Creating Radio in the Language Classroom

This entry is part 46 of 48 in the series Teaching Transparently

Readers of LLU know that I am a huge fan of Radio Ambulante. As I was listening to Radio Ambulante episodes last summer, I was reminded about the importance of listening…listening closely… in a second language. RA’s audio is authentic…for a non-native speaker it sometimes takes a while to understand what is happening, but the stories are so captivating that you want to hang on and keep listening and learning.

Last fall, and inspired by Radio Ambulante,  I tried something new with my Spanish conversation class.  In addition to the activities I normally ask them to do outside of class, like talking with native speakers in the target language via the Mixxer, last semester we worked together to create a semester-long (one hour episode per week x 16 weeks) radio show that was broadcast live on our college radio station, WOBC.

[Time to clarify my terms: when I talk about radio here I mean a couple of things simultaneously. WOBC on our campus is a real, honest to goodness, FCC licensed, radio station (91.5 on your FM radio dial, okay, well, at least within 25 miles of our campus). That is one form of radio.WOBC also simulcasts  its shows 24 x 7 over the web here. Some radio stations just exist on the internets: The Ohio State University’s Center for Languages, Literatures and Cultures has its own radio station that is available only at certain times of the day and  only when they have programming. ds106 radio is another idea for radio, with multiple djs from around the globe creating content and sharing it over the web. Radio Ambulante, meanwhile, is a series of audio recordings that are available as a podcast, via SoundCloud, and are also sometimes broadcast (with permission) via radio stations like WOBC.  The radio I am referring to in this post is programming created by my students that has a mix of prerecorded content and live on air content, all of which is broadcast live via a radio station.]

What was the goal of doing radio in my class?  I wanted to provide students with a new way to develop their speaking skills by creating and curating a 60 minute audio program about a topic of their own choosing and in collaboration with others.

What did our assignments look like?  Using Google Docs I made a grid of the dates of the shows and asked the students to sign up for at  least three shows each semester. Our show time was 5 p.m. on Tuesdays and I knew not everyone could make it. However, those who could be there would decide upon a theme and then make sure that other students would contribute content to the shows via a folder shared with everyone in the class  on Google Drive.

Conflict of place and purpose?  Initially I worried  about whether my language class doing an academic  project on our student run radio station would be welcome at WOBC. WOBC is entirely and quite proudly student run. Students are routinely turned away when requesting programming time…there is simply much more supply than demand. I was reassured by the Board of WOBC that they took their motto “Community and Free Form Radio” seriously and that my class and their weekly shows was chosen because it fit within their mission as well as their program line up. My point is this: if you create radio programming in your language class to be broadcast in a space that is shared with others, make sure your content fits with the ethos of that space.

What did the students use to record?  Some students used their laptops to record, and also used tools such as Audacity to edit their content. Many more used their phones or other mobile devices to record their spoken content.  I encouraged them to find free tools that allowed them to name and share their files to GoogleDrive, allowed them to record in a minimum of 128 kbps as an mp3 or .wav file.  At the time, the two free tools I recc’d were Hi-Q MP3 Voice Recorder for an Android  device and Voice Recorder Pro for iOS devices.  I also made sure our language center had recording tools in place should students not have access to their own devices for this exercise. Please don’t presume students have the tools, but do make sure there are tools available for all.

Were the recordings reviewed before airtime?   Yes.  Our show was on a Tuesday, so we needed finished content by Monday.  Which meant the show content for the week had to be announced the Wednesday before, so I would have time to review their recordings, give them feedback, and allow them a redo by Monday.

What topics did the students choose?  They did shows about everything from the November elections to scary Hallowe’en stories (told in Spanish), to music and poems and stories about revolutions to talking about Chile (people who had been, people who were going) to bilingual education to…  one group brought in a native speaker and interviewed him on the air (afterward he admitted he was probably more terrified to talk on the air than they were).  I believe I may have suggested the first week’s topic and after that, they organized themselves, they pulled together the needed audio, they solicited news stories  and PSAs from their classmates… and I found myself being at the station during showtime as a happy observer.

How were the shows structured? Our shows had to conform to the radio station rules: Every show has to do Station IDs every 15 minutes, at least 3 PSAs (Public Service Announcements) and the  news had to be read at the top of the hour. All songs played on the air had to be logged so artists got their royalties (yup!). Other than that…we could do whatever we wanted as long as we didn’t use bad words or play the music by one artist more than 3 times in an hour.  But those “limitations” also made for great possibilities for us:  we created our own PSAs (in Spanish) for each week based upon wither the theme of the show or stuff that was going on around campus (or both); we learned how to do station IDs in Spanish as well as English; we created news stories (1-2 minutes in length) about things in the Spanish-speaking world.  We created bumpers. And we came up with playlists of  songs that were, well, impresionante. Students were responsible for soliciting recordings from their classmates, organizing the content, and then presenting the audio on the weekly radio shows(Click here for some playlist examples)

How did the students feel about the radio experience?  At first, the thought of creating an hour’s worth of audio was a terrifying nightmare for many.  Within time, students started having fun with the songs they could add and the commentary they could create about the music they played.  They learned to work collaboratively and be responsible for pieces of the show vs the whole thing. The fact that they could prerecord their PSAs and news stories allowed them to develop their radiolocutor  voice (and not that droning I-am-reading-from-my-notes voice). Many was the time they would leave the studio at 6 p.m. pumped up with adrenalin and happy about what they accomplished.  So in a word: the reaction was positive.

Were the live shows recorded? Yes. Each week I recorded their shows  using a tool called XStream Ripper (it had a setting just for college radio streamed over the internet!) and made them available to the class.  Before I posted the audio files  I ran them through Audacity just to clean up some of the gaps here and there. Here are all the shows from last semester, in their entirety.  Feel free to take a listen and perhaps get some ideas for your own radio broadcast.

How did I assess their work?  At the end of the semester the class created a rubric that was a combination of both their personal learning goals as well asa restating of the course’s learning goals.  I also asked them to write up a 1.5  page reflection piece on their work during the term, and asked them to mention if they felt the radio experience contributed to their progress.

Here are some excerpts from some of the reflection pieces as they related to the radio shows:

Student 1:

I think my improvement … was for the most part demonstrated in conversations in class and especially in WOBC; looking back at the first show I did compared to the last, I was SO MUCH more confident and took more risks speaking Spanish.

 Student 2:

While re-listening to my radio recordings from over the semester, I noticed improvement in my fluidity in Spanish. In my first recordings my speech sounded choppy and my accent was strong, but as the semester progressed I sounded more confident and expressive. I think that was partially because of the amount of time that I spent talking to Spanish-speakers and listening to their expressions and patterns of speech. Interviews became easier for the WOBC show, as well– when I first asked people questions with my voice recorder, I felt very intimidated, both from the microphone and from the other person’s presence. Later in the semester when I did the same thing, it felt more natural– more like a normal conversation. I felt much more comfortable around the microphone and the other person.

Student 3:

The structure of this class allowed me the freedom to make this part of my project and I really benefitted from it.  I really think that it was speaking with the native speakers that gave me the confidence to get behind the mic in the WOBC studio.  At the beginning of the class I would have never even considered speaking on the radio, especially not in Spanish.  Half-way through the project, I had already made so much progress that I decided to give the radio show a try.  Needless to say, I had an amazing experience and had a lot of fun doing it.

Ryan and I will be presenting about creating radio in the Foreign Language classroom at  SWALLT at UCLA this afternoon. I encourage you to look at his handout for more details and suggestions.

As always, I welcome your comments, questions, and suggestions.

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Barbara is a Lecturer in Hispanic Studies at a small liberal arts college in Maine. Rumor has it this was also her alma mater. She used to work for a small liberal arts college in the cornfields of Ohio for almost 20 years as a teacher and language center director. Prior to these adventures in higher ed she taught high school Spanish and loved it. She wishes she had more time in her life to play with her dogs, write, read, swim, do yoga things and making stuff out of clay. To see her online portfolio please click here!


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