From appearances, Dan Freilich is a typical Duke freshman: Blue Devils Basketball visor off to the side and backwards; polo shirt with its collar hanging lazily, and no buttons done up; messy bedroom, with just enough cold air seeping through the window on a sweaty North Carolina afternoon; working not hard enough during the week and too hard on Sundays.
But you wouldn't see any sign that this is the nation's youngest television producer. He might be one of its top under-twenty CEO's, though he would never tell you that.
On a trip to New York City six years ago, Freilich stepped into the ABC News studios. Thanks to a family friend, he edged his way right up next to Peter Jennings, whom he considered somewhat of an idol, but more of a muse. From there, he started to make his own multi-media mark.
He's only really happy, he says, when he's working with TV. "I never get bored. I'm always excited. I think about it all the time. It's fun and it's tough, but it's nowhere compared to working on a TV show."
Even when he was doing radio reports at the Democratic National Convention in 2000 for the Washington-based Children's Express, a kids-only journalism club, he eyed the cameras. At the convention, Freilich got word of Montgomery Community Television (MCT) in Rockville, Maryland, near his home in Chevy Chase.
At MCT, he rounded up two-dozen of his tenth-grade buddies and created TeenLine TV, a full-fledged news program run strictly for kids by kids. Freilich had his "producers" write treatments, do research, and create scripts for six episodes. They handled hot teen issues, from school violence to college admissions.
TeenLine--with viewership growing from 220,000 in the D.C. area to 8 million nationwide, an electronic rush of applications from his website, and a win in the "Youth" category for the Hometown Video Festival--was certainly not your average public-access show.
Not that Freilich let that go to his head. "I guess we knew that there were people who were watching it," he says, "because every now and then someone random, like at work or school or whatever, would tell me that they saw the show."
The eighteen-year-old entrepreneur took his show on the road, looking for production companies to make it bigger and better. He finally struck a deal with Cerebellum Productions, a group that specializes mostly in educational programming. Cerebellum had just settled a contract with PBS YOU, a satellite spawn of PBS, and the small-time company needed to fill four hours a day.
At first, Freilich didn't think he could do it. Citing a lack of resources, he almost backed off Cerebellum's proposal to produce something independent until they offered their equipment and a helping hand. So, with "total freedom" from his production company, Freilich called upon his old gang back at MCT--now numbering nearly fifty--and gave TeenLine a makeover. A new vision transforming the show from a studio format to news-magazine style and giving him "more control" necessitated a name change. Unspoken was born, with Freilich's new mindset and tagline: "The unfiltered voice of youth."
One episode is completed on AIDS, with Freilich providing the narration and adolescent documentarians weaving us through the lives of two boys, one with the disease and one in a family with it. "The thirteen-year-old boy whose mom had AIDS opened up so much to us," says Freilich. "He told us everything, about the people who had made fun of him and what that meant to him. All that type of emotional stuff, like how it made him feel when people told him his mom was going to die.You know, I just couldn't imagine him ever saying that to Peter Jennings."