Ten years ago, ZUMIX cofounder Madeleine Steczynski scribbled the words “We should start a radio station ha ha ha” on a napkin. The napkin was discarded, but not the idea. Fast forward a decade: Today, the nonprofit is celebrating 25 years of empowering underserved youth through music—and its internet streaming station was joined by ZUMIX Radio 94.9 FM in September.
Steczynski began operating ZUMIX out of her East Boston apartment in 1991, offering programs in music and related arts to neighborhood kids who would raid her fridge and linger to chat on her couch. “The core element is a true belief that young people are brilliant and that every young person has a way to shine,” she explains. “Our job is to figure out where they shine.”
ZUMIX now operates out of a restored firehouse two blocks away, where kids aged 7-18 shine in free and nominally priced programs that include songwriting, instrumental music, music technology, audio journalism and radio production. ZUMIX Radio airs live programming about 40 hours a week, and approximately 22 of those hours are produced by teens and preteens. Those shows run the gamut from pop music to poetry, video game commentary to a trivia hour called “Monday Night Facts.”
ZUMIX’s radio program not only provides kids from Eastie, Roxbury, Dorchester and other neighborhoods with practical skills; it gives them a platform. “Our young people are getting access to the tools to be trendsetters, to be thought leaders, to be provocative, to be fun and to be heard,” Steczynski says.
Corey DePina, youth development and performance manager, can speak directly to that experience. He’s been involved with the program since 1992, when he came to ZUMIX as an at-risk eighth grader “on the pipeline to prison.” “We use music to make a strong positive change in their lives, the communities and the world,” he says. “The idea is to use music as a tool for empowerment so kids can make healthy decisions throughout their lives. We figure if you can start with yourself, that will make the ripple that then goes to your community, which then ultimately leads out into the world.”
The music community will return the favor at a blowout 25th anniversary celebration at ZUMIX on March 31, when 20 local DJs—including Nomadik and Adam 12—will spin alongside ZUMIX’s young talents. “They’re so smart, they’re so creative, they’re so articulate at a young age,” Steczynski says of the kids. “It blows my mind. … They go to school all day long, and then they’re choosing to come here until 8 pm to educate themselves on their own terms and to continue to work hard on things that they love.”
We tapped some young members of the ZUMIX crew to spin us a playlist of their current jams.
Catalina Robles, 11, Mariposa World Music Ensemble: “Death of a Bachelor” by Panic! At the Disco
Chad Williams, 16, Advanced Hip-Hop: “Bi-Polar” by Latrell James
Dawry Ruiz, 15, Advanced Hip-Hop: “Chanel” by Frank Ocean
Dominic Lopez, 15, Radio: “Can You Be My Friend” by Chief Keef
Gabi Barroso, 15, Radio: “Vincent” by Car Seat Headrest
Jordi Reyes, 17, Guitar: “C’est Si Bon” by Henri Betti
Juan Gutierrez, 18, Bass: “Somebody Else” by the 1975
Juan Pablo Zuluaga, 18, Radio: “Tighten Up” by the Black Keys
Kevin Le, 17, Vocals: “Eternal Youth” by RUDE
Lydia Debenedictis, 14, Radio: “Lovely” by Twenty One Pilots
Manuela Melguizo, 13, Radio: “Can’t Stop” by Red Hot Chili Peppers
Marlon Colon, 15, Advanced Hip-Hop: “Neighborhood” by Jr Biggie