Getting underrepresented teens on air

At Ballou High School in S.E. Washington, DC, teaching students about radio journalism is no easy feat.

It’s not because the school is surrounded by police cars every morning and everyone goes through metal detectors to enter the building. Or that less than 20 percent of students score ‘proficient’ on state reading and math tests.

The real hurdles when I embedded there as part of the Prime Movers Media Program were the school’s lack of radio equipment and a rule preventing students from leaving the room during class time. Since problems are just opportunities in disguise, though, it didn’t stop us from creating pieces so good a few aired nationally on NPR!

My first challenge was actually getting students interested in what I had to offer. Only one of the 52 students had ever heard of NPR.

My tactic was to reflect the students’ needs and interests in my lessons. I played pieces from Youth Radio, explained the various parts and players in radio stories, and created activities and structures to show them how to write for the ear.

In the end, the equipment and room-bound constraints may have led to an even more satisfying result. I decided to have the students write commentaries. They took issues they cared about and put them in their words. Then they stood in front of my portable mic and delivered their thoughts in their own voices. It’s something we adults don’t often encourage them to do.

The pieces were so impressive I brought them to my senior producer. She chose three to air nationally on Weekend Edition. Check them out here.