Radio Talk – Cultural Energy in New Mexico
By Samantha Michaels
New Mexico Nonprofit Helps Small Communities Find Their Voice
When I was in high school, I used to write in a little red journal. Whenever I had some spare time, I’d sit and scribble down musings about my life, my family and my neighborhood – knowing that nobody else would read them, but still hoping to get my thoughts out there in the universe. Like most teenagers, I had a busy mind, but I didn’t have much of an audience to share it with.
A few weeks ago, then, I was thrilled to learn that a few students in Taos, NM, are getting a chance to voice their thoughts on the radio – thanks to a nonprofit organization called Cultural Energy. Founded in 2003, Cultural Energy produces radio shows about communities in northern New Mexico, posting segments about their current events, history and culture to an online website. Unlike many media outlets, Cultural Energy isn’t simply working to share the news; its goal is to help local residents – including students – speak for themselves. “We’re trying to get the little communities to tell stories in their own voices,” said the organization’s president, Robin Collier.
In 2005, Cultural Energy hosted a weeklong media camp with 28 students, teaching them to produce art, radio and video pieces for and about their communities. Some students focused on religion, some wrote about the neighborhoods, and others created personal pieces about their own lives. “We wanted the kids to go out and learn about their community,” said Mike Tilley, a producer on the show. “It was really empowering for them.”
Since then, Cultural Energy has encouraged youths to participate on a more regular basis. After going to the teen media camp, 19-year-old Juman Khweis interviewed politicians, writers and other celebrities while she worked as an intern. Now a student at Georgetown University, she remembers the confidence she gained throughout the process. “Before I’d record something, or before we’d go live on the air, my heart would be racing ” she said. “I learned how to keep my nerves under control.”
Another former intern named Lyla June Johnston also told me about her experience with Cultural Energy. A 21-year-old student who now studies at Stanford University, Johnston worked with the organization while she was in high school, creating a show called Native Momentum. “They had a studio open to any and all people in the community, and they invited me to come and produce a program on anything I wanted,” she explained. Having grown up on a Native American reservation, Johnston wanted to provide an outlet for the Native American voice – sharing stories about the beauty and hardship she saw on local reservations. In one episode she interviewed teenage hip-hop artists at a nearby pueblo; in several others, she described a grassroots movement to prevent a corporation from building a new power pant on reservation land. “I was trying to make art and shed light,” she said.
As a journalism student myself, it’s heartening to speak with students like Johnston and Khweis – and it’s great to hear how they learned to connect with their communities through radio. Now that they’ve both moved on to college, however, Cultural Energy doesn’t have any more interns, so its producers are trying to search for more.
At the moment, though, the organization’s greatest challenge is securing a radio station so its producers can broadcast to a wider audience. “One of the reasons we want to get on the air is so we can fundraise,” said Collier. “If we had those resources, we could invest in youth training and expression, as well as investigative journalism.” Cultural Energy applied for a radio license three years ago, but the approval process is taking longer than expected. Its producers used to share segments as guests on other radio stations, but today they publish their work exclusively online.
Collier told me it’s important to get back on the radio as soon as possible. “I think a lot of people will lose their access to information if everything goes on the Internet,” he said. “The radio can really reach certain populations in a way that no other medium can.” He hopes to be on the air by next fall.
Until then, it’s good to know that Cultural Energy will continue focusing on the important stories in New Mexico’s smaller communities. As Tilley explained to me, “There’s a history that’s unique to every area, and that’s what [Cultural Energy] wants to reach.”
- 1. In addition to its work with interns, Cultural Energy has established partnerships with Taos area schools. For two years, the organization worked with Taos Pueblo Day School. Above, Mike Tilley collaborates with students during Radio Club.
- 2. Lyla June Johnston.