Tuning in to social justice

Professor-turned-radio show producer Sylvanna Falcón talks about the importance of public scholarship in the Trump era.

Falcón looking at records
"My goal is to reach people beyond the academy because we must see our lives as deeply interconnected," says Sylvanna Falcón about Voces Críticas/Critical Voices, a radio show she produces on UCSC's college radio station, KZSC. Photos by Melissa De Witte.
Falcon on couch
"As a society, we have become so reliant on our technology that we have forgotten how to genuinely connect with each other. And so connecting with my show’s guests through thoughtful conversation is incredibly fulfilling," Falcón says.

Three days before Donald Trump’s inauguration as 45th president of the United States, the first episode of Voces Críticas/Critical Voices aired on UC Santa Cruz’s college radio station, KZSC.

Broadcast every week, the radio talk show features interviews with public intellectuals, political activists, creative artists, and other community members about the urgent issues facing communities of color in the current administration.

Producing the program is Sylvanna Falcón, an associate professor in the Latin American and Latino Studies Department.

With an administration threatening the freedom of women, immigrants, and people of color, Falcón wanted a relevant radio program for anyone wanting a deeper understanding of issues in contemporary politics.

Falcón is no stranger to radio.

As a graduate student at UC Santa Barbara, Falcón helped run a radio show on the college station KCSB called Voices for Global Justice. The program was launched after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks as a way to critically analyze the changing political and media landscape.

At UC Santa Barbara, Falcon met KZSC’s current program adviser, Keith Rozendal. Falcón was wanting return to college radio and when she discovered that Rozendal was now at UC Santa Cruz, she immediately reached out to learn about KZSC and about new ways to collaborate.

Rozendal told Falcón that in addition to volunteering at the station for 20 hours per quarter, she had to take their Intro to Radio class, a required course that teaches students everything about radio from its history and culture to FCC rules and regulations, audio production skills, interviewing techniques and other important skills to be a DJ at the station.

So in fall quarter of 2016, the Latin American and Latino Studies professor became a student again: taking classes, studying for quizzes, and writing papers. As part of the Intro to Radio class, she shadowed the radio host of the long running show called Jazz Kitty. This radio mentor guided her through all the elements and responsibilities of the on-air studio during the Jazz Kitty shows.

The result of all that hard work? Voces Críticas/Critical Voices.

Voces Críticas/Critical Voices aired its first show on January 17, 2017. It dealt exclusively with telling listeners about support available for undocumented students at UC Santa Cruz, a population feeling incredibly vulnerable with a new president threatening deportation. A few days later its second program focused on the women’s marches and the significance of social movements. Other programs explored other pressing topics, including racism in the prison system with sociologist Patrick Lopez-Aguado, the power of activism and importance of Black Lives Matter with feminist, activist, and distinguished professor Bettina Aptheker, and fake news, Trump, and the limitations of resistance with journalist and scholar Vijay Prashad.

In the following Q-and-A, Falcón shares what running a show is all about.

What first attracted you to radio?

Sylvanna Falcón (SF): I really never thought the radio would be an outlet for me until I started graduate school in Sociology at UC Santa Barbara. One of my primary advisors, Avery Gordon, co-hosted a radio show with Elizabeth Robinson called No Alibis on KCSB. I remember appreciating their ability to have such thoughtful conversations on air. Many of us as graduate students listened to the show regularly. The late Cedric Robinson also had an award winning show called Third World News Review which he started with a graduate student. His partner Elizabeth Robinson eventually joined the show, which also aired on the local public access tv channel, and together, they shared such deft critical analysis about politics and the news for three decades. So these scholars were modeling a type of public intellectualism I really admired. One of the most important things we do as part of our jobs is teach and there’s nothing that says teaching can only happen in the classroom. And the privilege of being on the radio now has meant I can merge my scholarly curiosity with my skills as a teacher in a different capacity and reach an incredibly wide audience. KZSC reaches 3 million people in three different counties and even more people online. It’s amazing.

Why is radio important to you now?

SF: We are living in frightening and uncertain times. The radio has given me an opportunity in which to channel some of my frustration about the state of the world into something positive. And by positive I do not mean necessarily uplifting and happy, though I wish that would be more of the case. But positive in that I am using my feminist and sociological training and my ability to speak to an interdisciplinary audience, to provide and advance a critique and analysis that is sorely needed at this time. I can do some of this of course in my publications and in my conference presentations but my goal is to reach people beyond the academy because we must see our lives as deeply interconnected. The radio has really become an ideal media outlet for me, and to be honest it is really a lot of fun. I wanted to have fun again too.

What is it like being involved with a college radio station?

SF: I absolutely love it. It’s really incredible as a professor to be in a space that is managed by students. The students are so dedicated and really have created a culture at the station that is warm and inviting. It has just been such an enriching experience for me personally. And I love the flipping of roles here where I need to be the one to check in with students (for example, the station manager or the Program Review Committee) about this or that rather than them checking with me. Plus, as a professor, I am categorized as a community member, which means students get priority for air time over me until I become an anchor show, which refers to a show that has been on the air for four consecutive years. It is important that students be the priority at KZSC to get the media training they need to be successful once they graduate.

Why is engaging the public with thoughtful conversations so important to you?

SF: At a time where divisions feel insurmountable, dialogue becomes more necessary than ever. As a society, we have become so reliant on our technology that we have forgotten how to genuinely connect with each other. And so connecting with my show’s guests through thoughtful conversation is incredibly fulfilling. The three core elements that go into the planning of every single show are the following: taking the time needed to prepare for an interview, thinking about the right questions that will generate the kind of conversation I think the KZSC audience deserves, and offering a meaningful public service that fulfills the UC mission.

As an academic talking with often other academics, how do you make sure the conversation is accessible to students and the wider community?

SF: When I interview other academics I mention avoiding jargon because you can have an intelligent conversation without it. So it has been fairly easy to make sure this happens. I also draw on the active listening skills I have developed as a qualitative researcher and ask follow-up questions to clarify points if needed. And I think when I interview academics they fall into teacher’s mode and so are quite effective in explaining their various points thoughtfully.

What are some of the biggest challenges of being on radio, and how did you deal with it?

SF: I had to acquire an entirely new media technology skill set from learning how to pre-record interviews to learning how to manage all of the responsibilities when live on air without getting nervous to working with new software programs to edit shows for eventually uploading online so that my shows can reach an even wider audience. I remain on a learning curve and so not getting frustrated if it maybe takes me longer to acquire these new skills has been challenging. But in the end though I have learned these skills so that feels satisfying too, especially because the shows have gotten better over time.

How can people get involved in your show?

S.F: Anyone who wants to get involved at the station must volunteer for 20 hours first. I would also encourage people to check out the KZSC schedule, which changes every quarter, in order to see the wide variety of music and news/talk/public affairs shows that air on the station. For anyone interested in collaborating on my show, I would encourage them to email kzsc.voices@gmail.com to discuss the possibility. There are opportunities to collaborate with other hosts on existing programs too so if having a voice and space on the radio is of interest, then definitely take the initiative and reach out.

For summer 2017, Voces Críticas/Critical Voices airs on Thursday at 5:30 p.m. on 88.1 FM, KZSC-Santa Cruz. You can listen find the show’s archive on the program’s website.

Sylvanna Falcón is an associate professor in Latin American and Latino/a studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Falcón earned her Ph.D. from the Department of Sociology with a doctoral emphasis in Feminist Studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara. She joined UC Santa Cruz in 2010 after having completed a two-year University of California Presidential Postdoctoral Fellowship with the Women’s Studies Department at UC Riverside. Falcón is the author of Power Interrupted: Antiracist and Feminist Activism Inside the United Nations (University of Washington Press, 2016) and received the Gloria E. Anzaldúa book prize from the National Women’s Studies Association in 2016.