A story of the digital generation
From Griffith REVIEW Edition 24: Participation Society
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by Ellie Rennie
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Ellie Rennie's biography and other articles by this writer
‘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 is 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.