Darlene Gonzalez and Lydia Arce huddled over a mixing board in an editing suite in Loyola University’s communications department. The girls, students at Antonia Pantoja High School in Bucktown, were listening to an interview they had recorded the day before, trying to decide what to include in their radio documentary about the political future of Puerto Rico. “What if we put a little piece of this part at the beginning and a little piece of it at the end?” suggested Gonzalez.

She and Arce were among the first group of students to complete their school’s girls-only radio production class, the pioneer project of a larger program called Radio Educate Chicago. The program is a partnership between the Puerto Rican nonprofit agency ASPIRA, which oversees the high school; the Guatemala Radio Project; and the Girl’s Best Friend Foundation, which stipulated that the course be open to girls only, in part because of the underrepresentation of girls and women in journalism.

When they began the class in February, none of the girls had any experience with professional recording equipment. “They saw the buttons and the blinking lights all over and wouldn’t touch anything,” says Jose Oliva, who taught the technical portion of the course. But by the end of the semester the girls were running the tape decks and mixing board like old pros, only occasionally checking with Oliva to make sure they were on the right track.

The girls chose their partners and their topics, which ranged from their school to Latino hip-hop. Gonzalez and Arce had originally planned to tackle teen pregnancy, but someone beat them to it (and then dropped the course). “We ended up doing [Puerto Rican politics] because it was controversial,” says Gonzalez.

The students spent half their time in a classroom with teacher Claudia Valenzuela discussing journalism theory and issues close to home, like domestic violence. They also took a hard look at the role of the mainstream media. “We were trying to expose them to issues in the media and the political scene around the world,” says Valenzuela. “So that when they produced their shows they’d be socially conscious and have some kind of context.”

Along the way the girls encountered many of the same roadblocks faced by professional journalists. A week before their deadline, Gonzalez and Arce were still trying to find an interviewee who was pro statehood. Another student, Jennifer Justiniano, had been trying for weeks to get hold of a Latino hip-hop group she needed for a follow-up interview. On top of that her partner had more or less dropped out of the class, leaving Justiniano to finish up by herself.

“We threw out the syllabus early on,” says Valenzuela. “Many things came up that we weren’t expecting, and we were able to modify the class. The girls did an interview workshop with Edie Rubinowitz from WBEZ. The story she chose to share with the class was with an African woman who had left Africa because of female circumcision. She was scheduled to give an hour-long presentation. She was good with students and stayed for the whole three-hour period.”

As the class wound down there was a feeling of quiet cooperation in the studio. Partners and best friends Judi Madrid and Marcy Lopez were at the mixing board recording a conclusion for their documentary about writer Luis Rodriguez and gang violence. “You should put a pause in there,” said Marcy, who ran the board while Judi spoke. “I know, I know. I always go straight through,” said Judi.

“There’s a big difference in the girls,” says Oliva. “There were a lot of quiet girls who ended up making great shows. But how do you document that?”

Puerto Rico: Points of View airs at 10:30 AM Friday on WLUW FM (88.7). Hip Hop: More Than Music airs at 10:30 AM next Friday, July 17, on WLUW and at 3 PM Tuesday, July 21, on WHPK FM (88.5). Gang Days airs at 3:30 PM Tuesday, July 21, on WHPK and at 10:30 AM Friday, July 24, on WLUW. Call 773-348-6994 for more information. –Cara Jepsen

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Marcy Lopez, Judi Madrid photo by Eugene Zakusilo.