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Voices Amplified

The VPM + ICA Community Media Center makes storytelling for all.  


Everyone has a story that only they can tell, says Chioke I’Anson, an assistant professor of African American studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and underwriting announcer at NPR. Perhaps that someone is narrative adjacent, not the protagonist but rather the mesmerized observer, the fated teller. People have homed in on the plot points, the rising action, the stunning denouement. 

They need only a platform from which to shout, “Here, here it is!”

I’Anson partly credits an “amazing moment of synergy” for the birth of the cutting-edge, multihyphenate VPM + ICA Community Media Center, which will serve as the storytelling incubator for all of Richmond. 

The joint initiative between the contemporary art gallery at the university and VPM came about at a faculty meeting, says I’Anson, who has taken on the role of director of community media at the VPM + ICA Community Media Center.  

“I was explaining the idea to some cats, and Dominic [Willsdon, the institute’s executive director] said, ‘Oh, we could be into that,’” I’Anson says. The idea is that the center, which is currently under construction and will open in the spring, will help folks develop their own podcasts. Since the skill-share program launched in September, it has played host to sessions on developing ideas into pitches, conducting interviews and writing scripts. “Just yesterday we had a really skilled professional producer lay out the steps to telling a good story for the audial medium,” I’Anson says. 

Once the center is complete, it will have two soundproof recording booths, multiple editing stations and a full-time audio engineer onsite to help fledgling podcasters with equipment and software. The center will be located on the institute’s second floor, [housed within] the Murry DePillars Learning Lab. The sure-to-be stunning space is being designed by university professors as well as interior design graduate students. “In addition to the state-of-the-art studio, the place will look like work of art,” says I’Anson.

“This is the perfect opportunity for us,” says VPM’s chief content officer, Steve Humble. “This is a fairly new rebrand for us so it’s great to get out there in this physical space.” 

This rebranding, which took place in 2019, unified the state’s varied Community Idea Stations, turning Richmond TV station WCVE PBS into VPM PBS and so forth. One would be hard pressed to classify any form of public media as sexy but this name change was certainly a step in the right direction.

“The VPM+ICA Community Media Center is a unique opportunity for public media to play a role in engaging a new generation of diverse content makers,” said VPM’s president, Jayme Swain, in a news release. 

When was the last time you took a long drive, cleaned the kitchen or walked the dog without a podcast in your ears? From riveting, unsolved true crime mysteries to reality TV fanfare, there’s a pod for you, and the minds behind the city’s newest media center are all too familiar with this insatiable thirst for streamable, captivating stories. 

Before taking on his newly formed chief content officer role at VPM, Humble worked for 20 years in commercial advertising, cranking out pithy content and sharp slogans. Today, he’s channeling that creative energy into podcasts. 

The services of the media center are free and open to the public, he notes. All you need is a solid starting point and the center will help you with the nitty-gritty production details as well as formulating strategy, i.e., “Who’s your audience?”

VPM has helped produce two podcasts in the past few months, Social Distance Assistance and Resettled. The former, which channels Mr. Rogers and highlights the helpers who have stepped up all over the country during the pandemic, has over 350,000 downloads and even got a New York Times write-up, Humble says. 

Resettled is a six-part series exploring the intersection of refugee stories and issues like housing, education and health care. In episode one we meet the LahPai family, which relocated from Malaysia to Richmond a few years ago. Members need a translator and have a finite window of time, around 90 days, to find jobs to pay for the house the International Rescue Committee has secured. They must find schools for their two young children and must learn to navigate public transportation amid several other teeth-grinding obstacles. 

Humble is excited about a third VPM-produced podcast in the works, Seizing Freedom, which will tell the story of Reconstruction through former enslaved people. “It’s about how after the Civil War, the North didn’t come down and save the day,” Humble says. “The enslaved had to free themselves.”

Humble, Willsdon and I’Anson all urge that they are not the masters of the fates of these podcasts. The captains are the determined storytellers who need only a little assistance in polishing what they already know will shine.

“We’re there to help people do whatever they’re doing, better,” I’Anson says. “We don’t lay a claim to what they produce.” Instead, they’ll showcase certain productions, like Seizing Freedom, and will play host to producers’ institutes where they’ll hold listening sessions so experts can provide feedback to new audio storytellers. 

The center is not only for fine-tuning audio storytelling – it’s billed as a space of learning, education and community, too. Willsdon says he hopes to soon add a youth program component to the center, recruiting kids from local organizations and public school districts. “The ICA audience is already super-young, half are under 25,” Willsdon says. “We want to hear what they have to say.”