Low Plaza

Alumni Build Community by Bringing Stories of NYC Teens to National Public Radio

By Jo Kadlecek

Czerina Patel, third from right, with Radio Rookies at the Make The Road By Walking Center in Bushwick, Brooklyn

Marianne McCune, J '98, has long believed in high school students. As an anthropology student at the University of California at Berkley, she focused her senior thesis on issues affecting young people. When she became a film documentarian, she began looking for projects that would allow teens to express themselves. But it wasn't until she enrolled in Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism and discovered radio that she stumbled onto what she believes is the perfect formula for teenagers to tell their stories.

McCune says she had always had an interest in radio and her time at the J-school gave her the tools she needed to pursue it. By the summer of 1999, she had begun working as a reporter for WNYC public radio and pitched her idea to work with teens to supervisors at the station who agreed to support her in the effort.

With the help of the Photographic Center of Harlem, McCune then recruited eight teenagers and obtained permission from journalism professors John Dinges and Dean David Klatell to use Columbia's radio lab. She also enlisted radio colleague, Joe Richman -- known for his Radio Diaries -- to help. And for the next two months, McCune and the Harlem youth talked about how to develop a story, conduct interviews and edit and produce a polished radio feature that could -- and would -- go on the air.

The result is Radio Rookies, a unique partnership between WNYC, New York City teenagers and professional journalists that produces award-winning stories by young radio journalists that today are heard by more than one million listeners each day on NPR's Morning Edition.

The pilot program McCune began three summers ago has now turned into an ongoing fixture at WNYC, complete with its own staff and volunteers, and one that has trained almost forty young people ages 13-21 in six 12-week workshops throughout the five boroughs.

The goal is "to train young people to tell true stories about themselves, their families, their communities and the world." And in fact, the program is so popular, that McCune and producer, Czerina Patel, J '00, receive ongoing calls from youth workers and radio journalists across the country asking how they can duplicate it.

"The response [to Radio Rookies] has been incredible," McCune says. "Each story elicits so much response from listeners who are extremely moved by what the Rookies have to say that it makes them realize they are having an impact. It's very satisfying."

Patel, who first began working as a volunteer with McCune and came on board full time two years ago, agrees. "Everyone wins with Radio Rookies," Patel says. "Volunteers win in knowing they're making a difference, the kids win with new interactions and experiences with journalists, and the station wins by bringing good people together who produce good stories."

Each Radio Rookie workshop is free of charge for the teens but limited to six students to reinforce individual attention and personal instruction. Patel -- who is now responsible for teaching the workshops -- works with students at community centers like the Seamen's Society in St. George, Staten Island; the YWCA in Flushing, Queens; Make The Road By Walking Inc. in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and at The Point Community Development Center in Hunts Point in the Bronx. Throughout the 12 weeks, students learn how to use words and sounds to tell their stories while also developing critical reporting, interviewing, speaking and studio skills. Patel also links Rookies with volunteer mentors -- some of whom are Columbia journalism students -- who help them through each stage of the production process.

"Czerina is devoted to making sure the Rookies are okay," McCune says. "To her, it's not just about producing radio shows. It's about getting to know each other and talking about their lives."

Once the Rookie reporters finish writing their narrative pieces, McCune then works as their editor, Patel produces and WNYC's Stacy Abramson serves as executive producer. The team effort has helped provide New York City teens with a national platform for telling their stories while simultaneously giving them an opportunity to develop many relevant skills and to network with professional journalists.

It has also earned them numerous awards. For instance, last year, Bushwick Radio Rookie, Jesus Gonzalez, was named winner of the David S. Barr High School Award given by the News Guild for his story, "Guns in Bushwick." Janesse Nieves was named the regional winner of the Hispanic Heritage Youth Award for Literature/Journalism for her story, "Heroin," where she discussed the impact her father's heroin addition had on their relationship. The Harlem Radio and Photography Project, the pilot for Radio Rookies, was awarded First Place by the New York State Associated Press Broadcasters Association for "Best Local Documentary Program or Series in 1999."

In addition to winning the 2002 Casey Medal for Distinguished Coverage of Children and Family Issues in radio as well as a Golden Reel from the National Federation of Community Broadcasters for best Pre-Produced Local Public Affairs Programming in 2002, McCune and Patel were also winners along with Rookies Heather Oplinger, Heidi Choe and Linda Lee of the Flushing workshop for the 2002 Asian American Journalism Association Radio Award for Covering Asian American Issues.

As a result of their success and thanks to funding from various foundations, most Radio Rookies have been able to travel throughout the country to various conferences and festivals. That in itself, says Patel, is no small thing for the students, many of whom come from low income neighborhoods and difficult family situations, and would otherwise not have the chance to travel to places like Washington, D.C, Chicago and San Francisco.

"The more doors we can open for them, the better. If we have a way to create something for them -- like traveling to the conferences -- we want to," says Patel. "We help them with college applications and encourage them to put this on their resume. They have to overcome a lot of obstacles, like a fear of the microphone, writing challenges, a lack of confidence in themselves, etc. But [through the program] they learn to express themselves and develop their voices."

Even after the workshops are completed and celebrated in a 'graduation' ceremony, Rookies are encouraged to intern at WNYC, participate in ongoing events and encourage other students to develop their reporting skills. Patel says the Rookies are treated as professional journalists, even paid for their stories once they go on the air, and are always invited to "stick around." She hopes to continue developing the Radio Rookies program so that more teens are exposed to similar radio programs as well as new projects that build their skills and confidence.

As McCune says. "There are so many teenagers who think their lives aren't interesting. Radio Rookies helps them understand their lives are important enough to tell people about."

Published: Nov 25, 2002
Last modified: Nov 22, 2002

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