By Lisa Sorg
A hard rain is pelting the roof of the Time Warner Cable building where, in Studio 1, Melissa Rodriguez, Nadia Salazar, and Robyn Correa are taping their first public access program. Flooded streets have prevented some guests from arriving, and the hosts don't know whether the belly-dancer will show up. Nonetheless, the show goes on.
"Pat's going to give you cards to count you down," explains the director before she slips into the control room.
Correa, the musical guest, replies: "How about a card that says 'applause'?"
The sound of thunder threatens to leak into the microphones.
"Are you ready?"
"Oh my God," says Salazar, inhaling deeply.
The red light goes on, and Rodriguez, well-poised, launches into the introduction: "Welcome to the 411 Show, a show run by youth, hosted by youth, and aimed to inform youth. It's a brand new show ..."
"CUT!" yells the camera woman, Patsy Robles, who is also Salazar's mother. Technical difficulties. They begin again.
Salazar and Rodriguez, both 15, started their public access program, The 411 Show, to demonstrate that teenagers are more thoughtful than adults give them credit for; it is also a challenge to their peers.
"We're not confronting them, but we are making them think a little bit," says Salazar. "Teens say, 'Let's go to the movies or the mall.' But it's not too much longer you're going to college, you're going have to think about more than just clothes."
Since popular culture transformed teens from miniature adults into a free-wheeling demographic with money to burn and minds to be molded, media and advertising gurus have stereotyped youth in order to more easily market to them. In the '50s, teens were either benign, doe-eyed sockhoppers or pomaded, switchblade-wielding hooligans. In the '60s, girls were Manson Family converts, the boys draft-dodging hippies. And for the past 25 years, youth has been caricatured at best as politically disengaged, and at worst (thanks to MTV) as shallow mall dwellers who would rather buy a new ring tone for their cell phones than know the capital of their own state.
"Does 9-11 and the war concern you?" asks Rodriguez in 411's segment on the war in Iraq.
"This war does concern me," replies Salazar.
"Was it justified?"
"To a certain extent, but there is less good coming out of this."
"I don't think kids should be exposed to images of dead people. Kids should know they're fighting but not see people who are dead," responds Correa.
"It's not a fairy tale," counters Salazar. "Although it's graphic, it's the parents' job to explain it. Don't shelter the kids."
"Those pictures were very graphic for me," says Rodriguez.
The 411 Show also allows teens to form opinions - and to change their minds - without adult intervention. "The parents can also learn. They can learn that their kids aren't dumb," says Salazar. "We brought up Iraq at school. Some kids were pro-war and others were anti-war, but didn't know why. I started realizing that kids have opinions, but they get them from other people.
"In Melissa's class, one girl - her whole family is pro-military. She was going into the Army, but when she started learning about facts, she started breaking down crying. She was so surprised. She just believed what they said."
Dressed in a black Samhain T-shirt, black lace skirt, and pink Converse tennis shoes, Correa, 14, plugs her black-and-white Fender Squire into a tiny amplifier, hoists her guitar onto her lap, and sings two songs in a voice as melodic as a meadowlark's - an original number, and "So Sweet" by Early November.
"I just found a friend ... "
While talk shows proliferate on cable and network stations, few are worth watching. There are few role models for aspiring hosts: With the exception of the smart satire of The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, the rest of the format runs from the banality of Jimmy Kimmel Live to the histrionics of Hardball with Chris Matthews to the utter vacancy of Deborah Norville (who, in all earnestness, stated recently that "documentary films don't have an editorial viewpoint").
"I don't look to any of those people to give me any inspiration," says Salazar. "I just look around and ask, 'What are some of the questions kids might have?'"
"Talk shows are all gossip and Hollywood," adds Rodriguez. "We want to give our perspective as true as we know it."
On the set, Rodriguez winds down the talk with a discussion of the role of the media in the war.
"Should we believe the government or the media?"
"The media isn't going to tell us everything that's going on," Salazar chimes in.
"It seemed like media was like, 'Yeah, we need to go to war,' but the truth is out: There are no WMDs," Rodriguez notes. "TV is just an idiot box - except for now." •
By Lisa Sorg
At press time, a program schedule had yet to be announced for the 411 Show. To audition for the show, contact 789-3143.