Every week, 20 high school students in Oakland, California, put together a radio show that builds friendships and communication skills. It all starts with the beginner class, at the nationally acclaimed Youth Radio Project.
The students in the after-school class each put in eight hours, every week, for 12 weeks. They learn the basics of radio production, plus multimedia skills, such as how to create a computerized hip hop beat, edit video and publish on the Internet. Then, each Friday, they produce a radio show.
Countdown to airtime
This afternoon, Media Education Manager Patrick Johnson reminds them that in two hours, they'll be live on-air, again, as disc jockeys, reporters and newscasters.
The room fills with the sounds of typing, laughter and discussion as the teens hurry to finish their assignments. One girl works on a story for the newscast, while 11th grader Tony Shavers writes a commentary about teen violence.
"Teenage death is a really hard thing to go through," he explains, "and it's frustrating for teens to have so much pain in them."
Johnson, three other staff members, plus seven paid teen interns offer guidance and help the beginners make it all sound good. Sixteen-year old Melvin teamed up with the newcomers for a public service announcement on drunk driving. The sounds of a car crash and ambulance siren create a powerful image.
"It was a joint effort," Melvin says. "We all thought of the sound effects. We all bumped heads together."
Melvin took this beginner's class three years ago and stuck with it, taking more advanced classes and getting additional training. Now, as an intern, he gets a small salary and gains teaching skills from more experienced staff members.
Youth Radio's Executive Director Jacinda Abcarian says it's all part of Youth Radio's mission.
"Your peers are your teachers, and so, that's just such a great model."
Creating a new media-savvy generation
More than a decade ago, Abcarian was in the beginner class. Now she's in charge of Youth Radio's 25 full-time adult staff and 50 paid teen interns. Together, they offer a variety of youth-related resources. That includes the Youth Radio kitchen, where teens and staff cook and eat a healthy dinner before the live evening show. The staff includes licensed case managers and academic advisors to talk with teens about everything from stress to college applications.
And, Abcarian says, there's the media training.
"Most students, they walk in, they don't have any media experience. They haven't really looked critically ever at the media or thought about who owns the media or took time to think about why the images in the news don't really reflect their community."
That changes once they've gone through a few classes.
During tonight's show, Tony speaks up on teen violence. The mics go on, and he tells listeners how his cousin was beaten to death and how, at her funeral, he struggled with grief.
"In my teardrops, I was trying to forgive the criminal who committed this brutal act," he says. His commentary goes on to call for ways to reduce teen violence, such as more after-school programs that build community and teach job skills.
He concludes, "I will sit here and write until violence is no longer an option that can be tolerated. . . As the day goes by, life is giving us a second chance to get it right. For Youth Radio, I'm Tony Shavers."
Learning life skills from radio production
After the show, Patrick Johnson gathers everybody together for their regular feedback session. High school student Tiara has special praise for Tony.
"For your first commentary, that was really good. You were also super smooth and relaxed. As you are in person. Call me!" she adds with a wink, as the class laughs.
The evening ends, and the teens head home, but they are eager to do it all again next week. The reason, Johnson says, is that for many, Youth Radio is a favorite part of their day.
"Short-term payoff may be [they] just really enjoy being here. Long-term payoff [for them] is better skills that are going to help them throughout the rest of their lives."
Funding from public and private sources means that teens get full scholarships to be a part of Youth Radio. Youth Radio also runs training programs in Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Los Angeles, and in some juvenile detention facilities - each year, giving more than 1,000 teens lessons in effective communication and better life skills.