Book Reviews

Drop That Knowledge: Youth Radio Stories

Drop That Knowledge: Youth Radio Stories
Elisabeth Soep and Vivian Chávez
University of California Press
224 pages.

Most National Public Radio (NPR) listeners have heard occasional youthful voices presenting their own radio stories with zest and style. For those glimpses into the adolescent universe, we can thank Youth Radio, described in this book as an award winning “youth development organization and independent media production company founded by Ellin O’Leary in 1992” in Oakland, Calif.

Although Youth Radio targets students from “resegregating public schools” in Oakland and other places such as Atlanta and some rural communities, it’s more than a free after-school program. Its graduates recruit their own replacements, primarily young people of color with low incomes. The recruits begin with a 12-week afternoon course in multimedia where they learn to create their own radio stories on topics of their choice. Students can advance through specialized courses until they qualify for paid positions as media creators, engineers or peer educators. Their content goes out to certain newspapers, radio and television outlets and online social media.

In this book, the details behind these media stories are revealed with passionate authority by two insiders who helped to shape the program. They hope that readers will be inspired to apply Youth Radio’s methods to their own experiences in “connecting people with technology, knowledge, production, and most of all, with one another.”

When Elisabeth Soep volunteered at Youth Radio as a doctoral student of education at Stanford University, she created a broadcast training curriculum. Now as Youth Radio’s research director and senior producer, she is a player in many of the book’s scenes as she advises students how to makes their stories work.

Soep’s coauthor, Vivian Chávez, was a Spanish-speaking high school junior when she joined Youth News, the precursor of Youth Radio, in 1979. Now a professor of health education at San Francisco State University, Chávez is among six alumni who describe how Youth Radio changed their lives.

For one thing, Chávez writes, “I discovered that ‘good English’ was the language of power and the way I could make myself heard.”

Youth Radio commentators learn that a lede is “the big idea that drives a story.” Likewise Soep and Chávez compose their own lede for this book: “Young people are producing stories together and with adults in ways that have the potential to reorganize our shared social world.”

They describe the process of learning through Youth Radio as “converged literacy.” They call convergence “a range of technologies all housed in one place” – such as a website with audio, video, graphics, digital photos, and visitor comments. They use the term literacy to convey the process of “making, reading, understanding and critiquing texts.” Converged literacy, they say, is “what it takes for young people to claim a right to participate as citizens of the world and agents in their own lives.”

Youth Radio scripts – which are included, along with descriptions of how the stories were researched and told – exemplify this process. Best known is “Emails from Kosovo,” proposed in 1999 when high school junior Finnegan Hamill mentioned to Youth Radio’s Deputy Director Beverly Mire that he had been “e-mailing this girl from Kosovo.” A massacre had just occurred there, escalating a civil struggle into international war. E-mails – and their immediacy – were still in their infancy when 16-year-old Adona (a pseudonym) began sending Finnegan her descriptions and reactions to the growing violence she witnessed from her apartment balcony.

In seven installments broadcast between February and June 1999, a female Youth Radio reporter read Adona’s e-mails, framed by Finnegan’s commentary and replies, on NPR’s Morning Edition. On March 29, President Bill Clinton quoted Adona in his speech announcing that the U.S. was joining NATO’s bombing campaign. The Kosovo series put Youth Radio “on the national news map,” say Soep and Chávez.

Another influential story, “Picturing War,” featured insights from two soldiers just returned from Iraq in 2004, shortly after the Abu Ghraib prison torture scandal. One soldier revealed on air that he had declined his corporal’s invitation to abuse prisoners.

To show how the process of “intense youth-adult collaboration” in “joint media production” results in young people’s mastery of skills and ability to work independently, the authors present the behind-the-scenes work on six different Youth Radio stories. Each story, including a feature on abstinence and a reflection on the status of free speech in high school post-9/11, is broken into “key moments of framing, gathering tape, scripting, editing, broadcasting, and living in the aftermath of a story’s release.” Actual occurrences in Youth Radio’s classrooms and studios model how to teach media production – from finding story topics to conducting interviews.

In their chapter on “Point of Voice” – a combination of “point of view” and “youth voice” – putting faith in youth perspective “raises a slew of new questions, none simple,” say Soep and Chávez. They examine the rise of citizen journalism in blogs and other unedited media as well as some youths’ tendency toward profanity or other unpredictable expressions on the air.

An epilogue by Youth Radio founder O’Leary emphasizes that Youth Radio’s mandate is “to prepare young people to maintain and reinvent journalism’s best principles, so they can deploy today’s new tools and platforms to speak truth to power,” and “to tell the story no one else is telling.” An appendix contains five scripts and lesson ideas from “Teach Youth Radio,” an online curriculum resource for educators at

Appraising the challenges of connecting with marginalized youth in our increasingly fraught and digital world, this authoritative guide reflects deeply held convictions – based on solid experience – that what works is a collaborative method of teaching youth to tell their own stories. With the discipline of scholars and the hearts of youth advocates, Soep and Chávez teach us how to build “a learning community where youths and adults share without fear, an environment where young people are safe to be, to hear, to question, and to tell.”

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