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Holly Kernan brings student voices to air

Courtney Nuding

A craft for reporting and a passion for preserving local news led visiting Mills College professor Holly Kernan to merge her two interests and teach public radio reporting. Her creativity has created an enormously successful class.

The public radio classes are split into introduction and intermediate reporting courses and the focus for both is learning
about the history, politics and people of Oakland in order to write, produce and broadcast local news.

“Local news is disappearing from journalism and I think that’s very troubling,” she said. “I want to motivate my students to understand and get involved in their community.”

In the past, the radio projects have centered on gentrification issues in Oakland, non-profit organizations, and the high drop-out rate in the Oakland public school system.

Although students say Kernan expects professional work from them, they agree her teaching is inspirational.

“Her dedication to, and belief in, catalyzing social change through journalism will continue to inspire me throughout my career,” said Hallee Berg, a 2007 graduate
who took two intermediate classes including the first ever offered in 2006.

Since then, the program has developed into a professional reporting training ground, despite the early lack of a space to record.

“Last year, we were recording in my car,” said Kernan.

Last semester, however, the students began recording in a Mills Hall closet in Kernan’s office that was converted into a padded recording booth.

Through these small technical advances, the radio program has made big strides, even receiving professional recognition.

Under her direction, her classes have won prestigious awards including the Student Journalist of the Year award by the Northern California Society of Professional Journalists, a first place national award in the Public Radio News Directors Incorporated student category, two Gracie Allen awards for Outstanding Documentary and Series, and a first place national Education Reporting award.

Students in the intermediate classes have aired their work on KALW 91.7 FM, the San Francisco National Public Radio affiliate where Kernan has worked since 2001. As news director at KALW, Kernan can broadcast student work in a professional setting.

Some of Kernan’s students, like junior Sandhya Dirks, have continued to freelance for KALW. At KALW, “the students are treated like equals,” Dirks said. “Although we definitely learn a lot, we’re not just students to them, we’re learning peers.”

But Mills students were not the first to reap the benefits of Kernan’s teaching.
Before arriving at Mills, Kernan worked with the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at San Francisco State University, which was designed to educate people over the age of 50. There, she started a program of reporting, producing and broadcasting radio projects related to San Francisco.

“It was great working with non-traditional students,” said Kernan. “It gave the radio station a lot of great new perspective to have older people involved.”

After a few years at SF State, Kernan approached Mills with the same program idea that she developed for OLLI.

Living in the Bay Area, Kernan said she had heard of Mills and was prepared to be working with intelligent, capable students, but she said Mills women have exceeded her expectations.

“I love working with young women, but I was astounded by how brilliantly amazing the students here are,” Kernan said. “Even freshmen and sophomores absolutely blow me away. I know I wasn’t so poised as a sophomore.”

This is high praise coming from a woman who went to Nicaragua to work on a story for U.C. Santa Barbara’s radio station as a sophomore. Going to college in the 1980s, Kernan said she was influenced by the brutal wars in South Africa and Central America.

She knew she wanted to help people in such desperate circumstances, but it wasn’t until she took the Nicaraguan trip that she realized the effect she could have as a reporter.

“People kept saying to me, ‘Just tell our story to people in America, the story of how my son’s legs got blown off last week and you can stop this war,'” Kernan remembered. “Of course one piece of journalism can’t make that kind of change, but I was inspired to bring people’s voices to the greater public.”

This initial inspiration is still seen in her work as a journalist and in the work of her students. Kernan said she loves the Mills environment and that she “couldn’t have a better home [than here].”

Outside of work Kernan also leads a fruitful life. Kernan’s husband, Mike Woitalla, shares her passion for journalism as the executive editor of Sports America Magazine.

On the cork board of her office hangs a dashing picture of Woitalla next to a photo of the couple’s eight-year-old daughter, Julia. Like her mom, Julia is adorably freckled.

“We play Scrabble, ping-pong, tennis and go on adventures,” said Kernan. “Julia and I play cooking school. Oh, and I’m teaching her Spanish. We have a deal going; if she speaks Spanish to me for a year, she gets a laptop.”

And that is the essence of Kernan’s work and play ethics, not only toward her daughter, but toward all her students. She is there to listen, to talk to, for recommendation letters, or for a refreshing lunch date. It’s no wonder Kernan has been called the “radio mommy.”