My Trajectory through Youth Radio
Since I was about seven years old I dreamed of being a sports broadcaster. While I played sports in high school, I realized early on that I had a much better shot talking about the games professionally than playing them. I would mute the volume on the television and do play by play of the basketball and football games. I wrote complete news stories based on the events from my sports video and board games. Oftentimes I would argue with gentlemen three and four times my age about the merits of Southeastern Conference football and the intricacies of Temple’s match-up zone. Despite my desire to be on the radio, before I walked into Youth Radio my broadcasting experience was limited to ramblings recorded on cassettes using my mother’s boom box.
Youth Radio gave me a place to hone in on the aspects of media that interested me most. Based in Oakland, CA and founded in 1990, Youth radio is an after-school media education program and independent production company. Young people at Youth Radio file stories regularly for outlets ranging from National Public Radio, serving 26 million weekly listeners, and via social media sites like MySpace and YouTube, as well as our website, www.youthradio.org. We have bureaus that serve youth in Atlanta, Washington, DC, and Los Angeles as well as production partnerships with correspondents and youth media organizations around the globe. Youth Radio has won major broadcast journalism honors, including the George Foster Peabody, Alfred I. DuPont, Edward R. Murrow, and most recently a United Nations Department of Public Information medal.
From my perspective, three important aspects of Youth Radio have led the organization to much success. First, we provide a visible line of leadership for youth; second, we lead with inquiry and use media literacy in teaching video, print, music and radio production; and third, we have a strong peer teaching model. This perspective comes from my ten year trajectory at Youth Radio—starting as a teen and ending as the Director of Communications.
My Own Trajectory
I entered Youth Radio as an 18-year-old high school senior. At the time, I was required to have an off campus internship to graduate and since I had spent the majority of my high school career writing for our campus newspaper, my career counselor suggested I give Youth Radio a shot.
At Youth Radio, I learned how to write radio commentaries, edit audio and produce a radio show—where I could share my opinions and musical tastes widely. Controlling the airwaves a few hours each week was a powerful experience; almost as powerful as hearing one’s voice on air for the first time. As a teenager, the idea of being able to express oneself (uninterrupted) is appealing since often there are so many adults bombarding you with information that you welcome any space where your thoughts come first.
My experience at Youth Radio solidified my decision to major in broadcast journalism at Howard University in Washington, DC. During my time at Howard, I hosted and produced a music television show, wrote for various local newspapers and did on-air work for our campus radio station. The skills I acquired at Youth Radio helped me make a near seamless transition into my college media work.
While I was in college, I regularly received emails from then Deputy Director Beverly Mire checking in on how I was doing. Those emails made an incredible impression on me and made me feel that I was a part of a larger network. Even today, I often hear students at Youth Radio use the term “family” when referring to the organization; and in a lot of ways it is.
Once I returned to the bay area, Bev and I remained in contact even after she left the organization. She put me in touch with people at Youth Radio and I was eventually hired as an Executive Assistant to the Executive Director—a testament to Youth Radio’s focus on the educational, personal, and professional development of young people. As Youth Radio grew so did the need for publicity and strengthening internal organizational communications. In a response to this demand, the director of communications position was developed and I was hired for the position.
The opportunity to work at Youth Radio came at a crossroads in my life. At the same time I was interviewing with Youth Radio, I was also offered an opportunity to interview for a position at a large cable sports network. There I sat with what I thought was my dream job a flight away yet there was this draw to the position at Youth Radio. I saw Youth Radio as an opportunity to change the voices being heard in mainstream media. I was also drawn to the organization because it values the contributions of young people who have gone through the program.
A Visible Line to Leadership
I look around at my colleagues and notice the sheer number of former Youth Radio students who are now in key leadership positions at the organization. Some have grown up through the organization, while others like me, went to college and returned as graduates-turned-employees. Youth Radio’s managing director, news director and recruiting coordinators—just to name a few—are all former students. Seeing former students steering the organization reminds me that Youth Radio is a place that values young people—their ideas as well as their personal and professional development.
Youth develop their skill sets at Youth Radio because they understand from the moment they walk through our doors that what they have to say is valued. As fellow program graduate Pendarvis Harshaw explains, “Youth Radio teaches us the process of broadcasting, the mechanics of production, and the influence of media [from] young people who have also gone through the program. [At Youth Radio] young people are literate in the power of media and the power we have in producing media.” These graduates return based on the organization’s success in taking an active interest in young people’s thoughts and ideas throughout the program and actively placing them in leadership positions.
The leadership of these graduates-turned-employees provides innovative ideas to enhance Youth Radio’s programming. For example, Youth Radio’s music production department was the brainchild of a former student who went off to college, learned to make beats and wanted to bring his expertise back to the organization. As a result of his experience at Youth Radio, he shared his curriculum back to the organization confident that this skill would benefit youth producers and strengthen the program. Once you have contributed to the development of any entity, its success becomes of personal value to the creator.
Innovative ideas that improve the organization arise as a result of Youth Radio providing a supportive knowledge base to prepare students for work outside of Youth Radio’s walls. As an organization, Youth Radio purposefully offers access to college and career opportunities.
The Peer Teaching Model
The mechanics of Youth Radio’s peer teaching model are as follows: After completing introductory and advanced training cycles—about 22 weeks—students are eligible to apply for paid teaching internships or become peer teachers. Students receive specific professional development to help them make the transition from students to teachers, through mandatory workshops on topics ranging from how to facilitate on-air roundtable discussions, develop lesson plans, mediate conflict resolution, and work with current technology.
The peer teaching model is a vital part of how Youth Radio operates. Graduates—who are acutely experienced in how information is obtained and taught at the organization—are able to teach their peers in a way that may be challenging for instructors that have not been through the program. Peer teachers are a living example for the next generation of students to see how skills being taught can be mastered. The concept of co-creation in the peer teaching model is pervasive throughout the organization and is crucial to our survival.
Our peer teaching model would not work if there were mostly adults projecting what they feel young people want to learn. In many ways, that would be no different than the overall media landscape, where power brokers in suits armed with Ivy League educations are telling young people what they should be listening to, wearing and watching.
Peer teachers specialize in particular areas of production. Some peer teachers will focus on teaching incoming students to produce Public Service Announcements, while others will train students to craft instrumentals, write commentaries, or learn to blog. While building on their particular journalistic and musical areas of expertise, all peer teachers—who are students that completed advanced courses eligible for paid positions—are expected to facilitate student learning, focus, and overall personal and skill development. This dual learning dynamic enhances the area of expertise for peer teachers to “try out” their skills sets and simultaneously, engages new students with skills and a visible line of leadership. In addition, this structure creates a true sense of ownership in the work we do and a vested interest in making sure that current and future students have a quality learning experience.
While we proudly claim our radio roots and peer teaching model, the alumni and students at Youth Radio are a tribute to the organizations’ success. Our unique approach to train students in a variety of different mediums allows for their innovative ideas in program development and has encouraged graduates to return to work for the organization. Giving young people choices and a variety of media to learn from in order to tell their stories is the foundation to Youth Radio’s success as a youth media organization. The strength of our organization lies in the students who have gone through the program and have helped push it in new directions.
Key elements to take away from Youth Radio’s model:
• A visible line to leadership: From the minute a student walks in the door, they should see a clear pathway from student to teacher to leader within the organization.
• Flexibility and fluidity: Give young people power and voice in creating innovative approaches to program development.
• Lead with inquiry: teach media literacy and use posing questions to lead students to awareness, critical thinking, and observations. Encourage students to think critically about what is being presented to young people about young people, as this sets the stage for students to take control of images in the media, by creating their own.
• Additional media “tracks”: if you have the capacity in your organization, add other media options (such as video, music production, print, and/or on-line journalism) to give young people exposure and alternative means of expression.
• Co-creation: Peer teachers should be a part of the process in making media with students and collaborating with adult professionals.
At Youth Radio, young people truly drive the direction of the organization through developing new curriculum, serving as peer instructors and growing with the organization—often serving Youth Radio in senior level staff positions. The ability to create a meaningful learning experience for young people, as well as a chance to work with people in my own age group, made me choose the storefront non-profit over the flashing lights of the corporate machine. There has not been a day since that I regretted my decision—a testament to Youth Radio providing a visible line of leadership, valuing innovation and students’ professional development, and using a peer teaching model to lead to our success.
Patrick Johnson is the Youth Radio’s Director of Communications. He is a graduate of Youth Radio’s class of 1998. To learn more about Youth Radio please visit www.youthradio.org.
A graduate-turned-employee’s insight of peer teaching models, innovative program development, and leadership success at Youth Radio.