OUTSIDE, it is a frigid 15 degrees below zero. Yet inside WCBR-FM, the talk among the 10 mothers gathered around the studio's microphones is warm and heating up fast.
The topic: trying to juggle the twin chores of caring for their young children and running businesses out of their homes. The challenge: maintaining a professional veneer on the phone while their toddlers race to sit on their laps or burst into song.
''When you get on that telephone, they just go bonkers,'' insists one mother as the others nod vigorously and chuckle.
All are guests on a recent edition of ''Mom Talk,'' an hour-long Saturday-morning radio show in suburban Chicago that is hosted and produced by Beth Rosen, a young mother of four. Assuring listeners that each guest has ''a great story to tell,'' she dives into each show with an irrepressible enthusiasm that keeps her listeners coming back for more.
''There hasn't been a radio talk show out there before that has really hit on a lot of the things that the moms of the '90s are faced with,'' says Sheri Hicks, a mother of four and loyal listener. ''Beth relates to our problems, and she'll talk to you openly like a friend. A lot of TV and radio people tend to be a bit guarded, but she's very approachable. She speaks to you from the heart.''
Ms. Rosen says she came up with the idea during a long assigned bed rest while pregnant with her twins two years ago.
In part, she was looking for a creative way to occupy her time after the other children were in bed. Her husband, who runs car dealerships in nearby Wisconsin, often is away from home as many as 14 hours a day.
Ties to other moms
Rosen also wanted more and better information on parenting. TV talk shows rarely hit the subject, she says, and magazine advice tended to be unrealistic. She talked with other mothers by computer but longed for a better and more inclusive way to communicate. ''I was desperate for somebody to talk to about issues I was concerned about, like sibling rivalry and hiring child care,'' she says. ''Then, boom! The idea came to me: Why not do it on radio?'' A call-in show with mothers and experts in the studio seemed the ideal format.
She went to see Jay Stern, executive producer of WCBR, a station with a reach of 50 miles and a potential 3 million listeners. He had recently decided to sell Saturday and Sunday program slots to anyone who wanted to put on a talk show on a ''lifestyle'' theme. The host-producers focus on topics as varied as legal and real-estate advice and, themselves, get whatever advertising they need to cover costs.
As a result, Rosen launched ''Mom Talk'' last May. This month, she's adding a Saturday-afternoon kids' show featuring songs, stories, and ''fun.''
''I'm trying to make it like old-time radio used to be, when the family could sit around and listen to stories and discuss them and have fun instead of turning on the TV,'' she says. ''I really think kids need to develop their imaginations.... I have great hopes for the show if I can just pull it off.''
Stern says Rosen is a true success story. ''She's a dynamo with a very upbeat, lively approach to her subject matter, and she's got the experience of being a mom,'' he says. ''People like to feel that they're eavesdropping on a conversation that doesn't sound stiff or scripted.''
''The fun of it is that I'm not a polished radio person - I sound like a mom trying to pull together a show,'' Rosen says. She solicits and writes the commercials, decides when to take caller questions, and tries to write thank-you notes to those who call in but don't get on the air.
In skillfully drawing her guests out, Rosen often shares her own problems. When her guests were a pediatrician and a nutritionist, for example, she asked if it was all right that her daughter Alissa would eat only meals consisting of waffles and water.
The experts assured her that her daughter would be fine, but suggested that, over time, Rosen might try adding to each waffle a little peanut butter or broccoli with melted cheese. She found the advice comforting.
Better than a manual
Some busy mothers, who say they don't have time to read 300-page books on how to manage, tune in for the tips they pick up. ''I find I'm constantly taking notes,'' says Lyn Orman-Weiss, a mother and children's music specialist who recently hired an expert in time management she heard on the show. ''I find I'm becoming a real 'Mom Talk' junkie.''
For many listeners, the chief plus is the comraderie that comes with knowing that others face the same challenges.
''This program has really tapped into what women are going through,'' says Andrea Blain, who has a three-year-old son and a public-relations business. ''It's like a validation of my life.''
Before launching ''Mom Talk,'' Rosen conducted a series of focus groups and went on-line on her computer to garner ideas for show topics. Though she had had some experience in film and TV production, she knew little about radio and turned for advice to producers of shows she liked.
Rosen says two of her toughest tasks are finding more preparation time for ''Mom Talk'' and becoming more effective at collecting money from advertisers.
Yet she has had little trouble recruiting experts and moms to be on the show. Once, when an expert's publicist warily asked about the show's ''numbers,'' she got a loud appreciative laugh with her answer: ''Oh, I probably could fill a small movie theater.''
She says her kids enjoy all the excitement and will take an active role in the new children's show. But, Rosen admits, ''It's still a hard balancing act for me.'' The letters and phone calls are what really keep her going, she says. ''I've had such positive feedback from other moms!''