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New book goes behind the scenes at Youth Radio

Katie Donnelly

Drop That Knowledge: Youth Radio Stories, a new book by Youth Radio's Research Director Elisabeth Soep and former Youth Radio participant Vivian Chavez, provides a fascinating look behind the scenes at this youth media education and production powerhouse.

Youth Radio offers free media training and access to over one thousand largely underserved youth each year. The youth-created productions are distributed to both local and national partners, including NPR, PRI, the Huffington Post and CNN.com. I've written about the organization previously in this Showcase post, which argues that youth media organizations and public media organizations should be connecting more systematically. Clearly, Youth Radio demonstrates the kind of collaboration that will be beneficial to both pubcasters and youth media organizations in a public media 2.0 world.

While much has been written about the power of youth media, not all analyses are as thoughtful and nuanced as what Soep and Chavez present in Drop That Knowledge. This book is "not a rhetorical call to celebrate 'youth voice'" but a comprehensive overview of the complex issues that arise in intergenerational media production. For example, while sharing some of the major successes of Youth Radio contributors—including having the President of the United States reference one youth's production—Soep and Chavez also take the time to examine some common problems:

These [Youth Radio] shows also contained their share of cringe-inducing passages, revealing that even the most sophisticated technology users, so called digital natives (Prensky, 2001, 2006), do not automatically know how to compose a compelling story, respond thoughtfully to live questions, collect usable tape, project a strong personality through the microphone, or fill dead air. Neither do young people necessarily show up with nuanced understandings of social structures or with tools to critique mainstream (or independent for that matter) media products.

Drop That Knowledge provides strategies for addressing these issues as well as teaching ideas and suggestions for lesson plans. Perhaps one of the most powerful features of Youth Radio's media training program is the framework of collegial pedagogy that the organization employs. As Soep and Chavez explain: "Youth Radio does not hand young people tape recorders and 'give them voice' to tell their stories. In collegial pedagogy, young people share the production process with multiple collaborators, including peer educators, Youth Radio's adult producers, editors from outside outlets, and audiences." This fosters the kind of collaborative spirit that will be essential as these young people enter the changing media workforce, and it helps to curb excessive control from well-meaning adults that can end up either "fetishizing youth voice" or unintentionally pushing youth into stereotypes in the pursuit of rawness and authenticity.

This framework has been undoubtedly successful. According to the Youth Radio website, Youth Radio participants will be heard by over 27 million adults this year alone. The model has multiple benefits: while the students receive valuable training to prepare them for potential ongoing media careers and widespread recognition, their audiences can enjoy high-quality media pieces from a point of view that is often overlooked on mainstream radio. For example, check out this recent piece by Youth Radio's Austin De Rubira on schools who turn to raising lab animals to solve their financial woes. Or this one, on the rising underground economy, from Youth Radio's King Anyi Howell.

As Soep and Chavez write:

Never has it been easier or harder for young people to reach audiences. Never have noncommercial outlets experienced more pressure from government re-regulation and other threats to their survival, including the very digital platforms many of us regard as promising spaces for independent expression and collective social action. Never has there been a greater need for young people to contribute to the public debates and decisions affecting their lives and social worlds. And never has there been a stronger imperative—just as more and more young people get locked up and shut up—to make sure that they can connect to the kinds of tools, networks, and experiences they need to formulate and disseminate something worthwhile to say.

You can listen to an hour-long interview with Soep on KALW's Crosscurrents here:  and on the Michael Eric Dyson Show here.