Teen Reporters are No Rookies

“From WNYC, this is Radio Rookies — true stories from New York City teenagers.” So begins “Growing Up, Getting By,” the hour-long special commemorating the tenth year of the Radio Rookies program at New York Public Radio. Since Marianne McCune started the program with a small workshop in 1999, Radio Rookies has been working with teenagers throughout the metro area, combining training in basic radio reporting techniques with a chance to tell their stories. Radio Rookies moves throughout the five boroughs of New York City, working in partnership with organizations such as The Next Generation Center (Bronx), the High School for Global Citizenship (Brooklyn) and Project Hospitality (Staten Island).

According to Kaari Pitkin, the program’s senior producer, McCune began the program with the goal of combining radio diaries with arts education for teenagers. Pitkin explains that an integral part of the Radio Rookies program is their willingness to work with kids from all educational backgrounds and walks of life. As such, the kids “come to the program with a huge range of skills and tools, and interests and curiosities, and strengths and weaknesses.” The most important attribute a teenager can bring to the table, however, is bravery; as McCune explains on “Growing Up, Getting By,” “You have to be courageous to be a Radio Rookie. … They dare to tell some of the most difficult stories: stories they are right in the middle of, whether or not they want to be.” Indeed, topics of Rookie stories include homosexuality, illegal immigration, and the ease with which teens can buy guns. They also explore some of the universal aspects of growing up, such as gossip, bullying and young love.

Pitkin says that the Rookies reap great rewards for their bravery. “The most rewarding thing,” she says, “is seeing how much a young person can grow through a creative process that demands deep thinking, critical thinking, questioning, and then having some kind of an output and a connection with a larger audience.” Sometimes, too, the Rookies’ stories lead to drastic changes in their lives. One Rookie who produced a story about struggling in school soon was contacted by the principal of a magnet school and offered a substantial scholarship; another Rookie who did a segment on the difficulty of finding a job was later employed by a listener. Life is not easy for the Rookies, and it can sometimes interfere with their radio work; Pitkin says that “sometimes the kids’ lives can overwhelm their ability to participate in the program.” Rookies have had to drop out in order to make money to support themselves, take care of younger siblings, or any number of other reasons. But they are always welcomed back to the program, and many go on to make great strides. Pitkin says that working with the program helps kids to “connect the dots” and take advantage of the opportunities they discover.

As with many nonprofit institutions, Radio Rookies is currently going through what Pitkin calls a “belt-tightening time.” Despite this, they are still producing quality radio programming. Pitkin says that “the goal is both youth development and bringing stories that you normally wouldn’t hear in a mainstream market to that audience.” Their hard work and commitment to artistic integrity have been made more salient with the receipt of such awards as the Regional Edward R. Murrow Award, the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism, and a National Coming Up Taller Award that was presented at a White House ceremony.

Radio Rookies

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