George Lucas Educational Foundation
Student Engagement

Learning Inside an Out-of-School Newsroom

Elisabeth Soep of Oakland, California’s Youth Radio shares how a radio commentary can engage students on real-world issues.

July 19, 2010

Editor's Note: Our guest blogger this week is Elisabeth (Lissa) Soep, PhD, research director and senior producer at Youth Radio, a Peabody Award-winning, youth-driven production company in Oakland, California, with bureaus across the country and partners around the world. Lissa's new book with Vivian Chavez, Drop That Knowledge: Youth Radio Stories, takes you behind-the-scenes to give you concrete strategies for engaging and collaborating with diverse groups of young people on real-world initiatives. This week, she's sharing the how-tos (and the valuable lessons) of writing a radio commentary.

Whenever I give a talk about my work with Youth Radio -- where teenagers collaborate with adult media-makers to produce audio, video, text and photo-based stories for broadcast and digital outlets -- invariably one of the first questions I get asked is some version of, "How can the activities and outcomes you describe happen inside schools?"

I never know how to answer that question. I get where it's coming from, but the question always seems like a set-up. With teachers up against so much (workload, tight resources, mounting pressures and requirements), the last thing I want is to add to the annoying chorus of, "Hey, you should try this!"

But I don't want to ignore what's behind the question, because I've seen, again and again, how transformative it can be -- for participants and public discourse -- when young people compose, produce, edit, and distribute stories to mass audiences. The more students get to follow that trajectory, the better. And it's not just about the students. As educators, we all need activities that remind us why we wanted to teach in the first place. There's nothing like a moment of stunning youth performance to do that.

So my plan for this post and a few more between now and the beginning of the next school year is to describe what I see outside classrooms in a way that enables teachers to adapt elements for their own daily practice.

When it gets closer to fall, I'll share five of my own favorite stories from Youth Radio's 20-year archive. I'm also planning a post about the "digital afterlife" of youth-produced content: what happens when young people's stories circulate online, triggering comments and other forms of "user engagement" that can take the content in directions the original authors never intended. I'd also love to give the Edutopia audience a sneak-peak into the Mobile Action Lab Youth Radio is launching (we were one of the winners of a competition sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation and HASTAC). Through the Lab, young people will join forces with professional developers to create five apps that serve real needs in youth communities -- so stay tuned for ways that you and your students can tap into that work.

But here, I'll start with something really simple, even a little old-school: the radio commentary.

The Power of a Radio Commentary

A commentary is an amazing way to get students talking, writing, peer-editing, and performing, across lots of subjects. It usually runs around two minutes long, which translates to about a full single-spaced page. In it, the writer shares experiences that are personally meaningful, surprising, and resonant with larger social themes. Commentaries don't have to be "objective," whatever that means, but they have to be true. The best commentaries offer nuanced points of view grounded in compelling evidence, which might come from lived experiences, interviews, or research. And most importantly, like all good writing, they take readers along for a ride.

To write a commentary, we ask young people to work through the following steps:

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. For example, check out this Youth Radio essay about body image. The writer opened with a comment meant as praise that actually hurt her feelings, 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 fifteen. 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.

2.Find a strong hook, or lede.

With radio, clarity and economy of expression can make or break your story. Really spend time crafting that first line. You'll rarely get it right the first time, so don't get stuck on it. Here's the first graf from a story Youth Radio did in collaboration with the Appalachian Media Institute in Eastern Kentucky, where the writer does a nice job leading with something that sets up a tension and makes you want to keep listening.

"My 19th birthday was a bittersweet occasion. That day, I officially aged out of Kentucky's insurance program for low-income youth. As luck would have it, I developed a health problem almost immediately..."

3.Use concrete examples, images, and stories.

If you're talking about getting along with your parents, describe specific incidents or arguments when your communication worked or broke down. One young soldier did a commentary for Youth Radio shortly after returning from Iraq, 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." A commentator sharing her experience with depression and hypomania filled her narrative with arresting images that drew 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 transcript 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 allover my walls. But just like all the other times to come, like when I bought five identical dresses... or spent hours in a train station staring at the ground because I 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...

4.Express yourself conversationally.

Write like you speak, and read your scripts out loud as you write (don't just mouth the words). Words on the page don't always translate to a story that sounds good. Think about rhythm and pacing. If you write poetry or make music, give your commentaries a lyrical sensibility. At the same time, think about your audience, and consider how to introduce colloquial expressions in ways that enrich your narrative. For an example of that done really well, check out this Youth Radio essay about one commentator's complex relationship to his hometown of Oakland, California, which aired on National Public Radio.

5.Don't be afraid to use humor and attitude.

A commentary is not the place to neutralize your voice or offer a generic observation. Give yourself room to sparkle, provoke, and play.

6.Fact check!

Even though commentaries are written in first person and can be opinion-based, you still need to verify sources and the information you report. When one Youth Radio student wrote a commentary stating that cutbacks in the bus line doubled her commute-time to school, an unhappy representative from the transit office called our newsroom the next day to ask specifically what bus the student rode, gathering evidence in hopes of refuting the girl's claim. It's good to anticipate those kinds of reactions -- a process that also lets young people know what's at stake in their work, and why it matters.

I've had my university students write commentaries and perform them at the end of class, and it's always amazing to see how different that experience is, compared to the formal essays and articles they have to turn in over the course of the semester (one key requirement -- wild, slam poetry-style applause from the whole class after each student reads). I'd encourage you to consider writing a commentary alongside your students -- I've done that too -- which is a powerful way to create a dynamic of "collegial pedagogy" in your classroom and model risk-taking and editing.

Finally, if you've got great material from your classroom, send it to Youth Radio, an outlet for youth-generated stories from around the country and across the world. Email submissions to

Elisabeth (Lissa) Soep, PhD is the research director and senior producer at Youth Radio. Youth Radio content is distributed by outlets including National Public Radio, The Huffington Post, iTunes, and the organization's own music site, All Day Play. Be sure to check out Lissa's new book with Vivian Chavez, Drop That Knowledge: Youth Radio Stories.

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