Radio Stands Out

Imagine going back to high school, where stereotypes, rumors, and cliques run rampant like the spread of flu in the workplace. Maybe you remember what it felt like as a young person to manage the categorization that consumed your daily attendance at school, which perhaps was at times, embarrassing and hurtful, but more often silencing. What would it have been like if, during our youth, there were safe and accessible ways to communicate our self-expression, perspective, identity and voice?
Youth-made radio is unique because it provides youth producers a sense of anonymity and freedom to express oneself outside of the everyday routine of social politics. With only the use of voice and sound, radio allows young people a space to openly ask questions and discuss issues regarding their communities, social and political issues, and personal identity.
A sense of anonymity
Radio is a place for young people to explore expression, imagination and voice, no matter who they are or what their background may be. For example, Erin Yanke from KBOO Youth Collective in Portland, OR explains, “radio is a unique tool for all people because you are not judged by your appearance and it is one of the few mediums where the more you talk the more powerful you are.” Radio is the exact modality for young people to amplify their deepest concerns and explore their personal development offering fertile ground to construct and express their own identity.
In addition, radio is cheap, accessible, entertaining, and transmitted across radio waves locally, nationally and internationally. With advances in digital radio and podcasts, youth produced stories are accessible world-wide.
Because anyone can speak on radio without immediately disclosing their identity, young people have a better chance to be heard by adults in this medium than on television, in public, or even in print. These other mediums present images alongside opinions. Images sometimes cause people to discount the ideas presented because the person is too young, too poor, or too ethnic. While radio by no means tries to hide the value of these critical perspectives, because of the limited cues that identify people as a certain demographic, radio is able to captivate listeners to hear the messages of young producers. This aspect of radio helps adults hear the ideas of young people before judging them. For their opinions and ideas to have an impact on the larger community, young people need to be heard not just by other youth, but adults in the community.
In addition, the location of where broadcasts are recorded is not often identifiable, which again strips associations and pre-conceived notions based on one’s background, class or race. This is extremely important for marginalized youth; those who have been voiceless as a result of socially constructed ideologies. These young people have some of the most important and valuable perspectives on issues of injustice. Through radio, these young people can enhance their ability to analyze, critique, and speak out on issues and create solutions to the issues they uncover. In some cases, radio provides young people who cannot have a voice in the public—such as incarcerated youth—a platform to speak beyond the walls of detention centers. For example, in Portland, ME incarcerated youth at Long Creek Detention Center have the opportunity to travel to WMPG, Greater Portland Community Radio every six to eight weeks to broadcast their features and interviews live. Having the chance to broadcast beyond the walls of a detention center is powerful for young people because they can finally have their voices heard without the visual stigma attached to prison life. Radio broadcast for many of these young people is the only way to get their voices heard and their perspectives represented, to an engaged and widespread listener base.
The voices of marginalized youth are important because they bring to the table perspectives that are not often heard or considered in the mainstream media and public debate. Without youth radio, adults would miss relatable stories and experiences told by their fellow engaged and concerned citizens—youth producers. For example, Kaari Pitkin, Executive Director of Radio Rookies states, “[We] get an overwhelming response from adults affected by or relating to the story of a fifteen year old that they never would have expected to connect with.” Youth voice has a powerful effect on all people. Having a place to express their perspectives from the margins, and how they are a part of the struggle for equality in the U.S., is valuable for these young people. Since mainstream media is often full of voices who cannot relate to the struggle of injustice and representation, this opportunity for young people is critical for community members to hear a perspective that challenges pre-conceived assumptions regarding privilege, race, sex and class. Youth input can engage the public to involve their ideas, their action, and their perspective—an important step to valuing young people as informed citizens.
The flexibility of radio
Radio is a flexible medium that offers outlets needed by young people to express their ideas and opinions, depending on both the community and geographical/cultural context. There are over three dozen youth radio groups in the U.S. each of which provides spaces for young people to ask questions about their communities and personal development—starting with picking up a microphone in a sound room. From Portland, ME—where voices of incarcerated youth can be heard—to Portland, OR—where young people equally join a collective of marginalized communities on air, youth radio is the place to speak out outside of school walls.
In the U.S., outside the domains of school, youth radio programs provide a space for young people to facilitate creative approaches to ideas and shared knowledge. Claire Holman explains, “Schools really have limited 1st amendment rights. We [at Blunt Radio] are not encumbered by the kinds of limitations a school would have.” At youth radio programs, young people can freely express their ideas independently or with peers to design, produce, and execute stories on air, without the formal censorship of schools and other institutions.
Sam Chaltain, Executive Director of Five Freedoms Project explains, “In the U.S., rights for students in schools are not coextensive with the rights of adults however; the first amendment does not preclude anyone from starting a youth radio program.” U.S. based youth radio programs, capitalize on citizens’ freedom of speech as granted to them by the 1st Amendment. These programs, which are mainly offered after-school, provide a space for young people to process and question knowledge in a public forum. Learning how to put one’s thoughts on air teaches young people how to represent themselves, their beliefs, and their perspectives—no matter who is listening.
Around the globe, radio is used flexibly for the needs of young people, often used as a means to engage young people—who either attend or cannot attend school—with their communities. For example, at Voices of Youth (VOY) in Sierra Leone, radio is encouraged for young people—many who are illiterate—to make sense of and create grassroots change after a decade of war. These young people use radio to share their valuable perspectives in a country where 50% of the population are between the ages of 18-35. At VOY, radio is a major source of communication for young people who cannot read or write to be heard by peers and adults in the community. Using radio in this way provides marginalized youth both access and a platform to share their thoughts as they engage with communities in Sierra Leone that tune-in to Citizen Radio.
In Switzerland, Radiobus needs to use radio as a supplemental element integrated into school curriculum in order to teach young people how to fuse technology with processed information. Because Switzerland does not have many after school opportunities for youth voice nor the same school-based limitations as the U.S., young people can access radio in schools as a way to process knowledge and enhance classroom learning. Denis Badman from Radiobus explains, “Few possibilities are offered to youth to try and practice media. [Schools] owe it to themselves to give students a solid and pragmatic education in media.” From the perspective of Radiobus, youth radio is a flexible tool to enhance education while engaging young people in the effective use and practice of media. Because radio can be used innovatively for the amplification of youth voice, it can be tailored to marginalized youth and the different contexts of their communities around the globe.
Radio is the lynch pin of the youth media field. Because of its ability to provide anonymity for youth in an image-based society, amplify young people’s perspectives to large adult audiences, and use flexibility to engage youth around the globe in and outside schools, youth radio must be supported. Youth radio gives young people a head start on learning how to amplify their voices to a large, unknown audience—which prepares them to present ideas in the public eye, regardless of age, race, sex, class, and other forms of discrimination. Kaari Pitkin, Executive Director of Radio Rookies in NYC explains, “The process of reporting a documentary on something you care about, or that is important in your life, is a process of claiming your own story, often of self-discovery, intellect, and curiosity.” As a result of the important and innovative space radio provides young people, it is important to invest in this arena of youth-led media. Funders that value the voices of marginalized youth and their perspectives ought to support youth radio and not let the power of radio be cast aside, regardless of new and emerging technologies that attract the majority of media funding opportunities.
With radio, one has the freedom to construct content, an opinion, or a message—no matter who you are, what you look like, or where you are from.