RSJ and NPR partner for unique, innovative training program

RSJ and NPR partner for unique, innovative training program

The Reynolds School held its second-annual Next Generation Radio Nevada Boot Camp in May. The RSJ is the only journalism school in the nation to offer this weeklong training program, in partnership with NPR.

The camp was held at the Reynolds School the week following spring commencement. Six RSJ students were chosen to participate through a competitive application process. Participants worked one-on-one with professionals from NPR and member stations from across the country, as well as Reynolds School faculty, to produce radio stories and multimedia content for broadcast and publication on the project’s website.

“NPR and its member stations support this program because it allows our professionals to work one-to-one with rising talent from diverse backgrounds,” said NPR’s Doug Mitchell, director of the Next Generation Radio project. “The project allows our industry to keep building talent pipelines to new professionals who understand and embrace diversity and public media’s unique way of storytelling.”

The six selected students and their professional mentors were:

  • Patty Bobek, an RSJ graduate student who worked with Nico Colombant, an RSJ instructor and former Voice of America editor
  • Topher Cuellar, a spring RSJ graduate who worked with Erica Aguilar of KPCC in Los Angeles
  • Diego Zarazua, who worked with Charla Bear of KQED, San Francisco
  • Leo Beas, who worked with Jessica Naudziunas, a public radio journalist who recently completed a master’s degree at the University of California, Berkeley
  • Rocio Hernandez, whose mentor was Jenny Asarnow of KUOW, Seattle
  • Walanya Vongsvirates, who worked with Vanessa Vancour, coordinator of the RSJ’s Nevada Media Alliance

Traci Tong, a senior producer with Public Radio International’s international news program The World, served as managing editor for the project, and veteran filmmaker and audio producer/engineer Tom Krymkowski served as technical director.

NPR’s Doug Mitchell had previously worked with nearly all eight trainers— some of whom were once Next Generation Boot Camp student participants themselves—making the mentorship team cohesive and effective.

“Doug assembled an ‘A Team’,” Reynolds School Professor and 2014 Next Generation Mentor Nico Colombant said. “Traci’s got the efficiency, the kindness and the excellence and Tom is a pro’s pro.”

Other mentors spoke to the “pay-it-forward” nature of the program, including Charla Bear, who participated in the Next Generation Radio Boot Camp as a graduate student at U.C. Berkeley and has worked with Mitchell for seven years.

“Doug really showed me, in a lot of ways, how to be a mentor,” Bear said. “With Doug and Traci’s guidance, I mentored my first student. My eyes are a little watery. I’m so excited for Diego.”

Another indicator of the impact of the program is the fact that one of last year’s participants, Alexa Ard, chose to stay at the Reynolds School throughout her first week of summer to help oversee students’ projects, as she wanted to help students through the hurdles she overcame just one year prior.

“It was a great experience in that I was able to give back to something that gave so much to me,” Ard said.

In the weeks leading up to the boot camp, mentors worked closely with student participants via email and phone to brainstorm story ideas and locate potential subjects to interview. After an intensive week on campus, students presented their completed stories on Friday, May 23 at the Reynolds School. Students were excited to share with an audience both their final productions and what they learned throughout the boot camp.

“I learned how to tell a story with just my ears,” said grad student Patty Bobek, whose story profiled Reno entrepreneur and founder of the Morris Burner Hotel, “Jungle Jim.” “I’d like to continue in this medium. It was really, really interesting.”

Students seemed to agree that the most challenging aspect of the project was learning to tell a story solely through audio.

Topher Cuellar, who profiled a horse therapist, said, “This was definitely a huge learning experience for me. Having to work with just audio and create that scene was definitely the biggest hurdle for me.”

Other challenges included letting the subject tell the story, as some students chose not to narrate their pieces.

“As far as radio goes, it was tough because I didn’t get to narrate,” said Leo Bass, whose piece profiled parents living with their young child’s kidney disease. “I had to let the mom tell the story.”

Rocio Hernandez, whose story on a local sex columnist was also free of narration, felt that her choice to let her subject tell the story was the right one.

“This was my first time doing a radio story,” Hernandez said. “What I learned the most was that the style I chose fit with the character.”

Mentor Charla Bear stressed that students aren’t the only ones who get value out of the Next Generation Radio Boot Camps.

“I’ve done six or so of these kinds of projects. I get a lot of value out of it. I get to spread the love of radio,” Bear said. “I get to be there when the student has the satisfaction of that completed piece. I get to share in that. It’s infectious. When they’re excited, it excites me.”

Mentor Jenny Asarnow, who initially connected with NPR as an intern 10 years ago, spoke of what she learned both through the boot camp and through years of working with Mitchell.

“One thing I’ve always learned from Doug is to do things that might feel uncomfortable,” Asarnow said. “I’ve always appreciated how he creates situations where people can challenge themselves and grow more than they thought they could. It’s been a real pleasure being here and getting to know Rocio.”

Mentor Erica Aguilar, who was once a student in the Next Generation program in Austin, Texas, said that she was impressed with her mentee, Topher Cuellar’s, patience and work ethic.

“It takes a lot to sit patiently and listen and absorb and then apply,” Aguilar said. “Topher did that really well.”

Project Editor Traci Tong said that she was not only impressed with the students’ work, but with the Reno area in general.

“I’d have to say this is my best project. These have been my best students,” Tong said. “I’m in love with Reno. This is a whole new world.”

Project Manager Doug Mitchell wrapped up the final presentations by stressing the importance of the art of producing quality radio pieces.

“What we really need is young people to understand the mechanics of putting a story together,” Mitchell said. “ ‘Digital First’ is important, but we have to remember that we are about storytelling. You have to spend time listening.”

One of the participants in the 2013 Boot Camp, RSJ master’s graduate Regina Revazova, is now working for NPR in its Washington, D.C., headquarters.

“We’re grateful to the donors whose support makes the Next Generation Nevada project possible, and to the partnership of NPR and the participating stations,” said Reynolds School Dean Al Stavitsky, himself a former public radio journalist. “This is a transformative experience for our students. It was thrilling for me to hear their work.”

More on the program here.

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