Derrick Johnson sighed with despair as he edited a news story about South Africa by one of his star reporters.
The writer, Duane Beeman, a seventh-grader at the Fletcher Johnson Junior High School in the District, had turned in a sophisticated account based on a visit to the South African Embassy, calls to the United Nations and an interview with TransAfrica's Randall Robinson.
But Johnson took a pen in hand and raked across line after line of Beeman's radio copy. "It's not a bad job," said the hard-nosed editor. "In fact, it's so good it doesn't sound like a 12-year-old."
Look who's talking.
When Johnson was 9, he had a TV show on WMAL, now WJLA, Channel 7. By age 10, he had resigned because, he says, "I got tired of people telling me what to do." At 20 he is founder and president of Pyramid Communications Inc., a national black youth media network based in Washington and run by budding journalists and technicians ages 4 to 25.
"The philosophy of our radio programming is to provide news with an interpretation that young people can relate to," said Johnson, defending his cuts in Beeman's story. "We have to keep in mind that when we did our first show on South Africa several months ago, before it was vogue -- you know -- we found out that most of our listeners did not know where South Africa was."
Now he was wrangling with the best way to define apartheid. Beeman had used two definitions, one from Webster's dictionary calling it a "practice of racial separation," and one from the United Nations Special Committee Against Apartheid calling it "a unique system of racial oppression." As Webster's words disappeared under the editor's ink, Johnson smiled.
"Just telling it like it is," he said.
This was a trademark of Pyramid Communications, a two-year-old, nonprofit operation supported by foundation grants that employs about 80 youngsters, most of them students in D.C. public schools. Pyramid is known for doing what children do best: talking straight. The organization syndicates 10 half-hour radio programs each week, including a popular inspirational family program called "All The Way" and the often hard-hitting "Jump to It," on which Beeman's South Africa story will be featured at 9:30 a.m. Saturday on WPFW.
Inside his donated office at the Capital Children's Museum, Third and H streets NE, Johnson checked his reporter's story for cadence and style, often trying to put himself in the place of his listeners.
"This South Africa thing is catching on, and we don't want to leave our young people behind," said Johnson.
"Already, they can see Desmond Tutu as Martin Luther King, and that gives them a crisper picture of what is going on. They know what talk of boycott means. Now they want to know why is the United States supporting South Africa?
"We wanted to know, too, so we set up an interview with a spokesman for EverReady Batteries, which does a lot of business in South Africa. We had to submit our questions in advance, and when they saw them they canceled the interview."
But as the saying goes, one monkey doesn't stop the show.
" 'Not only are the white South Africans denying the black majority political, social and economic equity,' " Johnson read from Beeman's report.
" 'They are denying blacks citizenship in their own country. And what does the United States stand for?' "
Johnson looked pleased. "That would be a good way to end it," he said. "In our schools, in this city, the children are being taught that America stands for democracy and opposes dictatorships and inequality. But after hearing this report, they can go back to their teachers and say, 'Hey, you're just talking theory. And it ain't necessarily so.' "