More Than Music to Their Ears
Children of the video age are beginning to tune in a medium that their parents and grandparents grew up with.
Children's radio is booming. While one two-year-old nationally syndicated network aimed at youngsters and their parents continues to carve out its niche, several new weekly shows are also hitting the airwaves.
Radio AAHS (pronounced OZ) broadcasts daily on 18 stations across the country, including such major markets as Dallas, Los Angeles, and Washington. And judging by the reaction from its young listeners, reception couldn't be better. Radio AAHS gets as many as 200,000 listener calls each month.
On Saturday mornings, fans flock to the Radio AAHS studios, which are housed in what looks like a former branch bank in the Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park. On one school holiday, studio staff welcomed more than 500 visitors. The young listeners make the pilgrimage to pick up a sampler compact disk, buy Radio AAHS T-shirts, and play games. But mostly, they go to watch their favorite radio personalities in action.
Witnessing Jimmy Freeman's on-air antics, for example, makes it clear how the 13-year-old disk jockey earned his title as the network's "vice president of fun.'' When he's not on the air, Jimmy's duties include advising network executives about young peoples' fast-changing tastes.
It's no wonder Radio AAHS listeners find it so easy to relate to the network's "Air Force'' of two dozen young disk jockeys, who range in age from about 10 to 14.
"My colleagues said I was crazy, but I just had a feeling that kids deserved an outlet on radio,'' says Christopher T. Dahl, the president of Children's Broadcasting Corporation, the parent of Radio AAHS. "Some kids are turning off the TV to listen to us,'' he adds. "I think we're making an impact on their lives in a very nontraditional way.''
Radio AAHS fills much of its airtime with songs such as "Itsy Bitsy Spider'' by Little Richard, the Chipmunks' version of "Achy Breaky Heart,'' "Rise and Shine'' by Raffi, and a variety of light pop songs.
The rest of its programming includes storytelling, an evening drama show, brain teasers, letters from children, and news reports. On a recent weekday, for example, one program host read a brief biography of the poet Maya Angelou and followed up with letters from young listeners.
Even though the network's programming is not explicitly educational, Dahl says children do receive positive messages from most of the songs and stories they hear on Radio AAHS.
"Kids have a vast media range they graze through today, but I don't think they get much of anything out of it,'' he says. "My view as a broadcaster is to give kids a bit of self-esteem.''
Playing a Different Tune
Music radio has long been popular among teenage listeners, but conventional wisdom in the industry suggests that programming geared to younger children is not profitable. In fact, research firms that compile radio ratings don't even measure for listeners under 12--an omission that makes it hard for children's programmers to attract national advertisers.
"It's tough because you can't prove the audience through Arbitron ratings,'' says Bert Gould, a senior vice president of the Fox Children's Network, citing a leading radio ratings firm. This summer, Fox is launching a weekly syndicated music radio show for children hosted by characters from Fox television shows, such as "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.''
The "Fox Kids Countdown'' will feature "music that kids are telling us they want to hear,'' Gould says. Because the target audience extends to 17-year-olds, the tunes will tend more toward pop artists such as Janet Jackson than children's songs. "I can't imagine there's a single 11-year-old child who will tell you he wants to hear a Barney song on the show,'' Gould adds.
Radio AAHS and the Fox effort are joined by several other new radio shows for children.
- For tots who do crave more of the popular purple dinosaur, a weekly 10-minute program called "Bedtime with Barney'' premiÁered early this year. The show, syndicated to 35 stations by MJI Broadcasting of New York, features Barney telling classic children's bedtime stories.
- 'Rabbit Ears Radio,'' a weekly half-hour show, features celebrities reading stories and fairy tales on Public Radio International, formerly American Public Radio.
- "Kinetic City Super Crew,'' a radio mystery show with a focus on science, debuts in syndication this fall. The American Association for the Advancement of Science is developing the program with a $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation. The show will emulate radio dramas of the 1930's and 1940's, with a crew of children solving science mysteries.
The new weekly shows must do what they can to build an audience by trying to reach potential listeners when they air on affiliated stations. But Radio AAHS has taken a bolder approach--round-the-clock service.
Just finding where and when a syndicated weekly program airs in their area can be a difficult chore for young listeners, says Dahl of the Children's Broadcasting Corporation. But, he adds, they will always know where to find Radio AAHS. "Kids know that this is their channel. I think it's got to be a 24-hour source.''
But what does Radio AAHS air at 3 A.M., when most children should be sound asleep? Even Nickelodeon, the cable-television channel for children, airs shows intended for adults in its evening and late-night schedules.
Dahl says the network mostly plays music during the wee hours. "At night, our listenership probably goes down 95 percent,'' he says. But the round-the-clock schedule is important because of different time zones and to assure children that their radio outlet is always there, he adds.
Dahl, a longtime radio entrepreneur who owns more than two dozen stations, launched Radio AAHS locally in the Twin Cities market in 1990. He expanded to national distribution two years later.
Stations and advertisers have slowly signed on. The network's 18 affiliates add up to an estimated cumulative weekly audience of one million listeners, he says. National advertisers have included Mattel Inc., Target Stores, Sports Illustrated for Kids, and the Walt Disney Company.
Tuning In to Young Listeners
Observers of children's media hail the new radio shows, arguing that they are a welcome alternative to television and other visual media that monopolize young people's attention for hours each day.
Good children's radio seems to be on the rise, says Karen W. Jaffe, the executive director of KIDSNET, a Washington-based information clearinghouse on children's media. "Some of the reasons are that the children's market is growing, and people understand the economics ofthat. And more parents are in their cars with children, shuffling them to activities. Radio is an obvious opportunity to reach them.''
Radio, Jaffe suggests, is a more interactive medium for children than television, and it naturally provides more opportunities to use their imagination. "You can conjure up visual images while you are listening to the radio,'' she says.
Proponents of radio also point to its ability to present drama and stories, a hallmark of the medium's golden age that's virtually nonexistent today. "These stories really lend themselves to radio,'' says Georgia Bushman, the coordinating producer of "Rabbit Ears Radio.''
Rabbit Ears' productions of children's stories have been around for years on records, audiocassettes, and compact disks. They include such stories as Pecos Bill, narrated by Robin Williams; Jack and the Beanstalk, with Monty Python's Michael Palin; Rip Van Winkle, told by Angelica Huston; and The Velveteen Rabbit, with Meryl Streep.
In early June, Public Radio International began offering a radio version to its member stations, and more than 200 have begun airing the show. Mel Gibson introduces the 50 half-hour stories. (Twenty more are in production.)
"It's too soon to tell how well received the show will be with listeners,'' Bushman says. "Just the fact that we have 225 stations tells us they believe there is an audience there.''
Radio AAHS hopes to raise its profile under a new deal with Time Warner Inc. Warner Music Enterprises and Children's Broadcasting Corporation are teaming up to produce a national magazine for Radio AAHS listeners, as well as a companion musical compact disk and audiocassette. The magazine will highlight reviews of children's music and family films, plus interviews and news about the radio network.
The big question now for new children's radio shows is will they last, or will they go the way of "The Shadow.''
"I've put millions of dollars into this,'' Dahl says. "Our objective is to be in the top 100 markets in a couple of years.''