Tomorrow's Cronkites with today's news
Berkeley, Calif. — ". . . in our next report we will take a closer look at how the Army got hold of student telephone numbers in at least one school though the school denies giving out those telephone numbers. . . . For Youth News, this is Toni Slattery reporting."
Over the airwaves her voice still warbles with a Mouseketeer twang, and occasionally she trips up on her grammar. But who cares? High school senior Toni Slattery was the first reporter in the San Francisco area to break the story of apparently illegal Army recruiting in high schools.Her story went out to more than 20 stations around the country and eventually forced the president of the San Francisco school board to crack down on principals giving out students' names and phone numbers, in violation of state law.
Toni is one of a half-dozen high school students now receiving after-school training as reporters in radio station KPFA's Youth News Service. They cover youth-oriented issues such as the draft, teen unemployment, racial tension, alcohol abuse, and education. Financed by two private foundations in northern California, the Youth News Service is housed in the upstairs offices of Berkeley's KPFA. The station is the flagship of the Pacifica radio network and was the first listener-sponsored, noncommercial station in the country. Only two months old, its Youth News Service is thought to be the first radio news program operated by and targeted at teen-agers.
"We're not interested in dealing with soft youth issues like disco fashions. We prefer the hard stuff, like how unemployment, the draft, and the juvenile justice system affect youth," says Louis Freedberg, a former high school teacher who was once KPFA's news director and now heads Youth News.
While the program is just getting off the ground, Mr. Freedberg is making plans to send one of his high school reporters -- probably Toni Slattery -- to open a Youth News Bureau in Washington, D.C., this summer. She will be paid $ 400 a month to report on Congressional legislation affecting high school students and will work out of the offices of the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial's Student Press Service, which acts as a news service to some 1,000 high school newspapers in the US.
By the end of this year, Mr. Freedberg hopes to beam a weekly 15-minute "Youth News" broadcast over a federally-financed satellite to noncommercial stations from coast to coast.
The idea for Youth News grew out of his concern with his high school students' apparent addiction to those black plastic suitcases they carry around and call radios. He was troubled by the social and intellectual desert presented by commercial radio and thought it was about time someone provided an alternative to that "bubble gum for the mind" that was being broadcast on top 40 stations.
"The fact is that most kids these days don't read. They walk around with transistors to their ears listening to top 40 radio, which is getting more sophisticated, subtle, and seductive. The music sounds like the commercials, and the commercials sound like the news," says Mr. Freedberg, a South African with wiry red hair, who admits his own addiction is for news. "A tremendous amount of effort has gone into studying the effect of TV on children, but no one has seriously looked at the effects of radio on the teen-age population. Commercial radio stations are out to make money. They play the same music 24 hours a day. They enforce oppressive stereo-types and consumer values on teen-agers and aren't doing a thing to help kids deal with the problems of being young and growing up in this society," says Mr. Freedberg. (He adds that the FCC is about to free commercial radio from its present obligation to air news and public service announcements.)
For nearly a decade, he worked in the Berkeley public schools, trying to keep teen-agers who were labeled "educationally handicapped" from dropping out. For several years he taught basic math and reading skills. "Students would come to class with their radios blaring and listen to them while they did their homework."
He eventually adopted the old "if-you-can't-beat-them-join-them" strategy. He couldn't expect high school students to turn in their transistors for a set of the Harvard classics, but he could put something on the airwaves that might help them cope with growing up. "What's more," says Mr. Freedberg, "I knew there were news stories out there which high school students have access to and adults just never hear about."
He drummed up $40,000 from the Rosenberg Foundation and the Evelyn & Walter Haas Fund, made a newsroom out of an old KPFA storeroom, bargained with the University of California at Berkeley's language lab for a couple of vintage tape decks, and began training high school students with the help of Ellin O'Leary, a former news director of a local soul and disco radio station.
His original intention was to take only minority students into the program. "They are hardest hit by the issues," he reasoned. Two months ago when the program began, he had signed on eight students. Since then, two have dropped out ("severe cases of senioritis," he says), and at the moment the Youth News team is made up of three whites, a black, an Asian, and a Chicana.
Of Toni Slattery, he says, "I never expected to have a white student from rich Marin County in the program, but when she told me in the interview that she had just written a letter to her principal protesting a policy that required her to have a date to attend the senior prom, I knew that was the kind of spunk we needed on the radio."
Toni is one of the few students with previous broadcast experience. Apparently a born performer she has been on and off the stage since age five when she played Rumpelstiltskin. When she was 14, she anchored a children's television news show in San Francisco called "Kidswatch." It was then that she began to fantasize herself as "the next Barbara Walters." Here television career was cut short when she had to leave Kidswatch at age 15, the mandatory retirement age.
A few weeks after she joined Youth News, she got a call at home from an army recruiter. She not only was miffed by the recruiter's hard sell, but felt it was an invasion of her privacy. She wondered where the recruiter had got her name and home phone number. Like a good reporter she began snooping around. She got her principal, her high school counselor, and an army recruiter on tape, and then began making calls around the San Francisco school system.
In a matter of days, she made her debut over KPFA with a radio report that many schools had no consistent policy on giving information to the Army, and others appeared to be in outright violation of a state statute regulating the release of students' names, addresses, and phone numbers without parents' permission.
When I first met Toni at KPFA, she was hunched over an Olivetti portable typewriter banging out a follow-up piece on ASVAB (Armed Services Vocation Aptitude Battery), a vocational test administered in high schools and used as a recruiting tool by the armed services. After she finishes muckraking the military, she told me, she plans to sink her teeth into censorship and the First Amendment rights of high school newspapers."
In the Youth News office, on Toni's left, were two other reporters, Vivian Chavez and Lisa Feng, who were dubbing sound on reel-to-reel tape for a review they were doing of the film "Coal Miner's Daughter." Vivian is also working on stories about bilingual education and a local recycling center. Lisa went on the air recently with a report on an antidraft rally at her high school. She is now assembling a profile of Vietnam war veteran Ron Kovik.
As Mr. Freedberg paused to coach Toni on keeping bias out of her journalism, a fourth reporter, Phillip "Call Me Hollywood" Henson, burst into the rom. The black junior from Oakland Technical High School carried a cassette tape recorder under one arm. He had just come back from collecting "actualities" -- a series of student-in-the-street interviews -- for a story assessing the accuracy of national surveys that show a decline in smoking among American youth.
Phillip wants to be a sports announcer, "sort of a combination of Howard Cosell and Walter Cronkite." He certainly has the personality and nonstop mouth to qualify. And if for some reason he doesn't make it in sports, I suggest he apply for Mike Wallace's job on "60 Minutes" when the latter retires.
Before I could even find out why he is called "Hollywood," this young reporter had thoroughly interrorgated me about my educational background and my job. And to top it all, he offered to write the headline for my Youth News story. "Why don't we call it: 'Teenagers Invade the Airwaves'? No, better yet: 'Radio Station Tunes In to Students.'"
I squeezed in a question. Phillip Henson is called "Hollywood" after the former Dallas Cowboys linebacker "Hollywood" Henderson. He isn't exactly sure what he'll do when he graduates from high school next year, but one thing he is sure of: "Radio's where it's at as far as teen-agers go. It's knocking on TV's door.
'. . . We'll listen to anything on the radio that keeps us moving. The trouble with radio is that it has no variety. All you get is a new voice every three hourse. I listen to [a local soul station] and the only news they have is five minutes on the hour for that Iran stuff and occasionally something about somebody getting killed or something leaking. You know, ammonia gas or something."
He leans his chair back against a wall in the recording studio where we have been talking. "Why don't radios put a teen-ager on the air, like on Saturdays, as deejay of the week? The only time teen-agers get on the air these days is to scream 'I won! I won!' when the station gives away a record album."
If Youth News and KPFA's Louis Freedberg have their way, high school students like Phillip Henson will be the ones on the air giving away the free records and covering the news by, for, and about radio's most addicted listeners -- high school students.