It’s 8:59 a.m. on Wednesday morning, and the kids are ready to kick off their show on Radio Centre-Ville, 102.3 FM. Céline Dodel’s fifth and sixth graders at the École Jeanne-Leber in Pointe St. Charles have been prepping for weeks: picking a theme, researching and editing their dispatches, rehearsing on-air techniques, selecting music, recording vox pop segments, practicing for guest interviews. “Technical questions aside, they produce the show from A to Z,” says Marc de Roussan, the coordinator for Radio-Enfant.
The weekly show is part of Radio Centre-Ville’s greater mandate: to give a voice to disenfranchised communities. Before the academic year begins, teachers at schools in impoverished Montreal neighbourhoods are invited to sign their classrooms up for the program. “We pick the names out of a hat,” says de Roussan; the winners get to work with their teacher and two professional producers over five weeks to create a two-hour show broadcast live from their local public library.
Today, the teacher and the two producers are present at the Bibliothèque St. Charles to coach the students through their scripts, but it’s ultimately up to the kids to make sure things run smoothly. The two hosts, Denis St. Pierre and Francis Gorman, ease right into their roles: they’ve been practicing, and it shows. But today, the show is a little rough; three kids are out sick, and their replacements have never seen the scripts before this morning. The class has chosen to talk about the history of the Pointe, and when Zoe steps up to talk about transportation, she goes completely blank. Luckily, Denis is a gifted ad-libber with a keen sense of humour: “Thank-you Zoe, even if you didn’t say anything,” he says.
Rodrigo Ortega, one of the producers, makes sure he doesn’t let these glitches bruise the kids’ confidence. “The problems we had are problems that the media encounters all the time,” he tells them. But Ortega doesn’t mollycoddle them, either. “Kids learn fast, and I love that sense of freshness that you don’t get with adults,” he tells me. “But they lose concentration fast too, so I’m friendly, but not too much.”
He also ensures that the kids’ projects conform to Radio Centre-Ville’s principles. “We have to explain that it’s not commercial radio,” he says, “the host isn’t the star.” At the same time, however, the kids are the centre of the show. “On CBC, the kid is the guest, but we want the child to lead.”
Yet despite the social-justice slant of today’s programming – the kids tackle issues like single-parenting, immigration, and gentrification – I’m not sure how much Ortega’s democratic message has sunk in. Denis tells me that his experience hosting the show was “Awesome, I got stage fright at first, but now I’m famous!” he exclaims. The celebrity appeal of getting air time evidently survived despite Ortega’s best efforts – but this shouldn’t be altogether surprising. Kids may exhibit a measure of Rousseauvian innocence, but it’s usually overblown: they’re just as likely as adults to construct a hierarchy where there doesn’t need to be one, and do their best to elbow their way to the top.
Still, I found myself guilty of idealizing the kids on the set. When Étienne Hudon delivered his story on the history of movies filmed in the Pointe with unusual aplomb, I thought: “Wow, that kid’s a natural.” He told me afterwards that he’s thinking of getting a BA in Communications, and then I really couldn’t contain my excitement: “He’s so far beyond his peers, he’s already a blooming cultural critic,” I mused. But then he told me he wanted to become a hockey commentator and that the main reason he researched films is because someone else had gotten first dibs on sports. I was crushed – but not really on his behalf. The Étienne I had constructed in my mind was nothing more than the kid I would have liked to be: beyond her years, more interested in the arts than in watching cartoons. There may have been times when I stayed up late into the night reading Victorian novels as a 13-year old, but my favourite activities were playing dress-up and riding horses. Perhaps that’s the toughest part of being a kid: routinely having to put up with adults projecting their unfulfilled fantasies about themselves on to you.
And yet, while the parents who made it out to the Pointe St. Charles library were beaming, the sense of pride that the children exuded when they wrapped up the show was all their own. “Uncork the champagne!” yelled Étienne as he put down his earphones.
Radio-Enfant broadcasts every Wednesday from 9 to 11 a.m. on Radio Centre-Ville, 102.3 FM.