Radio Days

By Mark Walsh — September 01, 1994 6 min read

Like many disc jockeys, Jimmy Freeman spends his time on the air spinning songs and cracking silly jokes. His antics at Radio AAHS have earned him the title “vice president of fun.” When he’s off the air, Jimmy’s duties include advising the network about the fast changing tastes of its audience.

Not bad for a 13 year old. But then kids are what Radio AAHS (pronounced OZ) is all about. “My colleagues said I was crazy,” says Christopher Dahl, president of Children’s Broadcasting Corp., parent of the nationally syndicated AAHS, “but I just had a feeling that kids deserved an outlet on radio.” More than that, Dahl is banking that children’s radio is going to boom.

Several weekly radio shows for youngsters hit the airwaves this past year, and more are on the way. But so far, the leader of the new children’s genre is the four year old Radio AAHS. Aimed at children and their parents, Radio AAHS broadcasts daily on 18 stations across the country, including such major markets as Dallas, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C.

Judging from the reaction of its young listeners, reception couldn’t be better. Radio AAHS gets as many as 200,000 listener calls each month. And on Saturday mornings, fans flock to its studios, which are housed in what looks like a former bank building in the Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park. On one school holiday last year, the staff welcomed more than 500 visitors. The young listeners make the pilgrimage to pick up sampler compact discs, buy Radio AAHS T shirts, and play games. But mostly, they come to watch the network’s “Air Force”—Jimmy Freeman and the other two dozen or so 10 to 14 year old disc jockeys—in action.

“Some kids are turning off the TV to listen to us,” Dahl says. “I think we’re making an impact on their lives in a very nontraditional way.”

Radio AAHS fills much of its airtime with such songs 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, drama, brain teasers, letters from children, and news reports. On a recent weekday, for example, one program host read a brief biography of poet Maya Angelou and followed up with letters from young listeners.

Even though the network’s programming is not explicitly educational, Dahl believes 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,” he says, “but I don’t think they get much of anything out of it. My view as a broadcaster is to give kids a bit of self-esteem.”

Music radio has long been popular with teens, 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 keep track of 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,” says Bert Gould, a senior vice president of the Fox Children’s Network. This summer, Fox launched a syndicated weekly radio show featuring music for children. It’s hosted by characters from Fox television shows, such as Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.

The Fox Kids Countdown features “music that kids are telling us they want to hear,” Gould explains. Because the target audience extends up to 17-year-olds, the tunes tend more toward the work of 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 premiered early this year. The show, syndicated to 35 stations by MJI Broadcasting of New York, features Barney telling 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 1930s and 1940s, with a crew of children solving science mysteries.

Building an audience can be challenging for the new weekly shows. Somehow, they must let their potential listeners know when and on which affiliated stations they air. Radio AAHS has taken a bolder approach: round the clock service. Kids will always know where to find Radio AAHS, says Dahl of the Children’s Broadcasting Corp. “Kids know this is their channel,” he says. “It’s got to be a 24 hour source.”

But what does AAHS air at 3 a.m., when most children should be sound asleep? According to Dahl, the network mostly plays music for adults during the wee hours. “At night, our listenership probably goes down 95 percent,” he says. But the round the clock schedule is important, he explains, because of different time zones and to assure children that their radio outlet is always there.

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, Target Stores, Sports Illustrated for Kids, and the Walt Disney Co.

“The children’s market is growing, and people understand the economics of that,” says Karen Jaffe, executive director of KIDSNET, a Washington based information clearinghouse on children’s media. “More parents are in their cars with children, shuffling them to activities. Radio is an obvious opportunity to reach them.”

Jaffe and other observers of children’s media praise 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. Radio, Jaffe suggests, is a more interactive medium than television; it naturally provides more opportunities for children to use their imagination. “You can conjure up visual images while you are listening to the radio,” she says.

Rabbit Ears Radio is a prime example of what Jaffe is talking about. Rabbit Ears productions of children’s stories have been around for years on record, audiocassette, and compact disc. 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 the stories to its member stations, and more than 200 have begun airing the show. Mel Gibson introduces the 50 half hour stories; 20 more are in production.

“These stories really lend themselves to radio,” says Georgia Bushman, coordinating producer of Rabbit Ears. “Just the fact that we have 225 stations tells us they believe there is an audience there.”

But the big question now is, will children’s radio last, or will it soon go the way of Fibber McGee and Molly?

“I’ve put millions of dollars into this,” says Dahl. “Our objective is to be in the top 100 markets in a couple of years.”

Stay tuned.

A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 1994 edition of Teacher as Radio Days