Drop That Knowledge: Youth Radio Stories

Drop That Knowledge: Youth Radio Stories

by Lissa soep, Vivian Chavez

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This is the first book to take us inside Youth Radio for a fascinating, behind-the-scenes look at a unique, Peabody Award-winning organization that produces distinctive content for outlets from National Public Radio to YouTube. Young people come to Youth Radio, headquartered in Oakland, California, from under-resourced public schools and neighborhoods in order to produce media that will transform both their own lives and the world around them. Drop That Knowledge weaves their compelling personal stories into a fresh framework for understanding the relationship between media, learning, and youth culture at a moment when all three spheres are undergoing dramatic change. The book emphasizes what is innovative and exciting in youth culture and offers concrete strategies for engaging and collaborating with diverse groups of young people on real-world initiatives in a range of settings, online and in real life.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520945456
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 04/02/2010
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 240
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Elisabeth Soep is Research Director and Senior Producer at Youth Radio. She is coeditor of Youthscapes: The Popular, The National, and The Global. Vivian Chávez is Assistant Professor of Health Education at San Francisco State University and coeditor of Prevention is Primary: Strategies for Community Well Being.

Read an Excerpt

Drop That Knowledge

Youth Radio Stories

By Elisabeth Soep, Vivían Chávez


Copyright © 2010 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-94545-6


Converged Literacy

It was a classic case of burying the lede, but this time Youth Radio's Finnegan Hamill hadn't even written a story—yet. In 1999 Finnegan was a junior at Berkeley High, taking a break from his Youth Radio peer teaching job to focus on academics, his position at the school newspaper, hockey, and church. But he stayed connected to Youth Radio with occasional visits, especially when he had a story idea.

For almost twenty minutes Finnegan caught up with then Deputy Director Beverly Mire, whose office was the first stop for many students headed into the building on their way to class and for alumni swinging by to visit. Bev remembers covering the usual topics: what was going on at school, the latest Youth Radio news, that kind of thing. Mindful that class would start in a few minutes, Bev says she was about to end their conversation when Finnegan mentioned, almost as an aside, that he'd been "emailing this girl in Kosovo." A huge massacre had just taken place there, and the bloody civil struggle was escalating into full-blown international war. NATO was preparing to drop bombs. News outlets around the world scrambled to devise an angle on this incredibly complex crisis, and Finnegan had found a direct line to one sixteen-year-old girl witnessing the run-up to war from her apartment balcony. And that line came through email, of all things, itself an emerging medium at the time, at least as a means to connect two teenagers unknown to each other in real life, separated by a vast distance in geography and experience. To think Bev could have let Finnegan walk right out the door, had he not just in time gotten around to his lede.

Bev had previously been a radio music director. She described the moment she heard about Finnegan's emails as like playing a hit record for the first time: "A feeling goes through you, and you're like, 'Oh my God, this is big.'" And it was. Emails from Kosovo became a regular series that aired in seven installments on National Public Radio's Morning Edition, from February to June 1999. President Bill Clinton quoted the Youth Radio series on March 29, 1999, in his radio address announcing U.S. participation in NATO's bombing campaign (emphasis added):

PRESIDENT CLINTON: Three days ago I decided the United States should join our NATO allies in military air strikes to bring peace to Kosovo.... We should remember the courage of the Kosovar people today, still exposed to violence and brutality. Many Americans, now, have heard the story of a young Kosovar girl trying to stay in touch with a friend in America by e-mail, as a Serb attack began. Just a few days ago she wrote, "at the moment, just from my balcony, I can see people running with suitcases, and I can hear some gunshots. A village just a few hundred meters from my house is all surrounded. As long as I have electricity, I will continue writing to you. I'm trying to keep myself as calm as possible. My younger brother, who is nine, is sleeping now. I wish I will not have to stop his dreams."

Emails from Kosovo was a turning point for Youth Radio. It put the organization on the national news map, winning the prestigious Alfred I. DuPont Award, and revealed the potential for youth media to cover, and even influence, international affairs. The stakes attached to this particular story were pretty extreme; it was not every day, after all, that Youth Radio found itself leveraged by the president of the United States in an emotional justification for war, or that a story's key source faced grave bodily danger. The scale and intensity of this series raised a distinct set of challenges, as we elaborate below. And yet whenever young people produce real media products for real broadcast audiences, the same issues arise in some form: complex decisions related to content, voice, boundaries, balance, impact, control, responsibility, and credit.

It might seem strange to frame the capacity to handle these issues as a form of literacy, and yet that is just what we aim to do in this chapter. We offer a new approach to understanding and promoting youth media learning: converged literacy.

As Henry Jenkins (2006b) has argued, in the media world convergence describes content expressed through a range of technologies all housed in one place, a website, for example, that features audio, graphics, digital photos, video clips, and a way for visitors to post comments. It's not just that you can find such a wide range of materials in a single location; convergence also makes it possible for a single piece of media to be distributed across a whole range of platforms. You might listen to the same Youth Radio story on your car stereo, through a podcast, by clicking on an online audio link, or by showing up at a community event where the story blares from speakers, the sound filling an assembly hall packed with people.

Literacy, the second key term in the concept we explore here, is a process of making, reading, understanding, and critiquing texts. In today's world, those texts increasingly transcend words on a page (Kress, 2003). Rather than frame literacy as a neutral function of the isolated mind, we locate young people's textual experiments and analyses in social contexts, sometimes face-to-face, and sometimes mediated through digital technologies.

In this chapter we bring together these two terms, convergence and literacy, to articulate what it takes for young people to claim a right to participate as citizens of the world and agents in their own lives (Ong, 1999). We develop the notion of converged literacy by exploring the processes behind four Youth Radio products. The Emails from Kosovo series provides a glimpse into a form of convergence created before the term came into mainstream fashion, revealing some of the educational and ethical challenges that arise when young people's private communication enters the public domain. The Core Class, Youth Radio's broadcast media course for incoming students, shows how the program has had to transform both what and how it teaches in order to stay relevant given new developments in digital media culture and face-to-face community engagement. The 2002 feature story, Oakland Scenes, mixes poetry and news reporting to examine the sources and effects of escalating murder rates in that city. Here Youth Radio producers reframe a topic that media makers too often use to criminalize young people and deflect attention away from the root causes and effects of persistent violence. In this story, youth expressive culture interrupts that tired narrative. The Picturing War story that Belia Mayeno Saavedra reported in the wake of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal examines digital media as a tool for cultural analysis and transformation. The story highlights U.S. Marines' responses to prison torture and the online archives of digital photos they took while deployed in Iraq.


Convergence is a technological achievement, something machines produce by combining various media platforms in a single presentation. It's also a state of mind, something people imagine into being by learning to think, feel, express themselves, and understand their worlds across image, sound, and text (Jenkins, 2006b). The technological and conceptual shift implicit in the principle of convergence is changing what it takes to create media. There are new rules, and new ways to break them. For example, production in today's media world cannot be disentangled from distribution, so converged media makers need to know how to leverage and sometimes create their own means to circulate their content rather than rely on one-way outlets with automatic audiences. Also converging in today's media worlds are the makers' intentions and interests. Is the point to inspire, to sell, to convince, to mobilize, to inform, to disturb, or some combination? As evident in such developments as consumer-generated marketing (where users co-create ad campaigns) and nontransparent corporate sponsorships (where bloggers accept free gadgets and then plug those brands in their posts), the convergence of various intentions in a single media product can raise new challenges for both producers and consumers, who often have to work harder to find or ignore commercial interests embedded in editorial content. That said, young people increasingly deploy these same commercial strategies to build their own creative brands and draw interest to their original work.

Converged literacy implies that the printed word is just the beginning, or maybe not even the beginning, of what young people need to be able to deal with if they are to participate fully in shaping their lives and futures (Buckingham 2003; Cope & Kalantzis, 2000; Sefton Green, 1999; Tyner, 1998). Scholars such as Shirley Brice Heath (1983, 1986) and Brian Street (1984) revolutionized the study of literacy by arguing that people learn to compose and consume written texts through meaningful social events, such as reading bedtime stories or navigating neighborhood streets. New literacy scholars recognize that young people form some of their most nuanced, persistent, and consequential relationships to texts and narratives outside explicit instruction, but deeply inside interactive contexts: playing hopscotch, doing community theater, mastering video games, talking at the dinner table, rapping, busting poems, or devouring magazines in a friend's bedroom (Finders, 1997; Fisher, 2003; Gee, 2003; Goodwin, 1990; Morrell & Duncan-Andrade, 2002; Ochs & Capps, 2001).

Digital technologies have further stretched literacy to encompass an ability to use a range of tools and programs and to analyze how power circulates through engagements with media (Hull 2003). Young people can use digital literacy as a tool or even a weapon, but literacy can also be used against them, as yet another instrument of exclusion (Alim, 2005). After all, documenting the impressive multiliteracy benefits of launching a blog, creating a profile, or uploading an amateur music video onto YouTube is one thing; it's another challenge entirely to identify what young people actually learn from these experiences, how they benefit, who is shut out from these activities, and what the media project itself contributes to (or detracts from) the public domain. Likewise, Tannock (2004, p. 164) cautions that researchers themselves are often overly eager to "redeem" that which is literate in youth culture: "The academic documentation of literacy among social groups and individuals for whom such literacy has previously been left unrecognized is not in and of itself an automatically enabling or progressive move, but can in fact be extremely disempowering for the subjects of our research." The Emails from Kosovo series has been subjected to questions like these, faulted in one online newspaper for exploiting one girl's dispatches while providing a rationale for U.S. and NATO militarism. Finnegan himself, seven years after the NPR series, used his own blog to express some potent critiques of the media machine that made him, for one very intense period in his life, "Kosovo Boy," suddenly caught in his own firestorm of competing adult attentions and agendas. We're featuring his story in a chapter about literacy, and yet Finnegan himself reports in his blog that when Katie Couric asked him back then what he learned from working on the series, "I couldn't think of a damn thing." As evident in this sentiment, when young media producers examine power and its effects, and when their products reach real audiences, the meaning attached to their emerging literacies can be hard to predict and not always what we think.

Three principles of converged literacy drive the design and analysis of youth media learning. Converged literacy is an ability to make and understand boundary-crossing and convention-breaking texts; means knowing how to draw and leverage public interest in the stories you want to tell; and entails the material and imaginative resources to claim and exercise your right to use media to promote justice, variously defined—a right still denied young people marginalized from full citizenship as producers of media culture.


After hearing about Finnegan's collection of emails from Kosovo, Beverly Mire says she walked him over to Rebecca Martin, Youth Radio's senior producer, and Ellin O'Leary, Youth Radio's founder and executive producer, to help him figure out how to turn his private correspondence into a public radio story. The emails had an awkward candor and a feeling of tentative cross-cultural curiosity that brought something unexpected to the news the girl delivered through her notes to Finnegan. Still, initially the conversation didn't always delve deeply into the conditions of war and its effects on local youth. Finnegan and his producers framed questions that would reveal new information about the volatile political situation. As the digital conversation continued, the Youth Radio production team played with different ways to present the emails, experimenting with various sequencing and editing, all the while imagining how to create a story that was true and clear and powerful for an audience meeting two young people for the first time, even as they got to know each other. The team came up with a pseudonym, Adona, for the girl in Kosovo, and after she agreed to allow her words to air on national radio, they asked a female Youth Radio reporter to record Adona's emails for broadcast.

FINNEGAN: It all started because I had the week off from hockey practice. I went to a meeting of my church group; we had a visitor, a peace worker recently back from Kosovo. He brought with him the email address of an Albanian girl my age, 16 year old Adona. She had access to a computer and wanted to use it to correspond with other teens, here in the U.S. I decided to write her a letter when I got back from the meeting. The next day I received the first of what was to be a series of letters from Adona, that would change the way I look at the world.

ADONA: Hello Finnegan. I am glad you wrote to me so soon. About my English, I have learned it through the movies, school, special classes, etcetera, but mostly from TV. I can speak Serbian as well, Spanish and understand a bit of Turkish. I love learning languages, but I don't have much time to learn them....

You never know what will happen to you. One night, last week I think, we were all surrounded by police and armed forces, and if it wasn't for the OSCE observers, God knows how many victims would there be. And my flat was surrounded too. I cannot describe you the fear.... The next day, a few meters from my flat, they killed this Albanian journalist, Enver Maloku. Someday before there was a bomb explosion in the center of town where young people usually go out....

ADONA: Hello Finnie. I guess you're ok. And don't worry, your finger will get better soon. Well Finnie (I like calling you that) did I tell you that I am not a practicing Muslim and do you know why! ... Because, if the Turks didn't force my grand grandparents to change their religion, I might now have been a catholic or an orthodox ... I think religion is a good, clean and pure thing that in a way supports people in their life.... Thanks to religion, I think many people are afraid of god or believe that there is another world after we die, so they don't commit any crimes. Personally, I agree with Descartes when he says that god is imagined by the human mind.

And just to tell you. You are not making me bored with your e-mails at all, I love reading them. I love to hear about the life there and I am really happy that I have a friend somewhere who I can talk to (whoops ... write to). Bye, Adona.

FINNEGAN: Adona may not think much of organized religion, but she is very political. She's part of an organized youth movement that blames adults for keeping the war going. She says, as young people, they are looking beyond this war to the future and an end to the killing....

ADONA: About the NATO thing, you know I feel they should come here and protect us. I wish somebody could. I don't even know how many people get killed anymore. You just see them in the memoriam pages of newspapers. I really don't want to end up raped, with no parts of body like the massacred ones. I wish nobody in the world, in the whole universe would have to go through what we are. You don't know how lucky you are to have a normal life. We all want to be free and living like you do, having our rights and not be pushed and pushed. Finnegan, I'm telling you how I feel about this war and my friends feel the same. Bye. Adona, Kosovo.


Excerpted from Drop That Knowledge by Elisabeth Soep, Vivían Chávez. Copyright © 2010 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

Introduction: Unbury the Lede

1. Converged Literacy
2. Collegial Pedagogy
3. Point of Voice
4. Drop That Knowledge
5. Alumni Lives



What People are Saying About This

"A good read for journalists, writers and media junkies."—San Francisco Chronicle

"A call for both youth and adults to challenge themselves."—Harvard Educational Review

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