Interview: Shari Okeke explains why CBC’s Mic Drop podcast keeps adults out of the conversation

There’s a scene that plays out at the beginning of the second episode of Mic Drop, a new podcast by CBC Montreal. A young girl named Ava takes us through her skin care process to deal with acne. She uses a face cleanser, a moisturizer, and some oil product as part of a multi-step daily routine to try to cut down on the number of pimples on her face. The scene is edited together with thoughts from her about what it’s like having pimples, how people around her react to her, and how it makes her feel.

Ava is 11.

There’s nothing newsworthy about this segment, and it’s about one of the most normal of topics, but it’s surprisingly insightful. And a reminder to us olds that while we may have vague memories of what teenage life is like, we don’t really know that life, especially now.

Mic Drop, which runs for seven episodes, is filled with these kinds of stories, told directly by kids 11-17, without a host or narrator. The topics vary, from the mundane annoyances of acne to the very real issues of drug use and domestic violence, and plenty of stuff in between.

Interested by this format and the content of the podcast, I sat down with creator Shari Okeke last week to ask her about how it came together.

‘You want to talk to me?’

“At CBC Montreal, our boss Meredith (Dellandrea, Managing Director for CBC Quebec) had put out a note saying she was looking for podcast ideas,” Okeke explained. “So I thought, okay, I have an idea.”

“It kind of came out of my job at Daybreak a little bit. Because I had done stories for Daybreak featuring teens and preteens and even some younger kids. I had actually done a story about Grade 6 kids when one of my kids was in Grade 6. So I had done a story about Grade 6 kids and their anxieties about graduating from elementary school and going to high school, and then a year later when they were finishing Grade 7 I went back and talked to them again, and we were a bit surprised by some of the things they said in the Grade 7 episode.

“I noticed every time I would do these stories, first of all the teens themselves would seem so amazed that anybody was paying any attention to them. They had this reaction all the time like ‘you want to talk to me?’

“So it sort of occurred to me over time they aren’t being interviewed that much. People aren’t talking to them or listening to them.

“I remember specifically that story about the Grade 7s. When I came out of studio there was this businessman, someone who I’ve interviewed as a businessperson before. And I came flying out and he was waiting to go in to be interviewed about something and he said ‘Oh my God I was just listening to that kid. I forget what it was but it was a 13-year-old and he said ‘My son is the same age, it never occurred to me that this is a thing for him.’

“And I thought: Wow, I’m not the only one who’s surprised by what some of these teens have said or how open, how forthcoming they were. I thought we don’t really have a space for them, really just their voices. We’ll hear from them sometimes in a good news story about something happening at a school, but to really talk to them about what’s going on outside of a news clip when something really horrible happens, we don’t really hear from them, their perspective. So I really thought it would be interesting to put them in the forefront.

“And so what we did was — and what I’m really excited about is — I kind of approached this backwards to anything that we normally do, so instead of deciding ‘okay we want to talk about drugs,’ instead of picking a topic and finding the right person for that topic, we just said ‘what do you want to talk about?’ and waited to see what they said. And then we chose from that.

“Every topic, every story that you hear in the podcast, that came from that teen wanting to talk about that.”

No adult interruptions

“That actually came from one of my own children,” Okeke said of the “No adult interruptions” line, which was said unprompted as she asked about what might make a good podcast for teens. “She came out with this ‘no adult interruptions,’ and it was on tape, and that kind of stuck.”

Okeke liked that piece of audio so much she used it in the intro to the podcast.

She also took it literally. You don’t hear Okeke at all in the podcast, nor any host, adult analyst, psychologist or teacher. All you hear is the kids, talking about what they want to talk about. Okeke interviewed them starting in February and the series features them telling stories about their own lives, stories that they chose to tell.

Okeke said she talked to more than 140 teens in preparation for the podcast — some through her existing networks as a parent to an 11- and 13-year-old, but most through an online call for submissions, which got more than 100 responses. She held pre-interviews with them where she just listened to them talk. About 22 of them were recorded on tape and are featured in the show.

The podcast was produced mainly by Okeke and Carrie Haber (the producer who gives us things like the Absolutely Quebec series during the summer), with help from editors and other staff in Montreal and Toronto.

Let them decide

Okeke said it was important to let them decide the topics for discussion.

“We asked ‘What you want to talk about?’ and often they had four or five different things they wanted to talk about. So what I would do in the pre-interviews is I would just let them talk, I would go through the different topics that they said they were interested in and find out why they wanted to talk about this. Is this something they want to talk about in general or something that happened to them?

“And at the end of our conversation I would say ‘Okay but if you could only talk about one thing what would that one thing be?”

“For example, Ben, who was in the article I wrote, he had written a lot of things, having a mother with breast cancer, being mixed race, juggling school and soccer, and when we were done talking the main thing he wanted to talk about was the stress of juggling his elite soccer training with school work and social pressures. So we went with that. I was really adamant about that, that we not look at it as adults and say ‘Oh no we need to talk to a kid about what it’s like to have a mother going through breast cancer and that must have affected him.’ Of course it did affect him, but it wasn’t what he wanted to talk about.

“Sometimes an adult would suggest a teen who would be really interesting for us to talk to and have something going on in their life. This one mother said ‘My daughter just got her period, and it’s like the biggest deal ever.’ So I talked to the daughter, but I wouldn’t say ‘I hear you got your period and it’s the biggest deal ever.’ I would just say ‘So I’m working on this podcast and it’s a chance to talk about stories you want to talk about. Anything you’d like to talk about?

“And this teen talked about pretty much everything except that, and kind of mentioned it at the end. And I said ‘Oh how is that, how do you find that you’re managing that?’ and she said ‘Ah it’s no big deal.’ So was she saying that to sound cool or was she saying that because her mother really is off-base? I don’t know. I really didn’t go down that road. We really try to honour their experience, and honour where they are at right now.”

No full names

One of the decisions made in the development of the podcast was to not use the teens’ full names. Some use just their first names, others use pseudonyms.

“This is not news, this is not anything of record,” Okeke explained. “This is not journalism, this is personal stories. We’re not under the same rules as when I’m doing a news report.

“For the teens to be really comfortable to open up, they need to know also that when they’re 25 and in a different space and trying to get a job that when they’re Googled they’re not maybe talking about their pimples or something. They don’t need that to follow them forever.”

Informed consent

One of the things I was struck by in talking to Okeke was how much care was put into ensuring that there was proper consent for what they were doing, both from the children and from their parents. For the youngest kids at least, CBC needed parental consent for the interview, and that meant several delicate conversations, getting a parent to sign off on a topic for discussion, and sometimes going back if a new topic comes up during taping.

Asking the kids how they would feel about their parents knowing what they were talking about led to some interesting moments. One kid who wanted to talk about sexuality came out to her parents as bisexual shortly after her pre-interview with Okeke. Though the story didn’t get included in the podcast for other reasons, the teen’s mother sent Okeke an email thanking her for prompting the discussion.

Interview without an interviewer

The actual taping of the stories was a bit more structured as it may sound in the podcast. Though the subjects were free to talk about what they wanted without interruption, the sound bites you hear are from interviews with Okeke conducted in the field — at their homes, schools and other places they frequent.

“We really wanted to interview them in their space, what’s going on in their lives,” Okeke said. “The girl with acne, I was in the bathroom with her as she was washing her face.”

But how do you get them to talk? Children and teens can be remarkably closed off, giving vague one-word answers to questions.

“It wasn’t hard to convince them,” Okeke said. “I was more surprised actually by how much they told. Because when you’re interviewing adults, even if you know their story, they’re more guarded. You have to be talking to them for longer before the really emotional side of it reveals itself. These teens would catch me off-guard. They would come out with something, I wasn’t expecting it. Conversations would take a turn. They really opened up. It was kind of surprising.”

The trick was to just let them talk about what they want to talk about. And to not be their parent. Many of them would tell Okeke things on tape that they never told their parents.

‘He never talks about that’

In one interview in the first episode, the subject — Evans — talks about witnessing a case of domestic violence, in which his mother’s former partner chokes her.

“That’s something you don’t want to hear for the first time on the radio, on air or on a podcast,” Okeke said. “The goal was not to be a shocker for parents. So I said ‘can you put (your mother) back on the phone?’ Because he’s only 13. We have to handle interviews with minors with care. I say to her ‘We’ve been talking and he mentioned…’ — I didn’t tell her exactly the words he used, but I said ‘he mentioned witnessing some violence between one of your partners and yourself.’

“There was like a pause and I said ‘how would you feel if he was recorded talking about that?’

“She was taken aback, and she said ‘That happened, it’s true that that happened, but he never talks about that’. And so she was surprised. And then she said ‘But that’s part of our story, so it’s okay.'”

For many journalists, that would be an exciting moment, a parent agreeing to the broadcast of a frank discussion about domestic violence. But Okeke wanted to double-check.

“I could tell that she was thinking through it as we were on the phone,” she said, so she probed further: “Are you or is he in any danger (if this is broadcast)?” she asked the mother, “taking the time to think of things that maybe they’re not thinking of.”

The mother assured Okeke that there was no danger and they could talk about it.

“That was the one interview where the mom was in the room when I did the interview. She let him speak freely about it.”

“We were really careful about those things. It’s more about them having an opportunity to express what’s really going on, what they really care about, what they’re really feeling, and it’s not about shocking people. It’s just about hearing: What is it really to be a teen in 2018? I feel like they really opened up and told us.”

Eye-opening

“You don’t necessarily know what’s going on in a teen’s mind. I felt bad for (the parents) because I could feel their shock. And their teen wasn’t telling me something because I’m doing something right and their parents are doing something wrong. That’s not why. I just think it’s just probably easier in many cases to open up to someone who you have no history with and who has no expectation of you.

“Being a parent is super humbling. All these adults think ‘Oh I know what it is to be a teen.’ And a lot of teens are saying you don’t actually, you don’t know what it’s like to be a teen now. And I believe that’s true. I didn’t have to worry about social media. I think we sort of acknowledge that on an intellectual level when we’re talking, but when we’re dealing with a teen in our life we kind of forget that sometimes.”

But Okeke cautions that the main audience for this series is definitely teenagers themselves, not their parents, even if parents and adults can find the content illuminating. There aren’t interjections to get kids to explain their lingo, or prompts to offer advice, though episodes that deal with tough issues include reminders to kids that they can use services like Kids’ Help Phone.

Promotion

Being a series for teens presented a challenge for the communications side, which is led in Montreal by Debbie Hynes. While CBC has content for children 0-6 with CBC Kids, there isn’t much for teens these days. “When we go to market with a show like this we don’t have an audience built in to what we do,” Hynes explained. “There’s no CBC show that caters to teens. There’s no Street Cents like there was in the 90s, or Degrassi. We don’t have this content.”

(P.S. Bring back Street Cents.)

The show has been getting the word out through an Instagram account, since that’s what the kids are using these days. Okeke has also been pushing it hard on Twitter and through interviews with CBC radio stations. And it produced videos — featuring other kids, to protect the anonymity of those who participated in the podcast — to be shared on social media.

Unlike Montreapolis, another podcast produced by Carrie Haber and CBC Montreal (which incidentally just won a RTDNA national award), Mic Drop isn’t of merely local interest. Some of the kids interviewed are from the Toronto area, though most are from Montreal and its surroundings. And the themes they discuss are universal. “If you’re a kid in New York City and you listen to this, this same kind of content could happen to you,” Okeke said.

Lessons

I asked Okeke if she’s learned a lot from the series as a parent herself. Her kids are just below the target age group, so it doesn’t apply to them yet (though she has used them as a sounding board to consult on the podcast’s content). But she said she learned a lot about how teens interact.

“Despite all the ways that they can and do connect with each other digitally, there are still a lot of teens who feel alone in what they’re going through,” Okeke said. “I think that with all this technology, It’s maybe more isolating because you see more of what you’re missing out on, or what you think you’re missing out on.”

But she was moved to see how much the kids wanted to improve the situation.

“A lot of them said to me that ’I hope this helps somebody else. I hope if somebody else is going through what I’m going through that hearing my story helps them.’”

She also learned that what was important wasn’t just what was being said, but how and by whom. The same words coming out of an adult expert and from the mouth of a fellow teen carry different weight.

“The teens have more credibility with each other than any adult would have with them,” she said.

The future

There are two episodes left of Mic Drop, coming out Tuesdays. After that, there are no immediate plans. Okeke, who has been working on this project more-than-full-time since January (“I’ve just been living and breathing this podcast”), has returned to her old job at Daybreak, and has been producing some segments directly and tangentially related to the teen interviews.

She said she’d love to do another season of the podcast, and is confident there are plenty more stories to find.

“I’m kind of amazed at how much they have to say. I think we could all do a little better listening sometimes.”

Mic Drop’s final two episodes come out May 29 and June 5 at cbc.ca/micdrop.

One thought on “Interview: Shari Okeke explains why CBC’s Mic Drop podcast keeps adults out of the conversation

  1. Ian Howarth

    Steve, great piece. This is a very cool podcast idea and I’ll be sure to check it out. Good on CBC. As a former high school teacher (gr 7&8) this would be of particular interest to me. The school board I worked for used to have gr 6 students come into the high school for a half-day for a kind of orientation. This was a very effective exercise in giving students a pre Jew of the “big time.”

    Reply

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