Emma Jacobs

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.

Early 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.

Radio Routes

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.

Ellin O’Leary points to the Public Broadcasting Act, signed in 1967 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, as the start of opening the radio spectrum to community broadcasters. Colleges and universities began broadcasting, and the primarily commercial radio network was soon joined by a host of community radio stations airing the concerns of underrepresented constituencies, including Native American groups, urban Latinos and African Americans.

O’Leary sees similarities between the early community radio movement and today’s new media. Both, she explains, were primarily grassroots phenomena, focused on freedom of expression and coming on the tail end of an anti-war movement. The two also share a common emphasis on cultural arts and diversity. However, O’Leary is quick to point out that a lot of the energy that helped birth community radio in the 60s had dissipated by the time Youth Radio was getting off the ground.

“All that stuff had professionalized to the point where you couldn’t really experiment,” she says. New constituencies had been given an outlet, but no one had really done the same work for young people. A limited network of youth media existed, mostly small-distribution publications like Youth Communication. Freedburg recalls that he had the feeling that they were a lone voice.

The Youth News movement emerged as a means to help young people break onto the radio dial. Why radio? Besides the founders’ ties to the community radio movement, the choice, Freedburg says, was obvious. “This was all pre-internet, pre-iPod,” he says. “Radio was huge in youth culture at the time.” The program’s primary goal wasn’t to provide job training for students. Rather, says Freedburg, it aimed “to provide a window into youth culture and to help young people reflect on their own lives.”

A Different Voice in Journalism

Youth News was still working out of their modest storage-room headquarters when Anita Johnson joined the team in the mid-’90s. Johnson was 20, working part time as an in-home care provider. She’d taken some courses at Alameda College, but wasn’t sure where she was headed. The atmosphere at Youth News was exciting, the pace was fast and the students were on the forefront of a digital media movement.

“Everything was really new,” says Johnson, “and young people were really enthusiastic, because adults were still trying to figure this out.” She produced her first radio feature on misogyny in music for Youth News. “That was when I realized: Journalism! This could be cool,” she says. She discovered that radio could be about more than just the music, providing an outlet to analyze news and events in depth.

“Society never looks at the root cause,” she says, referring to a story she explored on youth truancy. Producing the story for radio enabled her to get beneath the surface of the issue. Young people are multi-faceted, more complex than traditional media generally give them credit for, says Johnson. That’s why Youth News is a critical organization, she says, providing its members with the rare chance to express opinions about the world around them.

In his time at Youth News, Louis Freedburg has observed that the very act of exploring the root causes of issues can be inherently empowering, opening up new and broader explanations for problems.

Future Broadcasts

In 2008, Youth Radio, which emerged from Youth News under the leadership of Ellin O’Leary, is among more than three dozen youth radio programs around the country. Most of the newer programs date back only a little over a decade, but the field continues to grow. From the Blunt Youth Radio Project in Portland, ME which works with high school students and incarcerated teens, to WNYC’s Radio Rookies at the biggest NPR affiliate in New York City, youth radio programs have offered increasing numbers of students access to a wide variety of radio shows.

Anita Johnson thinks early programs like Youth News were a watershed, making it acceptable for more media outlets to cover youth stories. She went on to work as a peer mentor at Youth News and co-founded KPFA’s Hard Knock Radio, a political forum for the hip-hop generation.

“I’m still in that space even though I’m an adult now,” she says. She tries to hold onto an awareness of a youth perspective, while also providing an outlet for current youth producers. Johnson’s program features segments produced by today’s Youth Radio generation.

O’Leary notes that youth media has increasingly converged with online media, making their work more prevalent than ever. Freedburg agrees, saying that he sees an unprecedented interest in young audiences today. His only concern is the extent to which interest in youth audiences is fueled by corporate considerations. If you really listen to youth radio programs today, he says, it’s clear that young people are a lot more than consumers.

Watch a Youth Radio broadcaster in action!

Emma Jacobs is finishing up school in New York City. She works with her own amazing gang of students at Youth Mic, airing every Monday night on WKCR FM New York.