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Podcast Students Tell Community Stories on LAist as Part of ‘LA on the Margins’ Series

Self-portrait by Keinon Pierre, created 2022-2023. Pierre appears in the episode “Hollywood Disenchanted” of the series “LA on the Margins” starring Olivia Kelleher.

Illustration by Keinon Pierre

This summer, LAist is sharing stories of resilience, triumph, and innovation in the face of marginalization—all told by USC Annenberg graduate students.

Expanding on a collaboration that began last year, Sandy Tolan and Megan Donis’ This California Life: Storytelling for Radio and Podcasting course equips students to produce professional, long-form audio stories for LAist Studios. How To LA Podcast – From Idea to Final Mix.

Donis said one of the course’s primary goals is to carefully and authentically share the stories behind the headlines and statistics about some of the biggest issues in Los Angeles. Whether they want to understand the impacts of the housing shortage, delve into Indigenous rights or examine high rates of incarceration, students learn that rigorous and compassionate reporting is essential when creating human-centered, in-depth audio narratives.

“The real way to build empathy is to show what a complex social problem looks like to the person who is living it,” Donis said. “We really told the students, and I think the stories really showed it, that we don’t want to exploit doom and gloom. Of course, these stories are about extreme hardship and marginalization, but they don’t have to be stories about hardship. They can also be stories about innovation and perseverance.”

The course begins with important group discussions on how to approach human interest stories. This sets the stage for collaboration throughout the course, which is structured as if students were working together in a professional documentary unit.

“(We had) a lot of deep discussions about the ethics of reporting on these communities and issues — as people, and sometimes as people of privilege — and how we really want to do that, how we really want to do that in the most ethical and compassionate way possible,” Donis said.

In her audio piece, “Hollywood Disenchanted,” Olivia Kelleher, a Master of Fine Arts Journalism student, shares the story of Keinon Pierre, a Chicago-based writer and actor who lives in his car while pursuing his Hollywood dream.

We met in person a few times,” Kelleher said. “I recorded every time we were together, but it wasn’t a formal interview, we just talked. We had to find a good place to meet and record, but also capture his reality… There were times when it was hard to connect with him. Life can be really unpredictable, especially when you’re so vulnerable. So I really wanted him to feel comfortable coming to me when he was ready.”

Master’s student in specialized journalism Erick Treviño takes a similar approach in his audio piece, which chronicles the efforts of a group of activists from the Community Coalition who are helping to change the social and economic conditions in South Los Angeles that foster addiction, crime, violence and poverty.

“It was one of the most difficult reports I’ve had to do. I had to be really sensitive to the topics I was covering, make sure I did my research, make sure I respected people’s wishes and what they felt comfortable talking about.” Treviño said.

Once the students found their stories, they worked together on the production process, providing feedback to colleagues during workshops and discussing important comments from Tolan and Donis.

“We’re a class full of journalists… Everyone on the show listens to podcasts, so we’re all consumers of audio storytelling. When we listened to each other’s work, we just got so involved and became the audience.” Treviño said. “It got people excited about your work, which encouraged you a little bit, but it was also cool to hear the process of making a piece that you would listen to in your own time and see how it was made.”

Donis added that this collaboration, structured like a feedback session in a professional radio or podcast studio, helped weave all the stories into a cohesive series.

“I hear little snippets of each student’s life, even in other people’s stories, because I remember how they encouraged that person to explore that other point of view,” Donis said.

These aren’t easy stories to tell, says Megan Larson, executive producer of “How to L.A.,” but the “L.A. on the Margins” project was a good fit for the podcast. “At ‘How to L.A.,’ we try to help our listeners understand L.A. a little better, and we often do that by connecting them with people in our communities,” Larson said. “That means telling the stories of people from all over L.A. and from all walks of life, including those who may be struggling.”

During the practical semester, students not only developed their reporting skills and gained first-hand knowledge of the radio and podcasting production cycle, but also underwent an intensive course in using professional audio software and equipment to create content for national broadcasts.

“One of the most important things when you come out of college or grad school is that you go out into the world of work and apply for a job, and the first thing an employer says to you is, ‘Well, what did you create? What work experience do you have?’ You don’t have any because you were in school,” Donis said. “Because of these classes and the students’ content being aired on a national, highly regarded media organization, they can now go out into the world with real work experience on their resume.”

Kelleher believes the lessons she learned from this course will open up endless possibilities for her future.

“A journalism career can be so fluid and there are so many different ways to tell a story,” Kelleher said. “The fact that I now have multiple skill sets that I feel really competent in, and I’ve created work that’s going to be put out into the world and show that I know how to do it, it really opens me up to doing other things, doing other projects. I really, honestly feel like the sky’s the limit.”

“How to LA” is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. Search for stories titled “LA on the Margins.”