“I thought, ‘This guy is nosy’,” Farmer said.
“We were at (Carolina Brewery), and I was clearly talking to this female about how I do poetry with Sacrificial Poets,” said Farmer. “(Alex) heard me say ‘Sacrificial Poets,’ and he asked me if I wanted to do this audio thing over the summer. I thought, ‘That’s awkward.’”
Stephens co-directs The Marian Cheek Jackson Center for Saving and Making History, based in St. Joseph CME Church on West Rosemary Street. It’s involved with just about every activity in the historically black Northside neighborhood, from gentrification and downtown development, to education, to the writing of wills.
Upon hearing Farmer’s recounting of events, Stephens laughed.
“We were at the same table!” he said.
Nosy or not, Stephens’ dinner proposal would ultimately become a major part of Farmer’s senior year. She is now one of five student-hosts of the Fusion Youth Radio program, a partnership between the Jackson Center, WXYC and the spoken-word group Sacrificial Poets. Named after North Carolina’s biracial fusion politics movement of the 1890s, the show airs at 5 p.m. every other Sunday on WXYC 89.3 FM.
“For young folks who don’t have a lot of outlets to get their artwork out there, FYR comes in and creates a place where they are the stars and they are the features,” says Sacrificial Poets executive director Will McInerney.
Conceived just last summer and on-air by October, FYR came together quickly, the result of passionate directors, a strong core of youth hosts and producers, and a degree of serendipity.
For Stephens, it began with finding a team.
After meeting Farmer at dinner, he found two students through a Youth Leadership Initiative summer field trip, two through St. Joseph’s, and two more from Farmer.
Seeing the opportunity to both give their poets a voice and further their educational work, Sacrificial Poets reached out to Stephens. At Digital Waves Youth Media Festival in New York, Stephens and Sacrificial Poets program director Jacob Jacoby networked and watched a live audio slam competition, and returned to Chapel Hill with a better idea of how to pursue youth media production.
Still, an on-air radio slot wasn’t a necessity. Until the students made it one.
“The live show came out of the initiative of the youth,” says Stephens. “They wanted to do it.”
Almost on cue, WXYC station manager Nicole Campbell contacted Stephens. A mutual friend had mentioned Stephens’ youth radio project, and Campbell was interested already.
“Something that we struggle with at WXYC is trying to prevent ourselves from being so insular, and we want to reach out to the community, and that makes us relevant,” said Campbell. “It also makes radio more political, like it should be, in my opinion.”
By the fall semester, she was able to fit FYR into a biweekly Sunday evening slot.
“I learned a lot about editing and a lot about software, which is why I want to go to school for it now,” says Farmer. “And I learned how to write better. I think my poetry has gotten a lot better because I learned how to do more with narration.”
“I’ve seen evolutions in consciousness in the things they think about,” said Campbell.
Jones Franzel, who runs the Public Radio Exchange’s youth platform, Generation PRX, has kept an eye on the development of FYR since talking to Stephens last summer.
“What’s been so impressive about FYR is how Alex has really pulled things together quickly,” says Franzel. “They’ve been doing a real variety of work, and they’ve been great about sharing their work on PRX and finding an audience outside of Chapel Hill.”
According to Franzel, youth radio is a small but growing field, with just 50 or 60 youth radio programs currently operating in the United States.
These days, recruitment isn’t a problem. It only took one high school visit last fall before Stephens and McInerney were bombarded with applications.
“We were only looking for a couple folks, but we ended up with a handful,” said McInerney.
There is always room to expand, but for now, the primary focus is to improve on the program’s quality.
“This has been an amazing experience for me,” Stephens said. “It’s exhausting, but it’s also really fulfilling. I have a different sort of energy when I’m working with youth – when they’re excited, it’s hard to not get excited. And that really energizes me, and I want to keep working, keep pushing and trying to help them through these new artistic endeavors.”