At the corner of 17th and Broadway in Oakland, there’s a large neon green sign with black letters that reads “Youth Radio.” Its graduates have have worked with some of the Bay’s biggest rappers and engineered some of the most popular local songs of the last decade.
Founded in the early 1990s, Youth Radio started off as a program to connect media professionals with talented young journalists and artists.
But despite radio being at the center of its educational programs, some of Youth Radio’s most well-known alums aren’t even radio journalists.
Once students get accepted to Youth Radio, they sample different creative paths over a three-month period — such as radio broadcasting, journalism and DJing. After that, they’ll pick a path to concentrate on, and at the end of this entire training period they’ll apply for paid internships to work on different projects commissioned to Youth Radio.
Noah Holt, one of Youth Radio’s musical-production interns, uses computer software to make beats. But he didn’t start off at Youth Radio even knowing that he wanted to do this.
Noah says, “My DJ teacher was always telling me it's always good to learn how to produce, because you're not just a DJ [and] you have something else to offer.”
Youth Radio students started making beats here after one of them covertly installed audio editing software on one of the computers. Once staff recognized its popularity, they began developing a beat-making educational program.
The curriculum evolved over the years, says Youth Radio's Maeven McGovern, who directs the arts pathway.
“I started a poetry-writing workshop here that was successful and gained a lot of traction, and then ended up teaming up with one of the case managers who wanted to start a support group,” McGovern says. “But he couldn't get any kids to come because if you call it an emotional support group, no teenagers are going.”
McGovern says the Remix Your Life program was describes as an “‘after-after school program,’ so young people would come [and] focus on the technical skills here.”
As part of the program, interns such as Noah take on beat-making and related assignments, like creating sound for a movie scene, or manipulating sounds they recorded themselves.
And Youth Radio graduates have gone on to work with some of the Bay Area’s biggest rappers, and have engineered some of the most popular local songs of the last decade.
As the scene has evolved over the years, Youth Radio alumni have been right in the middle of the action.
Brandon MacFarland, a Youth Radio alum also known as 1 O.A.K., formed the hip-hop collective HNRL Crew with other deejays and producers while a Youth Radio intern. Members of the HNRL Crew have gone on to work with rappers like Mistah Fab and sign onto record labels, and MacFarland's song Lost and Found can be heard on 106.1 KMEL-FM.
Brandon was actually part of that first wave of students to learn how to make beats, back when Youth Radio was located in Berkeley. Once he got his hands on the new software, he was hooked.
“Any spare time, I would make so many beats,” he says.
After graduating from the program Brandon stayed on at Youth Radio, teaching younger students while becoming a skilled producer himself.
He now lives in LA pursuing music full time.
It’s a similar story with many of the instructors at Youth Radio, such as Oliver Rodriguez. Better known by the name Kuya Beats, Rodriguez affiliated with the nationally touring Bay Area hip-hop group the Heartbreak Gang. He's also made beats for artists like Ty Dolla Sign and Wiz Khalifa, and is now the executive producer for Remix Your Life.
As someone who went through the program as a teenager, he works hard to foster the same creative environment inspired him.
“With music production I like to think of myself as a young person, even though I’m kinda older than everybody,” he says. “I like to listen to what they're doing because it ... helps me understand what I need to do, what they're into, [a]nd how music is always just about energy.”
New students such as Isaiah Richardson had only a little bit of piano background — but since interning with Remix Your Life, his skills have advanced, and studying under Rodriguez, he can learn exactly what it takes to be a producer in the industry.
“Instead of telling me ‘Hey, you’re missing this, [Rodriguez] will just throw in clues and let me figure it out myself,” he says.
The journey to becoming a skilled beat maker takes a lot of time and practice — but once things started clicking for Richardson, he became obsessed.
“I wasn’t super happy" about the first beat he made, "because I knew it could be a lot better. But the fact that I made it on my own it made me feel good.”
Passion and community drive interns to find their own sounds. It’s a long road to build a reputation like Brandon or Kuya Beats in the music world, but Isaiah knows that you have to put in effort.
“You can't just stand around. You have to actually work once you get there,” Isaiah states.
It’s this kind of attitude that has kept Youth Radio’s musicians relevant over the years.
And as they continue working with new music producers, Youth Radio will continue shaping the Bay Area’s sound.