Hratch Sepetjian, the subject of Andy Vasoyan's piece, stands before his class at a private Armenian school in Los Angeles.
Photo Courtesy of Andy Vasoyan

Students collaborate with KQED for radio series about immigrants in Los Angeles

This past semester, USC Annenberg students in Sandy Tolan and Karen Lowe’s Public Radio Documentary class (JOUR 525) teamed up with KQED Public Radio’s “The California Report” for a collaborative series on immigrant communities in Los Angeles.

Tolan, who has taught the class for the past few years, said he brings in outside professionals each year in order to give students “a taste of how [radio] really works.”

At the beginning of the semester, students pitch and select a theme for a series of documentary-style stories. Past themes have included profiles of graduating high school seniors and workers in the “informal economy,” typically referring to low-wage workers and overnight workers.

This year’s series focused on people who have come to Los Angeles from other parts of the world.

It was originally called “Journeys to America,” but Victoria Mauleon, producer for “The California Report” and the class’ editorial partner at KQED, suggested changing the name to “Between Homelands,” because the stories were about more than simply coming to America. They were about “navigating your past and your present and your future while you’re here.”

The KQED website described the series as being about American immigrants who feel like “cultural foreigners.”

Each student was assigned a different immigrant community and tasked with finding people who represented some aspiration of that community, which was easier said than done.  

“One of the things that takes rather long in this process is identifying someone who is representative and articulate and willing to provide access,” Tolan said of documentary-style pieces.

He admitted that as the semester progressed, many students struggled to get interviews and meet their deadlines. He and Lowe started to worry the stories wouldn’t be up to KQED standards, but the students silenced those doubts when they submitted stories that were well on their way to “professional broadcast quality,” Tolan said.

Tolan and Lowe then handed the stories off to Mauleon and her KQED colleague Tyche Hendricks, who “went over everything very specifically, with an ear for how they could make the pieces more specific, more focused.”

The series launched on April 24 with a story by Andy Vasoyan, now a graduate of the Journalism M.S. program, who brought to light the struggle to keep the Armenian language alive in Los Angeles. His story followed a passionate high school teacher that wants his students to not only learn the language, but eventually pass it on to their own kids.

Recent Journalism M.S. graduate Taylor Haney’s story — which ran on May 10 — focused on Los Angeles’ Kurdish population and the man whose restaurant acts as their unofficial embassy.

Haney worked with Mauleon’s on line editing and tracking his piece, describing her editing process as “collaborative and easygoing,” while Tolan and Lowe were the editors “who really dug into the nitty-gritty of reporting, re-reporting, writing, re-writing.”

“By the end of the course, they'd really given us some powerful storytelling tools, different ways of thinking about narrative in radio, and a deeper knowledge of the radio documentary form,” he added.

The class — taught every spring — is intended for graduate students, but Tolan said it is open to any student willing to learn all the necessary skills and possessing a “penchant for storytelling.”

In addition to running the stories on KQED’s The California Report, the class put together an hour-long package, in which Tolan hosts and introduces each piece, for the Public Radio Exchange. It is currently being marketed to public radio stations all over the country.