The Kids ARE All Right: Youth Radio Revealed

As summer vacations wind down, and school bells begin to ring from coast to coast, it’s a good time to look and listen to the burgeoning role of youth in revitalizing public media.

Anyone who wants to launch or sustain a media project that engages young people and amplifies their voices should read Drop That Knowledge, a new book about Youth Radio written by Elisabeth Soep and Vivian Chavez. Lissa Soep is a longtime Youth Radio staff member who has developed the program’s training framework and curricula. Vivian Chavez is a alumna of Youth News, a forerunner to Youth Radio.

Youth Media International, as it is currently re-branding, is one of the oldest and most successful youth media programs in the country. It’s a public media treasure. As founder Ellin O’Leary writes in the epilogue, “Our mandate is to prepare young people to maintain and reinvent journalism’s best principles, so that they can deploy today’s new tools and platforms to speak truth to power, to cultivate credible soures, to tell the story no one else is telling, and to create art and report on emerging trends and culture.”

At Youth Radio, adolescents, teens and young adults get the basics of media production and much, much more: media literacy, leadership training, critical thinking, group process, negotiation, peacemaking. They learn by listening but mostly by doing. Once they develop their wings, some of these producers soar, experimenting with nontraditional storytelling techniques and providing fresh perspectives on issues that hit closest to home: public education, neighborhood violence, teenage pregnancy, racial, gender, national and sexual identity.

Drop That Knowledge explains the guiding philosophy of Youth Radio – the model of “converged literacy” which is defined as “an ability to make and understand boundary-crossing and convention breaking texts…knowing how to draw and leverage public interest in the stories you want to tell…[having the] imaginative resources to claim and exercise your right to use media to promote justice.” At Youth Radio, young people are respected as the experts of their own experience, who not only find their voice, but are empowered to use it responsibly, meaningfully, and effectively.

I’m a longtime admirer of Youth Radio. I worked with some of its reporters when I produced national news at Pacifica, and I visited the group’s Oakland headquarters for the first time earlier this year. Even so, I must admit that I learned so much in the 200-plus pages of this book that I didn’t already know.

It’s fascinating to read between the lines of some of Youth Radio’s most visible and successful stories that aired on NPR and PRI. How did these pieces come together; what was the role of the reporter versus the editor; how did youth and adults collaborate; what kind of dynamic ensued as harsh truths are shared, or stereotypes are reinforced or debunked in a 4-minute audio essay that would carry the burden of being The Voice of Youth on a particular issue.

Drop That Knowledge tells the back story of:

MQ2 grantee Anyi Howell’s piece on the DNA of the black experience.

Finnegan Howell’s Dupont Award-winning Emails from Kosovo.

Sophie Simon-Ortiz’s investigation of West Berkeley industrial pollution and her story about military marriages for benefits.

Rapper Orlando Campbell’s report about hearing rumors of his own death.

Belia Mayeno’s story about the online journals of U.S. soldiers in Iraq and her commentary about struggling with manic depression. 

Nzinga Moore’s report about California students skipping the SAT-9 test.

Evelyn Martinez’s piece about gang activity in the Salvadorian community.

Lauren Silverman’s account of her eating disorder.

Along with the scripts to these and other stories, these Youth Radio graduates share their personal narratives describing what drew them to the organization and what kept them going back.

These stories are powerful, authentic, with an honesty that hurts.

Journalist Sandy Close, a youth media innovator who co-founded Pacific News Service and New America Media, is quoted in the book, “Youth media is the story of a generation in search of ways to connect … This is a generation that has grown up without a sense of community. Their media is their community.” In other words, if you want to connect with young people, you have to climb out of your comfort zone and follow their media… but don’t expect them to follow yours.

Published by the University of California Press, Drop That Knowledge is laced with academic terms – like pedagogy – and it sometimes reads like a doctoral dissertation. But if you can get past the rhetoric and absorb the reality, the book itself is a bold political manifesto that dares to declare that young people really matter, what they think matters, what they say and do matters, and we should listen up and get out of the way.

Drop That Knowledge is a must-read, especially for those of us who work in public media, who are coming to recognize that young people will lead our institutions to the holy grails of both diversity and innovation.

You can also listen to an interview with author Elisabeth Soep on The Michael Eric Dyson Show.