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Larry Berger

Executive director, SLB Radio Productions

“Hire people with the right mindset. I can’t teach empathy or the intuitive understanding of how to work with different kinds of people and give everyone the respect and dignity they deserve.”

I created “The Saturday Light Brigade” radio program in 1978 at the age of 17 with the goal of delivering music, puzzles and interviews to a multigenerational audience. More than 40 years later, our programming is on six radio stations and five streaming platforms. We also work with about 4,000 middle and high school students each year in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, most of whom are from under-resourced, marginalized communities. Through our Youth Express program, youth perform on the radio, host podcasts and talk shows and create commentaries and documentaries, while our oral history programs provide a forum for youth to interview adults about their lives.

The problem I’m trying to solve

Youth are talked about, studied, marketed to and blamed for almost everything. They also have a lot to say and deserve to be heard. SLB uses radio to amply these voices. Our goal is to create an environment in which people who are very different from one another can talk and listen to each other. The tools of radio and audio production and podcasting allow that to happen.

If I want to get a privileged, upper-middle-class teen to understand what it’s like to be from a less fortunate family, I have them work with another, more disadvantaged student to create a documentary. When you have two very different people interview one another, it is a remarkable way to build a connection so that they understand each other better.

The moment that sparked my passion

As a child, I loved radio and tinkering with electronics, so much so that I became the youngest volunteer at a public radio station at 13. A few years later, I realized that radio lacked voices of children, youth and families. I created “The Saturday Light Brigade” as a weekly program while working on my engineering degree. But after SLB won a national award in 1997, I began to think about its growth. I asked myself what was the best and highest use of whatever time I had left in my life. For me, the answer was to leave my environmental engineering career and focus on SLB full time. In 2000, I formed a 501(c)(3) to do this. Four years later, we opened our first studio.

What I wish other people knew

Radio still breaks boundaries as a medium and a methodology. I check that constantly, because I worry kids will be more into video or gaming, or other technologies that were not around when I got so interested in radio. However, radio, along with all forms of audio, removes concerns about body image, clothing and appearance so you can really focus on language and words. Kids get that and react really well to it. I also think youth are more comfortable talking openly as part of a podcast or radio program rather than on camera.

It’s also important to let youth know that their voice matters. Just providing them an opportunity to speak up means a lot to them. When a caring adult shows youth that their voice matters, youth realize that they matter.

Why my approach is unique

We customize everything we do. If someone approaches us and wants us to work with their organization or in their school, we try to fit their culture and understand what it is they are looking for. We are not here to train tomorrow’s broadcasters or journalists. Sure, some of our youth have created features that have made it to NPR and other national outlets, but that’s never the end goal. We’re more interested in helping youth develop their writing, reading, speaking and listening skills. If you interview an adult as a teenager, you will be a better interviewee when it comes time to be interviewed. We want to make sure the skills they learn are transferable to their future success.

Advice to others who want to make a difference

Hire people with the right mindset. I can’t teach empathy or the intuitive understanding of how to work with different kinds of people and give everyone the respect and dignity they deserve. We can sharpen these skills, but if they’re not present in someone by the time they reach young adulthood, we’re unlikely to awaken them.

It’s important to find people whose skills and heart resonate with your mission. Each member of our team has been deeply engaged in carrying out neighborhood-based programs that amplify voices of youth as they address issues of social justice. Each has worked in or near the communities in which youth participants live or attend school. I always say to them that I won’t tell them how to do something. They know what the general objectives are. I want them to come up with a way that resonates with them.