Joseph Feinstein has convinced teen-agers to talk about an enormous range of potentially uncomfortable subjects before television cameras: teen prostitution, drug addiction, homosexuality and incest.
But, during the five years the San Fernando Valley teacher has co-produced and hosted "Teen Talk," there has been one subject that no teen would willingly come forward to discuss.
"The toughest show we did, surprisingly, was acne," said Feinstein. "We simply couldn't find any kids willing to talk about having a skin problem."
A dermatologist eventually put Feinstein in contact with four teen-agers who had been cured of the condition.
"They are able to talk about their innermost feelings on incredibly sensitive issues, but when it comes to talking about how they look, I guess you're hitting them where they live," he said.
Feinstein's rapport with and compassion for teen-agers comes from spending the last 27 years teaching at Grant High School in Van Nuys. Over the years, his off-beat courses have included "Singles Living," which prepares teen-agers for the sometimes harsh realities of life after high school, and "Death and Living," which examines what happens when a loved one dies or an important relationship ends.
2-Time Emmy Winner
"Teen Talk," a two-time Emmy award-winning program that appears at 6 and 8 a.m. on Saturdays on KHJ, Channel 9, is an outgrowth of those classes and is very much what its name suggests: a forum for teen-agers to talk about the issues that affect their lives. Although many of the topics Feinstein and co-producer Betty Lou Port select to discuss each week are ones almost every teen-ager can identify with--such as peer pressure or developing self-esteem--many others are less universal. Recent programs, for example, have focused on teen prostitution, drug addiction, homosexuality and coping in the aftermath of incest.
The degree to which teen-agers on the show are able to confide in Feinstein is sometimes startling and often poignant. Take, for example, a boy talking about the years he spent as a prostitute: "It was so hard. The payoffs never equal the pain."
Or another boy on his peers' response to his homosexuality: "When are they going to leave me alone and just let me be me?"
Feinstein says finding teen-agers to appear on the show is generally not difficult. In most cases, psychologists, social agencies or other teachers on the lookout for articulate teens steer him to young people who are willing to talk about their personal experiences in front of the camera.
Put in Contact
For a program on child abuse, local social welfare agencies put Feinstein in contact with four teen-agers who had experienced incest and who were willing to talk about it.
"Two of those teen-agers were still living at home at the time of their appearance," Feinstein said. In order to avoid legal ramifications, he said, parents must sign release forms allowing their children to appear on the show, and teen-agers must use their first names only.
There are times, however, when Feinstein and co-producer Port's usual methods of getting teen-agers on the show aren't so fruitful. In those instances, Feinstein uses a more direct approach. For a show on prostitution, Feinstein went to Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood and asked teen-agers that he said "were obviously there for that reason" if they would come on the show. The teen-agers agreed.
Finding teen-agers for a show on phobias also was difficult, Feinstein said. "I think that a girl who did agree to come onto the show said it best. She said, 'If I let people know what I'm afraid of, then they can use it against me.' "
Although "Teen Talk" has been successful in its time period (the 6 a.m. show is a repeat of the previous week's 8 a.m. show, and both appear opposite cartoons), KHJ program director Walt Baker says he does not expect to expand the program to a broader audience.
'Not a Network Show'
"It's not designed to be a network show. It's intended to be a local public affairs show, and as such, I think it is one of the best."
After seeing Feinstein discuss teen-age issues on local talk shows, Baker approached the teacher with the possibility of developing a show specifically for teen-agers. "He has rapport that is unique," Baker said. "He's been doing this for so long that I think it's obvious that the teen-agers open up, trust and confide in him. Too many times, teen-agers aren't given the opportunity to speak, or, if they do, people don't listen. Joe does listen."
Feinstein has also recently ventured into documentary films. In May of this year "Silent Sin," a documentary Feinstein produced on child abuse, received an Emmy for best documentary on an independent television station. "On the Streets," a documentary on teen-age prostitution that Feinstein produced in 1983, received an Emmy nomination.
Despite his success in and on television, Feinstein says his first love has always been--and will always be--teaching.