By Robin Shulman
Special to the Daily Planet
It’s a kickback Friday night of pizza and homemade pie at Youth Radio on University Avenue. That is, until 10 minutes to 7 p.m., when a group of students aged 15 to 21 troops out the door and around the corner to Martin Luther King Way, where they punch in a digital code and settle into two booths in the KPFB studio. A CD is slipped on the deck. At precisely 7 p.m. Whiz puts on the headphones. “You are now listening to the Youth in Control Show,” he says.
They’re on air.
“I’m nervous,” says Naiva Saechao, 15, taking a seat in the DJ booth.
“This is so scary – we don’t have time,” says Latifah Muhammad, 17, close behind her.
But soon Latifah is moving to the beat of the song. “If you mess, I got you,” she says to Naiva. “Having your own show is just talking to yourself,” she advises. “No one’s tripping.”
It is Naiva’s first time and Latifah’s second year as a music DJ. The girls are student and teacher in the 12-week Youth Radio training that attracts young people from all over the Bay Area to produce music shows, news and commentary on “Youth Control.” The advanced students broadcast on National Public Radio once a week on “All Things Considered,” “Marketplace,” and “Morning Edition.”
“Once you’re on radio, you’re putting yourself out there,” says Deputy Director Beverly Mire. “They’re speaking their minds, saying what they believe in and doing it in a way that people will believe what they have to say,” Mire said. “It changes their lives, gives them the self-confidence they need.”
That was true for Brooke Wilson, 18, now a peer teacher at Youth Radio and a journalism and Black Studies major at San Francisco State University. “Before I didn’t think I was good at anything,” Wilson said. Things changed when her first commentary, on being adopted, aired on KCBS.
“For most girls it just takes a while to realize it. You can say what you want,” says Brooke, who now works at Youth Radio, even on the days she’s not paid. “I’m going to be a super bad DJ in less than two years.”
“Eight years ago, we had $25,000 and a typewriter,” recalls Mire. About 800 students have passed through the program since those days, and with a budget of some $900,000, the training continues to expand. Graduates of the program continue to work at Youth Radio, peer teaching or doing Web design or sound engineering for pay.
Youth Radio’s Internet broadcasts and radio training are expanding, and so is its network, including Atlanta, Boston, Portland, Newark and Washington, DC. The Berkeley program took the prestigious national Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University award for a 1998 series “E-mails From Kosovo,” in which a 17-year-old Berkeley boy read his e-mail correspondence with a 17-year-old Kosovar girl on NPR’s Morning Edition.
Tonight, Naiva, still nervous, bends over her song list, flipping back her straight black hair. She says she picked the songs by process of elimination. “I couldn’t find any other songs that didn’t have explicit content,” she says.
In the news booth next door, young people off-air are needling each other over the mikes. At news time, they sit up straight and read news spots they wrote about Thanksgiving and a man who bit his dog.
Daniel Aguayo, 16, leans against the wall, eyes closed, preparing for his spot by mouthing the words he will say. “I’m the only kid that speaks English in my family,” says Daniel, whose parents are from Mexico. Daniel’s father wants him to become a doctor or a lawyer. “Sometimes I feel bad. What I’m doing is just being myself and listening to music. But the first thing I think about when I wake up is: What can I do to make people dance? Can I say something that impacts people’s lives?”
Back in the booth, two newscasters dissolve into giggles over their report on goose poop as a park health hazard. They will be scolded for this later by their designated peer critic.
At this hint of mishap, everyone looks over at reigning studio authority Gerald Ward II, or Whiz, a peer teacher of four years. Whiz is now 21, a film student at San Francisco State University. A joke around the studio says that everyone at Youth Radio is related by six degrees of Whiz, and in fact several newcomers this session say Whiz introduced them to the program.
“I think, man, we’re doing a radio show right now! We’re commanding the airwaves,” Whiz says. “Where I’m from there’s not a lot of opportunities,” says Whiz, who lives in Oakland. “I thought I found gold. I wanted to share it.”
Find out more about youth radio at http://www.youthradio.org/ or tune in tonight 4-6 p.m. to KPFB, 89.3 FM or Friday night 7-9 p.m., also on KPFB. There’s also a Sunday morning show 7:30-8 a.m. at 95.7 FM. This Sunday Youth Radio will air its programming at 10:35 a.m., 5:53 p.m. and 10:53 p.m. on KCBS, 740 AM.
Youth Radio is located at 1809 University Avenue and can be reached at 841-5123.