Radio Station Tunes In to What Kids Want

Seattle pre-teens are the primary audience - and prime contributors - for KidStar shows

A YEAR ago, Seattle went APEC. President Clinton was here to host leaders of the 15-nation Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation group. Elbowing for interviews alongside 2,000 other journalists were intrepid eight-to-13-year-old reporters from a local radio station, KidStar. Thrusting microphones over their heads to capture the responses from those they interviewed, the young journalists talked with White House adviser David Gergen, a Secret Service official, and China's vice premier.

With the motto ``Radio Just for Kids,'' the station (AM 1250) has become a hit with many Seattle pre-teens since going on the air in May 1993. The parent company, Children's Media Network, plans to take its mix of music, news, features, and contests nationwide. By April next year, KidStar will be broadcast in America's 10 biggest media markets.

KidStar president Bill Koenig, a post-teen with two decades of business experience, says media companies aiming to reach young audiences have focused too much on television or video games, ignoring radio. Though stations in some other cities have radio shows for pre-teens, KidStar is taking the effort to a new scale: broadcasting 18 hours of programming daily and aiming nationwide.

Keeping everyone happy

The Seattle company represents an opportunity for both children and advertisers.

Kids get a stew of stories, songs, contests, and information tailored specifically to their tastes. A Mick Jagger song may be followed by Jonathan Freeman (the voice of the villainous Jafar) singing a track from the animated Disney film ``Aladdin.'' Also in the kettle: a daily ``wild and wacky sound effect'' contest, a character named Zylo who purports to be from another planet, and the opportunity for children to share their jokes, snack recipes, and views on ``what's hot and what's not'' on the air.

For advertisers, the obvious benefit is to tag along for the ride, being mentioned in front of an audience that includes both parents and the youngsters who influence much family spending. By one study, children spend $8 billion directly and indirectly affect $130 billion in sales each year.

Mr. Koenig says he is determined to protect KidStar from becoming too commercial, for business reasons as well as for children's sake. He says if parents love the station and children feel as though it's their own, the ads ``get to be part of a halo effect. We're trying to protect that'' so the advertising spots will remain very valuable.

Key sponsors of programming to date include local names like Microsoft Corporation, Washington Mutual Savings Bank, and the Nordstrom department store. Weyerhaeuser Company, the timber giant, backs a show on nature called ``In the Out Door.''

``It's not this constant barrage of sugared-cereal ads or candy ads or toys'' that often surround children's TV programs, says Katharine Heintz-Knowles, a media expert at the University of Washington in Seattle. The sponsors, including museums and the city's symphony orchestra, ``are institutions that I think parents probably support,'' she says.

A small fraction of KidStar's advertising is objectionable, Ms. Heintz-Knowles says, when it blurs the distinction between programming and advertising.

Each week, an estimated 175,000 children (aged 3 to 12) and 125,000 parents tune in to the station from homes and cars in the 2.5-million-person metropolitan area.

``We always listen to it in the car,'' says Phyllis Yasutake, mother of 11-year-old Carter.

She appreciates the variety of music (``If you listen to it long enough, everybody can be happy''), while Carter says he gets tired of the ``little kids' music'' that is sometimes played.

Helping kids understand

Koenig confirms ``kids will listen `up' '' to other age levels, ``but they do not want to listen `down.' '' He says KidStar's goal is to never stray too far from what appeals to nine-year-olds, which the station considers its core listeners.

Mrs. Yasutake says she likes the stories (tales such as ``The Velveteen Rabbit'' are repeated several times a day) and the way news is presented so youngsters can understand. ``They'll say, `an investor is someone who puts his money up in the hopes of getting something back in return.' ''

Parents also generally say they can trust KidStar not to put objectionable songs or talk on the air.

One of the things listeners like best is getting to participate.

``You can win prizes from calling up on the PhoneZone and answering questions and stuff,'' Carter says.

The PhoneZone is an automated telephone line for listeners. It's a way for the station to get input from listeners and for listeners to get information related to the radio shows.

After dialing in for free, callers punch in four-digit access codes for various topics. Under one category, they can leave comments about news events that may be excerpted as news commentary on the radio the next day. Under other codes, callers can vote on the kinds of songs they want to hear or leave a question for their United States senator (both Washington senators answer questions every couple of weeks).

The children make the most of their opportunity.

One girl leaves this on the joke line: ``What's green and goes oink, oink? Porky Pickle.... That's all folks!''

`Snax with Max'

Another offers a recipe that gets picked up for a radio feature called ``Snax With Max'': The voracious character, Max, rates ``Emily's cheesy Italian popcorn'' as a five for taste, a four on ``health and handleability,'' and a three for looks.

One listener bites back at Phil Dumpster, a radio-show character who challenges kids to recycle at school: ``You are like so lame.'' This boy found the challenge easy; he buys recycled paper and uses it ``slowly.''

Such comments pepper the radio shows with kids' voices even though most of the people in KidStar studios are adults.

The PhoneZone will help KidStar to localize its product in each market nationwide. The bulk of the programming will be the same across the US, but the company plans to highlight local kids' comments in each city.

The PhoneZone also gives KidStar an unusual wealth of information. Anyone can listen to the radio, but to use the PhoneZone or to get a free quarterly magazine, children must fill out forms (often with parents' help). This is just the beginning of a database of information KidStar will build, since every call to PhoneZone is tracked by users' ``secret'' codes, punched in at the beginning of the call. Children can win prizes by getting their friends to sign up.

Collecting caller data

KidStar pledges not to transfer any of this information to other companies for marketing, Koenig says. Its value to the Children's Media Network is enormous. The company maps where listeners are concentrated and pinpoints the locations of all children who have called the PhoneZone 100 times, for example.

So far, such research shows a radio station with mainstream appeal, Koenig says. Listenership in Seattle almost exactly parallels the racial mix of the city. The average family income of KidStar's listeners is a bit above the city's average.

One open question is whether KidStar will appeal as broadly in cities that are more culturally and racially diverse than Seattle, as most of the top 10 media markets are. ``I think it will be a challenge,'' Heintz-Knowles says.

She says KidStar's use of the PhoneZone is ``brilliant'' in allowing any listener to potentially get on the air. ``That's really good for kids' self-image,'' adds Mike Dixon, whose daughter Elizabeth calls in now and then.

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