Behind the scenes with media pioneer Jeff McCarter

The founder of
Free Spirit Media
offers an
intimate glimpse
of how it all
got started and
what keeps going

For nearly two decades, Jeff McCarter has been working to fix a thing that started bothering him when he was a kid. Inspired to ease “the inequities around race and class,” he has helped a legion of young Chicagoans along the way.

The effort continues to pay off.

McCarter is the Founder and Executive Director of Free Spirit Media, an organization that connects artists with the film industry. Besides funding the “scrappy dream” with his own savings in 2000, he walked away from an enviable career to get it started.

Today, Free Spirit Media’s staff of 25 works with roughly 700 participants to create about a thousand pieces of media every year. The fruits of their labor are showcased at the annual Focus event that takes place on May 30 at Ivy Room.

Here, the altruistic entrepreneur from Sycamore, Illinois, shares a behind-the-scenes glimpse of how it all got started and what keeps it all going.



How did you get into film?I fell in love with movies and TV commercials as a kid, studying the cinematography and the pacing. I started getting into photography and theater when I was in high school. My grandmother had been an English teacher and she inspired me to like theater and storytelling. I got into avant-garde film studying with Stan Brakhage, who was a pioneer of avant-garde film, at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

In the summer of 1990, I worked on Backdraft through an internship with the Illinois Film Office. It kind of blew my mind — Ron Howard and Robert DeNiro and the fire and more than a hundred technically skilled creative people working together to tell a story. I was in the art department, tasked with surveying locations during pre-production.

What inspired you to found Free Spirit Media? It was the work I did in feature film, network news, public broadcasting, documentaries, and commercial production. It was really amazing film and media craft — great learning and great growth — but I was also really put off by the lack of diversity in the industry, both in terms of the work force and the stories that were being told as well as the stories that were not being told.

I saw a lot of stories created by media elites, and they seemed so stereotypical and not, like, real life. I didn’t want to perpetuate a system that was so inequitable, so I started to do more projects that were community-based. One thing led to another, and Free Spirit Media came to life.

When you have people telling their own stories and using their own creativity and relaying their own experience, it’s just a much richer world. Our mission is to transform media and society, and that’s how we do it.

What inspired you to care about marginalized populations so much? Growing up in Sycamore, I had a fairly privileged existence, but I was always a critical thinker about our society and the inequities around race and class. My family and I were also very close with an African-American woman named Annie Hicks, a very spiritual and loving person who had a huge influence on me. She helped me see that not everyone’s experience in America was the same.

Based on your professional experience, what did you believe were the most important aspects of filmmaking to teach to participants at Free Spirit Media? The first and foremost thing was actually just believing in young people and helping them recognize that they have value and that their stories and life experiences really matter. It wasn’t us, like, telling them anything. It was more like letting them know that their experiences are important to society and that their voices can make the world a better place. Basically, we ask them, what do you have to share?

How has FSM grown from the earlier years to today? We started with ten participants and three volunteers and no budget and a very scrappy dream. We ran on funds that I had saved while working in commercials. We were very lucky.

Over the course of eighteen years, we’ve grown to a staff of 25 people and we have about 700 participants and seven locations and our young people are producing about a thousand pieces of media every year.

Our main location is at the Nichols Tower, which is the original 1905 Sears tower in Homan Square on Chicago’s West Side. One of the other locations is at Stage 18 on the campus of Cinespace.

Free Spirit Media’s first program started in 2000 — a sports broadcast called, “HoopsHIGH.” People would ask if it was like “Hoop Dreams.” I love Hoop Dreams, and it was an inspiration to me, but it was made by filmmakers who were not from the community. HoopsHIGH is made by young people representing their community.

We still run HoopsHIGH, which has become an institution in its own right. It’s about 700 episodes in and still plays weekly on CAN TV. A key trait of Free Spirit Media is that the stories are made by the young people themselves.

How and when did you start partnering with production / post companies? Because of my background in the industry, I always wanted to help open doors to careers. One of our early board members, Kati Rooney, had led an industrial production company called Rivet. She got involved and helped people in the industry that wanted to give back get involved so that we could build bridges between the under-resourced communities where we work and the media world, thus helping to make Chicago a more inclusive place.

Then we started attracting more and more professionals like Jon Desir of Optimus, Liz Tate of Hootenanny and Qadree Holmes of Quriosity; they all became part of our board. Betsy Steinberg and Maria Xerogianes have also served on the board. In total, we have more than 50 media industry partners that host interns and provide mentorship.

What programs does FSM host every year? We have three main pillars of programming: in-school high school classes for 14-18 year-olds; out-of-school programs, which are also mostly for 14 to 18 year-olds; and a creative industry pathways program, which is a whole portfolio workforce development programs for 18-to-25-year-olds who are taking the steps to become media professionals.

How do you select participants? Participants find us through partners and schools and through word of mouth. There’s a lot of networking within groups of students, graduates, and young professionals. In the creative industry pathways programs, they really seek us out because they are looking for opportunities to build their skills and grow their network.

What kind of film industry jobs do the FSM participants want to pursue? Some young people are aspiring writers, directors and producers, whereas others have become film workers and members of IATSE 476 Studio Mechanics and Local 600 Cinematographers Guild, or they’re working in advertising, journalism, or post-production. The hope we have for them — and that the hope they have for themselves — is that they are creatively fulfilled, economically viable, and are helping to make the world a better place.

What is the most challenging thing for a young film professional to learn? Balancing hunger and humility. I mean, someone on a set is valuable when they are ready to help and anticipate the thing that needs to be done, but they cannot get in the way of the process. That said, they should always be learning, and considering how they can apply their skills to open more doors and help tell more stories.

What equipment / technically does FSM expose the young people to? We strive to have industry standard equipment, such as Canon C300s and DSLRs. We’re editing on Adobe Premiere.

What is the history of FSM FOCUS? It’s really a celebration of access and opportunity, and it serves as the unofficial kick off to summer for the media community. This year’s FOCUS on May 30th is going to be the most extravagant ever — lots of lights and sounds, but also a diverse, beautiful Chicago scene at the Ivy Room.


How have the Free Spirit Media participants helped you grow? I think they have made me reflective and kept me young at heart. They have exposed me to the complexity of experience of the West Side of Chicago where I also live. And they’ve basically helped me to feel part of a beautiful community.

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