National airtime claimed by Youth Radio was up sharply this year. Pictured in the main studio in Berkeley: Jason Valerio (left), Deverol Ross, Youth Radio President Ellin O'Leary and Belia Mayeno-Choy. (Photos: Geneva Collins.)
Youth Radio gives teens a voice and public radio a new sound
Originally published in Current, May 10, 1999
By Geneva Collins
Berkeley--Its reporters and commentators have dissed Levi's on Marketplace, gotten dreadlocks for Morning Edition and spoofed hip-hop on Grammy night for All Things Considered. But Youth Radio, a Berkeley-based after-school training program for at-risk teenagers, has been thrust in the media spotlight of late for its contribution to the very adult world of war coverage.
A series of gripping first-hand accounts called "E-mails from Kosovo" has been airing on NPR's Morning Edition since early February, weeks before NATO intervention. In them, 16-year-old Youth Radio reporter Finnegan Hamill documents a growing friendship established via e-mail with an ethnic Albanian girl who is given the pseudonym Adona.
Adona's vivid portrayal of the war happening right outside her window, her family's efforts to stay together as they flee from hideout to hideout, and the ongoing struggle for food, water and safety, has put a human face on a war that's very far away to most Americans.
I must tell you--it is scary sometimes, when the situation gets really tensed, the whole family comes together and we talk about how and where we will be going in case of emergency, where we can find money, what do we do, who do we call for help, where do we keep our passports and other documents. We also have bought warm clothes in case we have to flee our homes and go to the mountains or elsewhere. And we're all prepared for the worst and taught that life goes on, no matter what. --Adona, 16, Kosovo, Yugoslavia
"It's young-person-to-young-person, that direct contact that gives us an extra dimension," said Jeffrey Dvorkin, v.p. of news and information for NPR, in explaining the appeal of the reports, which have struck a chord with listeners. "NPR can cover the policy, the refugees, the conflict, the military aspects. This is about young people, about an individual; it forces us to think of the emotional element" of the war.
"We've done a lot of other stories that are significant, but this is good for us in that it demonstrates the power of kids in the media in a dramatic way," said Ellin O'Leary, an Emmy- winning NPR producer when she founded Youth Radio in 1992. She has been swamped with national media queries about her Kosovo correspondent.
The high-profile story comes just as Youth Radio is starting to hit its stride. Although it's been producing national programming for a couple of years, the organization radically increased its on-air presence this year, with reports on ATC, Marketplace, The World and Latino USA, as well as Morning Edition. National program output for the first three months of this year surpassed last year's total production, said Rebecca Martin, senior producer.
O'Leary credits a series of CPB Program Fund grants for this; Youth Radio received its third such grant (for $200,000) in March. Six months ago, Youth Radio hired Martin, who has experience with CNN, NPR and The World, and promoted part-time producer Jacinda Abcarian to full-time, to speed up production of student pieces for national programs. In addition to CPB support, more than a dozen foundations and corporate sponsors have kicked in cash. With a beefed-up staff, the organization now can respond immediately to breaking news events like the Colorado shooting rampage and produce specials like one on Kosovo for KQED in San Francisco.
Although a dozen or so adults are on staff, it's the teenagers who are the stars at Youth Radio's offices in a converted storefront a few blocks from the University of California campus. The organization is, after all, not a production house but a not-for-profit after-school program for high school kids, 85 percent of whom are low-income, female or non-white.
After 17 evictions it was bound to happen. Our family was broken up. We were homeless. My mom and brother ... now live in a homeless shelter in Berkeley where they're locked out at 7 in the morning and not allowed back until 7 at night. As for myself, I've been bouncing from friend's house to friend's house. ... I'm always carrying around a big bag of stuff--clothes, clean or dirty, toothbrush, deodorant. My managers at work are always saying, 'You spent the night out again?' Everyone just assumes I'm a party girl. --Tahira Simon, 18.
Youth Radio students learn how to operate digital sound boards. Instructor Kerry Rose, center, works with Art Anabo Jr. and Olivia Wu.
An April visit to the offices in Berkeley found more than a dozen or so teenagers talking at high volume, backpacks slung everywhere, in the big center room used for classes. Although the carpeting is industrial gray, and ducts and pipes hang from the ceiling, the students can train on state-of-the-art digital gear as well as lower-tech stuff. "This is the first time many of them have ever touched a turntable," said instructor and senior engineer Kerry Rose, showing off the training studio, where PSAs and commentaries are sometimes made. Adjacent to it are a soundproof announcer's booth and the main production studio.
About 15 kids at a time take an intensive 12-week crash course that covers the basics of newswriting and commentary, on-air hosting, deejay skills, music selection, production and engineering. During the course, students produce a two-hour weekly magazine show called Youth in Control for KPFB, a repeater for Pacifica station KPFA in Berkeley.
Ian Simmons, 16, has been at Youth Radio for all of seven weeks but has already produced six pieces for Youth in Control: "I have a newfound respect for radio. I now understand that there is much more to broadcasting than just going in the studio and recording."
Rebecca Martin, senior producer, says she works with the young reporters "the whole way," from the idea to the finished tape. "It's sort of similar to the host-producer relationship at NPR. I'm helping and doing a lot of legwork, too, giving them a lot of direction in terms of where to go for research."
When the kids find it hard to write their pieces, Martin coaches them to write for the ear. "I have them do a lot of talking out loud. The two of us sit at the computer, and they tell me the story and I type it. That way it's really true to the way they speak, and it makes it feel like writing is easy. Over time, once they get that, they can sit down at the computer by themselves."
Graduates of the basic program can continue with a 12-week advanced class, producing a two-hour weekly public affairs show for WILD 94.9 (KYLD, San Francisco), the area's No. 1 teen station. A chance to be on WILD 94.9 is the carrot that lures kids to Youth Radio.
"That's what they listen to, their friends listen to, that's where the music is, that's where the deejays they think are cool are," O'Leary said. "When they come in, 80 percent of them want to be deejays. But we make them spend half their time writing news and commentary and they realize, 'Hey, I like talking about what I think. I can write.'"
Tahira Simon, who has taken both radio courses and now works as an intern at Youth Radio, said the hardest thing for her to learn was "how to write a commentary that didn't sound like a poem."
Youth Radio also produces a monthly public affairs show for KQED, as well as commentaries and other material for local commercial outlets like KCBS. Outreach projects include weekly visits to a camp for incarcerated teenagers in San Leandro with a mobile unit, teaching the 14-to-17-year-olds music mixing, writing and commentary skills.
I've realized that fast money and hustling will only get you so far. I've realized that it's every man for himself, and all those friends I had so much fun with on the streets can't help me get out of jail or support my child or pay my bills. --Akbah, 17, Camp Sweeney
Kids who complete both radio courses are eligible for internships or paid positions as peer teachers at Youth Radio. Some 600 to 700 teenagers have graduated from the program since 1992, training director Beverly Mire estimates. Many are still in college, but those who have entered the workforce in broadcast-related fields include the music director of a commercial station in Sacramento, a staffer at Marketplace, and a writer for Billboard magazine. Some of the adult staff are Youth Radio graduates, including producer Abcarian, Anita Johnson, who produces the WILD 94.9 show, and engineer Deverol Ross.
"It's not necessary to want a career in radio to be part of the program," said Mire. "Maybe it's just something they want to try, that sounds like fun. ... We're teaching these kids how to make it in the outside world. They get poise, they get polish, they learn how to present themselves. The program teaches resume writing and job interview skills. ... If they don't go into the media, at least they've gotten some kind of self-confidence."
NPR reporter Chris Arnold, who worked for Youth Radio a few years ago, says that for many participants, Youth Radio is a haven. "Berkeley has this reputation as this city of love and understanding, but there are some tough inner-city neighborhoods. For many of these kids, it's a safe place to hang out on Friday nights."
Getting your hands on the latest CD is what makes all the hands-on hard work worthwhile for unpaid "street team" members. That's right. We don't get paid. We don't get much of anything--except concert passes and CDs--for hours and hours of work. -- Chris Riggins, on being hired by a record label to promote hip-hop songs on the street and in clubs
"These people are the next generation of public radio producers and listeners," said Ginny Berson, director of federation services for the San Francisco-based National Federation of Community Broadcasters. In March, NFCB sponsored, along with Youth Radio, a one-day conference on youth-run public radio programs. Berson knows of nearly a dozen stations that offer some type of student-produced programming. Youth Radio East, a collaboration between Youth Radio and the Latin American Youth Center and very much in its fledgling stages, is seeking airtime in the Washington, D.C. area.
"Everybody looks around at public radio and sees the gray hair. Everybody's looking for the next generation of producers, with the understanding that younger people are going to produce different kinds of programs that will attract younger listeners," said Berson. "The best way to reach them is by having them do the programming that is relevant and appropriate to them."
O'Leary praises NPR for its commitment to getting younger voices on the air. "We're something unorthodox, not what they're accustomed to--the situation the kids are in, they don't sound like most of the people on NPR, the material is different both in subject matter and style. ... It's one thing to talk about young kids [in a news story], it's another thing to hear from them directly."
PRI's Marketplace has been willing to use the Youth Radio corps as reporters, not just commentators, which has been another important breakthrough. "The story we did on Levi's, it was being reported elsewhere that they had to close plants entirely because of competition from foreign manufacturers. But Youth Radio knew there was a segment of kids who weren't buying the product," said O'Leary.
Armed with statistics as well as anecdotes, reporter Belia Mayeno-Choy called them jeans for old folks. Creating the segment was more than a lesson in news reporting, it also taught journalistic credibility and demonstrated independence--the Levi Strauss Foundation has given money to the organization.
Dvorkin, for one, does not worry that more youthful-sounding programming is alienating the older audience that is public radio's core. "I think our audience is very interested and tolerant" of reports about new music, trends and cultural icons for the young.
"Kids see the world in very different terms. They see it ... in a way that's sometimes more direct and more emotional, but also has a clarity to it," said Dvorkin. "It's a vision not fraught with the compromises of age that the rest of us bring to it."
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