Tuning In: Youth on the Air

RadioTuning the radio can be a frustrating mood-killer. All along the FM dial, I hear bland pop, bland rock, bland hip hop and bland classical. On the AM dial, I hear traffic reports, sports announcers and reactionary pseudo-political commentaries. I'm not saying all radio is crap, but I get stuck listening to "My Angel is a Centerfold" and Jay-Z way too often to think of radio as some rich cultural resource.

As part of my investigations into media created for and by young men, I decided to take a look at radio. I was hoping that I would find in radio something more than the tired stereotypes and limiting boxes that young men are fit into throughout other media (see Boobs, Ball Sports and Beer: What's Out There For Guys Online).

What I found is that there is youth radio, and there is entertaining radio, also known as commercial, corporate, or mass appeal radio. By youth radio I mean programming created by young people that is often about social change and bringing a real youth voice to the forefront of political discussion. Entertaining radio and youth radio as they are now can't really be compared because their audiences and their messages don't mesh. Basically, they do two opposite things: entertaining radio distracts us from the dirty truth and youth radio puts it in focus.

With this in mind, I tried not to be too critical of the entertaining programming I found. I mean, my expectations really weren't that high. I was expecting lots of shock-jock material--you know, a bunch of guys stereotypically talking about women as bitches and hoes, and lots of dick jokes. I was thinking Howard Stern. I was thinking Tom Leykis, the man who advises his male audience that to get laid "you don't want to be responsible, you don't want to be a nice guy--you want to be a jerk. That's how you will get sex." In other words, entertaining radio programming aimed at guys is usually offensive and occasionally funny.

A good example of entertaining radio that preserves a sexist status quo is Rayon "Junior" Payne. He's better known as NSX, the DJ and radio personality on 95Live, the Orlando-based pirate hip hop station. He's got a reputation for asking his female callers to sleep with him and for, surprise surprise, calling them bitches and hoes when he's pissed. He spins good music and he's fun to listen to, but that doesn't excuse his misogyny. He's another guy buying into sexism and superficial masculinity.

I respect that Rayon has outwitted the media-government complex by starting his own pirate station in Orlando, Miami and now at www.95Live.com. I respect his drive and energy, his success in becoming the underground king of Florida's radio scene. But on the air, NSX sounds like your typical macho jerk, and his power to change attitudes is wasted.

On the other hand there are people like Davey D, the SF Bay Area hip hop radio star and activist. Among other efforts, he produces the "Hard Knock Radio" and "Street Knowledge" radio programs on KPFA and KMEL, respectively. I heard him on KPFA, talking to Afrika Bambaataa about spirituality and the essence of hip hop. They made a valid point about young men today not having role models in hip hop culture, that MCs were rapping about money and sex and we're being fooled into thinking those are the only things that matter. At that point I was thinking, "Hey guys, lighten up, money and sex are great," but they had put their fingers on the big picture: hip hop and media in general have an enormous influence on young men. Do people in radio have a responsibility to fight for justice and peace against sexism, racism and all the other unjust things in the world? Do they have the power to do that?

Some young men and women believe that they can change the world through radio. Through their own efforts and the help of organizations and foundations that believe in them, they have begun to speak out on the air. But youth fighting for a toe-hold in radio face many challenges. The commercial radio industry is hostile to community based radio in general, and youth in particular have to struggle to get air time.

It used to be that radio was a means of organizing and informing your community. That function of radio has been undermined since the FCC was created in 1934 and has almost been completely eliminated as corporations bought up airspace after the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was passed. The law changed FCC regulations to eliminate national ownership caps, which previously had allowed a company to own no more than 20 AM and 20 FM stations nationwide. The law also allows the ownership of more stations in a single market. As companies sought to increase their market shares and increase audience sizes, the content of these stations has become less politically or locally oriented. The result is Top 40 stations crowding the airwaves and community-based stations being squeezed out.

The airtime squeeze often allows for no more than sound bite montages that paint only the most superficial of pictures. This is the problem facing young men of Camp Sweeney. They are living within the prison-industrial complex and they are using radio to take power and participate in the media. As part of a Youth Radio project the participants learn to spin and write commentary, which gives voice to their experiences. But the exposure these men get on the air is minimal; most of their commentaries are short enough to speak in 30 seconds. For instance, one young man, Zachary, wrote about the lure of drugs and the desire to support his family. But given the time-limited format, the audience only gets a simplified account of Zachary's story. Perspectives like these are valuable and deserve a more thorough airing.

Of course, not all aspects of commercial radio are adding to the problem. Beverly Mire from Youth Radio, a radio station produced entirely by young men and women, says that "commercial stations are more supportive than people give them credit for." In the San Francisco Bay Area two popular stations that regularly run community programming are KMEL and KZQZ.

However, I found that most youth radio is possible only through the money and effort of countless non-profit organizations. The Open Society Institute, through its Youth Communications and Media program, funds organizations devoted to increasing the presence of youth in all media types. This funding allows non-profits to operate in the competitive and expensive radio industry. Until recently, even the most well funded organizations had trouble breaking into the mainstream, but that is changing.

By the end of 2000, you should be able to find radio versions of YO! (Youth Outlook) stories in the mainstream radio media. According to editorial advisor Kevin Weston, YO! is revamping its website and has plans to expand on its radio programming. It hopes to distribute its pieces to stations like NPR and KPFA as well as to publish the radio pieces on its website.

NPR has gone far in enabling youth to have their voices heard. Its radio program, "All Things Considered," regularly airs Teenage Diaries, which are radio diaries produced by teenagers. Teens are loaned tape recorders that they use to create an audio diary made up of journal entries, interviews with family and friends and the everyday sounds from their lives. The remarkable thing about Teenage Diaries, besides its presence on a national radio program, is the diversity of voices heard and the realistic and complex glimpse they provide into the lives of teenagers around the country. The stories range from racial identity issues to conflicts between religious parents and gay teenagers, and each diary in some way raises important questions that commercial radio usually ignores.

While youth-produced radio breaks into the mainstream, young people have also begun to take advantage of the opportunities that pirate radio provides. For example, 12-year old Antoine Bazilio participated in the Harlem Radio and Photography Project, a six-week radio workshop for Harlem-based teenagers, run by WNYC and Columbia University. Now Antoine uses his training to produce a program called the Literature Show, which airs on the pirate community station WKDR in Harlem. Antoine, the host and pirate radio's youngest activist, picks stories and poems from his public library and plays them on his show. He even had an appointment with the chairman of the FCC to talk about pirate radio, but the chairman had to cancel.

Other countries are seeing more youth participation in the media as well. KIC FM is a mobile radio station in the West Midlands area of England, produced by youth. It has been actively raising money and broadcasting from the area and has become so noteworthy that the Princess Royal, Queen Elizabeth's daughter, Anne, has praised KIC FM for its efforts. Speaking at a conference organized by Crime Concern, a crime prevention non-profit, she said, "Young people have a great deal to contribute to their communities and to their society." KIC FM is just one example of a growing realization that providing alternatives to crime is the most successful means of prevention and that involving youth in media production is one of those alternatives. Building support for these organizations, including celebrity endorsements, is a critical step to involving youth in media.

Where is this youth radio movement headed? We've seen many young people of our generation trained in radio production and introduced to the progressive and activist politics that often follow from increased access to the media. As they mature, what will keep them from infiltrating the radio industry with their ideas and vision? It's not strange to imagine that radio will once again become known as a community building resource. Or that FCC reform will bring an ultimate clash between community and corporate interests.

What is certain is that youth participation in the media and the values and views that youth hold will become stronger and louder. Our aging society (think millions of Baby Boomers on Social Security) will be forced to pay attention to youth voices. It might not be too much to hope that one day I may turn on the radio and say, "Yes, that's what radio is for."

Cody Sisco, Wiretap editorial intern and SFSU undergraduate, is writing a series about young men and the media. He can be querried, applauded and yelled at via email at cbsisco@hotmail.com

Check this out:
Teenage Diaries
Youth Radio
YO! (Youth Outlook) Radio

Take action:
Subscribe to Davey D's newsletter.
Send an email to FCC Chairman William Kennard demanding legalization of Low Power FM Radio.
Learn how to create you own pirate radio station.

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