BEHIND THE SCENES with Noah Miller

How did outLoud Radio come to exist?

A couple years ago, on a whim, I stopped by my old junior high school, and discovered that some students and teachers had formed a Gay-Straight Alliance (a club organized to fight homophobia). My mouth dropped to the floor when I saw a classroom of 11-, 12-, and 13-year-olds writing protest letters and organizing presentations about respect and equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. At that time, it was something like the only middle school GSA west of the Mississippi. The next time I came, I brought my microphone, and started documenting the club's activities. I did this for months and months, and then, one day, I decided to let some of the kids interview one another. It was the most incredible thing -- they got things on tape that I never had. They were so much more real. I remembered back to when I was their age, lying in bed and listening to Ghetto Life 101 come out of my radio -- my fascination with radio started in earnest then, with two kids documenting their own lives. Here, in the middle school classroom, with seventh-graders exploring the cutting edge of social justice and talking about its relevance to their own lives, I saw the possibility for something very important, or at least very interesting. I officially started outLoud soon after that.

Talk about what happens at outLoud; what is the creative process that you and the kids go through together?

We always start with a discussion of each youth producer's life and interests, and the rest of the process stems from that. Some youth producers are really issue-driven: they want to immerse themselves in ideas, find out what people think, develop their own understanding. One of our current participants, Alla, is a great example. When she arrived at outLoud she told me, "I really want to talk with people who have different beliefs from me." She's voraciously curious about everything from the interaction between religion and sexuality to the developing campaign for gender-neutral bathrooms. For her, making radio is a way to learn about all these things that fascinate her. So we've spent a lot of time working on interviewing skills, learning about how to get at different sides of an issue, and how to synthesize those ideas into a radio piece. Other Youth Producers, like Robbie, who scored and cut the section of Dia's diary that's up on your site, are more into radio as sound art. Robbie told me when he was just starting out that he wanted to explore the interplay between words and music. So the process with him was very different -- he never did a single interview. Instead we worked with tape like Dia's diary, where he could essentially be a composer. With him, the creative process was a cycle of experimentation and critique.

Do you struggle, as the producer, to find a balance between improving their work and letting the kids have their own voice?

Always! Even though I'm a pretty young producer myself, I have a very particular audio language in my head, an idea of the way things should sound, and it's hard not to push that on the young people. I forget that not every one is as geeky about radio as I am; not every one has been listening to documentary radio constantly since 1990 -- especially kids who were only born that year! And quite often, if I get out of the way, what they have to say is a hundred times deeper than what I would have said. I don't presume to know what's going on in the youth world -- I'm constantly surprised and amazed by the things I learn doing this work. That's why it's best to let the young people speak for themselves: they're the only ones who really can do it.

How did the creative process work with Dia's Diary: My Mother ?

The first part of the creative process was developing a friendship with Dia; we had to build a connection over what seemed (to me) like a huge cultural divide. As a middle-class white boy, I had never even set foot in the part of town where Dia was staying. At the same time, she had to step out of her own shoes, and think about how to portray her life to people like me, who were different in so many ways. Even though this was a diary, she also had to think about it in terms of creative self-expression. Luckily, she's a born storyteller. As her diary and our friendship evolved, I encouraged her to explore some things more deeply -- like her family -- and to try different modes of reflection. She surprised and delighted me with what she put on tape. Once we had some audio, the second part of the creative process began. I worked with Robbie, one of the youth producers I mentioned earlier, to find the sections of tape that really got to the core of Dia's story. The piece about her mother is from one of those sections. Robbie essentially had free reign over the composition of the piece. He edited the story down a bit, then began to listen to it, guitar in hands, until he developed a rough score. He recorded the guitar tracks at the beginning and end of the piece in real time, while he was listening to Dia's voice. I think it made the music wonderfully responsive the words. He decided to use prerecorded music to orchestrate the middle section. I stepped in again to help him refine the structure -- mostly, I showed him how to let the piece breathe a little. But essentially what you hear is the result of Robbie's musical ear combined with Dia's honest, artful storytelling.

It seems like one key part of this process is the act of playing this work for the kids' parents, teachers, and friends?

It's true, that is important. But I find that, in a way, our most important audience is the young people themselves. When they hear their finished work actually coming out of radio or streaming off the web, they suddenly see themselves in a very different way. All of a sudden, they're part of the public conversation; they're at the table; their words are making an impact. When they start thinking of themselves in that new way, the work takes on a new importance for them. It's immensely empowering.

What is the future for outLoud? Are you hoping to expand into a regularly scheduled program?

I would love to take the leap to a regular program schedule, and that's a huge desire for the participants as well. In fact, the ultimate dream for most of the youth producers is for us to have our own youth station in the Bay Area. That would be a much easier way to reach an audience of our peers than through scattered stories on public radio. Of course, it takes a lot to produce a regular show, much less start a radio station! If anyone is interested in helping us out financially, I'd love to hear from you. Speaking more broadly, I want to bring outLoud to more and different ears. It's important that soccer moms in Idaho hear us, that people in economically depressed urban neighborhoods hear us, that people who might never otherwise think about this stuff hear us. People who think they've never met a queer youth: those are the ears we want to reach. In my vision, our youth producers will come away with the strength and confidence to continue expressing themselves all through their lives. Because the power of a story can be profound. When people come in contact with the humanity of our voices, it's hard to think of us as strangers to be excluded or belittled or cured; we begin to be recognized as family. That's the belief that drives outLoud.