October 1, 2008
Twice a week, Dolna Smithback makes her way to the offices of KSFR, Santa Fe Public Radio, on the city’s community college campus. Soon to graduate high school and head for college, Smithback has spent nearly two years at KSFR’s Youth Media Project. She remembers her first live show, interviewing founders of a regional bioengineering conference. It was a lot of pressure, but when she recalls the interview, it is with a sense of pride. Undaunted by her first radio experience, Smithback went on to report stories on a range of topics from the anti-war movement to high school stereotypes.
No one can pinpoint when youth voices first hit the radio waves, but as long as the medium has existed, young people haven’t been far from the mic. Taking a look back in time, it’s evident that the nature of youth involvement in radio has come a long way. A March 1940 issue of Music Educators Journal ran an animated report on the program “Music and American Youth.” In a somewhat dated description, the magazine reported on thousands of eager schoolchildren “settling into the silence of the stratosphere” before the show’s broadcast.
Four decades later, a new generation of radio programs emerged, carving out a more autonomous space for young people on the airwaves.
In 1979, South Africa native Louis Freedburg began volunteering at KPFA Radio in Berkeley, a member of the Pacifica network of community stations. He was in his twenties at the time, teaching students at the margins of the public school system in the East Bay area. He recalls that his students “had a lot to say and nowhere to say it.”
Freedburg assembled some two dozen students and founded the first youth radio program. Run on a shoestring budget, Youth News operated out of an old storage room at the back of KPFA’s offices and had only one computer set up for digital editing.
Freedburg hired producer Ellin O’Leary, who came from a community station in Yellow Springs, Ohio. The small staff of Youth News grew, working in collaboration with Bay Area students to produce a weekly program that went on to be carried by some 50 NPR stations and 40 commercial stations. Youth reporters covered a mix of current events and ongoing youth concerns from employment and race relations to education. They also produced commentaries for other NPR programs.
The relationship with KPFA had its ups and downs. Freedburg recalls assuaging the concerns of station personnel who were apprehensive about giving young students access to equipment. But Freedburg soon found the beginnings of foundation support and his program flourished.
At the same time that Youth News made it onto the airwaves, community radio was at a crossroads in California. Dating back to the 1960s, small, community-oriented stations like KPFA had provided a public forum for people often marginalized by larger media organizations.