FOREST PARK, Ky. -- On stage, a band made up of teenagers cranks out a contemporary Christian tune, as their teen-aged audience dances to the music. Nearby, other teens shoot pool or play video games. Still others film the proceedings or man a soundboard for the live webcast.
That’s a typical Saturday night at The Underground in Forest Park, a not-for-profit venue for musicians that doubles as a training ground for teens who want to make their own videos.
It’s an unusual mix, one that appears unique in Cincinnati and possibly beyond Cincinnati. There are night spots around town that offer a drug-/alcohol-free place where teens can get together, but they don’t coach budding musicians or offer hands-on video production training, said executive director Mike Vollette.
The Underground is about empowering teens to tell stories, he said. “Every teen has a story that needs to be told, and every teen matters,” he added.
About 25,000 teens and 25,000 others from across the Tri-State come through the doors of The Underground annually, Vollette said. They typically pay an $8 admission fee that entitles them to hear a local band perform, as well as play all the pool, foosball and video games they want.
Along with the locals, about a dozen nationally known acts perform each year. When New York City-based Christian hip-hop artist Andy Mineo performs on Oct. 24, Vollette said, the venue will probably sell out and reach its capacity of 1,500.
You don’t have to be a Christian band to perform here, Vollette said, but your lyrics must not glorify drugs, alcohol or premarital sex. And, he added wryly, you have to keep your clothes on.
The staff works with about 100 local/regional bands as part of its band development program. The intent is to help them be centered, to know who they are and to help them understand their story matters to God, Vollette said.
“They are the subplot of a bigger story,” he added.
As part of its video coaching program, The Underground hosts summer film camps for teens to help them become better visual storytellers. For the first time this year, The Underground also put on a contest in which 140 teen contestants had 72 hours to each make a short film, with help from the staff.
Hands-on experience also comes to those who work on UGTV, a live webcast of the Saturday night concerts.
Clifton resident Stephen Sargent, now executive director for the Newport video production company Drive Media House Inc., directed production of UGTV from 2009 to 2013, when he was fresh out of high school.
“That was an incredible thing,” he said. “It was really a lot of fun.”
He credits the experience with helping him refine his passion for filmmaking. While working there, he also met Micah Sims, with whom he created Drive Media House, which he said just finished making a national commercial for Justin Original Workboots.
UGTV is the successor of The Zone, a half-hour television program produced by The Underground that WCPO aired at no charge at 11:30 p.m. Saturdays from 2000 to 2008. During the Great Recession, when television stations were watching every penny, Vollette said, the station moved the broadcast to 3:30 a.m., and in 2009 The Underground discontinued the show in favor of UGTV.
The Zone had its roots in a show called 180 Video that a local man was making in his basement, said Tony Maas, who serves on The Underground's board of directors. Maas and others took that concept and expanded it, moving the broadcast to Old St. George Church in Clifton.
The program included music videos, interviews with local bands and discussion groups with local teens, he said, and it proved so popular it needed a bigger venue. So in 2004, Victory Videos, the producer of the program, moved it to a former Discovery Zone children’s playground in Forest Park now owned by Maas and his brothers.
There, Victory Videos partnered with another ministry, The Underground nightclub for teens, which was meeting in a local church basement. After a capital campaign that raised $1.3 million to renovate the building, The Underground opened at its present location, 1140 Smiley Ave., in 2004.
The purpose of Victory Videos was to teach young people to be “media missionaries,” Maas said, people who could learn the techniques of film-making with a positive spin. “Media is great, but it should be life-affirming, not the message of tearing down the person,” said Maas, the president and CEO of Harrison food manufacturer JTM Food Group.
He sees that mission continuing in The Underground. “We continue to grow and get better,” he said.
The non-profit now has five full-time and two part-time employees, Vollette said, but could not function without its crew of 45 weekend volunteers, who take tickets, sell concessions and work security. This year, it hired its first connections director, whose job it is to work with the teens who patronize The Underground and help them better connect with the community at large.
Last year, The Underground had $729,000 in revenue and $720,000 in expenses, with about 67 percent of revenue coming through donations or sponsorships from local businesses such as Cincinnati Bell. Revenue has increased steadily over the past few years, Vollette said.
That’s good, he said, because it’s a challenge to keep up with the things teens want to do and to provide the support they need to tell their stories.