Commentary Guidelines

April 16, 2007

A commentary is usually one to two minutes long, which translates to no more than one full single-spaced page. Starting with a commentary is a way for you to get your own thoughts and opinions down, to explore why the topic interested you in the first place, and to shape something of a narrative arc that may or may not turn out to frame a fuller story with multiple voices and scenes. Often the commentary stands alone as a strong piece for publication or broadcast.

Commentators share experiences that are personally meaningful, perhaps counter-intuitive, and resonant with larger social themes. Commentaries don’t have to be “objective,” but they are reality-based and should take into account opposing points of view (the contested issue of “objectivity” can be a provocative subject of discussion for teachers and students doing commentaries for the first time). The best commentaries aren’t political rants or personal diatribes, nor do they stick to generic observations. Through commentaries, young people articulate perspectives grounded in compelling evidence, which might come in the form of lived experiences, references to research, or bits of dialogue with people they’ve encountered in their everyday worlds.

1. Write about issues that inspire passion in you. Draw on your own experience to bring new insight to an issue people are struggling to understand, or think they already do. Youth Radio’s Emily Schmooker wrote a commentary about body image by describing how a comment meant as praise actually hurt her feelings…and made her mad…and changed her life:

“I just wanted to thank you for going up there and doing what you’re doing…and showing that us fat people can dance.” 

That comment was supposed to be a compliment from the middle aged audience member who approached me after a performance when I was 15. But to me, he was just an older man watching my body, telling me who I was, and molding me into something that I didn’t want to be. 

Of course all teenagers have insecurities, but up until that moment I never considered myself a spokesperson for fat people… just someone who loved to dance and act. As a matter of fact, I had never even considered myself a fat girl. Now, I had the weight of all fat people on my shoulders.

2. Use concrete examples, images, and stories in your writing. If you are talking about getting along with your parents, describe specific incidents or arguments when your communication worked or broke down. One young soldier returned from the Iraq war with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and he talked about going to all the welcome home barbeques “numbed out…like you’re watching a black and white TV, you’re just not there.” In a commentary about her struggles with depression, Belia Mayeno filled her narrative with detailed images that draw listeners inside a deeply personal and sometimes chaotic “war inside her brain”:

I remember the first time I really started to feel out of control. I had a strong urge to translate the opening passage of a Raymond Chandler novel into Theban script and transcribe it all onto my closet door in multi-colored soap. I still remember the satisfaction I felt when I saw the rainbow of nonsensical characters zig-zagging all over my walls. But just like all the other times to come, like when I bought 5 identical dresses…or spent hours in a train station staring at the ground because it looked like the floor was breathing…when I tried to silence my mind by obeying its wild demands- I didn’t feel better for long. And even worse, all of my beautifully dreamed plans didn’t even make sense to me a few days or weeks later. Amazingly, I didn’t even know I had a problem. It never occurred to me that other people don’t live like that.

But I recognized the dark mood that always came after my sprees wasn’t right. When I was 15, I had terrible insomnia for months. I couldn’t sleep, eat or concentrate. I filled my bed with kitchen knives to scare away the sadness- but it wasn’t quite as comforting as I thought it would be. So I started mixing gin and pain-killers squirreled away from my parents’ cabinets. It was the only way to rest and get a break from myself. I wasn’t suicidal. I just wanted to go into a “mild” coma so that maybe one day I could just wake up and the tumult inside of me would be over.

3. Express yourself conversationally. Write like you speak, and read your scripts aloud as you write. Don’t just mouth the words. Say it out loud. On your first try, you might sit with someone who can listen to you tell your story and type it out for you to be sure it’s conversational. Think about the rhythm and pacing. Vary sentence length. If you write poetry or make music, give your commentaries a lyrical sensibility. At the same time, think about your audience, and if you want your story to reach a wide audience outside your immediate community, consider how to introduce colloquial expressions in ways that enrich your narrative. Youth Radio’s Anyi Howell has a special knack for finding that balance:

As far back as I can remember, my grandmother, a retired Oakland High cafeteria manager, has gone all out during the holidays to decorate her home in East Oakland…Santa’s sleigh and his reindeer were on the roof, along with carolers. Inside, a miniature Christmas town, complete with an ice skating rink, sat in the front window for neighborhood to see. Together, my grandparents put days into the details, placement, and positioning of the Christmas statues, lights, and decorations. When they plugged everything in, thousands of lights would illuminate the scene – leaving me in awe… People would say, “That’s YOUR grandmother? Yeah, I know that house – I always bring my kids by there.” Nothing could make me more proud.

But this year, for the first time in my life, there will be no decorations. My Grandmother decided to quit because spineless chumps from the neighborhood steal her displays right off the front lawn and damage her crafts. Because of its reputation for violence and homicide, some proudly call my grandmother’s neighborhood the Murder Dubs.
The vandalism has taken a toll on her spirit.

As a young black man, I know life is hard out here. Some of us are hungry and poor, and we face aggressive racism on a regular basis. I understand the anger in the hearts of my people, but why take it out on my grandmother?… What these youngstas don’t realize is that the folks they’re hurting, are the same ones who understand them and what they’re going through best. When the police go upside the heads of one of these young brothas, it’s these seniors and long-time homeowners…who organize and attend rallies to support these fellas.

There was a time when a common sense of respect and consideration existed among all of us, even hustlers and street criminals. Today it’s gone – either because it is no longer given, or it is no longer demanded. When this mutual honor and respect is restored, the Christmas spirit will return to the Dubs. And Santa Will Dance again in my grandmother’s yard.

4. Don’t be afraid to use humor and show attitude. That’s Youth Radio’s Quincy Mosby’s trademark—but the best is when humor mixes with substance, as in Quincy’s commentary about rappers breaking into the movie business. In just over two minutes, he moves from light pop culture observation to a deeper cultural critique. A select few MCs make great films, Quincy says, but they’re definitely the exceptions. And the damage isn’t limited to the box office:

Most of these films have the same clichéd and regurgitated scenes of toilet humor and pointless sex that don’t advance the plot in any way. And they create an image of African Americans as overly promiscuous marijuana addicts and criminals. 

The dialogue in these bombs is stereotypical and just plain offensive. “Yo dogg, wassup!” It’s like the screenwriters think those are the only words hip hop artists know. Do they think if a rapper utters words with more than one syllable, his brain will implode? I can’t promise that won’t happen, but I’m pretty sure it’s not going to. What’s really demoralizing about these films is they’re often either “hood movies” with a rapper co-starring as the jive-talking friend, or, like Eminem’s 8 Mile, loose biographies about a struggling hip-hop artist trying to make it big, but being pulled down by the streets. Honestly, how hard is it to pretend to be yourself? 

Believe me, I do love hip-hop and my black brothers and sisters. And everyone has a right to express themselves artistically. 

But where’s the personal pride?

5. Fact check! Just because commentaries are first-person and can be opinion-based, you still need to verify sources and the information you report. When commentator Dru Harshaw said that “the N word” originated in U.S. slavery, Youth Radio got verification in writing from a university professor. When one student wrote a commentary stating that cutbacks in municipal transportation funding doubled her commute time to school, an unhappy representative from the transit office called the next day to ask specifically what bus line the student rode, gathering evidence in hopes of refuting her claim. Incidentally, working with young people to notice and analyze which facts, claims, and sources of authority editors do and do not trust can itself serve as a provocative exercise in critical media literacy.

The commentary is a great place to start the narrative process, because it doesn’t require a whole lot of advanced work. Come up with an idea, and start writing.

Drop that Knowledge Book: Table of Contents

April 12, 2007

Check it out: Vivian Chavez and I have written up the latest version of our Table of Contents for our book with UC Press. While we’re closing in on our deadline for a completed manuscript (May!), we’re totally open to feedback and eager to make changes that will improve the work, so bring it on…please.

Drop That Knowledge: Youth Radio, Learning, and Media Culture

by Elisabeth Soep and Vivian Chavez

Chapter 1. Introduction:

We begin with a first-person narrative introducing Youth Radio and the book’s themes through the eyes of one of the program’s first graduates, Vivian Chavez. Vivian reflects on her own involvement with the nascent youth media movement in the 1980s and draws out implications for today, laying out some key themes and questions explored throughout the book. She explains why we chose “drop that knowledge”—a line from a Youth Radio story—as the book’s title. Among other things, the phrase expresses the imperative for young people to produce and share knowledge for themselves. Vivian uses this space to describe the flow of the book, which follows the structure of a radio feature. After the intro, we move to the “lede”—the story’s opening lines, designed to hook audiences and reveal its main point. Next comes the story itself, its narrative arc, and finally a “back-announce” that brings conclusion by broadening the story’s impact. Throughout the book we interweave “playlists” containing youth-produced scripts, with “bonus tracks” at the very end.

Playlist 1: A collection of scripts from Youth Radio’s earliest days

Chapter 2. Unbury the Lede

One of the toughest challenges radio producers face is writing a strong lede. If you don’t engage listeners within the first line or two of your story, they are likely to turn the channel. “Burying the lede” means waiting too long to get to the story’s point. We use the concept of unburying the lede as a metaphor and mandate for our aim in this book. Here, we dig down to what really matters in the relationship between youth learning and culture—the conditions that enable young people to tell stories that transform their own lives as well as the institutions that determine their futures. When radio reporters bury the lede, they lose readers. When educators bury the lede, young people are the ones who lose out, and too often get lost. In this chapter, we locate Youth Radio within the youth media movement at this historic “digital” moment, which attaches new stakes, opportunities, and challenges to young people’s stories. We outline our project’s distinct dialogic and participatory methodology that uncovers how young reporters and their adult producers create stories reaching 27 million listeners through broadcasts on the nation’s top outlets. We describe our own varied involvements with Youth Radio and forecast the book’s three primary interventions: 1. To reimagine youth media learning as converged literacy; 2. To redefine teaching as collegial pedagogy; and 3. To reposition media advocacy as a process of finding and articulating a point of voice. The book’s final chapter, Drop that Knowledge, offers concrete methods educators, researchers and journalists can use to collaborate with young people to tell powerful stories.

Playlist 2: Bullets and Babies, Mixed Race, N-Bomb, Litter

Chapter 3: Converged Literacy

This chapter articulates a new approach to understanding and promoting youth media learning: converged literacy. Convergence, in the media world, describes portable content expressed through a range of technologies—a website, for example, that features audio, graphics, digital photos, and video clips, which you can access on a computer, iPod, or mobile phone. Literacy, the second key term, is a process of making, reading, understanding, and critiquing texts, and in today’s world those texts increasingly transcend words on a page. We bring together these two concepts, 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. Converged literacy entails an ability to: 1. Make and understand boundary-crossing and convention-breaking texts; 2. Draw and leverage public interest in the stories they want to tell; and 3. Claim and exercise their right to use media to promote justice, variously defined—a right still denied young people marginalized from full citizenship as producers of media culture.

Playlist 3: Emails from Kosovo, Core Class, Oakland Scenes, Picturing War

Chapter 4: Collegial Pedagogy

In this chapter, we develop the concept of collegial pedagogy as a crucial and largely overlooked dynamic for teaching and learning. In collegial pedagogy, emerging and established producers jointly create original work for public release, engaging a process that holds significant potential to deepen the learning experience for both parties, and to enrich the media product distributed to the world. We situate this process against the backdrop of learning theory, identify the conditions that bring young people and adults into productive as well as fraught collaborative relationships, and explore collegial pedagogy’s contributions and vulnerabilities as a way to organize teaching and learning. The structure of the chapter follows the production cycle itself, glimpsing a series of Youth Radio stories at key moments of framing, gathering tape, scripting, editing, broadcasting, and living in the aftermath of a story’s release. Collegial pedagogy depends on three necessary conditions: 1. An ongoing process of collaborative framing; 2. An insistence on youth-led inquiry; and 3. A joint orientation toward public accountability.

Playlist 4: Abstinence, Military Marriage Benefits, Opting Out, Free Speech in School, New SAT, My Public Service Announcement.

Chapter 5: Point of Voice

Unlike the other chapters in the book, this one takes a single event–and its fall out–as a point of departure. In 2005, some police officers outside an Oakland subway station wrongfully accused Youth Radio’s Anyi Howell of driving a stolen vehicle. Anyi converted this experience–hardly his first–with racial profiling into a series of media stories for outlets ranging from MySpace to iTunes to NPR to a face-to-face community forum between youth and police. His point was to transform and not only represent lives—storytelling for social justice. In this chapter, we describe what it takes for young people to move from a “point of view,” which suggests a way of seeing, to a “point of voice,” which demands strategic expression and action. The chapter challenges the celebratory politics often associated with “youth voice” as a site of freedom, which assumes: 1. That young people speak in counter-narratives; 2. That youth expression in and of itself brings enduring benefits; 3. That young people enjoy a privileged “cosmopolitan” citizenship; 4. That digital culture equals progress in the lives of youth.

Playlist 5: No Shield Law, DNA of the Black Experience, Youth-Police Forum, Victim of Racial Profiling

Chapter 6: Drop that Knowledge

In this chapter, we present a series of concrete methods for engaging youth people in media production across a range of settings. We begin with an overview of the cycles of production any media producer goes through to create a story, with observations about how digital culture and industry have disrupted linear progression from pre-production through production and post-production to distribution. Next come some ideas for how young people and their adult collaborators can work through the ethical dilemmas that invariably arise when young people define their own story topics and reach significant audiences. The chapter then advances through a range of genres—the commentary, the interview, the feature—offering specific strategies for introducing young producers to these narrative forms, and revealing some of the distinct opportunities and challenges each presents for young people and audiences. We end by drawing out implications of these practices not only for educators who work with teenagers, but also for university professors, ethnographic researchers, and professional journalists eager to integrate youth media into their practices and products.

Playlist 6: Phatty Girl, Map of My Mind, Holidon’t, Stay in the Booth, Deportation Story, Sagging, Hunger’s Diary, Single Moms Need a Break

Chapter 7: Back-Announce

Drop that Knowledge does not map the youth media field. Others have already documented that topography. The book does not present a neat list of youth media’s best practices. Countless versions of that line-up also already exist. What we have done here is look deeply within a single pioneering youth media project to draw out stories, lessons, implications, and new questions for the movement, for learning, and for media culture. In the spirit of collegial practice, with this final chapter, we bring our own perspectives into conversation with young people and adults from several leading youth media organizations, from rural Whitesburg, Kentucky to lower Manhattan. Twenty years after her introduction to youth media as a sixteen year old high school student, Vivian Chavez delves into the hundred-plus years of combined experience contained in this final chapter to reveal a set of hard-earned insights that will inform anyone’s efforts to bring youth media alive, and set it to work.

Playlist 7: Bonus tracks containing one youth-produced script from every youth media organization featured in Chapter Seven.

So what else is new…about digital media learning?

March 10, 2007

The other day, a mentor from my first job out of college observed that digital media research is hard, because so much of what people are saying isn’t all that new.

The comment got me thinking about what really is new in this work, and I came up with three contenders:

The permanent, searchable digital archive: While folks have been writing about this for some time, I’m not sure we understand the “projected ethics” young people engage, as they imagine a future for their present work and forecast its potential to cause harm and/or do good. Through today’s public feedback loops (e.g., blogs comments, listener responses, sites like, the effects of search engine optimization), young people get some immediate data about what their work does in the world. But that’s only the beginning…
$: Sure, media commercialization has been around forever, and there’s nothing new about young people seeking to profit directly from their creativity. But the media landscape, as well as young producers’ attitudes and efforts related to making money, seem to be changing. While many young people condemn the effects of corporate interests on journalism and the music industry, they want to earn money, even a living, off their media projects. And that seems perhaps more possible today, given public appetites for consumer-generated and especially youth-produced and distributed content. But it’s also less possible in light of industry consolidation and persistent inequalities in terms of access to equipment, networks, and means to participate as producers. These developments definitely affect media literacy in a major way. It’s no longer enough–if it ever was–to understand how commercial interests shape what we see and hear and read; now, do we need to prepare young people to understand how $ circulates through the media business (down to CPMs and ad avails) so they can themselves launch enterprises? Where does all this leave “social justice” as a core youth media goal? Depends on whom you ask. One youth newspaper publisher who’s been at this for more than 30 years sees a “fatal conflict” between the entrepreneurial approach and the social justice approach. I’m interested in looking more deeply into that conflict.
Youth media, politics, and government: If media literacy is, as Henry Jenkins says, a form of citizenship, there are some distinct features of today’s political environment that invite and suppress full-blown youth engagement in civic affairs. Government and journalistic scandals as well as politicians’ uses of digital messaging have transformed the politics of media production and the media’s role in politics. Youth Radio’s response in the run-up to the US presidential election is to use digital technology to report on politics while also covering the impact of these technologies on political campaigns locally, nationally, and around the world.

For one recent example, check out Youth Radio’s coverage of Ron Dellum’s inauguration as Oakland’s mayor. Youth Radio filed the only national radio story about this historic event.

Lowdowns and Uploads

March 6, 2007

Last week, I traveled to the east coast with two Youth Radio colleagues, Nishat Kurwa and Pendarvis (Dru) Harshaw, to speak on a panel at the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Askwith Education Forum. The event, offered in conjunction with the HGSE Alumni of Color Conference, was called, “Educators at the Crossroads of Youth and Media.” That’s right where we live.

Conference organizers posed the question, “How has digital media culture transformed opportunities and created new challenges for youth and communities of color?” We focused not so much on the shift from consumption to production, but more specifically on what it takes for young people to move back and forth between, and sometimes combine, old and new media production.

Three themes organized the talk:

1. The stakes young media producers face are intensifying,
2. Their outlets are proliferating, and as a result…
3. They are redefining what “media literacy” means and entails.

After giving some background on Youth Radio, I talked about the impact of today’s permanent searchable digital archive on the ethics and editorial standards governing youth media. As educators, we face new responsibilities to facilitate a process whereby young people forecast 5, 10, 15 years down the line to determine intended and unintended outcomes of making their stories public. As researchers, this process opens a window into a kind of “projected ethics.” Young people need to hinge their present-day decisions on an imagined future for their work, its potential to create harm and/or do good. Given Youth Radio’s methodology of collegial pedagogy, it’s never our approach to dictate for young people what they should and shouldn’t say, nor to make decisions on their behalf. But our collective jobs have gotten a whole lot more challenging–as well as interesting–now that a radio story no longer “evaporates into the ether,” as our boss Ellin O’Leary puts it, as soon as it airs.

Nishat spoke next about the fact that new media outlets aren’t only repositories for our students’ work, they’re also new distribution platforms with vast if unwieldy audiences. She elaborated here on Youth Radio Associate Producer King Anyi Howell’s series on racial profiling, which he wrote about in the Winter 2007 issue of AIRspace. Anyi’s collection of stories and community events, which went out in various versions on MySpace, iTunes, KPFA, and NPR, shows the range of new outlets young people can leverage to reach audiences of peers and adults. That said, Nishat talked about the new compromises and questions that come along with digital media’s options and “freedoms.”

Dru built on this discussion by presenting the back-story behind his commentary, N Word, which aired on Morning Edition as one of the day’s top ten emailed stories on NPR. When Youth Radio pitched Dru’s story to NPR, they said they wanted it, but it sat on the shelf for awhile, because there wasn’t a news peg or headline that made it seem like the right time to put it on the air. Then… Michael Richards went off on a racist tirade captured on someone’s camera phone at a comedy club and uploaded to YouTube. NPR played Dru’s commentary within days.

Converged Literacy
Which brought us to our final point. Dru’s ability to seize a moment like the one kicked off by Michael Richards’ YouTube rant and turn it into an opening for the story Dru himself wanted to tell represents a new mandate for how we think about media literacy. In the old days, media literacy used to focus on teaching critical consumption; when young people did get to make media, it was often in the spirit of celebrating “youth voice,” without necessarily examining underlying politics or expecting those products to achieve particularly high quality, distribution, or social impact. Now, we think about converged literacy as having three dimensions:

1. Converged literacy is an ability to make and understand boundary-crossing and convention-breaking texts.
2. Converged literacy means knowing how to draw and leverage public interest in the stories you want to tell.
3. Converged literacy 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.

For more thoughts on “youth voice,” by the way, check out my essay in the 2006 McGill Journal of Education–Beyond Literacy and Voice in Youth Media Production.

Social Justice Youth Media?

February 27, 2007

In the last post, I shared some production tips from Youth Radio graduate Belia Mayeno. Belia shows up again here–with a draft book chapter she and I have been working on with our colleague Nishat Kurwa, Youth Radio’s news director. It’s an essay we wrote for a forthcoming book edited by Bill Ayers, Therese Quinn, and David Stovall about social justice education (Lawrence Erlbaum, Publishers). We took up an especially challenging story the three of us all worked on in 2004, highlighting responses from young U.S. Marines to the torture at Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq. First, an exerpt, and then a link to the full draft chapter, then a link to the audio story. Comments welcome–it’s still a work in progress!

Excerpt from Social Justice Youth Media, 2007

We focus here on a single Youth Radio story produced in 2004, called Picturing War, reported by Belia Mayeno. In the story, young U.S. Marines respond to reports that detainees were being tortured at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The reports featured photographs from the prison that pictured male Iraqi detainees, many naked, simulating sex acts, piled on top of one another, and attached to leashes and wires, with U.S. soldiers looking on, sometimes posing, sometimes with cameras. At the time, debates in the U.S. raged over who deserved blame for the acts pictured in those photographs—young prison guards or their higher-ups. It seemed like an ideal Youth Radio story—especially because we had already developed relationships with several young vets through our ongoing Reflections on Return from Iraq series, exploring the experiences of young military personnel adjusting to life back home. National Public Radio’s Morning Edition aired Picturing War in April of 2004.

In this chapter, Belia Mayeno, the story’s reporter, is joined by two Youth Radio producers, News Director Nishat Kurwa, and Education Director/Senior Producer Elisabeth (Lissa) Soep. Belia and Nishat are both Youth Radio graduates who participated as high school students, and Lissa started working at the organization as a doctoral student in 1999. Through our positions in Youth Radio’s newsroom, we mentor young people through every stage of story production, and there’s one bit of advice we give again and again. Express yourself conversationally. Don’t write the story like an English class essay. Tell it like you’re talking to a friend. In this chapter, we aim to follow our own advice. We offer this story about the relationship between youth media production and social justice as a conversation among the three of us. Two years after Picturing War aired, we dug out the old interview logs, booked our own studio, and recorded our reflections on what it was like to co-produce that story. We discussed moments that stood out to us as especially challenging and important, and we considered how this story relates to Youth Radio’s larger mission and model.

Why This Story?

There are stories in Youth Radio’s archive that have a much more straightforward relationship to social justice than Picturing War. A young man describes his deportation to Mexico immediately upon release from a U.S. prison. Young producers use slam poetry and street-corner interviews to comment on the effects of Oakland’s rising homicide rate. A high school senior contemplates whether to grow out her wavy hair or get it locked before heading off to a predominantly white college.

Each of these stories would seem a perfect candidate for a chapter like this one, examining how young people and adults practice social justice by making media. And yet stories like these make it too easy for us to side-step some uncomfortable but critical questions that reveal why social justice education is so hard. And so we chose a story that continues to challenge us, two years after broadcast. As the world struggled to make sense of the prison abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib, Youth Radio sought out perspectives from young people who had lived and fought their way through the war in Iraq. But the views they shared were disturbing and difficult to hear. What does it take, this story made us ask, to engage “youth voice” in a meaningful way, when some youth voices are shaped by structures and policies that destroy young people’s lives?

Social Justice Youth Media DRAFT, by Soep, Mayeno, & Kurwa

And now, you can listen to Picturing War.