Radio Rookies

Some of the best broadcast journalism coming out of New York City these days is being done by a bunch of rookies. Radio Rookies, a three-year-old workshop at WNYC, New York’s public radio station, trains inner-city teens to report on their own lives. Listen:

Jesus Gonzales: Is there a lot of gunshots going out like in the neighborhood? Because you live in the Bushwick community.
Chaos: Back in the day when I was growing up, there used to be. There was somebody getting shot every day. It calmed down, but it’s getting ready to start back up again . . .
Gonzales: You know a couple of people that sell guns?
Chaos: I sell guns.
Gonzales: You sell guns?
Chaos: Yeah, I sell guns. I sell a lot of guns.
–From “Guns,” by Jesus Gonzales, 15

Janesse Nieves: Well, you can get clean and, you know, get other jobs.
Janesse’s Dad: You think I’m dirty?
Janesse: No, I don’t mean . . . okay, that’s the wrong word. I’m sorry.
Dad: The way I look? The way I dress? The shirt, the pants?
Janesse: I’m talking about you doing drugs and thinking it’s okay.
Dad: That’s how I feel.
–From “Heroin” by Janesse Nieves, 17

“These are stories you can’t commission out of a newsroom,” says Dean Cappello, WNYC’s vice president of programming. And the radio world is taking notice. The rookies rake in awards, sometimes in adult categories, like the Robert F. Kennedy prize for domestic radio reporting on the disadvantaged that they picked up in May, or Janesse Nieves’ second place in documentaries last fall at Third Coast, a Chicago Public Radio contest. Radio Rookies began with a 1999 workshop in Harlem, the brainchild of staff reporter Marianne McCune, who learned that the Columbia University radio lab was empty during vacations. She convinced Cappello and the school to let her teach city kids–often from poor and minority neighborhoods–to express themselves through radio.

WYNC was amazed at the quality of the final product and agreed to air five of the six completed pieces. Listeners responded, and since then there have been five other workshops, and the station has broadcast 22 additional stories. The kids have reported on religion, graffiti, crime, suicide, national identity, and Down syndrome–all from the intimate vantage point of their own lives.

The goal of the workshops, says McCune, is “getting young people to realize that things that matter to them are important enough to communicate to other people.” A story like Nieves’ “Heroin” resonates not only through the dramatic confrontation with her addict father, but also through her own narration: “After all that, like nothing happened, Papi told me he wanted to buy me some cookies. But he didn’t have the money.”

From Columbia Journalism Review (July/Aug. 2002). Subscriptions: $27.95/yr. (6 issues) from Box 578, Mt. Morris, IL 61054. For more than 40 years, CJR has been informing, inspiring, and cajoling the Fourth Estate to fulfill its role in American society. Its hard-hitting brand of media criticism spotlights the highs and lows of contemporary journalism with profiles, investigative reports, and in-depth special sections.

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