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Youth Radio Wins Peabody, Opens Web Channel
by Doniphan Blair
Derick Cade, left, and crew in the downstairs computer room at Youth Radio. photo: D. Blair
If you're an NPR listener, you've been hearing
for a long time now—you may have just not noticed, due to their signature professionalism. YR's personal and insightful reporting on youth issues have been airing nationwide on PBS for almost two decades, with additional monthly "Perspectives" on the local affiliate KQED. Now they've become a web portal with
YR started notching up in 2001, when they won their first Peabody Award for excellence in radio, television and web for their comprehensive training program. Indeed, they provide classes on everything from the ethics of journalism to the recently added video production for 14-24 year-olds, 80% of whom are low-income or of color. Considering they also feature academic support and health services, also free, YR is a flagship facility, both in a new way of schooling and in the cultural surge currently sweeping Oakland, which is helping abate the city's notorious violence.
"We employ a holistic approach—mind-body," Jacinda Abcarian, YR's executive director, told me. "Our support services grew because the young people needed help. The journalism is not secondary but media is the hook to get young people involved in increased opportunities. If you look at Youth Radio's history, we have two products: the youth and the media content. We are very proud of both."
Ellin O'Leary, founder of Youth Radio, with her team of young reporters in 1995. photo courtesy: Y. Radio
YR was founded in Berkeley in 1992 by a bunch of high schoolers and Ellin O'Leary, a Pacifica radio reporter and the developer of their national network. It emerged out of the decades-old Youth News, created by Louis Freedberg, where O'Leary was a producer. Although a radical iconoclast center, Berkeley remains a wealthy, NIMBY-oriented, suburbs-like city, where some of the residents didn't get YR.
"What are all these teens from East Oakland doing in my building?" is a comment Abcarian would hear from neighbors. Throw in the cramped storefront, the crappy computers and recorders and O'Leary decided to launch a capital campaign of five million dollars!
That immense project lit a fire and got them reviewing their identity. With its successful completion, they moved to Oakland in 2006, where they bought a deluxe building downtown across the street from the Oakland (High) School for the Arts and the Fox Theater—what is fast becoming the Oakland Arts District.
"Ellin started it as a radio program," Abcarian explained, "and set up a national network, building bureaus in different cities: LA, Atlanta, Washington DC and New York. When we got to Oakland, she grew it into full service agency, with the health and youth development. We have classes at Camp Sweeney (a juvenile offenders facility) in San Leandro and a program for Oakland teens on probation."
And YR is upping the ante again. In addition to winning their second Peabody, announced on April 4th, for "Trafficked," an investigation into Oakland's epidemic of sexually exploited minors, based on first-hand accounts, YR has opened a news portal,
. It produces up to 50 stories a week.
Add this to their premier building—four floors of kids, computers and offices—and you can forgive me for thinking YR was some slick national organization which happened to be based in Oakland. This impression lingered as I contacted by them, repeatedly, and their very pro publicist finally responded with apologies. They simply wanted to wait for the Peabody tumult to pass (actually, it continues as they raise the money to get to the ceremony in New York, donate
Director Jacinda Abcarian, who entered as a student in 1993, embodies YR's balance of professionalism, outspokenness and collegiality. photo: D. Blair
When I dropped by, however, I found YR both very pro and very friendly. They run a tight ship with locked doors, tons of equipment, mix rooms and multiple departments but they are also quite congenial and work-a-day—ie quintessentially Oakland. So incorrect was my initial take, it took me a few minutes to cognize that the rather pregnant woman, standing around in colorful ethnic dress, was none other than Ms. Abcarian, the Executive Director, until she goes on maternity leave, anytime now apparently.
A poster girl for YR, Ms. Abcarian entered as a student in 1993 and went on to became an award winning reporter and producer, in Atlanta and at NPR in Washington, DC. Along the way, she garnered a Golden Reel for "Accidental Shooting" and an Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia Silver Baton for the "Emails from Kosovo" series. She returned to work at YR and became the director after the move to Oakland four years ago. Since then, Abcarian has worked to expand services with senior staff and her ambitious board while O'Leary teamed with media pros around the East Bay to introduce Turnstyle.
"We are working as a syndicate now, creating a lot of original content about national stories—stories that matter to us," said Alejandro de la Cruz, the managing editor of
. Originally from Los Angeles by way of New York, where he worked for a Latino arts website, Cruz came to Oakland specifically for Turnstyle, YR's attempt to crack the coveted 18-35 demographic. Turnstyle does double duty as a destination web site and news syndicate distro-ing up to ten pieces a day.
"We are trying to do something different by focusing on multimedia content which includes a lot of original film, video, slide shows and pod casts," Cruz continued. "We are looking at filmmakers, poets and photographers, and using freelancers from across the country, to build a new platform for web and digital media."
Alejandro de la Cruz, manager of Youth Radio's new news portal, Turnstyle, in his war room; they produced 50 stories a week. photo: D. Blair
"We have a series called 'Documentary Rising,' with exclusive rights to show docs. We have an interview series, 'Turnstyle Talks,' which we unveiled at Sundance. We get directors to talk about the creative process— not just filmmakers but artists in general. One 'Turnstyle Talk' was with an app developer. His app, 'Word Lens,' which had three million page views in one day, translates right on your screen from English to Spanish (writing, through visual character recognition). Just today we had a story on All Things Considered; yesterday on Boing Boing.net!"
Turnstyle also covers science and politics, albeit mostly not breaking news. With the Corporation for Public Broadcast its main funder, it can provide content free, under an open source, creative commons license. "If Boing Boing sources us, they send us traffic," Cruz said. "We are not looking to get paid. We just want Turnstyle out there as a producer (of) stories we feel mainstream is not covering."
Although most of Turnstyle's full time staff of a half dozen came up through the YR ranks, some like Cruz were headhunted. They have two full time writers, Brandon McFarland and Denise Tejada, who spearheaded the Peabody Award-winning story about the sexually-exploited Oakland youth.
"We are focusing on getting a more diverse and younger public media audience," elaborated Kai Hsing, the head video producer, who came from Current TV to help create much of Turnstyle's video content. "We show straight documentaries but also documentary-esque material more suitable for online audiences."
Kai Hsing, who came from Current TV, heads Turnstyle's video production in their recording studio. photo: D. Blair
"(This is) not just in terms of length but approach, making it very easy for people to get engaged with the story. We really thought a lot about what our audience is interested in. Some of the things that are really relevant to young people is employment, spirituality, and, of course, music."
"Everything is under five minutes. Unless it is a TV show, people have a short attention span. Instead of doing a ten minute piece, we divide it up into episodes, that focus on one individual, say three and half minutes long. Our goal is get people to focus on the different aspect each individual represents. Like all the stories around 'Barbershop Dates' (about a San Francisco barbershop school), it is not just barbering but the things they talk about when they are there: the economy, why people were laid off, gender."
"We try to find stories we think matter to the common American," Cruz told me. "Oakland does have a lot of diversity (and) we are always inspired by Oakland and the Bay but we want to be a national voice. Our interests go beyond the county lines." The Japan earthquake, tsunami and reactor meltdown and the Iraqi War veterans coming home were big stories.
Of course, Oakland stories can not help but bleed through, as it were. There was the exploited girls investigation but also a film series about West Oakland's dearth of fresh food outlets, "All Day Play FM," about a collaboration of 29 top local DJs, an examination of the Dodgers and Giants rivalry and a look at the recent San Francisco International Film Festival (similar to what they did at Sundance).
"We have been focusing on food distribution," Cruz continued. "The raw foods movement in the Bay Area is huge. So is 'freegenism,' people getting food for free. Restaurants throw out tons of food a year."
"But how about some of the big problems specific to Oakland like gang banging or the murder rate," I asked.
"It has not been our focus," Cruz admitted, "But it is covered elsewhere in Youth Radio." See YR's
of the killing of the 22 year-old Oscar Grant by BART police.
Youth Radio reporter, Evan 'YT' Childress, takes the pulse of the public, D’Mariey Johnson, on the streets of Oakland. photo courtesy: Y. Radio
"Issues like tense youth-police relations are an everyday concern for our kids," Abcarian told me. "Most of them will never call the police because they are afraid they themselves will be wrongfully criminalized. (But) we are very fortunate, we haven't put in a metal detector. We keep it professional and friendly (so) the teens feel welcome and can be kids."
"If you look at the non-profs in the East Bay, it is pretty rich, a lot of great programs. But we are still turning away young people—we don't have the funding. We would like to do it seven days a week but we are stretched doing it five days a week. Unfortunately, we are not seeing a huge improvement in the quality of their lives. We serve a lot of court involved youth—the numbers on probation are huge!"
Youth Radio announces its Peabody Award on its website. photo courtesy: Y. Radio
"There are definitely good things in Oakland and those stories don't get told. That is what Youth Radio is trying to bring media attention to. That is what Jean Quan (the new mayor of Oakland) is trying to do. She rarely talks to the media wtihout highlighting something positive."
And one immensely positive Oakland story is, of course, Youth Radio. It trains approximately 600 young people a year, from about 170 onsite, with full support services, to 430 at off-site bureaus, high schools, and juvenile detentions centers. Over its history, YR has served some 16,000 not to mention the millions touched through its broadcasts.
The year YR arrived in Oakland the city had 145 murders, the worst in recent memory, but by 2010 it was 94. Although that is still too many and correlation does not make causation, there can be little doubt that increased self-expression, education and employment opportunities does help young people and does help remediate, on multiple levels, violence.
Turnstyle has been in business only around two months and they are already getting a lot of links and buzz, as is their parent company, Youth Radio, with their new Peabody. With fifty stories a week coming out of Turnstyle alone, new peaks to summit, and many projects already in the works, we can look to YR as a source of social vision, training and employment as well as news and views in Oakland.
Posted on May 17, 2011 - 11:26 AM