March 13, 2023

The Power of Participatory Projects: Public Media and Gen Z

Categories: Connected Learning, Critical Perspectives, Digital Learning, Equity, Featured, Research, Youth Well-Being

New research from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center shows the power of involving young people in community organizations as partners, not just beneficiaries. Gen Z in the Room: Making Public Media By and With Youth for the Future, by Mary Madden and Elizabeth Rood, details findings gathered through in-depth interviews with young people and professional staff involved in media youth projects at public television and radio stations across the country. The projects described in the research take different forms – from highlighting youth achievement, to teaching young people how to tell multimedia stories that matter to them, to involving youth advisors on production of content distributed to general audiences – but share a common thread: these public media youth projects put Gen Z voice and perspective at the center of productions, inviting young people to be partners in story and content creation.

The insights offered by Gen Z in the Room indicate a reciprocal impact for youth participants and for public media stations. Public media youth projects empower young people, give them valuable skills, and connect them to peers and mentors. Stations, in turn, learn from young people about seismic shifts in our digital and cultural lives. They connect to new audiences and invest in a future workforce that better represents the full community.

The ways in which youth projects are influencing public media stations are instructive for a wide range of organizations that work with young people. In particular, these key findings from the report resonate across many sectors:

  • Youth participatory projects can catalyze organizational change and new ways of serving community
  • Youth perspectives in media prompt valuable intergenerational dialogue
  • Youth media projects can help build a more diverse and representative media workforce
  • Youth bring important insights about digital innovation
  • Youth desire for authenticity in media challenges norms

Image from Gen Z in the Room report


Impacts for Youth: Agency, Empowerment, and Media Savvy

This research demonstrates how youth benefit from interest-driven, authentic, and meaningful projects that empower their voices and connect them to others.[1; 2] As interviewees described:

I think something that was definitely meaningful to me was having my perspective taken seriously, and … being given a platform. It was kind of my first experience with that, genuinely, and I found it to be really valuable and, like, taking myself seriously as a media creator moving forward. —Youth Project Alum

My involvement in [station project] was super meaningful because it allowed me to learn about topics and collaborate with people in a way that I wasn’t [able to] in school. I was having really interesting conversations about political issues and things going on at school and also, like, pop culture issues. [Having those discussions] is a super cool aspect of public media and media in general. —Youth Project Alum

Additionally, both staff and alumni of youth projects highlighted how the projects build media literacy skills. For youth, being involved in media creation helped them understand how news and stories are generated, curated, and promoted. Station leaders, who often partner with schools to provide both expertise and technology, reflected on the power of serving youth through schools and supporting educators to teach essential media literacies:

One of things we’re most excited about is that we can bring media literacy into classrooms…. Oftentimes, teachers will assign a video project without having any idea of how difficult they are to actually pull off. You know, how much work goes into it….We want media literacy to be just a part of literacy. That includes…decoding messages, but we think that [the producing side] is just as important. —Project Lead, Larger Joint License Station

Program leaders shared the critical role of partnering with schools and other community-based organizations to reach young people.

Teachers [are] our partners for reaching our target audience, which [is] historically excluded young people within the public school system. It’s really hard to reach that particular audience without partnering really closely with teachers. —Project Lead, Larger Joint License Station

At the same time, a number of stations reflected on the ways that capacity constraints limit the time they have available for building robust relationships with schools in their communities. This is particularly true of smaller stations that have fewer staff in their education departments. Fortunately, the Next Gen Public Media project (an initiative of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting) has compiled an online database of public media offerings related to middle and high school aged youth that community members can use to find relevant resources. These include educational media for a range of disciplinary topics, professional development and curricula related to media literary and multimedia project work, and in-person enrichment opportunities for youth such as workshops, camps, and field trips.


Impacts for Stations: Insights and Organizational Change

Stations that have youth-focused projects have reported that partnering with Gen Z generates insights needed for change and sustained relevance in our digitally and culturally evolving lives. Gen Z – the most diverse American generation yet and the first to grow up with new media as the norm – make sense of content and distribution differently than previous generations. Social media is not just a vehicle for marketing and driving audiences to the “actual” content; instead, short form video and quick-view infographics are the content. Social justice and authenticity in storytelling and reporting are foundational. Through humor, style, and aesthetics, young people can sniff shows that are targeted to them but made by people outside their generation. Youth participation in station work helps stations become more sophisticated in seeing these generational shifts and supports them to think differently about genre, values, and distribution, all of which are key to long-term sustainability of public media in a noisy media landscape.

Additionally, public media stations – like other community based organizations – are working to recruit and retain a workforce that reflects the broad community, in terms of language, experience and expertise, race and ethnicity, and generation. Youth projects that recruit diverse young people, particularly from underrepresented communities, and support them with both training and connections, are seen as central to this mission-driven work. Inviting them into station projects and productions offers transformational potential:

[We’re] actively asking young people for what they authentically think. And that act of listening… in the long term [changes] the workforce, the industry, the perspectives that are being highlighted as valid. —Project Lead, Larger Joint License Station

The report concludes with key recommendations for public media stations, including putting youth projects at the core of station strategic work and communicating the value and impact of youth involvement in media productions, not only for the young people but for a general audience of listeners and viewers.

This research highlights the power of inviting Gen Z to the room: youth involvement encourages relevant, representative media and supports organizations to meet this moment of cultural and digital transformation.



  1. Ito, Mizuko, Kris Gutiérrez, Sonia Livingstone, Bill Penuel, Jean Rhodes, Katie Salen, Juliet Schor, Julian Sefton-Green, S. Craig Watkins. 2013. Connected Learning: An agenda for research and design. Irvine, CA: Digital Media and Learning Research Hub.
  2. Peppler, Kylie. 2013. New opportunities for interest-driven arts learning in a digital age. New York, NY: Wallace Foundation.


Guest post by Elizabeth Rood, EdD 

Elizabeth Rood is an education adviser, researcher, and writer with expertise in youth development, learning, and participatory program design. She is a Senior Fellow at the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop and the founder of Learning Designs Consulting, which provides advisory services in educational media and experiential learning. Rood has a background in formal urban education, gained as a teacher, principal, and leadership coach in San Francisco public schools. She was previously vice president of education at the Bay Area Discovery Museum and director of the Center for Childhood Creativity, the research arm of the museum.