Radio Days

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In the big competition for a kid's leisure time, the low-tech radio may seem like a weak contender. It may not have the same hold over today's youngsters that IM, MTV, Game Boys and videos do. And it certainly doesn't dominate their lives the way it did their parents' in the old Top 40 days. But according to a 2000 study conducted by the marketing-research firm Arbitron, 90% of kids ages 6 to 11 listen to at least eight hours of radio each week, with that number increasing as they get older. Eager to keep them tuning in, public and commercial stations are scheduling kid-friendly programs, while museums are offering exhibits that give youngsters the opportunity for some valuable hands-on experience with the medium.

Leading the movement is Radio Disney, which focuses on tweens, the youngsters who, as Tim McCarthy, the network's president and general manager in New York City, puts it, are in that "overlooked period when you're not a little kid but you're not a teen." Just as boy-band pinups provide preadolescent girls with objects of affection before they're ready to date, Radio Disney offers a transitional experience for kids eager to explore the world of teen music but not ready for the hard-core rap and rock on other stations. The network's "lyrically screened" songs — hits by such nonthreatening acts as Aaron Carter and Mandy Moore — are acceptable to both parents and kids. "I listen because they play the songs I like and to find out what new artists are coming out," says Raven Henderson, 11, of Brooklyn, N.Y.

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Radio Disney airs 24 hours a day. Its lineup includes Web Fingors, a surfer guy who broadcasts Wednesday through Friday from Disneyland. He plays cool music, gives out prizes, takes phone calls from kids and does the occasional celebrity interview. Then there is B.B. Good, who has the noon-to-4-p.m. slot weekdays, airing from Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla. Good's show, Radio Disney's Playhouse, caters to the younger crowd, with more traditional kids' songs, stories, and appearances by Disney characters like Minnie Mouse and Winnie the Pooh. There's also Don Crabtree, who pretends to broadcast from a tree hut every weekday morning.

The number of kids ages 6 to 11 who listen to Radio Disney each week has increased 60%, from 1.5 million to 2.4 million, in the past two years, and the network receives an average of 500,000 calls a week. "We put them on the air, and it links them with other kids who have the same opinions and feelings," says Robin Jones, director of operations. The network woos its listeners with roving vans that visit state fairs and other places where kids are likely to hang out and on-air sweepstakes with such prizes as a sleepover party at Carter's home in Key West, Fla. And, of course, it also takes advantage of its sister cable network. "When you're watching the Disney Channel, they play part of a song and then cut it off," explains Kate Witteman, 9, of New York City. "So you're like, 'I really like that! I want to hear the rest of it!' So you turn on Radio Disney."

Public-radio stations are seeking that kind of brand loyalty too. They rely on members for financial support and figure that they can cultivate future audiences (and future dollars) if they get kids into the habit of listening now. So programmers across the country are creating shows for children. WFMU, which broadcasts in the New York-New Jersey area, offers Greasy Kid Stuff, with the husband-and-wife team Hova Najarian and Belinda Miller as hosts. The show, which airs on Saturday mornings, is directed at children ages 6 to 11 and features an eclectic mix of music that doesn't condescend to kids (its unofficial motto: No Raffi Ever). The Greasy playlist roams from rockabilly to lullabies, from the funky rock group Yo La Tengo to classic Elvis. "We felt like the kid stuff out there was pretty bland. There was no sense of the alternative," says Miller. "It's definitely a little nutty, a little offbeat. We felt like, 'If we play it, they will come.'" And they have. Greasy Kid Stuff has seen a 40% increase in contributing listeners since the show premiered in 1995.

Meanwhile, KPBX in Spokane, Wash., broadcasts several of the children's concerts it sponsors every year. The concerts have offered bluegrass, Australian bush music, Irish ceilidh music, and a klezmer band. Information about the instruments, musicians and cultures that created the music is a part of each show, and during the holidays, stories that incorporate musical props are added. Gini Dixon and her family are avid KPBX listeners. "The radio is always on," she says. "I think it broadens my kids' horizons." Her son Mitchell, 5, touts the stories, while his sister Elizabeth, 9, is a fan of the music: "It's hard to chose which kind I like best. I like them all."

The stations go after older kids too. WTIP in Grand Marais, Minn., offers Ragamuffin Radio, which was created and is produced by teens. The half-hour show, which airs every Monday, includes music as varied as jazz and folk, stories and reported features on topics such as starting a new school year or celebrating Kwanzaa. "Because wtip is a community station and kids are part of the community, we wanted a program that represented that," says Mary Igoe, the program director. Her daughter Ada, 17, has worked on the show for three years. "Sometimes I don't feel like doing it," Ada admits, "but I realize if we don't do it, there's nothing else out there for kids." (Ada sheepishly owns up to listening to commercial radio. "But I also listen to npr," she adds.)

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