Spot 127 — KJZZ’s Youth Media Center — is reaching teens, changing lives

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Spot 127
Clockwise from top left: Adrian Herrera (15), Spot 127 senior editor Sylvia McDonald Cook and Blakelynn Robertson (15). Right: Itzel Rios (17) works on a video piece with help from Cook. Photos by Rick D’Elia.

Emmy-winner Sylvia McDonald Cook has an impressive resume — from serving as executive sports producer at CBS to running an Atlanta TV station during the ’96 Olympics. But nothing prepared her for the life-changing impact of her job as senior editor at Spot 127, KJZZ’s Youth Media Center in Phoenix.

“I never thought I’d find a gig like this and get paid for it,” Cook says.

Spot 127 is a free after-school program developed through a partnership between Rio Salado Community College, Friends of Public Radio and KJZZ, the public-radio station for metro Phoenix. The initial goal was to target at-risk teens to give them the opportunity to develop state-of-the-art skills in digital media and journalism.

But talk to Cook and her colleagues, and you soon realize that something bigger happens here: “This is a place where kids turn their lives around,” Cook says.

A haven for teens

Many of the teens who enroll in the program come to the center looking for a safe place to go after school. What they find is something even better: a purpose.

Cook has seen many success stories since coming to the digital-media center in August 2015. She gets emotional talking about the teens whose backstories include homelessness and gang violence. “They learn to draw from their own lives, from the things they’ve gone through. Because of this program, they get to tell their stories, however painful it may be.”

Dianan Heinze (16) works on sound bites for a video piece.
Dianan Heinze (16) works on sound bites for a video piece.

The facility — heavily funded by Carstens Family Funds and the Bob & Renee Parsons Foundation — was designed by FITCH, a global design firm with a 35-year presence in Arizona, to be state-of-the-art. The 7,500-square-foot building offers collaborative-style classrooms, three sound booths, 10 editing stations, green screens, high-end JVC video cameras and reporter radio packs (the same kits NPR reporters use on assignments). In fact, the facility is so high-end, it is often utilized by KJZZ reporters and staff.

Students are recruited from local high schools, including South Ridge, Phoenix Union Bioscience, Maryville, Alhambra and Carl Hayden Community. Some students hear about the program and come from farther away, but a designated percentage must be from a certain socioeconomic background.

Students must apply to the program; approximately 50 kids are accepted each semester. Classes are
offered two days a week from 4 to 6 p.m.

Hands-on experience

Students are assigned to work on semester-long projects, including:

  • Public-service announcements. A series of PSAs on human trafficking runs at Harkins Theatres during previews.
  • “Served.” A food show created by Spot 127 (similar to “Diners, Dives and Drive-Ins”) utilizes a gourmet kitchen at Rio Salado Community College. Local celebrity chefs appear regularly.
  • Avnet Tech Games. Spot 127 students participate in the annual technology competition that applies school lessons to real-life business scenarios. A Spot 127 team won one of the categories in 2015.

Beyond these projects, students learn to pitch their own stories and write, produce and direct pieces. The final products are presented to KJZZ, and many — including segments on teen Jehovah’s Witnesses, “coming out” as a gay teen, Inspire Arizona’s “Voting After High School” campaign and teen homelessness — have made it on air.

Students who graduate from the program are eligible for scholarship and awards opportunities and paid internships. Spot 127 graduates have gone on to Dartmouth College, Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism, Northern Arizona University, Maricopa Skills Center, Phoenix College and Rio Salado Community College.

A second digital media center — Spot 127 East — is set to open in January in Tempe. The grand opening celebration will be held from 2 to 4:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 19 at 3320 S. Price Road, Tempe. The event is free and features tours and a ribbon-cutting ceremony. RSVP to 480-774-8350 or spot127@rioradio.org.

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