Saturday Light Brigade empowers teens to take the airwaves | Pittsburgh City Paper

Saturday Light Brigade empowers teens to take the airwaves

click to enlarge Saturday Light Brigade empowers teens to take the airwaves
Photo: Courtesy of SLB Radio
Saturday Light Brigade Open Studio at the Youth Media Center in the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh

Every Saturday morning since 1978, you can turn the radio dial to 88.3 FM and listen to the Saturday Light Brigade, a kid-friendly broadcast centered around highlighting youth voices from the Pittsburgh area. Now, SLB wants to help train the next generation of podcasters, audio editors, and NPR hosts.

Open Studio at the Youth Media Center was launched by SLB as a free after-school program for teenagers in grades 6 to 12. Its goal is to provide the technology and space for teens to learn about all steps of creating a podcast, from recording to editing to publishing.

Tucked away in the lower level of the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, the newly renovated SLB Youth Media Center space features microphones, recording booths, keyboards, computers, and more. Open Studio, which operates from Monday to Thursday and on Saturday, is a drop-in program, so no sign-up is required to visit (though, if it is your first time visiting Open Studio, SLB asks that you fill out an online form prior to attending).

Open Studio is designed to be a relaxed program where kids can feel comfortable, and even use it as a time to do homework or play a board game after a long school day.

Larry Berger, the creator and host of SLB’s live show, says kids are encouraged to tinker with the audio equipment and create something that they’re proud of.

“When you get down to it, [radio] all starts with words and language. It really gives you a chance to sharpen that,” Berger says. “You have incredible control — there’s a lot of payoff in learning to create and edit audio correctly.”

The days of portable radios and fireside chats may be long gone, but, to Berger, the idea of audio as a conduit for self-expression remains very much alive. Berger says that, when he spoke with students at a Woodland Hills High School career day about radio as a medium, he was happy to hear them praise its “old-school” qualities.

“I’m always concerned I might hear deficits: ‘There is no video, there is nothing to watch, it limits your creativity because you only have half of what is there,’” Berger says. “But to the contrary, I heard things like, ‘You can be a little more anonymous, you don’t have to be seen, and everyone listening creates their own image and picture, so it ends up being a more intimate form of engagement.’”

Taking away the visual element can help remove a level of self-consciousness, which is helpful when broaching personal topics. Recently, four high-school girls read their poetry live on air as a part of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s Ralph Munn Creative Writing Competition. Their poems dealt with issues such as body image and toxic relationships.

“Audio eliminates bias you might have,” Berger says. “How a person is dressed, what shape their body is, what their race is, what kind of clothing they’re wearing. And teens, they really get that.”

Two 17-year-old girls created an audio documentary at SLB’s studio in 2015 that dealt with the issue of the “school-to-prison pipeline” as it relates to Black girls. The piece ended up being so successful that it was picked up by a station and broadcast nationally.

Berger says that collaboration in a team setting is key to SLB’s mission. Its website describes radio as a “tremendous equalizer,” a medium that can eliminate bias and give kids the confidence to work together.

“When we’re working with teams, it’s all about developing confidence, learning to work as a team, sharpening skills and communicating, learning how to meet deadlines,” Berger says.

On the Saturday morning that Pittsburgh City Paper visited SLB’s Open Studio, a toddler and his father came from the museum upstairs and poked their heads into the room. Soon, the toddler waddled into the recording studio, intrigued by the bright red foam microphone covers. It took some patient question-repeating and microphone adjustments, but before long, Berger had a short recording of the child saying his favorite food (spaghetti) and animal (elephant).

Taking this kind of hands-off, “try-it” approach with kids at Open Studio is often the best way to teach them, Berger stressed. Hovering over someone (Berger calls this being a “mousegrabber”) robs them of an “aha” moment, he says.

click to enlarge Saturday Light Brigade empowers teens to take the airwaves
Photo: Courtesy of SLB Radio
Saturday Light Brigade Open Studio at the Youth Media Center in the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh

“Sit on your hands if you have to,” Berger says. “I mean, we’re not gonna make things difficult, but especially with technology, people need to try things and might need to ‘fail.’ We don’t want to eclipse people’s self-discovery. We can’t.”

In addition to activities in its studio, SLB often visits local schools and runs programs teaching kids about audio. Chad Green, SLB’s manager of productions and distribution, says that Open Studio’s drop-in format allows students whose interest might have been piqued at a school program to easily play around with equipment.

“If a teen that we’ve worked with in a school really enjoys what we talked about, they’re more than welcome to come to our space on their own time to continue building the skills or interests that we introduced them to,” Green says.

Microphones and input levels may not be everyone’s idea of an after-school program, but Berger hopes that Open Studio can be a place for teenagers to form unlikely connections with their peers and feel comfortable enough to experiment, especially for those who don’t have the privilege of a relaxing home life.

“Kids don’t have many safe spaces to talk to people they’ve never met. Kids are discouraged from doing that,” says Berger. “The idea is to create a showcase space to teach people how all this works.”

Open Studio at the Youth Media Center. Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. 10 Children’s Way. North Side.