year later there were around eighty. SYN's unconventional training system is successful because it encourages responsibility and initiative. Richard Riley, US Secretary of Education in Bill Clinton's administration once said, 'We are preparing our students for jobs that don't exist, using technologies that have not been invented, to solve problems that we haven't even considered yet.' The technologies at SYN might be crude or out of date in comparison to what they will find in the workplace. But that doesn't matter so much when you are learning the vital skill of how to cope with change.

In contrast, doing work experience at commercial media companies was mundane. Statements like 'Well I had previously been working and volunteering at Austereo in more of a promotional capacity but they weren't giving me any training or on-air experience' were fairly common. A young woman, who is now a newsreader, pointed out that 'volunteering at a commercial station is a very strange concept. And at the time it was really overwhelming because you're like "Wow this is how a real radio station works and I'm actually in here getting paid in free movie tickets to sit and answer phones."' In her enthusiasm to be at a 'real' radio station she didn't consider that a commercial media company was avoiding paying for her menial labour. SYN is very bad at answering the phones – perhaps a good indication that people have more interesting things to learn.

At the end of 2007, I surveyed approximately three hundred and fifty media workers about their qualifications and transition into paid work. My intention was to find out how many had volunteered in a community media organisation. Over half had been involved in some form of community media – mostly radio, but also TV, print and web. That figure rose to two-thirds for those aged under thirty. Participation in community media was 'important' or 'vital' for getting paid work in the media industries.

Digital literacy is an ongoing and incomplete experiment. On discussion lists, in studios and at computer terminals, SYNners conduct a continuous conversation on the best way to create content. They soon realise that, to communicate effectively in the media environment, certain forms, standards and methods are useful. SYN gives them basic skills, but it also allows them to practise and enact a suite of audio, visual and textual content forms.

Obviously, the system of digital literacy in which SYN is engaged is unfinished business. Because of the nature of the digital revolution, students, trainees and amateurs are just as likely as professionals to influence the way that digital literacy evolves. The seemingly unstructured, casual environments that the youth media sector has developed are, in many ways, an entirely appropriate response to the growing demands of the creative economy. As it is youth run, the form of digital literacy that results will be what young people see as necessary, not something imposed on them through curricula and exams.

Schools still have an important role to play. It's fair to say that Paul Van Eeden and Colin Thompson have done more for media education and digital literacy than any other teachers in the country. The pair have stayed at Thornbury High and now dedicate their time to Class TV, broadcasting school-made video content on C31. They have also started a new project, ClassNet (www.classnet.com.au), and hope it will encourage more schools to engage in media production and distribution. In 2007, Paul Van Eeden was awarded Victorian Teacher of Year.

There is a poster at SYN headquarters, the House of SYN, dated 28.01.03. On the poster, in fine double-outlines of hot pink and black, abstract figures perform twenty-nine different coital positions. The poster is ridiculous, a little shocking and its reference to radio is obscure. The image makes you bend your neck to the side and squint. And there really is more than one way to look at it. The figures and the date signify SYN's moment of inception: the first day of full-time broadcasting. Then there is the naughty/smutty aspect, a teenage obsession with sex. The poster implies that here at SYN you won't be told off for acts of trivial expression, so long as it is done in a creative way. It made me think of Oz, the 1960s magazine which used sexually explicit cartoons to challenge the establishment (their 'Schoolkids' issue being the most controversial of all). Germaine Greer once wrote that Oz 'behaved as though the revolution had already happened'. The same can be said of SYN, although it's a different revolution this time.

The poster caused trouble – not everyone likes it – but it is still on display as school group tours traipse through The House. SYN has ended up with that bifocal role – a conservative black outline marking the bread and butter training programs, neat and polite for the public. The shadow is the real culture, cast in retro fluorescent pink, unpredictable, immature and ready to tell whomever to get f*cked.

There is another poster on the wall from the same time, which everyone still loves. Nestled inside an ear is a foetus, a life about to be born through the ear canal. SYN had just received its community radio licence and would bring new life to an old platform. Unlike a lot of other youth-directed media, SYN is never deliberately cool, but sometimes it gets it right.

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