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Teenagers on the Airwaves in 'The Best of Youth Radio'

Radio * KCRW's half-hour highlight show includes portions of the acclaimed 'E-mails From Kosovo.'


Today at 2:30 p.m., KCRW-FM's (89.9) weekly show "Politics of Culture" presents "The Best of Youth Radio"--a riveting, funny, emotion-packed half-hour, proving that you don't have to be an adult to write pointed commentary, produce a professional show or, at age 16, deliver a report that sounds expert enough to be heard on National Public Radio's "Morning Edition." Which was the way "E-mails From Kosovo," which aired in seven segments from February to June, sounded last year.

That production, some of which will be featured in the "Best of" show, drew national recognition for the 8-year-old independent, nonprofit Berkeley-based Youth Radio operation. This January, it received the Silver Baton for overall excellence in broadcast journalism at the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards in New York.

Former Berkeley high school student Finnegan Hamill, in a four-minute excerpt from the first part of the series, tells how he began an e-mail correspondence with an Albanian girl his age in Kosovo, identified then simply as Adona.

When Belia Mayeno-Choy, 18, another Youth Radio participant, read Adona's e-mails for the segments, it was almost as if Kujtesa Bejtullahu, the Kosovo teenager who now lives in Berkeley, was reading her own digital script: "Dear Finnegan, how did you pass on your exams? I hope good. . . . I must tell you, it's scary sometimes. . . . I really don't want to end up raped. . . . I wish nobody in the world, in the whole universe would have to go through what we are. . . . "

Brainchild of executive producer Ellin O'Leary, 47, a former public radio Emmy-winning news producer and mother of three, Youth Radio has since 1992 trained more than 1,650 teens in broadcast journalism, production, engineering and media advocacy. O'Leary said it was the riots spurred by the Rodney King trial that spring that gave her the idea to give teenagers something constructive to do with their lives.

"We're making a difference in some individual kids' lives," said O'Leary. "These kids realize they had talents they weren't aware of. School is a place where they don't feel smart, and they realize they are smart, that they are articulate, and some of them decide to stay in school and go on to college."

Youth Radio's emphasis is on diversity and the economically disadvantaged. One out of four participants is an immigrant or a child of immigrants.

Besides regular weekly and monthly programs and commentaries on public and commercial radio stations in the Bay Area, Youth Radio programs or pieces can be heard periodically within NPR's "Morning Edition," "All Things Considered," carried by KPCC-FM (89.3) and KCRW; "Latino USA" which KPFK-FM (90.7) and KPCC carry; and on Public Radio International's "Marketplace," produced by KUSC-FM (91.5) and also carried on KPCC.

Sarah Spitz, KCRW spokeswoman and "Politics of Culture" producer, said that KCRW, which this year has already broadcast two 30-minute Youth Radio programs, now plans airing their work about once a month. "People are interested in what real teens think, without being filtered through adult sources. Ruth [Seymour, general manager] approached me last year and said, 'Let's forge a bond with these guys.' "

Deborah Clark, producer of "Marketplace," which airs "Youth Radio" work about once a month, says "on a sound level, from a radio-production standpoint, their mixes are great. They have a wonderful energy, real tight production, and they're youthful."

What started with a budget of $25,000 and 15 kids the first summer--along with help in fund-raising techniques from Pat Scott, former general manager of Pacifica's Berkeley-based KPFA-FM--has escalated with private and public funding to a $900,000 budget. In 1997, Youth Radio got its first grant of $250,000 from the Federal Corp. for Public Broadcasting, which awarded another $200,000 last year, allowing the organization to increase national production output. Meanwhile, Youth Radio has a professional staff of 10--three of whom, including Noah Nelson, 24, host of the "Best of" show, are former graduates of the program.

Another 25 are on the payroll in varying degrees, including Tahira Simon, whose commentary on being homeless, which first aired in January 1999, is included on the "Best of" show. When Simon's mother was evicted two weeks after Tahira's high school graduation, she said she bounced around friends' houses, "all the while attempting to stay employed. Which is hard because I have to be 100% presentable. . . . I'm always carrying around a big bag of stuff--clothes, clean or dirty, toothbrush, deodorant. My managers at work are always saying, 'You spent the night out again?' Everyone just assumes I'm a party girl."

Today Simon lives with her mother, holds down two jobs, including an internship at Youth Radio, and has an 8-month-old son. Before his birth, she did a feature on the economics of having a baby, which aired on "Marketplace."

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