History Flash: The Birth of Youth-Made Radio
Under community pressure, the Federal Communications Commission opened up the radio spectrum in the mid-1970s, making more room for community licenses. A “community radio movement” was born, and dozens of new stations came onto the listening spectrum, mostly in smaller markets across the nation.
On the technical side this miracle happened through the genius of a new generation of young techies, most of whom were hippies (precursors to geeks and dot-commers).
The programming itself was driven by a range of people including:
• 1960s and 70s politicos and “alternative journalists”;
• ethnic communities developing strategies for self-determination–Native American, Latino bilingual, and urban African-American stations;
• young people “breaking into” the media business.
In 1975, stations with similar goals formed the National Federation of Community Broadcasters in order to share programming and to lobby Congress for community-based stations’ piece of the radio spectrum pie.
At the tail end of this movement, in 1979, Louis Freedberg, a producer at KPFA in Berkeley, started Youth News, which taught a diverse group of local high school students how to produce news. Louis was in touch with the folks at Youth Communication, which published teen-written papers in New York and Chicago, and the groups saw themselves as linked through their work with young people and media, though the phrase “youth media” did not yet exist.
Youth News produced an occasional local show on commercial radio and mailed out a weekly half-hour segment on quarter-inch tape to community radio stations around the country, as many as 30-40 at the peak. Youth News gradually lost its edge in the funding world, and its activity dwindled, but never died. In between the adults coming and going, kids always kept Youth News alive, somehow or other.
Youth Radio grew out of this by switching focus from national tape distribution back to local programming. Beginning in 1990 with just a two-minute commentary on KQED in San Francisco, and a Friday night music and talk show on KPFB in Berkeley and Pacifica, over the next decade Youth Radio grew into a multiplatform organization with a variety of outlets serving both adults and youth.
Youth media led the alternative media movement of the 1990s and the new millennium. Young people transitioned Youth News to Youth Radio by insisting they be trained in music and technology. They did not want to be limited to “news,” especially since the journalistic profession was already losing the allure it had for diverse groups of Youth News students a decade earlier. On the contrary, one could posit that the current youth radio movement has its roots in rap music and culture.
Urban youth of the late 1980s and early 1990s were bored out of their minds attending failing schools. They were also watching their communities be ravaged by post-Reagan poverty, the invasion of crack cocaine, and gang violence in inner city neighborhoods. Like any self-respecting younger generation, they found expression in words and music.
These kids were tech-savvy and resourceful. Major record labels weren’t interested in their work, so they created their music in basement studios. Radio stations didn’t play their music, so they carried it around in boom boxes. Distribution was synonymous with “out of the trunk of a car.”
Gradually, these young people began to dominate youth culture not only nationally, but internationally.
During the 1990s, the rap music movement and the many tributaries of expression it engendered brought new energy to the connection between youth and “youth radio.” Kids wanted to be DJs, to make music, to be on the radio. Budding journalists who would normally have found an outlet in school newspapers instead found those publications axed in the mania of education cutbacks. These students are another major force in the building of the youth radio landscape.
The first Youth Radio-NFCB National Training for Youth in Radio Conference took place in 1999, and 35 young people attended. Each year since then the number of attendees has increased. The youth media movement has been powered by a distinctive set of circumstances in each medium–youth radio, youth video, and print media by and for teens. With the explosion of the web in the late 1990’s, the movement became more than the sum of its parts. And now many people actually know what we’re talking about when we say we work in “youth radio” or “youth media.” You can look around and see that we are a movement.
Ellin O’Leary is executive director/president of Youth Radio. Jayme Burke is Youth Radio’s director of strategic initiatives. “The Birth of Youth-Made Radio” was excerpted from a paper commissioned by the Open Society Institute for a March 2004 convening on youth media.
Above left: Hevanya Gardeen works the control boards at Youth Radio.
Ellin O’Leary and Jayme Burke explain how teens got on the air in the days before “youth media” existed.